Nothing Special

Tales from a Generation Unfulfilled

Something to strive for

The Onion has once again written a piece that goes to the very heart–pressure-filled, desiring, unsatisfied green heart–of our Special condition!

As Long As My Child Does Something That Makes Him Happy And Wins The National Book Critics Circle Award For Fiction, I’ll Be Proud”

Enjoy!

Selflessness ≠ Specialness: Cory Booker and the Burning Building

Look what he's gone and done.

Now come on.  Cory Booker, Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law grad, beloved Newark Mayor and snow shoveler–already someone who made us all feel a little less special when we looked at our own accomplishments.  Now Cory, you go and do this.

Late last night, coming home from a TV appearance, Mayor Booker saw that his neighbor’s building was on fire.  He ran into the burning building, dashed up to the second floor, and SAVED a woman by grabbing her and carrying her through the flames.  You did not read that wrong.  Cory Booker, someone in no need of more Special points, ran into a burning building and saved a distressed maiden, suffering second degree burns in the process.

In full disclosure, your humble editor knew Mayor Booker while Cory was a law school Fellow.  He went along with me, in fact, to try a Friday night dinner at Chai Society, Yale’s alternative to Hillel, founded by the delightful Shmully Hecht.  Rabbi Shmully was about my age, looked like a teenager, knew ten times what I knew and appeared to be already in his second career.  The rumor at the time was that he had been a successful Wall Street trader who gave it all up for the Rabbinate.  That first Shabbat night he made Corey, me, and our friend Sofia feel completely welcome, despite the fact that I force-shook the hand of his sister.  (Devorah was Shomer Negiah, meaning she restricted her physical contact with the opposite sex.  Clueless, and wanting to show what a friendly chap I was, I reached out and grabbed her hand to shake firmly.  I instantly knew something was wrong when her hand went limp as a fish and slipped back out. ) Far from making me feel bad, Shmully laughed it off and explained what had happened; for him the priority was to make me feel welcome–not to correct or shame–and to me that still represents Judaism at its best.  Even Devorah waived it off, as if people grabbed at her hand all the time.

While I was botching my greetings and otherwise fumbling, Cory, a Black Baptist from New Jersey, fit in like Maimonides himself.  Laughing, hand shaking, taking up arguments, it was as if it was his fifteenth Chai Society dinner.  One custom at these Shabbats, as I would come to learn, was for guests to stand up in the middle of the meal and start talking about a particular point of inquiry or Biblical passage.  This seemed to inevitably happen right when I was about to take a spoonful of something delicious–like potato kugel.  To my great shock, on that first night, Cory himself actually stood up to speak on the topic at hand.  I don’t think he mixed in any Hebrew phrases, but it wouldn’t shock me if he had.  Cory became an integral and beloved member of Chai Society, and I daresay that if it wasn’t the beginning, it certainly didn’t dampen his political stirrings.

Which brings us to the present day.  Reading the story this morning of Cory dashing into that burning building, my heart at first sank.  [Note that Special People, rather than being joyous at good news, often wonder if they would’ve been able to do something similar and feel jealous].  Yet remember FOOS (Fellow Occupiers of Specialland) that we can control how we think, and little by little, we must if we are to take on Specialness.  Once I caught my Special self and set it aside for the moment, I started to listen to a clearer voice, and started to think about the lessons we could take.

Thinking about other people, and their welfare, whether it’s a friend, a relative, or a neighbor dying of smoke inhalation on her second floor, is a GREAT way to overcome Specialness, because it gets your mind off yourself.

Being in the Moment is also something we Special People must strive for constantly.  As if we’re in the fire and we must act.  There isn’t time to stew, to wonder, to rue, to fear, but rather we must tap into a much more intuitive, action-based self.  This is how even amidst the burning building, Cory remained calm.

Oh we’ll still envy Cory.  We’ll wonder how achievements seem to follow him like a glistening cloud of dew, while we are constantly courting Specialness.  We’ll resent his succeeding at every single thing he does.  But we’ll try to learn from his actions too–how late one night, while not worrying about whether he was Special or not, Cory let his instincts guide him and did the most amazing thing you can ever do: save a person’s life.

