Category Archive: Philosophizing

Apr 21 2013

The Bliss of Ignorance

 

“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.” – John Naisbitt

It was late in the summer of 2012—a standard weekday.  My car, which smelled faintly of wet dog and stale fast food, was winding along the lakefront road which I travel each day on my way to work.  The radio, into which I have only programmed a single station, was tuned to that very station: NPR.  

Almost immediately after pulling out of my apartment complex, the Morning Edition hosts began what was just another in an endless series of stories about the current state of the 2012 Presidential election.  During the 15 minute drive to my office, I heard what Romney’s and Obama’s debates over immigration, women’s rights, same-sex marriage, the economy, taxes, health care, and gun rights.  I heard a rehashing of President Obama’s first term in office.  I heard the opinions of average men and women on the street.  I heard polling numbers. I heard state-by-state forecasts of election results.  I heard pundits pontificating on what each candidate needed to do in order to win some small segment of the voting population.

I heard a lot of information during that short trip.  None of it was new. And certainly none of it was news.  Just information. Loads and loads of worthless information.

About three minutes before arriving to work, I heard a particularly ignorant citizen make some comment about the sorry state of the country, or health care, or the free-loading nature of the poor (I don’t remember the specific slight), and I lost my temper.  I released a guttural scream, slammed my hands against the steering wheel, then shut off the radio.  At that moment, I vowed that I wouldn’t turn on the news again until after the election was over.  Turns out: I still haven’t turned the news back on, and it’s been nearly a year.

There was once a time when I truly believed that to expose myself to the wider world of information was a valiant pursuit—that the sheer act of absorbing information would make me more enlightened, more intelligent, more worldly.  I believed that the increase in information would make me more tolerant of others, more global in my perspective.  And so, imagining myself as some well-read, thoughtful scholar of the world, I devoured information.   

Sometimes, the gluttony was purposeful.  Others, it was simply happenstance.  I would seek out news sites.  I subscribed to blogs. I clicked on nearly every article that a Facebook friend or Twitter follower would place on their feed.  I read stories about natural childbirth, gay rights, health care, corporate malfeasance, costume and prop making, audiobooks, religion, law, police brutality, poverty, hipster culture, finance, investing, business strategy, politics, and gun control.  I read about the wars overseas, and the difficult lives of those on the Saharan subcontinent.  I listened to science podcasts, personal finance podcasts, cooking podcasts.  I devoured audiobooks on the science of the brain, the processed food industry, and the power of introverts in an extroverted world.  I poured over every article about each newly developed technology or new product release.  

I truly feasted upon the information of the world.  I loved the idea that I could talk knowledgably about a wide variety of topics.  With the exception of sports, I can probably carry on at least a surface level conversation about even the most obscure of topics.  Because I felt it was my duty as a human to ingest as much of the world’s information as humanly possible.  That is, after all, what makes an intelligent, wise, and well-rounded individual, isn’t it?

It wasn’t until just recently, however, that I was able to put my finger on why my pursuit of information was so frustrating to me.  Most of the information I had gathered was without a point or frame of reference. It was worthless.

We live in an information age.  We are surrounded by information, bombarded by information.  As we just saw during this previous week, we have information shoved down our throats 24 hours a day by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox “News.” We have articles cluttering up the internet on the evils of gluten, the danger of having a hospital birth, or the trend of people getting married later and later in life. Never mind whether or not all, or even some, of that information is accurate—it’s information, and that’s all that matters.  

But does all of this information, constantly filling our brains, our time, or our lives, actually do us any good?  Does that fact that several of my co-workers spent the majority of one day this week streaming live news coverage of the manhunt for the Boston bombers make any difference?  What good were the millions of tweets saying “My thoughts are with the people of Boston?” It’s a nice thought, but do you think the people of Boston really know or care that the thoughts of a 34-year-old project manager in Redmond, WA are with them?     

I can tell you what temperatures basil plants require before you can safely plant them outdoors.  I can tell which brands of paper work best with various fountain pen inks.  I can explain what an expander and a gate can do in audio recording.  I can teach you how to post-process photos. I understand how to edit your hosts file on your computer.  I could walk you, step by step, through what led up to the financial meltdown in 2007 and 2008.  I could explain to you that ½ a cup of store-bought spaghetti sauce has the same amount of sugar as 3 Oreo cookies.  

What I can’t do is tell you the date of my parents’ anniversary.  I couldn’t tell you the birthdays of my nieces and nephew.  I couldn’t even tell you the names of 85% of my neighbors.  I couldn’t tell you the last time I spoke with some of my dearest friends from earlier in my life. 

When I instituted my NPR blackout back in 2012, I spent a lot of time worrying that I was going to become ignorant by missing out on the important events of the world at large.  Instead, I had become completely ignorant of the world around me.  I was so engrossed by the failure of our congress to act like adults and compromise that I never bothered to realize if my co-workers or neighbors were struggling.  I worked so hard at becoming global that I had completely forgotten about local: the sphere in which my efforts actually had the potential to do some good in this world.

The information age is, in many ways, a miraculous age.  It is astonishing—the sheer breadth and depth of information that each person has at his or her fingertips.  But despite this information, we are not becoming more knowledgeable.  And we are certainly not becoming more civilized. A simple scroll through the YouTube comments section of almost any video is enough to demonstrate that.  And I would argue that it’s not making us any happier. The age of the social network is not connecting us to people in more personal or intimate ways.  Would watching the 24 hour coverage of the Boston bombing help my sister, a stay-at-home mom with a 1-year-old and a special needs 6-year-old, in any way?  Would it help her be a better mother, wife, or person in general? Or would it, instead, make her sad, unsettled, and frustrated that the world seems to be falling apart, and there’s nothing she could do about it?

I have come to realize that there is a very big difference between seeking information and seeking knowledge.  And I think it’s time we start focusing a little less on the former and a little more on the latter.   Information is a pre-requisite to knowledge; you can’t receive knowledge without the informational building blocks. However, information for information’s sake is worthless.  Knowledge grants perspective and inspires action, while information simply informs.

These days, I don’t watch the news. I don’t go seeking out tech websites, or news feeds. I never listen to NPR. I don’t know (or care) what the federal government is up to at the moment about our budget or debt ceiling.  And it’s been fascinating how much my perspective has shifted.  For instance, while the Boston bombing was a sad event in which a few people lost their lives, on that same day in Iraq, 27 people were killed and hundreds more injured in a whole variety of explosions across the country. Knowing this information doesn’t help me in any way.  Frankly, I’d prefer not to know.  I couldn’t have stopped either event, I can’t do anything to fix either event, and so all I can do is live under the false impression that the whole world is going to hell, when really, these sorts of events go on around the world, and have for centuries. Knowing all the bad things that have always happened doesn’t mean that they’re happening more often. It simply means that you know about it. 

So, rather than spend my day glued to the television, watching minute by minute as CNN reporters kept giving us bad information in the name of being the first to deliver news, I helped a neighbor carry a heavy piece of furniture. I wrote a letter to my grandmother who lives in a nursing home in Ohio, and I chatted with a friend who had a rough day of her own.  

I don’t say this to toot my own horn, but to prove a point:  had I chosen to rush home, flip on the TV, and watch CNN’s coverage of the bombing manhunt, I would have gathered more information about a part of the world 3500 miles away, for which I could do nothing.  I would have been able to discuss the situation with my co-workers the next day. But instead, I actually tried to make a small impact on the portion of the world in which I can have some impact.  

And to me, that’s knowledge.  Information is just information. But knowledge is information that you can use.  And if that means that I remain a little more ignorant of the greater world, that’s okay. I’d rather try to make a difference where trying will, in fact, make a difference.

 

Mar 05 2013

Diary-uh

In most religions, there is a "do" list, and a "don't do" list.  The Mormon church is no different.  The "don't do" list includes things like murder, stealing, sex, coffee, drinking, dating before the age of 16, etc.  The "do" list is, by comparison, infinitely more vast: pray, read your scriptures, pay tithing, fast regularly, attend the temple, attend church, serve others, create a food storage, etc. 

One of the "do" items that shows up the most often, but doesn't usually get paid much attention, is the oft-repeated exhortation to keep a journal.  I remember being taught over and over again throughout my formative years that keeping a journal was very important. The "why" was often framed in very grandiose tones centered around leaving a legacy to those who come after you, and as a means by which you could bear your testimony of the gospel to the generations yet to come.  It was often said that the journals of the church leaders offered us much insight into their struggles and personal trials. Pretty heady and important stuff. 
 
I got my first journal when I turned 8 years old.  It's was a very small, white book.  I'm pretty sure that it is sitting in a plastic tote in my parent's garage, with about 90% of the pages blank.
 
