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There are few things I’ve hated so instinctively as networking. Sucking up to people and trying to manipulate them into helping you is bad enough, but to take pride in being a two-faced, shit-eating sociopath, as many young professionals who sign up for networking events do, is beyond the beyond.

networking

Networking event in progress.

And even beyond that, if possible, is the feeling of being a networker yourself, at least for me. The last time I willingly attended a networking event was when I presented a paper at the American Historical Association’s annual conference a few years back. Before grad school ground my rose-colored glasses under its heel I thought that academic conferences were utopias were the lucky few get to listen to some of the most current and brilliant research out there, observe great minds discussing great ideas together, and perhaps even get to meet someone whose book changed your life. It’s like comic con but with delicious hors d’ouvres!

The reality, unfortunately, is that these are just desperate networking events were kids who know they’re competing with 99 peers for one attractive academic position converge. I saw one of my favorite professors at the AHA and she, being amazingly well-meaning, tried to help me with my elevator speech, an improbable two-sentence summary of all my interests, research, and plans that I’m supposed to pitch to random strangers. Then another person who I thought would be the most likely to attend my panel opted out to network with someone more important. Then, because Rebecca Scott did me the most humbling honor of not only attending said panel but offering her brilliant commentary, one of the panel moderators suddenly got brain-snatched. The organizer had told me get my final draft to this moderator the weekend before the conference, but she apparently expected it much earlier, and told me that she didn’t read my work and isn’t going to offer any substantial comments. However, after seeing Rebecca (who I met at another conference in Senegal and is not only a total genius but a super sweet and genuine human being) greet me and speak, this moderator suddenly had glowing, interesting, and incisive things to say. Not only that, she even emailed me after the conference with a link to one of her articles! Summary: The whole experience was a horror show, one of the deepest-set nails in an already pretty nailed-up coffin.

But whatever, it’s professional life. Although it clarified my career path since I was certain that I didn’t want a career like that, getting networked-upon at the AHA didn’t affect me psychologically, since none of these people had ever pretended to be my friends. Which brings me to personal life networkers, who make me want to throw myself under a train for lack of hope for humanity.

meme

Not that you should base your life on things you see on Facebook, but HELL YEAH!

Nothing in the world makes me happier than being able to make my friends happy. That sounds cheesy but fake, kind of like American cheese, but I think a lot of people feel that way and I happen to be one of them. If you don’t know what I’m talking about watch the eyes of a person in the midst of surprising you with an awesome gesture or the perfect gift.That person’s probably even more excited than you are!

The word “unconditional love” gets bandied about a lot during wedding season, and I don’t really get it because conditional love (or friendship) isn’t any sort of love at all. At best, it’s narcissism – “I love you as long as your characteristics match up to my arbitrary and likely-to-evolve preferences.” Depending on the characteristic, there are changes so extreme that they couldn’t possibly be foreseen, and those changes aren’t what I’m talking about. I know for example of a woman whose husband got a dash of brain injury followed by dollop of meningitis. His whole personality now is completely unrecognizable. I don’t begrudge her for considering a divorce; she’s crazy amazing for deciding in the end to make it work. But if you, on your wedding day, feel that any in the range of moderate changes of characteristics would nullify love – getting fatter, losing sex drive, losing a job, losing interest in brushing one’s hair every day, etc. – then maybe consider editing your vows. To an equal degree, the word “friend” should only apply to a person who is free to walk down their own life’s path, pursue new interests, reevaluate their opinions and positions, without risk of falling away in your affections. And if you’re narcissistic enough to choose partners and buddies not even on their intrinsic characteristics but only on the condition that they can do something for you, then you’re a filthy, no-good networker and should be made to wear a scarlet N sewn onto the bodice of your velvet dress. For shame!