The Oppression of Choice

Open Doors.
(Image from anonymous8.com)

Many of you no doubt caught Nicholas Kristof’s column in yesterday’s New York Times, From South Sudan to Yale.”  It drew my personal attention for two reasons.  One, I’ve worked on some Sudanese issues, including with a Darfuri refugee, and was curious about the incredible trip of this Yale freshman, Paul Lorem.  Two, the headline is a refraction of my original title for the “Nothing Special” memoir–“From Yale to Barbacking: one man’s remarkable journey.”  Kristof chronicles the way Lorem, an orphan at 5 in Sudan, was saved by a network of boys at a Kenyan refugee camp a little older than himself.  They instilled in him the need to get educated, and as Lorem blossomed, more and more community members helped him along his academic path, culminating in the African Leadership Academy and now Yale.

I was helped along my path to college by guidance counselors and Princeton Review.  Kristof notes that “Lorem plans to return to South Sudan after graduation to help rebuild his country.”  After my graduation, I worked at Barnes and Noble Bethesda.  Lorem’s story is moving and inspiring, and I have no intention of belittling his challenges.  But it did get me thinking about “choice,” that double-edged sword of the Special.  When one comes from a country like Sudan, and is entrusted with a precious American education, one likely can’t imagine doing too many other things than going back to help rebuild your homeland.  It’s a giant burden but it’s also a fairly easy decision.  When one comes from economically stable American suburbia, and has the opportunity to realize every dream and follow one’s heart’s desire, he may end up getting a little overwhelmed.  The path carries not nearly the same burden as Lorem’s, but much more choice.  And this leads me to today’s major theme.  Of all the pathologies that go into creating a Special person, choice may be one of the most pernicious and least understood.  While choice would seem to be the opener of a hundred doors, it can also leave us paralyzed in the hallway.

Opening up Choices!

When many of our parents were children, boys were expected to wear pants and play sports.  Girls were expected to wear dresses and play with dolls.  Girls were supposed to grow up and marry boys.  Boys were supposed to grow up and marry girls.  But in our childhoods of the 80s and 90s, these traditional gender boundaries were melting away.  One of my favorite books was “William’s Doll,” by Charlotte Zolotow.  In it a boy is teased mercilessly by his friends and even his parents when he asks for a doll like the one his sister got.  Mind you he’s a good athlete, but he really wants a doll.  Only his grandmother gives him the thing he wants—a realistic doll, and when his parents see how happy he is as a nurturer and caregiver—their hearts melt and they realize how closed minded and senselessly heteronormative they’ve been.  Everyone is happy.  When I was in a certain mood, the book would make me cry, I enjoyed the resolution so much.

But these gender norms we were smashing also served a purpose!  Just as Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak kept a certain, albeit oppressive kind of order, so the old gender lines made life a lot simpler.  Today we don’t just need to decide who we want to marry, we have to decide which sex we want to marry, or if we don’t want to get married, well that’s OK too! And gender barriers weren’t the only barriers coming down.  Think of your religious upbringing.  If you’re like me, you were raised with a certain religious structure, but it was taught to you almost sheepishly.  Not only are we in the age of science, but we’re in the age of “Don’t force anything upon your kids or they’ll come to resent it!” In generations past, people had a whole Bible of rules by which to live by—rules that told them who to worship, how to dress, what to eat, when to work and when to rest.  While religious communities still exist, and in some cases have become even tighter, the numbers continue to trend secular.

Responding to a 2009 religious affiliation survey showing a doubling of self-described secular Americans, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote “The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.”  Unlike Mohler, we of the Special Generation were supportive of the trend.  We were Special, and couldn’t be beholden to our parents’ religion, or to putting all of our hope and trust in something outside of ourselves.  But now that we’ve begun to realize that we’re not quite as Special as we thought we were—that life is painful and filled with setbacks, that you don’t get everything you desire—it would be nice to have someone up there to talk to about it once in a while.

Perhaps no other open-choice has been as challenging for us as occupation.  When our parents graduated from college or otherwise entered adulthood, they knew they needed money.  For my dad, law promised a way to raise himself out of his circumstances, to put a strong effort forward and get solid, tangible rewards.  He went to law school, soon took a job at a firm and worked there for over thirty years.  It wasn’t perhaps the fulfillment of every childhood dream he had ever had.  But it was steady, enabled him to raise a family, buy a house, and do all the things one expects to do when one becomes an adult.  When I graduated college, I wanted to find the career that matched all of the amazing talents I had—the one that would match the striving of my soul and bestow upon humanity the full gifts I had been given!  I found theater.  Can I get a Shakespeare  Whoop woop!