My second journal, I purchased (or received…I don't remember) right before I left on a mission.  It was a beautiful, full-sized, hard-cover book, bound in brown leather, and with my name embossed on the cover.  It had a bright yellow ribbon connected to the spine to help me keep my place.  I think that one is sitting in a plastic tote in my storage closet, with about 95% of the pages empty.
 
Back around the end of my college career, my therapist at the time decided that it would behoove me to start keeping a journal of the exercises we were doing as part of some cognitive therapy.  (It was part of that whole "cure the gay" thing I did back then.) I didn't want to keep that information in my nice, fancy-bound journal, so instead I went out and bought a cheap journal/notebook from Barnes and Noble. It was a red, wire-bound book, about the size of a large paperback, with a pastoral scene printed on the front cover and an Irish proverb superimposed on the top.  I mainly got it because, with the wire binding, the journal would lay flat, unlike my bound journals.  It was sitting on the bookshelf in my living room, with about 90% of the pages empty.
 
See, I always have the best of intentions when it comes to journaling. My upbringing taught me to believe that journaling was a way to leave a record of your life and times behind you when you passed away.  It was a record of your personal spirituality and growth–an instruction manual and map by which your progeny could be led to a better life and salvation.  The only problem with that is that it places a great deal of pressure on the act of keeping a journal.  You're always writing with an audience in mind. You end up censoring yourself, and editing your writing while you're doing it. It just taints the entire process for me.  It's one of the reasons why I start journaling, and then stop three entries later.
 
Right before Christmas, I was asked by my mother to run to Pike Place Market to get a Christmas gift for my dad.  At Pike Place, there is a gentleman named Barry, who sells hand-turned wooden pens and pencils.  He uses only the best wood, and he's a true craftsman.  My dad loves fine writing utensils, and bought one of Barry's pens on his first trip to Seattle back in 2007.  Since then, every time one of my parents come to visit me, and we stop by Pike Place, we always pay a visit to Barry.  Mom wanted to get dad a pen for Christmas, so I went to Pike Place and purchased a beautiful walnut fountain pen.  It really was gorgeous.  And I lusted after it.
 
Since then, Barry's pens had been on my mind.  So, after tap class a few weeks ago, I finally broke down and went to visit Barry on my own behalf.  That is where I purchased this:
 
 
This stunning little piece of hardware is my very first fountain pen.  I stood before the dozens of pens, and was drawn to the wood of this pen. Those who know me would be unsurprised to find that I just happened to be drawn to the single most expensive pen that Barry sells. They don't have price tags on each pen, so there was no way I could have known that up front. It's just the one that caught my eye.  The pen is made from Amboyna Burl from Thailand.  This wood was once used in the dashboards of Bentleys and Rolls Royces, from what I have been told.
 
Buying a fountain pen for me really was a stupid financial move.  The pen ended up being around $80, which isn't a lot, but I NEVER use pens to write.  I type everything.  I can type a blistering 90 words per minute when I get on a roll.  Writing by hand is painfully slow by comparison.  I don't even use a pen to take notes; I have an iPad for that.  The only thing I use a pen for is to sign the checks that I send out once a quarter for Open Book Audio.  Pretty silly to spent $80 on a pen I would use once every three months.  But when i get a wild hair to buy something like this, it's usually just better that I buy it and get it over with.  Otherwise I'll be obsessing over it for a long time, and when I finally crack, I will end up buying three of them instead of one.
 
In any case, I had this fancy new pen (which, incidentally, exploded on the very first day I started carrying it around, and ruined a pair of jeans) and no place to use it.  While all of this was going on, I was also doing some research on another problem that had plagued me most of my life: an inability to sleep well.
 
I have always been a light sleeper.  Rather than setting an alarm to wake me up every morning for early morning seminary, my mom or dad would set their own alarm and then come wake me up, so as not to wake up my brother, with whom I shared a room.  (Fat chance of that…you LITERALLY couldn't wake him up by dragging him down the stairs in a sleeping bag.  I know. We tried.) Even during my teenage years, when people are supposed to sleep a lot, I would sleep so lightly that the sound of my parents walking down the hallway would awaken me, and I would be sitting up in bed by the time they came to wake me up.  I have never slept well.
 
These last few years, it's gotten really bad.  I'm fairly certain it's a combination of my terrible diet, my natural tendency toward light sleep, the fact that I've got an 85 pound dog jumping on and off my bed during the night, and my own propensity let my mind start wandering in vicious cycles of self-doubt, angst, and woe-is-me-isms at the end of the day.
 
Doing some research, I have learned that some of the things you should do to improve your sleep include:
  • Turning off the lights (especially flourescent and daylight-balanced bulbs) toward the end of the day.
  • Try not to eat after 7 or 8 in the evening.
  • Don't read in bed (and some say don't read at all right before bed…gets the mind all wound up.)
  • Turn off all computer monitors, televisions screens, and other electronic devices about 30 minutes before bed.
That last one was the one that vexed me the most.  30 minutes with no screens or electronics?  What the hell was I supposed to do for 30 minutes without that stuff on, in the dark, without reading or eating?  Meditate?  P'shaw.  Like that's going to happen.  So, I figured that every night at 11:30, the computers, televisions, iPads, and phones go off. The lights get turned down, and I would spent 15-30 minutes writing in my journal. With my fancy new pen.
 
First, I set up a little writing desk in my bedroom that had been sitting, unused, in my studio.  I pulled one of my dining room chairs in there, and put a family picture and a little writing lamp on the desk, and that's it.  Then, I pulled out my red, wire-bound journal (I really hate it when my journals don't lay flat), and started writing.
 
Y'all: It has changed my life.
 
It has been two weeks since I started this little experiment.  I have not missed a single night, although there have been a couple of nights where I just put a bulleted list of all the things I did during the day.  Other times, I just let my mind wander, and have a pretty good conversation with myself.  Ocassionally, I relate stories from the day.  I have even posted a recipe or two, or put in little snippets of lyrics that I've been working on.  I didn't try to write with an audience in mind.  I don't care what I write, because I don't care if anyone ever sees it.  I'm use it as a brain dump for the day, to empty my mind of the hustle and bustle.  And the slow, methodical act of writing out longhand actually seems to slow down my heart rate, keeps my mind from racing, and sets a slow, deliberate tone to the last 30 minutes of the day.  Then, when I'm done, brush my teeth, and change into my bedclothes (AKA the emperor's new clothes). Then I go to sleep. Almost immediately. And I sleep through the night. And I wake up refreshed.  It's amazing.
 
It's only been two weeks, but already, I am finding myself drawn back to the entries I make each day.  I remember things I had forgotten, or end up playing some strange association game where one item reminds me of another.  It gives me perspective.
 
You know, when you think of great leaders, whether they be political, religious, or otherwise, who kept journals, it's easy to assume that each and every entry was a work of art, filled with brilliant prose which bespeaks their greatness.  But in reality, the likelihood is that the great majority of their entries are just as dull and monotonous as mine.  The beautiful writing and brilliant insights can't come through, though, if you never write anything down.  
 
I have to say, I have really taken to keeping a journal.  It has been a wonderful experience for me.  My little red journal is just about full.  Give me another week or two, I think.  Then I'm going to have to move on to a new journal.  Maybe I can find a slightly nicer journal that will lay flat as well.  I have already had to stock up on ink.  I managed to speed through the first ink cartridge in just over two weeks for all my writing.  And I'm sleeping better than I have since I was a child.
 
Plus, I now have an excuse to use my fancy new pen.

Nov 06 2012

Nothing to See Here, Folks

To those who voted for Obama: Congratulations on your candidate winning. Please note that his win will not really make that much difference in your day-to-day lives. Obama will not solve all of the problems in the world. He will not single-handedly fix government, solve the economy, or usher in the second coming of Jesus himself. Try to be gracious and understanding, and realize that because someone has a different point of view than you doesn't make them wrong.



To those who did not vote for Obama: I sympathize with your sense of frustration. Please note that the fact that our current president has four more years left will not really make that much difference in your day-to-day lives. Your world will not come to and end, and you won't actually move out of the country, so don't be petty and petulant, and go spouting off threats or promises you have no intention of keeping. Try to be gracious and understanding, and realize that because someone has a different point of view than you doesn't make them wrong.



And lastly, to everyone: Let me steal a line from my brilliant business partner, Andrew Parker. You have far more ability to control the destiny of your life than any man or woman sitting in an oval office thousands of miles away. YOU get to make your life what it is, not some elected representative. YOU can make a difference in your circumstances, the lives of those in your community, and in the world. Voting for a candidate does not absolve you of that responsibility, even if your candidate didn't win. Rather than spew vitriol or hatred on Facebook, rather than gloat over a perceived victory, perhaps we should start leading by example. Our government has obviously forgotten how to cooperate, how to compromise, and most importantly, how to govern. Let's take the opportunity to provide our newly-elected (or re-elected) leaders with a real-life example of how it's done. A single candidate winning or losing won't make a difference. YOU make the difference.



