Archive for the 'Personal' Category

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Judaism (and Other Thoughts on Religion and Vampires) Part II

(The first part of this blog post, written a mere 11 months ago, discussed why I no longer feel connected to my childhood religion of Judaism. Now I wish to explain why it’s unlikely my spirit will be swayed by any other organized religion).

People say faith is hard.

I think it’s easy, at least compared to the alternative.

In a world filled with senseless tragedies, in a life filled with incredible emotional and physical challenges, in which nothing is guaranteed except its end, how comforting would it be to believe in a higher power, to align myself with a community of like-minded individuals, to accept the teachings of a holy document, a genuine life instruction book.

How I envy the faithful. It’d be so nice to believe.

How could anyone, really, not want to believe??

A true, abiding faith is a security blanket, and those that hold tight to it have little need to question why the innocent suffer, to fear what lies beyond, or to agonize over the devastating possibility that all is nothing.

Faith provides meaning, protection, comfort, love, immortality.

But the one thing I believe faith – at least a faith in any particular doctrine – does not provide, is the truth. It’s the missing ingredient, and without it, I must remain faithless.

That’s not to say I’m an atheist. Not in the least. Atheism requires a faith as well, and one that truly is hard as it provides few of the benefits of a religious faith. If it’s a security blanket, it’s made of cold steel (or perhaps, more appropriately, a titanium-tungsten alloy).

And worshiping at the altar of science to the point where one cannot fathom that after all the questions we can ask have been answered, that on the other side of that, something mystical and grand and forever unknowable might yet remain, strikes me at least as foolhardy as having faith in the foolhardiest of religions.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been keenly aware of the ‘splendour in the grass, and glory in the flower’, and felt that a larger purpose could be out there, waiting to be found – and if not found then at least waiting to be sought out –  and now that I have watched my two daughters be born, I can’t help but hope even more that this is so. I’m afraid I could buy into the story of Xenu before I could ever wholly embrace we are nothing but cosmic accidents.

No, it is not the leap into the realm of the mysterious and illogical that faith requires which bothers me; it is the specificity of the endeavor. To believe that the mysterious and illogical things you believe, about matters of almost immeasurable importance and complexity, are, in fact, the correct ones, seems so utterly presumptuous and outlandish to me.

Most people, after all, just end up having faith in whatever it was their parents believed (and presumably taught during those most impressionable years). We’re not just talking here about adopting your folks’ political leanings or taste in literature; these are the Big Questions, and I think the fact that our search for spiritual truth begins with such ingrained biases makes success rather unlikely.

I know that personally, even though I have questioned or rejected much of the Jewish laws and tradition I was taught and surrounded by as a young person, it would be nearly impossible for me to completely overcome my childhood indoctrination. Even if Jesus Christ himself knocked on my door one night and told me he was indeed the Messiah, offered up some proof of the fact (say, the water into wine trick), and implored me to get my ass in gear in order to avoid damnation, I would still have a very tough time actually becoming a Christian. A conversion would devastate my parents. It would isolate me from my community. In some ways, I’d have to learn a whole new way of life. Such costs may seem small compared to the gifts implicit in finding eternal salvation, but it just serves to illustrate how difficult stumbling upon the truth can be with all the obstacles placed in our way.

That said, at least I know something about Christianity. Not enough to rock a New Testament category in Jeopardy, perhaps, but a decent amount. But what if Allah or Shiva or Biame knocked on my door? Heck, I wouldn’t even recognize them if I looked through the peephole (I’d probably just not answer and pretend I wasn’t home).*

The religions I’m familiar with are far eclipsed by those I have little knowledge of, and likely surpassed by those religions I haven’t heard of or know absolutely nothing about. I can’t imagine I’m alone in my ignorance, either; I would think that even those that dedicate their lives to the study of religion have yawning gaps in their knowledge base.

Yet the faithful dare to presume that somehow they have found The Answer. It’s like how my 2-year-old daughter Macy thinks I’m the funniest person in the universe (her vocabulary hasn’t quite allowed her to express that sentiment exactly, but you should see the way she laughs when I bounce balls on my head). Still, she hasn’t even seen a Louis C.K. stand-up special or one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, so, really, what the heck does she know??