Now and then, a friend would contact me out of the blue. Almost always, there’d be small talk first and then the inevitable revelation:

  • My friend’s or his/her child’s birthday is coming up
  • My friend is planning a party
  • My friend wants me to sponsor a race, buy something, or donate to a Kickstarter or GoFundMe page
  • My friend wants me to click on something, vote for something, or “like” something online
  • My friend wonders if I have time to write something for him/her
  • My friend just broke up with someone or got fired from a job

… and so on. Sometimes a particular person might even not bother getting in touch with me for years at all except for the few times every couple of months when (s)he wants my help. Unlike the harmless weirdness of an academic conference, these situations were always so disheartening. Since I consider the person to be an actual friend a it hurts even more that (s)he seemingly treats our friendship so cynically.

keep in touch

For personal life networkers it’s tough to make that call “for no reason.”

Ironically, despite the fact that our culture now glorifies professional networking, there’s still a bit of a residual distate for personal life networking. I’ve read many articles advising that we dump our selfish “toxic friends,” and spent a long time struggling with just how to go about that.

Because no matter how upset I felt, a part of me looked back with a huge grin on the good times I’ve had with this friend in the past and didn’t want to pull the plug on the possibility of having more in the future.

I’m embarrassed to it admit it but it wasn’t until a year or so ago that it occurred to me that is might be a “me” problem.

Maybe it has to do with meeting lots of refreshingly uncynical people here in Kansas City, maybe with having most of my friendships suddenly become long-distance phone friendships. Whatever brought it on, I finally let myself stop feeling like the victim for long enough to realize that my boundless and enthusiastic hatred for networking is very specific to my personality and how I grew up (My dad got passed over for promotions that he was overqualified for because he refused to play the brown-nosing game, and I think he was proud of getting where he was on the merit of his work alone). It’s also very specific to my experience in grad school. I began to realize that because I feel so strongly against networking I’ve been very, very self-conscious about never treating my friends in any way that would place conditions on our relationship and I’ve become ludicrously sensitive when they overstep my very tiny circle of approved non-networking friend behavior.

Friendships aren’t measured by the number of cellphone minutes logged. If we have a connection, if we understand each other, it doesn’t matter if one or both of us is too busy to text because we can just pick it up again when the pace of life slows down a bit. And it’s ridiculous for me to get upset about friends asking for help. Good grief, of course I want to celebrate birthdays, be good company after a bad breakup, and support whatever is currently floating their boats! Not because “they’d do the same for me” because, actually, that doesn’t matter. I’ve been given so much kindness that I could never hope to repay and if I’m finally in a position now to pay it forward, I’m just grateful for the opportunity. I started to wonder if the reason I’m being contacted after such a long time is not out of cynicism at all but because this other person feels that they can count on me to come through. I’m honored that anyone should think so highly of me! It’s been a journey (probably a boring one, sorry, reader!) but it feels so good to know that the n-word I’ve hated from the beginning was never a threat to my friendships at all. If my friends are making it easy for me by telling me straight up what I can do to make them happy, how can I be anything but overjoyed?

unconditional love

Hahaha! Oh my god. Took six months off from blogging only to come back with the cheesiest post ever. Sorry!

 

 

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I’ll go ahead and add my voice to the cacophony of those disturbed by 10th Year Anniversary of Katrina celebrations, though perhaps residents of a city that brags that it “puts the fun in funeral” ought to scoot off their high horse just a smidge. It’s a fact that New Orleans commemorates everything with live music and drinks. Even if you’re trying to be somber, that combo tends towards festivities. And not that there’s anything wrong with festivities!

One of the hardest things to get used to, now that I live in Kansas City, is actually trying to celebrate stuff without live music and drinks.

But maybe the local ethos just something I need to get used to. It’s just so weird, given that there’s so much music history here, especially Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Bennie Moten, and other jazz legends, and a small but lively local music scene even today (albeit mostly in Westport and in parking lots on First Fridays). As for the booze, it seems that statistically Kansas Citians already consume their fair share of it – they just do it in the comfort of their own homes. I can’t really fault them for that since beer (even New Orleans beer) is pretty cheap at stores.

abita on sale

Geez! I’ve never seen Abita Strawberry for less than $6 in Louisiana.