In other words: There's nothing to see here, folks. Just move along.

Sep 29 2012

Pay Attention to Me!

In between my Junior and Senior years of high school, I was accepted into a two week “intensive,” an arts camp held on the campus of Western Michigan University.  They had several different disciplines in the summer intensive, but I had been one of the 25 students accepted into the Musical Theater segment of the camp.  The camp itself would come to be a defining moment in my life, and ended up pointing me on my course toward becoming a professional musical theater actor (at least for the few years I did that before I gave up and joined corporate America). 

I still look back on those two weeks as some of the most exciting and happiest of my life.  Having grown up in a very small town with a nearly non-existent arts community, the opportunity to spend all day long every day for two weeks with other kids from around the state who loved acting and singing as much as I did made me feel as though I had found my people.  I loved every minute of our rehearsals and our performance on the final night.  I loved it when someone came up to the cast afterwards and said that we sounded just like the original Broadway Cast Recording—a compliment that I can safely say has never been paid to any cast of any show ever performed within the city limits of Albion, Michigan.

As fondly as I remember that summer camp, though, there is one negative moment of the camp that still sticks out in my mind.

Our days at camp were usually split in half.  The first half of the day, we would spend working with the other kids in our discipline.  We’d have dance rehearsals, music rehearsals, and work on our monologues and auditions.  The afternoons were spent in assigned groups of kids from multiple disciplines: pottery, painting, photography, vocal jazz, etc.  We would take overview classes about the various disciplines and go on trips to see museums, etc. 

On the very first evening of the camp, we were assigned to our cross-discipline groups and a counselor.  Each group went off to a separate corner of the quad and sat in a circle, playing getting to know you games. Back then, I was very insecure, and I am still shy around people I don’t know, so as we sat in our circle, I mostly kept to myself and stayed quiet.  At one point in the evening, the counselor asked us to go around the circle on person at a time, and talk about what we wanted to do for a career, and why.

When it finally got to be my turn, I said, “Hi, I’m Matt Armstrong, from Albion, and I’m here with the Musical Theater group.  When I grow up I want to be an actor. I want to become an actor because I love music, I love performing, and I really want to be famous.”

Based on the reactions of the other people in my circle, you would have thought I said that I liked to rape puppies and murder small children. Several people piped up asking questions or interjecting. “Why do you want to be famous?” “Why is that important to you?” “Do you think that being famous will actually make you happy?” “That’s a terrible reason to want any career!”  What was supposed to be a friendly getting-to-know-you exercise turned into the Spanish Inquisition. It was the first time that I could remember stating out loud that I wanted to be famous, and I was more than a little taken aback at the vitriolic response that I received as a result.

It’s been nearly 18 years since that summer camp in Kalamazoo, Michigan. (GAH! I’m so old!)  I’ve experienced a lot, and grown a lot since then.  But a part of me still longs, deep down, to be famous.  Not the “Is Kim Kardashian’s Kitten Depressed” kind of famous-for-being-famous, but rather, I still wish that I could be recognized by a large number of people for something I do, or have done, well.

This desire for fame drove nearly all of my decisions when I was still in college: I always tried to sing the hardest songs, even though they weren’t right for me vocally or character-wise.  I spent $7,000 recording an album because I was going to become the next Michael McLean (A well-known songwriter of dozens of LDS/Christian-themed pop albums and a couple of stage shows). I would only audition for shows where I could get the lead, because I wasn’t interested in disappearing into the chorus, and I turned down any roles I was offered that weren’t the lead. I built websites to promote myself. In addition to doing theater, I kept trying to find an agent, so I could land paying film and TV work. I did headshots, and arranged music for people.  I did all of these things in an effort to get attention, and for people to notice me.  I wanted to be the best.

Even after school, I continued my never-ending quest for fame. I, again, only took the leads for shows I wanted to do. I made the voice lessons I taught an opportunity to show of my own vocal abilities (real or imagined). I continued my shameless self-promotion. That was the main reason why I started blogging—I wanted attention.

When I moved to Seattle, though, my life changed.  I went from being in a career that demanded you get up and do your thing for attention to a career where I just disappeared into the background.  I became another pixel in the George Seurat painting of a sea of cubicles. I started attending school for my MBA online, which kept me so busy with homework that I essentially cut off all interaction with others outside of work. Once school ended, I busied myself with a new business.  I have, in essence cloistered myself away from the world. I rarely spend time with friends, rarely go out in public to do anything other than shop for groceries or hit the nearest drive-thru. 

The desire for fame still holds me tightly. I started a business that would allow me to perform again, albeit from the safety of a closet in my second bedroom. I watch the reviews of the books I’ve narrated on Audible and glory in the reviews that praise my performance, and I fret and angst over the review that dismiss or complain about it.  I post YouTube videos or SoundCloud clips of myself, even though I’m not a particularly talented songwriter, and my once better-than-average singing voice has atrophied to just north of passable.  I check every couple of days to see how many more views they’ve gotten, and if someone has clicked the “like” button…and I get depressed when they haven’t.  I wrote a 500-page book about my life growing up gay and Mormon, despite the fact that my story is paltry and boring compared to that of so many others, and I’m not a particularly spectacular writer. I even check up every 10-15 minutes on a particularly funny Facebook update to see who has commented or if anyone has shared it, and I feel bad when nobody does. That deep-seeded desire to be great at something, to be noticed and recognized for something, hasn’t diminished.

I wish I knew where this desire for fame and attention came from, or understood why I wasn’t content just blending in with the crowd. I wish I could figure out how to not seek validation from others. There’s nothing particularly special about me. I am no different or better than the billions upon billions of people in this world who live their lives in relative obscurity. But I still feel my chest tighten with jealousy and longing whenever I hear of one of my insanely talented friends landing a role in a Broadway show or National Tour, or when I see a former classmate appear as the special guest on a television show.  I find myself getting envious of friends whose artistic works (music, filmmaking, even quilting or cooking) get attention from well-known people in their fields. I was even watching a Mormon Stories interview with someone I knew from a show I did in my sophomore year of college, and I found myself getting jealous that he was being interviewed about his extremely difficult life experiences, and my life experiences weren’t interesting enough to be interviewed about.

It’s stupid. And petty. But I think it’s probably indicative of a few deficiencies in my life right now:

I’m still lonely as hell. I have come out of my shell a lot as I’ve grown older, and am quite comfortable talking with people I’ve just met. I have some friends now, and will occasionally go out and do things with people (very occasionally). But my loneliness is deeper than simply not having many people around.  I am almost completely lacking the deep relationships in my life.  Most of my friendships are with people are my parents’ age. Or I’ll meet some friends for breakfast at a café, or we’ll go watch a movie. And I really enjoy those things, but there seems to be something more just out of grasp. I can’t remember the last time I stayed up talking late into the night, laughing until our sides ached and tears streamed down our faces, or crying on each others’ shoulders. I miss not having to worry about what we were going to do for Thanksgiving, because it was just understood we were going to do it together. I’m tired of having to call my parents 4 times a week just to have someone to talk to. I miss having someone around all the time.

It’s been over five years since I had that kind of friendship in my life, and I’ve never had that kind of romantic relationship, ever. And the older I get, it comes harder to find. At this point in life, most people already have relationships, or they’ve tried it and decided that’s not what they want. How often do people form anything more than surface-level friendships as adults?

Maybe that’s what’s missing. Janice Joplin once said, “On stage, I make love to twenty-five thousand people; then I go home alone.”  Maybe I’d feel more comfortable about going home alone every night if I could spend my days making metaphorical love to twenty-five thousand people.

Or maybe it has more to do with a desire for validation. Perhaps I am incapable of believing in myself until I’ve received confirmation from other people.  It’s pretty rare in the corporate world for people to stand up and applaud when you accomplish something. Accolades are far less forthcoming than in theater. In theater, it’s all about moving people: moving them to laughter, to tears, to excitement. In business, it’s all about how much you move the needle—how much money you bring in. When your work impacts the bottom line only indirectly, the kudos are a little slower to roll in.

At this point in my life, the prospect of gaining fame seems pretty grim. And frankly, the only fame I’d be likely to gain at this point would be the kind of fame I’d want to avoid. (“Driver strikes, kills three pedestrians; distracted by singing showtunes”) I need to figure out a better way find contentment in my life. Because whether that’s a new relationship, more friends, or improving my own self-esteem, chances are baby won’t be remembering my name.