Now, I could go on and on about what I perceive are the deficiencies of religion and the problems with faith, but sometimes, I wonder if all of my hand-wringing is beside the point, even counter-productive.

After all, the search for meaning in life is one of the key attributes that separates us as a species.

For many years, I was devastated I didn’t know my purpose on this Earth. On more than one night in my youth and young adulthood, I would look out the window in my bedroom at the magnificent, awesome world I was trying to navigate to the best of my ability, and beg for some sort of insight to hit me, so that all would be illuminated, and that I, too, could feel the comfort and peace of a strongly held faith. The yearning was so intense that tears were not uncommon.

Lately, though, I’ve grown so skeptical, and so burdened by the pressures and minutiae of day-to-day living that I’ve just resigned myself to the idea of a faithless life … and death.

When I realize I’ve reached this point, I feel even more devastated, for one thing I do believe is this:

To lack The Faith is understandable; to stop The Search is unforgivable.

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*Interesting side note: My best bud from college once thought the gods of all religions were like the players on the same team in an NBA All-Star Game. And that each god has his strengths – Jesus can nail the trey, Buddha’s a beast in the post, Yahweh dribbles and drives like nobody’s business, etc. – but the goal was the same for them all: Getting the ball in the basket. And that the only real problems occur when fans demand their guy get voted Most Valuable Player.

I’m not an NBA fan, but I like that stupid analogy. It makes about as much sense as anything I’ve heard.

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Judaism (And Other Thoughts On Religion and Vampires) – Part I

I was once engaged to a vampire.

Well, at a minimum, I was once engaged to a Catholic woman heavily involved in the New York City underground vampire community (which to her credit, took place before the most recent pop culture vampire explosion – ie Twilight, True Blood, Being Human, etc. etc.).

Chuckle/snicker/mock/scoff all you want – I certainly did a little bit of all of that when I first learned of my ex’s intention to get involved with this particular coven.

But then I met some of her vampire friends and started to read the ‘Intro to Vampirism’ literature which her sponsor/priest had given her, and here’s the kicker: Modern vampirism is certainly no sillier, and maybe less silly, than most of the dozens of other religions I’ve stumbled across during my life, including the one I was raised in (and still consider a part of my identity), Judaism.

Now this realization struck me as particularly relevant because it just so happened that at the same time my ex-fiancee was immersing herself in all things vampire, she was also taking Judaism conversion classes with me, as it was my hope that she would convert to my tribe before our wedding.

I had plenty of reasons why I wanted her to convert, or at least take the class – some OK, most awful: to please my parents, to make sure any kids we had were considered Jewish, to make things easier (at least for me), to have her prove her commitment to me, etc, etc.

But what I instead soon realized was how little Judaism mattered to me anymore. After being raised in a fairly observant Conservative Jewish household, I had many years ago begun to extract myself from the religion, slowly but surely to the point where I was mostly a Jew in name only. And while the conversion class was actually a quite pleasant experience, offering up reminders of some of Judaism’s positive attributes, it also served to reassert how irrational and irrelevant many of the laws and rituals seemed to me. 

The breaking point came during one particular conversion class, when the rabbi was teaching us how to put on tefillin. Tefillin are these black boxes, filled with Hebrew prayer scrolls, attached to leather bindings that a Jewish person ties around his arms and head before he prays. You won’t find them in many reform synagogues but for the observant, they are absolutely critical accoutrements. They also look unbelievably silly and quite primeval, frankly (see pic – and this soldier is actually pulling the look off quite nicely).

At this class, I couldn’t help but think of some of the things I had seen at my ex’s vampire parties and wonder how I could possibly mock her or her new friends. I mean, which is sillier – some old guy with a beanie on his head, a prayer shawl draped around his shoulders and bindings with boxes tied around his head and arms, or a woman wearing custom-made fangs and an ankh around her neck, dressed in some long, revealing black dress. I’m not sure which way I’d vote on the ‘sillier’ question, but I sure as hell know which is more fun (Note: That’s not a pic of my ex).