In New Orleans people pony up the ridiculously marked up prices at bars because they’re paying for an experience. Sometimes this experiece involves a 50-year old dude in full Marie Antoinette drag, sometimes a bunch of cats playing rock music.

The festivities start meow.

The festivities start meow.

Here there’s no experience yet. Unless you count the experience of paying double for a beer.

I’m sure someone will call me out on this and name a dozen cool events with live music and drinks that have gone down in this town in the past year, and of course they exist. My point is only that, in general, Kansas City celebrations are exactly that – events. They’re not a way of life. And maybe this isn’t a bad thing, because the locales that remind me most of New Orleans in terms of attitude don’t want to do the distinctly unfun work of fixing corruption, poverty, and other social problems. Cumulatively I’ve probably spent two years of my life in the Philippines at this point and it’s definitely like that there. When I try to think of places I’ve been that have their shit together but still know how to party, the list is short: Berlin, and New York City if we conveniently ignore the rampant criminality on Wall Street, which to be fair we really shouldn’t.

Will KCMO ever become a vibrant, progressive, ultra-diverse, hip yet ridiculously down-to-earth art, food, and fun capital of the world? I guess twenty years ago nobody saw it coming for Berlin, either 🙂 In the meantime I’ll continue enjoying it for how it already is. I’m very excited for Camey and my adorable genius of a goddaughter, Chloe, to come here. One thing the city has down pat: Between amusement parks, science centers, and kid-centered museums, it’s an amazing place for little people to visit.

i love chloe

And for little people to grow up in, too! My campaign to get Camey to move to Kansas City continues forthwith.

And yes, Berlin’s also surprisingly kid-friendly. I’m hoping its existence isn’t some freak error in the fabric of the universe, because just in case it’s real it would be a pretty inspiring urban role model. Yep, role model – if they can go from militarized Cold War chess piece to funky then anyone can get there if they put in the effort. So maybe I should stop pining online and do something to support the budding local celebratory culture in real life. From here on out I resolve to go see at least two shows a month, starting with the incredible band Truckstop Honeymoon this weekend.

The title of this blog post – “I have not worshipped wounds and relics” – is a line from a Leonard Cohen poem. Cohen, in my opinion the best English-language writer ever, is perhaps fittingly also the musician whose 2013 concert in New Orleans made me finally understand how deeply live music can drag us into sadness, ecstasy, and empathy. For it be omnipresent in a city would be a gift to everyone living there or passing through. One of Cohen’s more recent songs, “Samson in New Orleans,” also happens to epitomize the ambivalence I sometimes feel, now that I’m gone, about defending a place where the average white household makes nearly three times as much as the average black one, stuck indecisively as I am between pointing a judgmental finger at the New Orleanians who are insanely celebrating the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and longing to be just like them:

You said that you were with me
You said you were my friend
Did you really love the city
Or did you just pretend?

You said you loved her secrets
And her freedoms hid away
She was better than America
That’s what I heard you say

The first time my dad found out that my mom was sucking off strangers in Trenton for $10, she snapped “Well, I was orphaned!” and stormed out of the room. My dad was as shocked as I was. He let it go, and even five years and several high-profile arrests later, even after mom became immortalized in techno music as the “Cocksucker on Clinton,” when dad lay dying, he would tell me not to be so hard on her. Then after he passed and mom took me to the woman who answered her CraigsList ad, she soothed me on the bus ride over by saying, “This will be so much nicer than growing up in an orphanage.”

nj bus

Damn. I thought we were going to the mall.

 

I tried not to be hard on her. I tried to understand. It helped that the lady who took me in, Mrs. Schieden, had a daughter who was also 14, Beth. In return for doing Beth’s homework I had a comfortable home, my own room, bland but plentiful home-cooked meals every day, and a friend and playmate. Beth went from a C student to valedictorian! When she accepted the offer from Brown, Mrs. Schieden began paying me $1,000 a month to continue helping her, and that allowance is still what pays my rent and allows me to pursue my dream of becoming a fitness model and martial artist to this day. Much nicer than growing up in an orphanage, hell yeah!