Jun 16 2012

The Story of a Dating Novice

My very first date took place when I was 13 years old.  I was “going with” a girl from my school, an oboe player in the grade above me.  I didn’t really know what “going with” someone meant.  I was mostly doing it because it was what my friends had started doing, and back then, I was nothing if not a follower, albeit a follower usually two steps and six months behind everyone else.

The year was 1990, and Back to the Future III was in the theaters.  Having been a fan of the first two Back to the Future movies, I was thrilled when I discovered that The Bohm, the small movie theater in town, was showing it.  I invited my date to meet me at the movie theater for an evening showing on a warm, early summer night.  There was a pretty significant problem with that invitation, however.  As a Mormon, I wasn’t actually allowed to start dating until I was 16.  In fact, I technically wasn’t even old enough to be allowed to attend school or church dances, which were verboten until the age of 14.  Nevertheless, I wanted to do what my friends were doing, and go on a date with my oboe player…girlfriend?  I guess? 

It was one of the few times in my life where I disregarded a church/parental rule so flagrantly.  I had always been a pretty good kid, particularly when it came to the big rules that we learned about in church.  I didn’t see what the big deal was, though, so, I told my parents I would be meeting some friends at the theater.  At school that same day, I talked with a few friends, and had them agree to lie for me in case my parents ever tried to check up on my story.  When the stage was set, I ate a quick dinner, and walked down Erie Street several blocks to The Bohm. 

Although, technically, this was a date, I didn’t treat it as particularly special.  To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to be doing…other than watching a movie.  We didn’t hold hands.  We didn’t kiss.  As far as I was concerned, the girl sitting on my right-hand side in the nearly empty theater might as well not have even been there, I was so focused on the movie.  At no point did I even feel a desire to put my arm around her shoulder. At the time, I didn’t realize that my complete lack of desire for any of these things wasn’t normal…I was just more interested in the movie than I was in her.  And as anyone who has seen Back to the Future III can tell you, the fact that I was more interested in the movie than my date is a pretty good indication of how little interest for her I actually felt.

After the movie, we stood out on the street in front of the theater for about 15 minutes and talked while we waited for her dad to come and pick her up.  After they left, I walked home. 

The evening took a drastic turn for the worse the moment I walked through the front door of our house at 408 Allen Place.  As soon as I saw the look on my parents faces, waiting for me in the living room, I knew I was in big trouble.  The parents of one of my friends, who knew of my parents’ (and the church’s) dating restrictions, had been at the theater that night, sitting several rows behind me and my date.  Although they had been brainwashed by their “Christian” preacher to believe that Mormonism was an evil cult, their delight over tattling on me for violating my Mormon principles far outweighed their distaste of the religion that spawned those principles. Like the good neighborhood busybodies they were, they had driven straight home and called my parents.  I got caught. When confronted, I didn’t try to lie about my actions or weasel my way out of punishment.  I told the truth. Yes. I had been on a date.

My parents were furious.  Quite aside from disobeying their rules, they told me, I had turned my back on the teachings of my church. I had shamed myself and my religion by flaunting my disobedience, where people who already thought poorly of Mormons could see.  (To be fair, that’s probably not what they said, but that’s what I remember feeling.) I was, of course grounded for two weeks.  It was one of the few times I was ever grounded.  A couple of weeks after the movie incident, my date called and broke up with me because “you never seem to want to do anything with me. It’s like you don’t even like me at all.”

Frankly, I was relieved.

==—==—==

When I turned sixteen, I started driving.  And, aside from a small hit-and-run experience that happened less than a week after I got my license (a story for another blog post, perhaps), I got the car almost every weekend.  My friends and I would usually drive to Jackson or Battle Creek to wander the aisles of Meijer, buy candy at Jackson Crossing, and then go see a movie.  Or sometimes, in the grand tradition of small-town, bored teenagers, we would just cruise around town or stop by the local ice cream joint, Frosty Dan’s. 

I had my usual group of friends, mostly male, that accompanied me on these trips.  There were a few girls in the group that I considered to be only friends.  For the most part, even when one of my female friends and I went to the movies alone, I never considered those outings to be dates.  We were just friends going to the movies.  In one instance, a girl opposite whom I had been playing in the high school musical, professed her love to me as I drove her home one night after a movie and wondered (in tears) why I wasn’t interested in her the way she was interested in me.  Completely caught off guard, I just uttered the first thing that came to my mind: “It’s not you. It’s me.”  I was naïve enough that I didn’t realize that was actually a “thing.”

There were even girls from church would occasionally accompany me to the movies.  One girl, in particular, was a friend from the Jackson ward, the congregation in the neighboring town.  She was one of the sweetest, most friendly people you would ever meet.  She was irrationally perky and upbeat which, surprisingly, didn’t drive me crazy the way it would have with many other people who exhibited the same traits.  She was a real “Molly Mormon.”  One night, after returning home from seeing a movie with her, my dad said to me, “Wow. You’ve been out with her several times. Are you guys dating?”

I was flabbergasted.  Dating?  That was ridiculous, and I told him so.  “She’s just a friend, dad,” I said with the kind of rolled-eye exasperation that only a teenager can muster.

“Really?  I’m not so sure she feels the same way.  Have you talked about it all with her?”

“No! Dad. It’s not like that. She really is just a friend.”

“Well, you should consider it,” he said. “She’s got a very pretty face. And she’s a really good girl.”

The entire conversation made me disproportionately uncomfortable. Not coincidentally, that was the last time we ever went to the movies without a lot of other people present.  A few months later, she met another boy who she would eventually end up marrying.

==—==—==

While in college, I went on a grand total of two dates.  My first date was as a sophomore, and a recently returned missionary.  As an RM, I had been instructed that my number one priority was to find a wife and start a family.  I had struck up a comfortable friendship with a girl in my beginning voice class.  When I saw that Michael McLean’s The Ark, a show whose soundtrack I loved, was being performed at Thanksgiving Point, I bought four tickets, gave two to my friend Shawn, and invited this girl from our class.  I drove all four of us, Shawn and his date sitting in the back seat of my maroon Ford Contour, and my date sitting shotgun.  As we pulled into Provo after the show, my date said, “Can you take me home first?”

I was a little confused, but agreed to her request nonetheless.  As soon as we pulled into the driveway of the house she was renting, she threw open the door of the car and ran inside without saying so much as “thanks” or “goodbye.”  She never talked me to me again after that.

The second date of my college career happened during my final semester.  There was a woman in my ward, slightly older than most of the students.  She was attractive, well put together, and exceptionally smart.  She was, 28 years old, so she was mature and professional in comparison to the flighty, faux-ditzy girls who were just trying to reel in the nearest jock to marry and make babies.  We were both Gospel Doctrine teachers, trading off weeks, and I loved her classes.  In fact, to this day, the way I teach is inspired by the way she did.  I invited her to go see a show at the Desert Star Playhouse in Murray and to have dinner afterwards.  When we got to the restaurant, she didn’t order anything. She just sat there and drank a glass of water while I ate a very awkward and rushed dinner.  When I took her home, I got out of the car to walk her to her door, and she rushed inside, said goodnight, and closed the door in my face.  She and I only ever spoke to each other about substituting for Gospel Doctrine after that.

==—==—==

The last time I dated a girl was several years after I graduated from college.  A friend of my cousin’s, she had come out to Utah to visit. She was an shockingly talented musician, which I found attractive.  I wasn’t attracted to her, per se, but I was in love with her music. About a week after her visited ended and she returned home to the Midwest, I called up my cousin on a whim to ask for the girl’s address.  I sent her a bouquet of flowers out of the blue, with a note that I enjoyed meeting her, and if she ever wanted to talk, to call me.  She did, and over the next several months, we talked on the phone several times a week for more than an hour at a time.  For all intents and purposes, it was long-distance dating.  We didn’t have much in common, other than our love of music, but we spent time getting to know one another.

After this went on for about six months, she came out to Utah to visit again for a week.  The entire time she was here, I pretended like I was excited for her visits.  We held hands as we walked close together through alpine meadows, laid on the grass, and watched the clouds roll by.  The two of us cooked dinner for my whole family.  I would listen to her practice her violin…something that I loved. The whole time, though, I couldn’t help but think about how awkward and uncomfortable I was.  I didn’t enjoy holding her hand.  I didn’t enjoy her hanging all over me.  It felt…wrong.  Tom, my friend and roommate at the time, got an earful every night after I took her home.  “She’s driving me crazy,” I ranted. “She hangs off of me all the time. I don’t think this is going to work out. Part of me wants to like her, I just don’t feel it.  I think this was a mistake.”