And then I began to think about the rationale/philosophy behind both respective movements. Sure, some of what I was reading in my ex’s vampire book was fairly loony, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the lunacy in the Old Testament, with its parting seas, and burning bushes, and animal arks, and fertile nonagenarians, and a long, long, laundry list of other tawdry, violent, unbelievable happenings.

To be sure, the Torah imparts some important and valuable lessons as well, and it’s also true that most modern-day Jews don’t apply the worst parts of the Bible in a literal sense (Few, for instance, are in favor of stoning cursers, as it is called for in Leviticus). Like vegans at a Vegas buffet, Reform Jews in particular use only a soupcon of Torah within their daily lives. But still, this nutty document is studied, pored over and mined constantly by observant Jews, forming the primary basis for how they are supposed to live, eat, pray, love, mourn and work.

Look, if you’re willing and able to accept even some of the crazy things that happen in the Torah and the lessons that follow, is it really so difficult to believe in the vampire archetype, a select group of powerful individuals who prefer the night and ‘feed’ off the energy of other people? (Actual blood drinking, either from willing donors or between vampires, is discouraged in most, but not all, houses)**.

And if you start going down that route, then why not believe in the New Testament as well? I’ve heard plenty of my Jewish friends dismiss Christianity because they find the whole story of the virgin birth/resurrection outrageous … as if the story of Adam and Eve just rings so true.

And then what about Mormonism? There’s a ton of really wacky stuff there, but can you really just dismiss it out of hand? Heck, even Scientology may make some… no, that shit is still way too crazy.

I want to discuss my thoughts on religion in more detail, so I’ve decided to write another part to this blog, but it’s that dissonance that I can’t accept. I am proud to be Jewish – it is a culture as much as it a religion, and I appreciate the history of the people too much to dismiss it completely as part of my identity. But for me the source material rings not much truer than Greek mythology, and sadly, less so than modern-day vampirism, so how can I ever fully embrace it?

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**I apologize for simplifying the essence of vampirism, as the community, perhaps not unlike that of Judaism and Christianity, is fairly well splintered, with wildly divergent preachings and practices, at least some of which are kept secret from non-members.

What’s funny is that from researching this piece I’ve found that vampires and Judaism actually share some common bonds – in fact, some 12th century Jewish folk writings may be among the first mentions of vampires (the bloodsucking demons were called ‘estries’); and there are some people who believe that the revival of the 19th-century vampire, most notably Dracula, was intended to be a metaphor for the insidious, other Jew, to this day still on occasion falsely accused by anti-Semites of sucking the blood from non-Jewish children during Passover rituals.

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Inertia

Observing the mistakes and silliness of others is a perfectly useful way to learn how to live the well-lived life.

For instance, my mother’s mother, may her soul rest in peace, was a tremendously loving and caring grandmother, but I probably learned at least as much about life from her flaws as from her positive attributes. In particular, I was able to see the damage my Bobba wrought (to herself as well as others) as she bitterly held onto grudges and regrets as if they alone could sustain her, and often retaliated to perceived insults with petty nastiness.

I realized such behavior had to be terribly unsatisfying, and ultimately unproductive, and believe I have embraced a much healthier way to deal with people and events that disappoint me (I forgive easily. I focus on the positives. I take my share of the blame. I think before responding, and try to consider the long-term implications of my actions).

Alas, I’m beginning to realize that a fair amount of my A-Z Guide to Living will also end up serving as a cautionary tale, full of advice which I believe to be critically important but am not following for whatever reason.

Give charity generously, unlike me.

Avoid distractions, unlike me.

Overcome your fears, unlike me.

And now, for my latest lesson, I want you to fight inertia, unlike me.

In physics, inertia is the resistance of any object to a change in its state of motion. When you throw in the additional effects of friction and gravity one encounters here on Earth, inertia basically means that things have a tendency to be still and tethered to the ground.

Or specifically: My ass has a tendency to be tethered to the couch, watching TV.

My college roommate and I used to comment all the time about how our lives were basically ruled by inertia. Recognizing we were powerless to stop it, we embraced its presence, bowing to the ever-looming God of Inertia and offering it regular sacrifices, which of course meant continuing to sit on our asses and watch TV.

It’s no surprise that the root for inertia comes from the Latin iners, meaning lazy.