According to one recent study, the average 26-year-old has already had seven jobs.  Seven!  When we work today at our jobs, we are a far cry from the Greatest Generation nose-to-the-grindstone work-your-way-up through the company and accept a little drudgery–long hours and frequent set-backs.  It’s more… just over that hill, just on the other side, if I can leap out of this current job into one where I’m truly following my dreams, then I will have achieved that thing I always dreamed of achieving—fulfillment.

So here we are: omnisexual, unaffiliated, humanistic, multi-potents with absolutely nothing tying us down.  As kids, no one told us whom to like, what to worship, which job to take, what path to travel on.  We had all the tools—a good head on our shoulders, love and encouragement, enough food on our plate, everything that people never have in a Dickens novel.  And because of all this freedom of choice, and the praise and acceptance that came with, we were very, very happy children.  But now we are very, very confused adults!  There’s no decision our circumstances foisted upon us.  When you are offered only a job at the factory, you take the job at the factory.  When you’re offered the world, you stand there, trembling, and may have every desire to crawl back into bed.

Marketing guru?
(Image from http://zhurnaly.com)

Luckily, sooner or later lying in bed just doesn’t seem like the best option.  We might not realize we need to go back to our homeland and rebuild our country (we don’t), but we might start rebuilding our own expectations for our life.  We might start seeking less than total, unbridled fulfillment.  We might even get a job in marketing.  But then again, we wonder, what if Shakespeare had stopped dreaming and gone into the Globe’s PR department?  See, we really, really don’t easily let Specialness go easily! 

“Wonder” Years later

Fred Savage and Danica McKellar

Kevin and Winnie

Our blog is often filled with melancholia and ruefulness, as we struggle with the Special condition.  We thought it high time to highlight a fascinating story of hope and resilience.  I’m of course referring to Danica McKellar, the one-time star of “The Wonder Years” and current author of young adult education books such as “Hot X: Algebra Exposed” and “Kiss my Math!”

Danica, like us, had all the makings of a special childhood, and then some.  She was successful, celebrated and marveled at–all before the age of 12.  She was beloved by “Wonder” watches, cute and a little odd looking, with big thick-lashed eyes.  Your humble editor, it may as well be said, had a big crush on Winnie.  (It makes him feel only a little icky to find her pictures in “Maxim” and “Stuff,” but we can’t deny a certain fascination with our kid crush all grown up–really grown up!)  But this is not a post about the hotness or swan-like trajectory of Danica–at least not entirely.

This instead is an appreciation of how Danica somehow warded off the Speicalness trap that can afflict so many successful children.  If she had just turned out normal, not terrified of failure and never living up to her childhood self, it would have been enough for us (Daiyenu).  If she had only written her sassy math-is-fun books, and not gone on to be a cheeky blogger, Daiyenu.  But Danica now writes this blog, has a Yoga and Meditation video, has a little baby, and, to our great amusement, is putting out killer palindrome puzzles! Is there no end to her productivity?

Palindrome puzzles are where clues are given to figure out a palindrome, or a phrase spelled the same forwards and backwards, ie. “Madam I’m Adam.”  Special People both love and hate these types of puzzles.  We love them because if we solve them, we feel smart and special.  If we don’t, however, we loathe ourselves and fear that we’re losing any ability we once had to feel smart and special.  Put that aside as you look at the following.  Your editor fully admits that he solved pretty much none of these, but still enjoyed enormously.

Some of these may be ones Danica collected.  Others are clearly ones she devised herself–which is not easy!  We found this out the hard way when we tried to do some with a student, sat in silence for ten awkward minutes, and finally together came up with one palindrome: “Bob stops, spots Bob.”  For answers to below, you can go here.   And don’t stress!  Danica doesn’t, and she has every right to suffer from Specialness!