After five days, however, she returned home, and we resumed our phone conversations and emails.  This continued for several more months until I agreed to fly back to Indiana and visit her.  I went back for four days before I had to drive to Ohio to have the first session of hair transplant surgery.  The first day, she showed me around campus, and she introduced me to middle eastern food.  The next day, we cooked dinner for the family I was staying with and played some music together.  That night, we were sitting on a loveseat in the family’s TV room alone.  She laid her head on my lap as we talked, so she could look up at me.  From the look in her eyes, I could tell that she wanted me to kiss her.  I almost did.  I tried to tell myself to just kiss her, to force myself to bend forward and place my lips on hers.  But every time I decided to do it, I could hear a voice inside my head screaming. “NO! THIS ISN’T RIGHT! YOU DON’T LOVE HER! STOP IT!”

As though she could see the conflict on my face, she asked me why I was holding back. I sighed. “Because,” I told her, “I think I’m in love with the idea of being in love with you more than I am actually in love with you.” She gasped, almost like she had been slapped across the face, and sat up with a start.  Facing me, with fire in her eyes, she did the one thing I hate more than anything else: she started to cry.  Why, she bemoaned, was I leading her on all this time?  I had sent her flowers out of nowhere and bought her chocolates. She had come to visit me. I had come to visit her. We had spent nearly a year talking on the phone.  Then she said something that turned my blood cold.

“You’re in love with the idea of being in love with me?  Why is that the only thing I ever seem to hear from guys anymore?  I dated a cello player for two years who told me that, and he turned out to be gay.  That’s not the problem with you, though. I’d be able to tell.”

==—==—==

It was about two years after this last dating experience that I officially “came out” to the world.  (Many friends and family had known about my being gay before this time.) At the time I did, I wrote in this very blog:

I’m tired of being alone. I want to be loved. I want to love somebody…I want to be loved for being ME, not for being some unreal, incomplete, pseudo-person that I’ve been pretending to be for the last 15 years of my life…And I fear that, as I get older, balder, and fatter, I’m letting my chance to find love and happiness pass me by. I made a decision that, if the opportunity arises, I was going to go after love in my way, without worrying how the rest of the world would deal with it.

The problem was that, over the course of the last four years, no opportunities to find love just "happened."  To quote Cinderella from the Sondheim musical Into the Woods, “And from out of the blue, and without any guide, I know what my decision is…which is not to decide.”  I decided at I was just going to sit back and let love find me. It was a safe decision.  I didn’t have to put myself out there, or make any hard decisions about what dating another man would mean to me, to my friends, my family, my lifestyle, and my eternal soul.  It was, in essence, deciding not to decide.  Unsuprisingly, love never did happen to find me.  Love doesn’t just “happen.”  Especially when you make it nearly impossible for love just “happen” by cloistering yourself inside your apartment or in your garden every weekend instead of going out, meeting people, and taking chances.

Fed up with it all, a couple of months ago, I finally broke down and joined an online dating site.  The first month was, not to put too fine a point on it, a total and complete waste of time, money, and effort. It would have been more effective for to me take off all my clothes and stand in the middle of the street naked with a big cardboard sign that said “LOVE ME” in giant pink letters than trying to meet people on Match.com.  (At least that way, I’d get to meet a few cops, and maybe a doctor or two…). I reached out to several folks and not only did I not get good responses back, I got no responses back at all.  I had essentially given up, and was about two days away from cancelling my account, when I got a “wink” from someone.

When I clicked through his profile, I was floored. This guy was really handsome, fit, well-educated, a little older than me, well-to-do financially, with a fantastic job that actually makes a difference in the world.  He thought I was cute. I thought he was gorgeous. Frankly, when I saw his profile, my first thought was, “Wow. This guy is way out of my league.” But he had contacted me. We chatted a bit online. Eventually, he asked me if I wanted to meet him some time for dinner.  Remembering my promise to myself of years ago, I said yes without hesitation. We scheduled a night, and I drove into Seattle to meet him at a nice Italian restaurant.

While I am not a particularly outgoing person, I find one-on-one conversation with most people to be a relatively easy skill. I have just enough surface knowledge on a wide-enough variety of topics, and a genuine interest in so many things, that I can make my way through most conversations with a small bit of effort.  This was different, though. Throughout the dinner, we talked with an almost alarming ease, and I found that I lost all track of time. We continued talking until we were the last ones in the restaurant, at which point we simultaneously decided that courtesy to the restaurant employees was in order. I had a fantastic time. The more I got to know him, the more I liked him. He was even better-looking in person than he was in his profile pictures.  Even his accent was attractive (he had an accent!). When we finally parted ways, with plans to make plans for later in the week, I fairly skipped down the parking garage stairs and back to my car.  The difference between this date and the dates I had been on earlier in my life with women, was startling.  Even my co-workers made note of it the next day.  I was happy, I was upbeat.  Hell, I was on the verge of giddy.  I realized that this, this is how it should feel to like someone. I finally understood why people put up with the misery that is the standard dating experience. 

What surprised me more than anything else, though, was how “right” it all felt. Throughout the entire evening, I never felt the rushing stabs of terror, the discomfort, or the awkwardness that afflicted my earlier attempts at dating.  I never found myself searching to try to uncover even a small glimmer of physical attraction.  It was just…there (and then some). After the date, I felt the way I had been trying to force myself to feel for almost my entire life.  It was exciting, exhilarating, and invigorating. I left the date feeling like I wanted to go home and write our names on my notebook inside a little heart.  It was full-blown case twitterpation.

We ended up going on a second date, and those feelings returned, just as strong as they had on the first. I could tell that, aside from just the excitement of a date, I was really starting to like this guy—and once again, I was taken aback at how easily and naturally I fell into those feelings, almost as though it was what I was supposed to feel. At one point, I even found myself thinking of him as potential husband material. 

This entire experience has been exciting and wonderful for me, and I’m glad I was able to experience it.  Subsequent events have led me to believe that perhaps this person is not as taken with me as I am with him.  While I would be lying to say that I’m not disappointed at the way things appear to be turning out, I’ll survive.  (Let’s face it…I’m no stranger to feeling things for others that they do not reciprocate…) Regardless of the outcome, I’m just happy to have gained the understanding that I gained.  I have spent so much of my life feeling as though I was broken and defective.  I have spent decades trying to fix my “problem.”  These two little dates, a total of five and a half hours (but who’s counting?) helped me to understand in a personal, applicable way that I don’t need fixing. I don’t need curing. I just needed what all people need: to be true to myself.  

I also discovered that it’s time for me to stop waiting around, hoping that love will stumble across my path by happenstance.  That’s just not going to happen.  I, like most people, need to love and be loved. But now that I know what dating is supposed to feel like–how true, natural attraction really feels–I feel just a little more prepared for the real thing when I finally cross its path.

Jun 10 2012

Waiting for the Other Shoe: The Life and Times of the Eternal Pessimist

Have you ever had one of those weeks?  You know the kind?  Where pretty much everything goes right? Where long-hoped for changes begin to make appearances? Where you see instance after instance of things working out for the best?  And more importantly, you know how they usually happen after a long, long string of not-so-great occurrences?

Last week was one of those weeks for me.

I can’t go into many specifics here (call me if you want more info!) but I met someone in whom I think I could be interested romantically, I got good news at work, an old friend presented me with something that promises to be a potentially amazing opportunity, I lost four pounds, I got caught up on a couple of bills, and I was able to make a lot of good progress on a couple of projects that I’ve been working on. 

On top of all that, I was able to spend some quality time at the piano, playing and singing.  My voice is in better shape than it has been for well over a year (since the last time I got sick.)  I came up with a really, really cool arrangement of a well-loved song that I am quite pleased with.  (Video coming soon!)

All in all, things seems to be going well for me.

And frankly, that has me worried.

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with my new boss (we had a pretty significant reorganization at work). While chatting with him, I had a bit of an epiphany.  I am, by the fate of my personality, a problem finder.  I can look at almost any situation and see where snags or snafus could arise.  I can pinpoint potential bottlenecks or trouble spots.  I find the problems.  I don’t do this to be a naysayer or a troublemaker.  I do not try to be a contrarian. The whole point of examining a situation to find problems is to try and stave off those problems.  By recognizing them in advance, you can make preparations to avoid them entirely.  It’s a skill that has essentially defined my career thus far in operational management.  It has helped me to smooth out processes and procedures before they become problematic in many cases.  Seeking out problems is not a method to bolster complaints, but rather a means of setting a plan of action.

As helpful as this skill of problem-finding has been in the professional world, I feel as though it has wreaked havoc with my personal life.  Interactions with people are never quite as cut-and-dry as are processes and procedures.  The biggest issue, however, is that looking at a situation, trying to analyze the potential problems, also prevents you from enjoying the here and now.  It’s not unlike the photographer, who is so busy trying to document amazing experiences that he never actually experiences any of them. 