Unfortunately, with the passing years, inertia tends to exert an even more powerful hold. Energy levels deplete as responsibilities build, so sitting on your ass during those precious moments of free time almost always seems the most appealing option. Indeed, nowadays when I find myself stymied by inertia, it often takes a tremendous amount of unexpected force – such as the passing odor of freshly baked M&M/fluff cookies – to get my ass to move.

I probably don’t need to tell you the problems that will develop as you let inertia work its voodoo, but like those scary stop-smoking commercials, I’m going to anyway: Atrophied muscles, weight gain, poor vision, loss of brainpower, diminished creativity, decreased sex drive, general ennui, a disturbing accumulation of knowledge of lame reality TV shows.

And inertia will increasingly sneak its way into other parts of your life, as well. It will keep you in unhealthy relationships and unfulfilling jobs. It will make the prospect of change seem like the most frightening thing in the world. Its primary goal is to turn your life into one big rut.

Seriously, you must fight inertia with all of your might.

Go to the gym. Play a sport. Find a fun new hobby, like say, blogging. Make love to your wife. Cook dinner. Meet up with friends (but not my college roommate, especially if there is a couch involved). Always be moving. Always be changing.

Yes, it is tiring to battle the God of Inertia, but the most appropriate place to sit your ass down is the coffin, not the couch.

I won’t join you in your fight, of course … but if they make it into a reality TV show, I’ll likely watch.

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Half-Hearted Humility

Arrogant people suck. I personally find them so off-putting that I enjoy an unhealthy amount of pleasure when I realize they are unable to back up their constant boasting and bleating, as is often the case.

Let’s face it: Being arrogant is not only almost always unjustified, it also happens to be one of the most annoying possible traits found in a human being. If you are overconfident, you will not seek the necessary self-improvement when you fall short of goals. You will not be able to recruit others whose help you may need to succeed, nor will you be able to recognize the need for such assistance in any case. (In fact, you are likely to even encourage folks to conspire to bring you down a couple of notches). And frankly, whatever success you are able to achieve will assuredly come at a very heavy price – few true friends and supporters.

However, I also realize that without self-esteem and confidence, you will not go far in life. If you do not believe in your abilities, you will not push yourself. You will not try new things. You will not sufficiently promote your accomplishments. With the game on the line, I’d rather have the .260 hitter at the plate who relishes the pressure and believes he is destined to be great than the .320 hitter who shrinks when eyes are on him and worries constantly he will be found out as a fraud and a failure.

The key, then, is to strike a balance between arrogance and meekness. Those alliteratively inclined like me could call it conditional confidence, but I prefer to refer to it as half-hearted humility.

You see, being humble is important. It allows you to accept constructive criticism, to acknowledge and credit others, to demonstrate curiosity and learn from your mistakes. As another bonus, a humble individual is more likely to pleasantly surprise people than disappoint them. As long as it’s sincere, humility is a most endearing trait, and especially so when it’s not entirely warranted.

That’s the tricky part, of course: How to be sincerely humble when you actually have some talent and deep down may even house a cocky little bastard wanting to jump out and express itself.

But the truth is, humility is one of the easiest virtues to embrace as no matter what skill or ability you think you excel at, there is almost always someone, and most likely lots of someones, better than you.

When I was a young kid in elementary school, we used to take these standardized aptitude tests and the results would come back with a percentile where your overall score ranked. One time I landed in the 99% percentile and was so proud of myself until I soon realized that a couple of others in my fairly small class also achieved the same percentile ranking while bettering my actual score. Even with my tiny, developing mind, I could easily extrapolate that thousands and thousands of students across the country likely outperformed me. It was a humbling thought.

The fact is, truly being the best or No. 1 at anything in this world is very rare, indeed. Even people who may be at the very top of their game should understand that others will likely surpass their accomplishments at some point. And those who are universally recognized as the greatest of the great, whose impressive records and feats have stood the test of time and perhaps even changed the world, should still realize that, in the words of the immortal Kansas, ‘all we are is dust in the wind.’

So be humble. And believe in your humility enough so that others believe in it.