Cool one to warm up with:
Clue: “What did the mathematician say when she was offered cake?”  Hint to start you off: “I prefer ____”

Now see if you can get any of these!
Clue: “We’re out of citrus and cantaloupe.”  ____________________
Clue: “Possible headline if Marilyn Monroe encountered some rodents.”  ____________________
Clue:” Nickname for physician who is uncomfortable talking to his patients.” __________________
Clue: “Possible headline I [Danica!] were in a commercial for vitamin b3.”  ____________________

Not enough people like you enough

What me Worry?

We sometimes overlook how society itself is pushing us towards an all or nothing mentality.  It’s bad enough that as special people, we think that we have to be the best, must finish first, cannot fail, and that if we do fail, it means that we might always go on failing.  What’s worse is that sometimes the world itself seems to echo these same thoughts!

Imagine you’re Mitt Romney.  You did all of your homework, for four years, preparing for this race, correcting your mistakes, gathering allies, building your coffers.  You developed the best defense for attacks on your healthcare plan (What’s good for Massachusetts is NOT what’s good for the country) and for your nearly obscene wealth (I’m not going to apologize for being successful!).  You got a better debate coach than last time and you’ve come out swinging–even rising to the occasion on a crucial debate before the Michigan primary.  When all the momentum seemed to be filling the sweater vest of pesky Rick Santorum, you pulled a coup de theatre by lumping him with moderate Senator Arlen Specter (the horror!) who helped make Obamacare possible.  You turned the tables and won your home state.

You have five perfect kids who all have good hair like you and the right number of kids (5 sons who have 16 kids, or 3.2 each).  You don’t cheat on your wife to our knowledge.  Sure you’ve made some gaffes, like insulting NASCAR attendees, betting more than a nickel on TV, and musing out loud about your wife’s several Cadillacs.  But doesn’t a knight speak of jousting?  A cobbler of shoes?  Why shouldn’t Mitt talk about what he knows?

On the eve of Super Tuesday, you have 187 delegates, almost triple that of Santorum.  You’re predicted to win Super Tuesday, including the bell weather state of Ohio.  But here’s the kicker: even if you win Ohio, and even if you win Virginia, Massachusetts, Idaho, North Dakota, Alaska and Vermont, as  538 is predicting as a baseline scenario, you STILL will leave doubts.  You were vulnerable in Tennessee, Georgia and Oklahoma.

What does a guy have to do?  Why do we expect such perfection?

The truth is running in a Republican primary like this one is a Special person’s nightmare.  You want to tell yourself you’re good enough, and you’re smart enough… but dog gonnit, people still don’t seem to like you.  Or at least not enough people like you enough.  It’s never, ever enough!  I’m worried about Mitt and how he’s holding up through this thing.  And even once he eeks through this process, unless the economy turns downward in a big way–ie. the Republican-majority Congress succeeds in its goal–he’s still not going to beat Obama.  For someone who’s had so many blessings in life, this will be very difficult to handle.  I hope some kind person in his life might lead him to this blog.  Mitt, if you’re reading this, I want you to say the following:

“I’m not Special.  Making billions of dollars in the private equity business, governing a liberal state, working on the Olympics, having a beautiful above-average family and getting great hair DID NOT make me Special, just as losing this election didn’t make me a failure.  I’m not Special.  I’m Mitt Romney.  And I’m not running for president.  But that’s OK.  I can do other things.  Like read and mow the lawn.  Yes, that will be nice.”

Help for people who HAVE graduated college

Statistical Success

There’s been lots of discussion of late about the value of completing college.  A Times article last week on the gap between richer and poorer students cited college completion as “the single most important predictor of success in the work force.”   According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, students with a Bachelor’s Degree are currently expected to earn about a million dollars more over their lifetime than those with just high school degrees.  As a result, there is an enormous amount of energy being put into figuring out how to get more people through college.  There’s even an entire website, boostingcollegecompletion.org, run by the impressive-sounding Education Commission of the States, devoted to helping people graduate.  And this is all important work that’s being done.  But it’s also overlooking a crucial segment of the population: people who have graduated college.

Yes, I’m once again talking about Special People.  (They are after all the focus of this blog.)  These are folks who have often graduated college with flying colors, but now find those colors to be just kind of drifting, or maybe even grounded somewhere near Dubuque.  They may even have graduate degrees, bless their hearts, but have still not graduated from Specialness.  “How,” they may ask, “can I have followed this societally-encouraged, statistically proven, Arne Duncan-blessed track, and still not find myself on the other side of the rainbow?  What did I need to have done differently?”