 

This leg day sponsored by Mathilda Schieden.

Leg day sponsored by Mathilda Schieden.

 

Still, my mom’s mysterious childhood intrigued me. I always assumed that she, like dad, was born and raised in Thailand, but the one time I brought it up she snapped, “I was orphaned here in America!” and stormed out of the room. I began reading up on the history of American orphanages. There was a time when they were truly horrible, with poor children being stolen by the state and institutionalized, “orphans” dying of hunger, disease, and exposure. The so-called “inmates” were sexually vulnerable to adults and older orphans. No one loved them or even respected them as human beings! But in the United States orphanages have tots been passé for a century. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any horrible orphanages that my mom would’ve likely grown up in, and none at all that seemed traumatizing enough to drive her to star in a self-produced film called “Rudee Awakening: Rudee Drinks a Milkshake at 3:01 AM,” featuring 301 male supporting actors.

Even though my mom barely tried to keep in touch, I always loved to hear her voice speaking to me through a pay phone. I wanted so badly to tell her that I understood what she had gone through. Being an orphan drove her to a dangerous and demeaning lifestyle, but I’ll help her overcome the trauma and start anew. The last time mom called was for my birthday, a couple weeks late.

“You’re 25 now,” she mused, barely audible over the sound of her pimp in the background. “Almost as old as I was when I was orphaned.”

“I ask the reed flute, Why are you crying?

How can there be such tears

when nothing has been lost?

 

The reed flute says, Not so.

They took me from lips

that once made sugar throughout

my whole and silent body.

 

Now I live letting others

make crying sounds

with my emptiness.”

– Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

flute

Reed poetry. Or have someone else reed it to you 🙂

Happy Poetry Month! Not going to lie, I’m usually pretty skeptical of celebratory months. They seem like Christmas ornaments for our Facebook walls: something to decorate with, something that others might notice and even like, but in the end something that gets heaped in a dusty corner as soon as the appointed season is over. Nevertheless! I have myself been very guilty of neglecting poetry, and so I’ve been trying to (re)discover some great poems this April. The Rumi collection I’m reading at the moment was a gift from Giti. It’s about friendship. Reading it feels a bit like beautiful, perfect little daggers scraping at the edges of the Giti-shaped hole in my heart, which would be horrible, except that maybe I’m too old for heartbreak now, which might actually be even more horrible, come to think of it.

Let me explain. There are people who flit from one life adventure to the next, and there are those who build comfortable nests. I think, though, that most of my generation is neither. We move around the country (and world) following education, work, better work, love, or even just “a change of pace” all our lives. We stay for two years or four or ten – but rarely with the conviction of forever. That’s not a bad thing. We’re becoming a lot more cosmopolitan through our mobility. Over the course of these tangled travels, living in different places has finally taken us beyond the anthropological to a more genuine appreciation of what makes a city, village, or region unique. I don’t think anyone in my generation can honestly believe that the essence of regional American subcultures is based in biology anymore, and that can only lead to good things. The price we have to pay for this though is our friends.

I don’t know for sure that friendship used to mean more than it does today but it would certainly seem so based on what people used to write about it. Rumi, for instance, wrote love poems about his friend Shams Tabriz in the thirteenth century: “A certain one claps his hands/ And makes me clap mine./ His heart changes my heart… / Now I have become whatever/ that one wants…” From ancient and medieval Europe there are oodles of tales of people avenging their friends’ deaths, or dying trying. And even in the U.S. in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was still an incredible amount of affection, solicitude, and physical proximity expressed between friends. I have to disagree with queer historians on their efforts to queer history here, because I don’t think that Hull House founder Jane Addams was a lesbian though she held hands with her best friend and called her beloved, nor was Abraham Lincoln gay though he shared an uncomfortably small bed with another dude for a few years. It’s hard for us silly moderns to imagine that level of love without sexual attraction, even though it was seemingly the norm at the time. Looking back it’s a bit embarrassing actually that more than one person questioned me on whether Giti was my romantic interest. Yeah, we went on lots of private dates and talked all day and texted all night. Yeah, it made me want to jump for joy to see her enter the room, and that her enemies were my enemies goes without saying. I don’t think either of us found it weird at all.

friendships

Nineteenth century homies holding hands.