In spite of the good in my life over the last week, I am having a difficult time experiencing the good.  Instead, I have found that my mind is in overdrive, trying to analyze and dissect. I’m trying to prevent myself from getting my hopes up, trying to do what I can to prevent disappointment. I’m trying to determine what actions I can take in order to get the results I want.  Rather than waiting for the other shoe to drop, I am trying to document and predict, with some level of accuracy, exactly when the other shoe will drop, who will drop it, and what the style and color of the shoe will be, and what material it will be made from.  As a result, I am exhausted.

I once had a therapist tell me, “You spend a LOT of time in your head. The funny thing, as much time as you spend in your head, you’re not very good at it.”  I’m tired of being in my head so much.  Not every situation in life has problems that need to be solved. And, more importantly, maybe it’s not so important that I solve all of them before they happen. Great moments of life happen in the problems. They happen because of the problems. The grow out of the problems. Simply eliminating the difficult patches in life compresses the highs and lows. It normalizes existence.

Last week was a really, really good week for me. This week has the potential to be even better…or it could be a whole lot worse. Or, it could be just another week.  Frankly, though, I’m tired of living a normalized life. I had a glimpse of what feeling giddy, and excited, and upbeat, and hopeful, and energetic feels like.  I actually had co-workers and acquaintances say how good it was to see me looking so happy. It felt good.

So now, perhaps instead of waiting for the other shoe to drop, it’s okay for me to just feel happy. I suspect that by the end of the day tomorrow, I’ll have a really good idea if this week is going to be a good one or a really bad one. But all of my fretting about the what-ifs will only serve to prevent me from experiencing the moment. I need to not care—but only in the very best way.

So, to the other shoe: drop or don’t. Now or later. (Mmmmm. Now and Laters….). It’s time to just experience what is, without worrying about what will be.

To a wonderful tomorrow!

May 08 2012

INFJ

Recently, I took an online test that utilizes the Meyers-Briggs method of personality classification.  I have never done a Meyers-Briggs test before, and even though this wasn’t official, I found the results interesting.  I am an INFJ, which stands for Introverted iNtuiting Feeling Judging.  I found this description of the type online, which I found fascinating.  The emphasis below is mine.

Introverted iNtuiting Feeling Judging
by Marina Margaret Heiss

INFJs are distinguished by both their complexity of character and the unusual range and depth of their talents. Strongly humanitarian in outlook, INFJs tend to be idealists, and because of their J preference for closure and completion, they are generally "doers" as well as dreamers. This rare combination of vision and practicality often results in INFJs taking a disproportionate amount of responsibility in the various causes to which so many of them seem to be drawn.

INFJs are deeply concerned about their relations with individuals as well as the state of humanity at large. They are, in fact, sometimes mistaken for extroverts because they appear so outgoing and are so genuinely interested in people — a product of the Feeling function they most readily show to the world. On the contrary, INFJs are true introverts, who can only be emotionally intimate and fulfilled with a chosen few from among their long-term friends, family, or obvious "soul mates." While instinctively courting the personal and organizational demands continually made upon them by others, at intervals INFJs will suddenly withdraw into themselves, sometimes shutting out even their intimates. This apparent paradox is a necessary escape valve for them, providing both time to rebuild their depleted resources and a filter to prevent the emotional overload to which they are so susceptible as inherent "givers." As a pattern of behavior, it is perhaps the most confusing aspect of the enigmatic INFJ character to outsiders, and hence the most often misunderstood — particularly by those who have little experience with this rare type.

Due in part to the unique perspective produced by this alternation between detachment and involvement in the lives of the people around them, INFJs may well have the clearest insights of all the types into the motivations of others, for good and for evil. The most important contributing factor to this uncanny gift, however, are the empathic abilities often found in Fs, which seem to be especially heightened in the INFJ type (possibly by the dominance of the introverted N function).

This empathy can serve as a classic example of the two-edged nature of certain INFJ talents, as it can be strong enough to cause discomfort or pain in negative or stressful situations. More explicit inner conflicts are also not uncommon in INFJs; it is possible to speculate that the causes for some of these may lie in the specific combinations of preferences which define this complex type. For instance, there can sometimes be a "tug-of-war" between NF vision and idealism and the J practicality that urges compromise for the sake of achieving the highest priority goals. And the I and J combination, while perhaps enhancing self-awareness, may make it difficult for INFJs to articulate their deepest and most convoluted feelings.

Usually self-expression comes more easily to INFJs on paper, as they tend to have strong writing skills. Since in addition they often possess a strong personal charisma, INFJs are generally well-suited to the "inspirational" professions such as teaching (especially in higher education) and religious leadership. Psychology and counseling are other obvious choices, but overall, INFJs can be exceptionally difficult to pigeonhole by their career paths. Perhaps the best example of this occurs in the technical fields. Many INFJs perceive themselves at a disadvantage when dealing with the mystique and formality of "hard logic", and in academic terms this may cause a tendency to gravitate towards the liberal arts rather than the sciences. However, the significant minority of INFJs who do pursue studies and careers in the latter areas tend to be as successful as their T counterparts, as it is *iNtuition* — the dominant function for the INFJ type — which governs the ability to understand abstract theory and implement it creatively.

In their own way, INFJs are just as much "systems builders" as are INTJs; the difference lies in that most INFJ "systems" are founded on human beings and human values, rather than information and technology. Their systems may for these reasons be conceptually "blurrier" than analogous NT ones, harder to measure in strict numerical terms, and easier to take for granted — yet it is these same underlying reasons which make the resulting contributions to society so vital and profound.

I found the whole thing interesting.  I’ve had cause to think a lot lately about my personality and my position in life, and how I interact with other people.  Not to be all cryptic and vague…it’s just that there’s another blog post coming about that in the next few days.  In particular, I’ve wondered why I have such a difficult time making and keeping friends, and have done my entire life.  I have always been envious of people who are able to establish an easy camaraderie with almost any person who crosses their path.  My dad is one of those people.  I tend to hold everyone at arm’s length all the time, and it’s the rare person that I let get closer to me than a mere acquaintance.

I would be interested in having my friends take the same test (It’s only about 75 questions) and post their results here on the blog.  I think it would be fascinating to see how my personality type (as defined by this particular test) interacts with other personality types in real life.  Maybe that will give me a better idea of the kind of people I should be trying to find for friends (and perhaps more).

So, if you’ve got a few minutes, head over to this test, and post the results of your personality type in the comments below.  http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp

Nov 07 2011

I Don’t Care What You Think

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts, I’ve been spending a fair bit of time writing a book over the last month or so. It’s a memoir covering the first thirty years of my life.  I’m not sure if I will ever release it to the public (it’s pretty stinky right now), but it’s been a good exercise in shutting off my internal editor and in sticking with a project.  I’m about 60K works into the book (about 240 pages) and I’m only about half of the way through what I want to talk about in the book.  I’m really enjoying the process of writing, though, and the further along I get, the most enjoyable the process itself becomes.

What I have found most valuable about writing this book, however, is a chance to analyze my life through the lens of time.  And when I manage to chronicle those aspects of my life that I find to be of great import—those experiences that I remember and hold on to both mentally and emotionally—I begin to see certain patterns emerging.  It really is a fascinating experience.  For better or for worse I have, over the years, formed a pretty stubborn mental picture of who I am as a person.  You only have to go back through my old blog posts over the last eight years to put together that mental picture of your own.  (Side note: I have been blogging for EIGHT. YEARS.  That’s insane.)

As I’ve started examining my formative experiences and memories as part of this memoir, though, I am beginning to see how deeply my self-painted portrait has been affected by one very specific character trait: my desperate desire to receive approval from everyone.  I can go chapter by chapter of my memoir, reading story after story, and I am constantly awestruck.  The life I have lived, which I would not consider a particularly happy one, would have been so much more enjoyable and fulfilling had I been strong enough or stable enough to follow my own road without worrying about others’ opinions of me.  So many of my emotional stumbling blocks were built by decades of trying to fit my own idea of someone else’s opinion of what I should be–an opinion that, had I been able to look at it objectively, wasn’t anything at all like what I thought it was.

But I’m getting a little too “meta” here.  An example:

I like to crochet.  I learned how to crochet when I was probably five or six years old—possibly earlier.  It was something I was really interested in.  My mom taught me—despite not really knowing that much about crocheting herself.  I had a large denim bag full of all different kinds of yarn that I would carry around with me.  I had crochet needles, and knitting needles, and weaving looms.  I started learning to sew when I was around seven years old. I really liked all of these things.  But as I grew older, I stopped doing them.  Not because I enjoyed them any less, but because I started going to school, spending time with other children, and realizing that crocheting wasn’t something that other boys did. 