And of course this is a false construction, because Specialness cannot be averted or cured by higher education.  It can’t be fixed at Oxford, Cambridge, Cal Tech or DeVry University (though this last one would be the best place to start).  Specialness, in fact, has no known cure.  It can only be contained.  So while education experts are understandably focused on helping those who are struggling to complete college, we wanted to take a moment to focus on those who have.

Here are some productive living tips for people with college diplomas:

1) Exercise daily (including walking).  Moving your body is one of the best ways for Special People to stop thinking about not being special.  You probably ran around more in college, and that helped.

2) Focus on completing small, manageable and definable tasks.  Do NOT set out to write “Hamlet.”
(side note: my brother interestingly told me once that through the quirky law of copyright, one could technically transcribe “Hamlet,” list oneself as the author, and publish it as one’s own play, since it’s in the public domain.  This means that you might be able to actually write Hamlet in one day, and even publish it.  And that’s just fine.  So to rethink this rule, Do not set out to complete an entire work or task of earth-shaking proportions. It is OK, though, to literally set out to “write” “Hamlet.”)  

3) Eat walnuts and figs (dried figs, but the kind you can pick out–not prepackaged).  These are soothing foods that make one feel good.

4) Don’t outthink yourself before starting a task.  In general, view each task as its own endeavor.  Don’t think of it as something A) you’re really good at, or B) you really suck at.  Think of it as something you’re C) at.

5) Play “Words with Friends.”  (Losing to an 8th grade student of mine was helpful in dealing with Specialness)

6) Know that there is only a tiny, .01% chance that you have a rare brain disease and that you’re literally dumber than you were at the time you graduated college.

7) Remember that there are millions like you suffering from Specialness.  You are not alone.  And just because you graduated college, and statistically that’s a good thing, and Arne Duncan’s not worried about you, there are still people who have your back.  It won’t come easy, but we’ll slog through it together.

We will not become just another statistic!

Class Notes

ClassNotesI was recently sent Class Notes from my elementary school.  Sort of.  See, 99% of my elementary school friends went on to a particular middle and high school, whereas I went elsewhere.  My parents figure I enjoy checking in on my third grade playmates and thus thoughtfully send me the Class Notes from their high school.  One classmate in particular, my best friend in third grade, was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal for a major position he’s undertaken.

First, a note on Class Notes in general.

Here’s something I’m wondering why we don’t ever see.  In between

Jason Tishburn writes to us from New York.  He heads up Morgan Stanley’s Big, Big Money Private Equity Unit.  He bet against mortgage-backed securities in 2008.  Go Jason!”

and

Kevin Yancy has a new documentary coming out based on his best-selling memoir: “Being Kevin Yancy, M.D.Ph.D. Beyond the Letters”

how come we never see:

Ted Vettis is trying a new antidepressant his therapist believes may cut down on sexual side effects.  He’s hoping this one shows better results, and soon.

Wouldn’t that be a little bit refreshing?  Is it just Special People who hate reading about how married/dream-fulfilled/child-blessed every classmate of theirs is, even the ones who seemed a total wreck in school?  Or is it everyone?  I think probably everyone.

Secondly, about my friend.  Tom was my best bud in third grade.  We played all sorts of games together.  Some of them were on the normal side, like trading baseball cards and drawing our own make believe ones.  Some were loco–as in Gingrich Moon colony loco.  We developed a society of creatures, the Sheelies, who lived in Seattle, and the Boolies who lived in Boston.  The Sheelies were big green creatures with large snouts who were generally happy and wished ill on no one.  But the Boston Boolies were a constant menace.  The Sheelies and the Boolies were always doing battle, and we’d always root for the Sheelies.  To this day I think of Boston as a dark place.

Being at different middle and high schools, we rarely saw each other.  One time we met up in high school at a college fair.  Tom was snippy with me, seeming to have a chip on his shoulder.  Later I found out that he had hit on some rough times during high school.  He ended up going to a state school, while I went to an elite Ivy.  But now, many years later, here I was, in my boxers, reading about how wonderful my sandbox playmates were doing–above all my Sheelies and Boolies partner–profiled in the Wall Street Journal.