Ironically, if I had to pick the culprit that first set old-fashioned friendship on its course of demise I would probably have to go with modern romantic love. That is, the idea that the intimacy and affection between a romantic couple ought to be on another level entirely (plus passion that never ends! But that’s a rant for another day). I cringe whenever someone I know stops hanging out with their other friends as soon as they get into a halfway-serious relationship.

For the typical 25 to 35-year old today, though, the ideal of exclusive affection in a sexual relationship is but a footnote in the losing fight to maintain meaningful friendships. We just don’t have time for them in the midst of juggling 10,000 other things. We avoid controversial topics in social settings and save our darkest fears for our therapists. In fact the constant pressure to be more “social” impels us to always be on the prowl for new “friends,” stop investing time in what won’t result in awesome bestie selfies, and puts us in Instagram love button competition with those we have the most in common with. And, worst of all, we always move away! Not that distance means detachment, necessarily. In a way I’m excited to be living so small talk-free at the moment, since I’m luckily still in touch with people I have a great connection with from New Orleans (and New York and Florida) while not having many acquaintances here in Kansas City yet. Still though… anyone who says it’s going to be the same is playing you. It never is. If everything goes your way, it’ll be the same once you’re reunited again, that’s the best you can hope for, and it’s happened to me so many times now that part of me realizes that there’s no point in moping about it. The other part of me misses Giti terribly.   

It feels really good to be a religious fundamentalist.

Erm, except when it doesn't?

Erm, except when it doesn’t?

I’m not even being particular about which religion. Pretty much all the ones being widely practiced today require stupendous amounts of discipline and conviction if you ever want to reach Level ??? Fundamentalist in them. And shout out to my scientific fundamentalist peeps! I know you think you can’t relate, that science isn’t a religion – in fact it’s the anti-religion. But if avoiding pork is a silly diet, is paying attention to electrolytes, nitrites, and saturated fat any less restrictive? Is it crazier to believe that there are ancient, divinely authored laws than to believe that the absolute laws that govern all existence can be gleaned from the scrawls of a handful of present-day math nerds – scrawls that the rest of us don’t understand, so we have to take their interpretation on faith? I can’t help thinking that this, too, is devotion to a religious degree. The scientifically devout spend tens of thousands of dollars on invasive medical treatments that as far as quality of life goes might not really be any better than faith healing. To them the monetary sacrifice is not only acceptable but desirable, because it gives them that singular warm feeling that money can’t buy, the joy of cleaving to the one true thing. Life’s a mess but I did my best. 

So yes, it feels amazing to be a fundamentalist. A totalitarian, if you will, with an iron-clad faith in what’s true and what’s not. True and untrue should be distinguished from right and wrong. Everyone has a sense of morality, wherever it comes from, whether it overlaps nicely with the moral code of social consensus or not. I’m talking about being certain about how the world truly works.

I’ve been thinking about this pointless stuff lately because I realized that part of the reason I’m so stressed out all the time is that I’m not a fundamentalist in any shape or form. I can’t shake the feeling that what I’m doing with my life is profoundly useless. Existentially, my best guess is based almost solely on scientific evidence, and if I only had one box to check I’d have to go with “atheist.” Atheism can be quite empowering. It’s not a surprise that arguably the most critical social movement of our lifetimes, environmentalism, is led and will continue to be sustained mostly by atheists, because they’re the only ones audacious enough to believe that human beings actually have the power to halt a catastrophe a thousand years in the making. I’m like a true atheist in the sense that, from a scientific perspective, I see that it’s rational – even morally imperative – to prevent ecological disaster, because frankly gay marriage, the second amendment, feeding the poor, decriminalizing marijuana, shutting down puppy mills, etc. won’t be much use to us for long if less than a hundred years years from now half of our cities are under sea level, and all we’re left with is refugee camps, famine, and fracked up poisonous drinking water. But I’m not like a true atheist in the sense that I don’t see a way out. I don’t know if human technology – let alone our rational self-interest – is up to the task. More importantly, I worry that maybe as a species that drove millions of other species to extinction we don’t even deserve to win the day this time around. I worry that the last days of humanity will be so violent and ignoble and repulsive that whatever species rise up on our planet in the next epoch won’t even reminisce about us fondly the way we do with the dinosaurs. Seriously, I stay up at night because a desperate starving person in 2200 might make me look bad!