My denim bag of yarn was lost to the ages.  We moved to Michigan when I was nine, and I didn’t pick up a skein of yarn for another 15 years.  I had allowed my concern over what other people would say about me to have so much control that it caused me to stop doing something I truly enjoyed.  It was so important that I was liked and popular that I would never allow myself to do something out of the ordinary like that.  Ironically, by not being myself and failing to ever really achieve my perfect mental image of what I should be, I managed to make myself even less popular, less liked.  I couldn’t be myself, and I couldn’t be anyone else, so I just was.

It wasn’t until I was many, many years older, and started working at the Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley that I picked up my crochet needle again.  In the long hours at rehearsal where you weren’t doing anything, but you needed to pay enough attention not to miss an entrance or cue, I would sit in the corner of the room and crochet squares for afghans that I was making to send to my family.  I felt safe doing that in rehearsals because, let’s face it—if there’s ever a group of people who understand what it’s like to bean outsider, it’s theater people.  Most of the boys are gay, most of the women are uber-pretty but super-smart (a very unpopular combination) and almost every single person is a little off-center in one way or another.  Nobody mocked my yarn and needle.  Instead, someone would come up to me and ask, “Are you knitting?” Or, “I didn’t know you could crochet.  What are you making?”  Nobody cared.  And a few of my family members got afghans out of it.

But I never took my crocheting out, for instance, when I was sitting on an airplane to fly home.  That wasn’t a safe environment. I didn’t want to have to deal with people who thought it was a little “fruity” that some guy was crocheting on the plane. Yeah, it’s an uncommon sight—for a man to be crocheting. But I knew that if I crocheted on a plane, someone would make fun of me for it.  I don’t know why that bothered me so much.  I don’t know why I cared so much that some person I didn’t know, and who I would never see again, would think less of me as a person because I happened to be crocheting on an airplane.  But I did.  So I wouldn’t.

In the last few months, I’ve been picking up a lot of my Home Ec. skills again.  I bought a sewing machine and made curtains and my own clothes.  I’ve been baking more than Sara Lee.  I’ve been decorating like I was trying out for a show on HGTV.  And tonight, I picked up a skein of yarn and a size G crochet needle and started working on another blanket.  And for a while, I thought, “Man, I’m glad I’m alone at home so I can do something I enjoy.”

Lightning bolt.

Why, in the name of all that’s good and holy, can’t I crochet wherever the hell I want to?  Why couldn’t I go sit in the crocheting group that meets at the local fabric store for two hours every Saturday if I want to?  Who cares if I was the only guy there?  Sure, it’s a little different, but so what?

And the funny thing is that, for as much worrying as I do about my “sissy” hobbies and how they make me look, they’re not that big of a deal.  I have a male co-worker in his late 50s who told his wife that I had been teaching myself how to sew again.  She mentioned that she really liked sewing, and he replied that he didn’t even know how to turn on a sewing machine, let alone make clothing.  She offered to show him how the machine worked, and he played around with it. The next day at work, he said that it was actually fun, and he enjoyed learning how to sew a little.

The head maintenance guy at my apartment complex was in the office when I took Luke the Dog™ over to get his daily cookie, and I mentioned that I was crocheting.  He’s a rough and tumble guy from Texas who does appliance repair and building maintenance for a living.  He drives a beat-up pickup truck.  And he asked me if I could show him the pattern that I was using, because he wanted to start crocheting again too.  Color me surprised.

I have another group of friends who create amazing costumes and props, and dress up to go to the comic, sci-fi, fantasy, and steam punk conventions.  They play dungeons and dragons, video games, take photos, make movies, and always have a great time.  And their hobbies are a little outside of the ordinary.  But they are some of the happiest, friendliest, and most fun people I’ve ever had the opportunity to spend time with.  And they don’t care at all.  They do what they love, and they’re happy.  I do what I love, and for most of my life, I’ve been embarrassed or ashamed, and I’ve been unhappy. 

I have spent such a huge portion of my life trying to be what the cultural zeitgeist says I should be as a thirty-something male.  First, I tried being a 30-something Mormon male.  Then I tried being a 30-something Gay male.  Well you know what?  I’m Matt.  I’m sick and tired of trying to be this idea of a person that has nothing to do with who I am.  I am tired of feeling like a failure because I fell short of an ideal that isn’t all that unique, special, or beautiful to begin with.  I’m tired of hiding my true personality, skills, talents, and abilities because somehow, along the way, I developed this crazy idea that the things I like to do aren’t socially acceptable or, more importantly, that it matters whether they are socially acceptable or not.

To quote the Broadway musical, La Cage Aux Folles:

It's my world that I want to take a little pride in,
My world, and it's not a place I have to hide in.
Life's not worth a damn,
'Til you can say, "Hey world, I am what I am."

I am what I am,
And what I am needs no excuses.

I will never like sports.  I like building things and carpentry, but I also like crocheting and sewing clothes.  I’m a balding redhead who still has dreams of playing the romantic role in a musical.  I don’t like alcohol.  I am attracted to men.  I can bake better than almost anyone you know.  I write and sing syrupy music that I really like.  I like being outside, but I really like sleeping in my bed.  I’m pale and a little chubby. I don’t like loud crowds or going out.  I want to learn how to shoot a gun.  I like staying at home alone or spending time with a small group of friends.  I don’t know how to fall in love in a healthy way.  I’m intellectually smart, and emotionally stupid.  I geek out over computer games like a 12-year-old.  I’m a nerd. I like to garden. I’m a good conversationalist.  I’m a pretty good writer. 

I am not a stereotype. And I’m not a failure because I’m not a stereotype.  And if the world doesn’t like it, the world can bite me.  I don’t care what you think anymore.

Jul 09 2011

33

In case you were one of the 3,493 people who wished me happy birthday on Facebook, via email, or over the phone, I did, in fact, have my birthday this week.  On Thursday.

It started off with the realization that on my next birthday, my IQ, Waist Size, and Age will all be the same number.

*rim shot*

But seriously, this year’s birthday was not so much fun, I have to say.  I went to work for the first half of the day.  I had originally planned to take the whole day off and have some fun.  But mandatory work meetings cropped up, so I rolled into the office and did my due diligence.  (I’m such a dedicated employee…)

At lunch time, I took off for the day, and went to putter around in my garden for a little while.  I did a tiny little bit of weeding, and watered the place, then I harvested another plastic grocery bag full of lettuce.  I was bringing the salad to a little dinner gathering with some friends on Friday, and I wasn’t going to have time to harvest it then, so I had to get it the day before.  Then I took a nap, woke up, took Luke for his walk, and then got ready for my big birthday evening.

A month ago, I had purchased tickets for the first night of the new stage version of Disney’s Aladdin.  They’re doing an out-of-town tryout to see if it’s something they’d like to workshop for Broadway.  Plus, I had a friend from college who had come out to Seattle to be in the show, so I wanted to go and support her.  I was going with another friend of mine who used to be my next-door neighbor.  He was going to get out of work at 6:30, then we were going to drive into the city to get dinner and see the show.

Well, his assistant over-booked him with clients, so he wasn’t able to get to my place to pick me up until about 7:15.  At that point, we had to rush to get into the city, park, and pick up the tickets before the 8PM curtain.  So, we ended up not getting any dinner.

I realize I may hurt some feelings with what I’m about to write next, but the show was really bad.  Really bad.  First the good, though.  The cast had some of the best voices I’ve heard on stage in a long time.  Everyone (with one major exception) sang quite well.  The guy who played the genie was amazing.  He saved the show.  The production values and lighting were spectacular.  The big problem was the script.  Apparently, they were still doing rewrites up until the day of the show.  And they still REALLY don’t have it. 

I understand that when you adapt a movie to the stage, you have to make some changes.  I totally get it, and I don’t begrudge them the changes.  However, they changed the basic personalities of the major characters.  Instead of being a smart-alec street rat who does, in fact, break the law on purpose, they turned the new Aladdin into this after-school special who just wants to do good because he promised his mom  he would before she died.  (I mean, really.)  Jafar became this poncey, effeminate joker who didn’t provide any menace at all.  (There was no real, scary bad guy).  Jasmine was a spoiled brat with no real, redeeming qualities. And, most painfully, instead of being palled up with a monkey, Aladdin was a member of a band of street musicians, who served as a sort of Greek chorus.  That, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but the other three members of the “band” completely pulled you out of the story.  The writers went the cheap direction, bringing in all sorts of modern references when the chorus broke the 4th wall.  An typical example:

Band Mate #1: So, Aladdin was in trouble.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
Band Mate #2: What are you talking about?  There’s no ranch here?
Band Mate #3: I’ve got some Hidden Valley (pulls out a bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch).