And lo…there surrounding him, rose up a cloud of jealousy.  Like buzzing bees–impossible to ignore, dangerous, unshakable.  I thought about it.  And I shook my head: at my friend who had struggled through high school but now was soaring; at me who had soared through high school and was now struggling; how I wanted to be happy for him, but couldn’t.

It’s in times like these that we must confront Specialness dead on.  It’s perhaps too high an aim to wish to be happy or proud of our friends when we’re in the midst of the jealousy bees.  But we don’t have to sit there letting them eat us to death either.  When we feel this way–the jealousy, the comparisons, the what ifs, the only healthy reaction is to double down on what we’re doing, whether that be fact checking at a magazine, grading papers, writing board-game question cards, copy editing, whatever we happen to be doing at the moment–double down.  Throw ourselves into it.  Be inspired that hard work can be its own reward.

Fight jealousy with action.  Fighting it with thoughts never works!  Oh, and next time, if the bees are around, don’t read the Class Notes.

The Poor Man’s Poor Man’s Shvitz

Readers of Nothing Special know of our proclivity for the shvitz.  The shvitz is the age-old tradition, popularized by the Romans but probably known long before them, of going into a very hot place and letting your body sweat.  Out goes all the thinking and overanalyzing of one’s place in existence.  In comes the heat–the reminder that…oh yes, I’m  an animal.

Readers will also know that we’ve touted Wall Street Bath and Spa as such a place in New York City where one may shvitz (to the point that you might think they are sponsoring Nothing Special, which sadly they are not).  What we loved doing there, in the company of friends, was the pairing of “opposites,” moving quickly from the hot, dry sauna to the icy cold plunge pool, and back again.  The reminder that…oh yes, I’m alive!

Since the fancy spas, however, can also remind us how expensive being alive can be, we’ve taken the habit of going to our local YMCA for the shvitz.  After all, the Y has a sauna and showers, and provides two towels per visit.  Sure you don’t get the special bathrobe, the pickled herring or the sensation of being part of some secret subterranean club, but hey, those are all just dressings!  Since we’re already members of the Y, this shvitz is already paid for.  We therefore call this the Poor Man’s Shvitz.

Swipe in to Y and do some exercise.
Then:
5 minutes in Sauna
1 minute in freezing Shower
5 minutes in Sauna
1 minute in freezing Shower

Today, however, I was at the Y and found myself in a pickle.  I had done my workout and was looking forward to the shvitz, but poor time management (see many other blog entries) meant that I had but 5 minutes for the procedure.  There simply wasn’t time to sit in the sauna, then run down the hall to the cold showers, then go back to the sauna, etc.  I had to improvise, and somehow deal with the fact that I couldn’t do the full Special shvitz.  Should I give up and just chalk it off to a missed opportunity, or was there a way?  And then it hit me.  I stood under one shower and put it on hot.  Then I reached to the shower next to me, and moved its dial just a touch, leaving it at freezing cold.  After a minute of the hot shower, I jumped into the cold plunge, whooped for a moment, then leapt back into the hot, then back to the cold, whooping all the while.  A fellow shower room occupant looked on somewhat startled, as I proceeded to do this for all five minutes that I had.

They say that the greatest inventions are born of necessity.  Today, FOOS (Fellow Occupiers of Specialland), I invented something: the Poor Man’s Poor Man’s Shvitz.  I now put it out there  for all to try.  Or if not the Poor Man’s Poor Man’s Shvitz, something else that might not be perfect, but is still damn-well better than throwing nothing.  As for me, you might catch me one of these days in the Y shower, yelping from the cold, jumping back to the heat, side-stepping into the cold, all-the-while shouting:

Oh yes…I’m cheap, pressed for time, and not all that special … but I’m alive!  I’m aliiiiiiiiiiive!

The brave choice

Sbux DreamsWhen we last discussed the hit series Game of Thrones on Nothing Special, we noted how we had picked up the first book as brain candy.  No Shakespeare.  Not even Thomas Hardy.  But rather a juicy, pulpy succession story set in the realm of Westeros, at a time when the old gods were starting to give way to the new.  We soon found ourselves drawing up charts to keep track of characters, looking up words like portcullis, cursing our feeble geographical sense (even in fantasy realms), and generally wishing we could get back to Hardy.  We kind of understand Wessex.  Now we’re in over our head!