global warming

I also cry over the plight of polar bears – true story! I have issues!

 

A scientific fundamentalist would say, “Well, what’s the problem here? Science predicts that global warming will reach catastrophic levels and that there’s a good chance that human beings will die out fighting for the scraps of remaining resources. Good job, fellow atheist! There doesn’t have to be a technological solution for everything for science to be valid.”

That’s exactly the point, though. The Catholic Church for instance has quite a few reasonable explanations for disasters: to chasten us, to bring us together, to give us the impetus to become better people, to send us to heaven. I’ve noticed though that the church is silent on the topic of second-hand smoke, which the scientific community has quite a bit to say about. Neither specific lack of insight should affect the religion’s overall validity! And for the record I’m always happy to go to mass. I feel inspired and connected there, and can’t shake the feeling that in today’s world only an organized international community like the Catholic Church can heal the damage done by organized international greed and economic inequality. I am, to be clear, not quibbling about reasonable explanations or the good that faith can do. I just truly, honestly don’t know how to have it.

I’m quite fine with never knowing (or “knowing”) all the answers. The main reason I’ve always wanted to be a writer is that it’s the only way I know to put my natural uncertainty and speculative ramblings to some positive use. As stressful as it is in real life, when trying to imagine a character or a story suddenly the fact that I live in a perpetual state of self-induced bewilderment isn’t an entirely horrible thing. Still I’ve tried so hard for the last fourteen years of my life to believe in some absolute truth. At the moment I’m at least close enough to outwardly faithful that I can move through certain groups without getting called out immediately. I keep the knowledge that sometimes I can feel events happening far away to myself around my scientific fundamentalist friends. When I felt my grandma in Austria pass away for instance I was correct within five minutes. My dad just thought I was being a total jerk until he got the news three and a half hours. I also don’t think I can mention to my parish priest that when I pray I’m not sure anyone is listening. But if pressed I won’t lie. I’m at least honest enough to admit that pretending won’t help. Well, it’ll help get me invited to Bingo maybe, but not to understand my place and purpose in the universe, and faking it strikes me actually as an admission that I’ve failed for good. After all those attempts only that last refuge of the religiously-minded remains, the personal god who doles out continuous revelation. I hope I’m never lame enough to stoop to something as half-assed as that. Most of the people I’ve met who call themselves “spiritual” are agnostics who like to talk to themselves.

death

Death, cake, the millions of other topics – actually only a creepy personal deity whispering in your ear can give you answers about EVERYTHING.

 

As for being a writer, the irony is that most writers at least present themselves as pretty wise and even able to impart valuable life lessons to their readers. They write because they got their shit together. I’m jealous! I write because I can’t get it together at all. If I can lead a reader to a jarring moment of insecurity, it’s definitely not so that I can guide them back to the comfortable revelation further on in the text.  

Wow, I really don’t know why I’m doing a blog entry on this! I guess I want to explain myself. I feel like I’m always offending fundamentalists when I try. I don’t even want to describe myself as agnostic because it suggests a coward making a deliberate effort to hedge their bets for the afterlife, but maybe a lot of agnostics go through the same shit just trying to explain that they can’t force themselves to believe something they really don’t believe. It’s not a judgment, only a different person’s search for truth. To me scientific facts are about as meaningful as “knowing” that Jesus rose on the third day. They are equally warm words, beautiful words, but to my mind still only words, vulnerable to the intuition I feel in the pit of my stomach or to a new idea or to each other.

 

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