What made Aladdin the movie so effective was that it was immersive.  The characters grew and changed. Even though the actual scenario was fantastic, the character’s reactions to it were based in reality and grounded thoroughly.  The soul of the film was completely massacred by the script for the stage version.  And the acting style was SO OVER THE TOP.  With the exception of the genie, there was no subtlety at all.  It was like watching a theme-park show version of Aladdin.  And I didn’t for one moment believe the relationship between Jasmine and Aladdin.  Watching them “fall in love” was like watching a 14-year-old gay boy dancing with a girl for the first time at a church dance.  (And trust me, I know what that looks like.)

I would love to see Aladdin make it to Broadway, but NOT this version of Aladdin.  It was painful.  Apologies to my friend who was in the show.  I wish I could be more complementary about the whole thing.  I will say that the cast was quite good (except for Jasmine) and, if the script was re-written, I really think the show could do well.

In any case, we finished the show, and then went to look for a place to eat, and everything was closed.  Even Denny’s.  AND IHOP.  I thought those restaurants never closed.  So, my big birthday dinner was eaten in truck in the parking lot of Wendy’s.  And I’m thankful to my friend who took me there, but it was just a little disappointing.

The biggest problem was that, for the first time in a long, long time, I really fell into a birthday pity party.  I’ve been actively trying not to evaluate my life too much lately.  I’m trying to get out of my head and just enjoy my life as it is.  And I’ve been relatively successful.  It’s the reason why the number of blog posts I write has dwindled so significantly.  Without complaining about my loneliness or lack of a partner, I don’t have a lot to talk about.  But after the show, I got into one of those ever-dangerous contemplative mood pockets. 

This is the first big professional show that I’ve seen since I retired from performing.  It was also the first time that the desire to quit my job and go back to performing hit me so hard.  It was a real, physical pain in my chest.  I spent half of the intermission nearly hyperventilating when I thought that I would have to back to work and sit in that little office in front of a computer all day long, every day for the rest of my life.  I wanted nothing more than to go back to my hotel room, stay up until 2AM, sleep in until 10 or 11, go to the gym, then go back to the theater at 5:00 for another show and repeat it for the next two months before moving somewhere else and starting the whole process over again. 

Then, after I got home, I fell into the “I’m So Lonely” hole of which I seem to be constantly skirting the edges.  My mind spiraled into this black hole of thought that usually goes something like this:

* I’m so lonely.  I need to find someone to share my life with
* I don’t know how to even go about finding someone.  It’s a skill I never learned
* Even if I did know, it wouldn’t matter, because I am so fat and ugly
* I’m going to be fat and ugly forever, which means I’ll never find anyone
* And because I’ll never find anyone, I’ll never learn how to find someone
* Etc., etc., etc.

Look: I’m not saying its logical.  Or even correct.  And I’m certainly not saying it’s a healthy train of thought.  But it is the train of though to which I seem to have purchased a season pass.  It was particularly bad that night, however, because I was realizing that, at the age of 33, there are so many things I have never experienced.  And, the older I get, the less and less likely it is that I will ever get a chance to experience them.  I was freaking out, because in a lot of ways, I’m still an emotional adolescent. 

And then, to wrap it all up, Luke the dog woke me up at 5AM on Friday morning to run outside, eat grass, and puke.  It was the perfect end to the perfect day, pretty much all the way around.

The crankiness of the day has mostly passed, and I used my wallowing as an opportunity to develop a bit of a game-plan for dealing with some of the unhappiness that engulfed me on Thursday.  I’m re-initiating my weight-loss/healthy eating/exercise regimen, since that’s one area that I actually can control.  And next year, I’m going to do a better job of planning my birthday.  Unless someone else wants to volunteer, in which case, just make sure I don’t get any alone time with my thoughts.

“Lefew I’m afraid I’ve been thinking.”
”A dangerous pasttime”
”I know.”

Jun 23 2011

I’m Growing Boring

I know.  It’s been too long since I last wrote.  I know this because I couldn’t remember what I wrote about last time, so I had to go to my blog website to remind myself.  It’s a sign that I’m going too long between entries.  But, over the last several months, I’ve come to a not-entirely-startling conclusion: I’m one boring guy.  I mean, seriously.  Even I make me yawn.  Ever since I settled down into the life of a middle-aged spinster, not much happens in my life that is worth displaying, splay-legged, across the internet.  My life is no longer Lady Marmalade. Gitchy gitchy ya ya blah blah is more like it.

I just don’t have very much going on in my life these days that is different than it was a week ago, or a month ago, or even a year ago.  My daily routine doesn’t change.  Neither has the weather, come to think of it.  I weigh a little bit more, have a little bit less money.  None of my vices result in crazy 140 mph drives of a windy canyon guard rail with a blood alcohol level of .196.  In fact, my two main vices results in a little more weight and a little less money. 

When your days are all pretty much the same, it’s difficult to come up with something worth discussing on a public forum.  Granted, not that a lack of anything interesting has kept me from posting on my blog before, but one can only complain about one’s live so much before people stop reading your blog and start perusing Damn You Autocorrect instead.

IMG_20110622_193436

The one little bright ray of metaphorical sunshine in my life, especially considering the lack of real sunshine in my life, is my garden.  In the photo above, my plot of land lies between the rows of marigolds on each side, and all the way back to those little white plastic thingies all the way in the back.  There’s also about 2 feet cut off the front of the garden because I couldn’t fit it into the shot with my crappy cell phone camera.  (If this rain ever stops, I want to take my real camera out to the garden and get some good shots.)

My original garden plan has been altered by slugs, rabbits, deer, moles, voles, and my uncontrollable desire to try growing pretty much anything and everything.  Currently growing or pending growth (just planted as seed)are the following: Parsley, Cilantro, Thyme, Chives, Carrots (to replace the Radishes), Kohlrabi, Butter Lettuce, Shelling Peas, Show Peas, Fingerling Potatoes, Leeks, String Beans, Drying Beans, Red Sail Lettuce, Peppers (hot and sweet), Eggplant, Tomatoes, Watermelon, Zucchini, Cucumber, Spaghetti Squash, and Corn.

In the last several weeks, I have truly come to believe that most of us have lost a very primal and important part of ourselves by becoming so removed from growing our own food and, perhaps more importantly, actually having to put physical effort into doing so.  In my day job, I sit behind a desk and often feel impotent to influence or improve some of the problems that I deal with on a daily basis as part of my job.  I star at a computer screen for 8-10 hours a day completely removed from “reality.”  Yeah, it pays the bills, but it’s not real.  At the end of the day, it’s hard to point to any one thing and say, “I did that.  That was me.”

It’s one of the reasons I admire people who create things.  My friend Bill, besides being a great photographer, is an amazing builder of props and costumes.  (As is his wife, Brittany.)  Recently, Bill built this prop of a weapon from World of Warcraft entirely from scratch.

image

(Photo by Bill Doran.  You can read the making-of post here.)

Now granted, giant, life-sized replicas of weapons from a fantasy-based computer role-playing game may not be your thing, but you can’t argue that being able to build something like this from nothing is pretty darn impressive. 

That’s how I’ve come to feel about my garden.  I’ve put a LOT of work into this 400 square feet of land over the last two months.  And I’ve really enjoyed almost every part of it.  (I still loathe weeding, mom.  So getting older still didn’t help me mature into loving that.)  And when I’m done, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.  I find that after a long day of mental taxation, I can’t turn off my brain.  Working in the garden has become almost like meditation for me.  I get to sweat a little bit, spend time outdoors, get re-connected with the dirt (because we boys never grow out of playing in the mud), and leave the launch schedules, software bugs, and status reports behind.

And, I have something real to show for it!  Last Sunday, I harvested three gallon-sized bags full of beautiful lettuce from my garden.  I gave two bags of it away, and just finished the third bag tonight.  I’ve eaten more vegetables in the last week than I have in the previous three months put together…unless you consider French fries a vegetable.  Did you know that lettuce actually has a flavor if you eat it shortly after it’s picked?  I didn’t.  But it does.  It doesn’t just taste like crunchy water, but it actually tastes like something.  It’s hard to describe, so I’ll give into a circular definition and say that it tastes like lettuce.

imageI think the real problem is, however, that I was simply born into the wrong time period.  I should have been born in the time where I could be a gentleman farmer.  I could hire skads of servants to work the fields for me while I meandered through the rows of vegetables writing poetry in my head, designing the new addition to my mansion, and developing new strains of plants that two hundred years later, suburban gardeners would pay through the nose for because they were now “heirlooms.”  Besides, I don’t care what anyone says, I’d look smashing in knee-high stockings and knickers.  I have fantastic calves.

Instead, however, I’ll have to put aside my fantasy of being a gentleman farmer and instead make do with being a gardening program manager.  It doesn’t have the same ring or romance, but it does have So You Think You Can Dance and pizza delivery.  It’s a trade-off.  And perhaps if I ask nicely, Bill will let me borrow his warglaive when it comes time to harvest my garden in the fall…

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