We persevered, though, and even enjoyed.  One passage that struck almost as deep as a Jude the Obscure’s first view of Christminster, was Jon Snow, riding desperately down the Kingsroad away from Castle Black, where he had sworn his life’s service to the Night’s Watch.  His choice had been to stay with the Night’s Watch (loyalty to society) or  join his father and brothers now embroiled in a war (loyalty to family).  He chose family, breaking his oath, but the decision still haunts him.  “Even now, he did not know if he was doing the honorable thing.”  Thinking later about the maester of Castle Black, who decided on three separate times not to leave the Night’s Watch even when his family was threatened, Jon Snow continues to muse:

“Even now, Jon could not decide whether the maester had stayed because he was weak and craven, or because he was strong and true.”

(By the way, “maester” seems to mean old advisor in the George R.R. Martin series –the extra “e” makes it sound vaguely old and Germanic.  I was hoping there might be a Yaeger Maester of Castle Shot)

Jon’s wondering, as he galloped on his frothing horse, got me thinking of all the times when I’ve wondered, what’s the brave choice.  Isn’t this a key, often all-consuming aspect of countless decisions we must make in our lives?  Everyone knows it’s hard to make the brave choice–but what about figuring out which is the brave choice in the first place.  Special people want to constantly push themselves to be the best Special People we can be, so we’re always thinking about this–how can we be braver, more daring, less willing to concede.  Here are a few scenarios.  You decide which is the brave choice, and which the cowardly one.

1.  You have an art show you want to curate.  The problem is, you have no money to lease a gallery, collect the art, publicize, etc.  You have a rich uncle who will give you the money to put up the show, but you’re also a proud person who doesn’t like handouts (perhaps you’ve also been listening to Republicans a lot).  Do you swallow your pride and ask your Uncle for the startup cash, or do you try to get a job at the ground level at a gallery?  Which is the brave choice?

2.  You have a romantic partner.  Your relationship is 80% of everything you’ve always dreamed of.  Do you stay in the relationship, or do you keep seeking?  Is it brave to throw back the fish and jump out into the great unknown, or is it brave to throw down your lot and say, I have arrived!  Which is braver?  How about if it’s 85% of your dreams?  Now which is braver?  To go, even though there’s less of a chance for improvement?  Or to stay, knowing you’re pretty darn close.

3.  You’ve gotten accepted at Harvard.  Congratulations!  But you got a much better feeling when you visited Haverford.  You’re a little afraid of Harvard, as you know how challenging it will be.  Come to think of it, how did you get in in the first place?  You like Haverford because you chose it, it didn’t choose you.  You know Harvard will open more doors, for the same price, and perhaps push you more.  You think Haverford could be the college experience you always wanted–it felt right.  Which is the braver choice of school?

4.  You have a 3-year-old.  You miss your job, but you’re a little scared to get  back into the swing of things.  Assuming money isn’t the issue, do you go back to work and restart that career you were just starting to see if you could make it in?  Or do you stay home with your child whom you love for another year?  Is the child an excuse to cover up the fact that you’re scared to go back to work?  Or is the getting back to work just a cover-up for the fact that you don’t value yourself unless you’re working?  Which is the braver move?

Of course figuring out which is the braver move is only the first step.  The next step, perhaps even more challenging, is to figure out if the braver move is the right move.  Take example two.  What if you decide that it would be braver to cast the line out again, break away from your comfort zone, and strike out to find something more fulfilling?  Then you say to hell with that and stay.  Is that more cowardly, or can choosing the choice you decide is more cowardly, actually be the bravest choice of all?  Are you as confused as I am?

I used to think that if you’re scared to do something–if it really fills you with terror and makes you sick, it’s probably the right move.  Now I’m not so sure.

After riding a good several miles down the Kingsroad, Jon Snow is overtaken by his friends and fellow guardsmen, who demand that he return.  Jon probably could have talked them down and explained his need to go fight to the death with his father and brothers.  Instead he rides back to Castle Black with his friends.  Eventually Jon makes the brave choice: he honors his oath to the Night’s Watch and stays to protect the realm from the Others.

Or was he just scared to really leave?

WordPress’s Stats on us: 2011

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.  Who’s reading us from Finland?

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,100 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 35 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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