But in the privacy of your own home, when no one is watching, feel free to let your little cocky bastard sneak out for a bit. Just watch as he preens in front of the mirror, dances to an unheard beat, flexes for unseen cameras and gleefully reminds you how talented you are … He’s annoying, but he’s not all bad.

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Fear

I mulled over a lot of options while thinking about what to write about for the letter ‘F’. Faith, friends, family, fun, freedom, forgiveness, fatherhood are all topics I want to expand on at some point during this process, but in the end I chose ‘Fear’ because overcoming one’s fears is probably the single most important thing one must do to live the fullest, most productive life possible.

In small, rational amounts, fears are generally fine things, and certainly serve their evolutionary purpose, alerting us to possible threats and dangers, and preventing us from attempting feats which could prematurely end our lives.

Alas, fears don’t often come in modest doses; they prefer to go big, to expand into paralytic phobias, wiggling their way deep into our psyches, crippling us from doing things that could dramatically enrich our lives.

It’s fear that will prevent you from asking your high-school crush to the prom.

It’s fear that will keep you from majoring in theater.

Fear will have you settle for the first job offer thrown your way. Keep you stuck in your hometown.

It is why you won’t buy that stock, start that business, kiss that girl, write that novel, visit that city, join that group, forgive that enemy, fight that battle, take that leap.

It’ll convince you to avoid a confrontation and refuse a challenge, to shirk commitments and shrink from changes.

Fear is the bitter-tasting wellspring for jealousy and hate and cynicism and regret.

In the end, fear will only leave you wondering what might have been.

Overcoming one’s fears, however, is no simple task; I certainly have few answers. This is strictly a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ piece.

I mean, I know how silly most of my fears are, how freeing it would be to rid myself of them, yet they still cast a very strong shadow in my life.

I may have outgrown or pushed aside out of necessity certain of my fears, but mostly I have failed thus far to do something which I know is of utmost importance.

It’s all quite sad, and I’m sure you’ll find more useful assistance within modern psychiatry or on the shelves of your local bookstore’s self-help section. Or perhaps conquering one’s fears merely requires accessing a reservoir of inner fortitude I don’t have or haven’t yet been able to reach. I only hope you will be more successful.

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Now for your amusement and education, I’ll quickly rundown a small sampling some of my more prominent fears – rating them on their intensity, rationality and impactivity (not a word I don’t think but should be) – and hopefully you’ll be able to see how destructive fears can be. Remember, this is merely a small taste of my fears, plenty more where these came from.

FEAR OF SNAKES, SPIDERS and OTHER CREEPY CRAWLY THINGS

Intensity – Low. So ever since I can remember, I’ve always hated bugs. Could never watch nature shows about creepy things, certainly couldn’t stomach it when such creatures dared enter my childhood home, dismantling its aura of safety and security in one fell crawl. If I would see in my room a spider (they were the most prevalent threat in suburban St. Louis living), my plan was always the same: Immediately flee the scene in search of my mother or father to have them get rid of the offending creature. If neither parent were home, I would not return to the scene of the crime for many hours, at which point I would just pray that the bug had the decency to crawl to my brother’s adjoining room.

Thankfully, over time, this particular fear has dissipated. Granted, I still get the chills and make that crinkled-up face when I encounter a bug. And I still strongly believe that civilized man and creepy crawly things should keep to their own natural habitats (thus my aversion to almost all outdoorsy activities, most notably camping).

But I now have a wife of my own, who is at least as averse to creepy, crawly things as I am, and removal of such creatures now justifiably falls to me, the supposed man of the house. I generally succeed in the task, with only minimal shrieking.

Rationality – Medium. True, those creepy, crawly creatures generally mean no harm, and most couldn’t do harm even if they had the desire, but a small number can be poisonous and/or spread disease. And let’s face it, all of them are rather unhygienic.

Impact – Low. Even at the height of this fear, it was never particularly paralyzing. It did perhaps prevent me from pursuing my dreams of becoming an exterminator.

FEAR OF FLYING

Intensity – Medium. I am still not convinced man should ever leave terra firma. I’m not a fan of the ocean, spooked out by its sheer vastness and by all the unknown, unseen things living in the blackness below (the fact I am not a strong swimmer doesn’t help), but my fear of the water pales in comparison to my fear of flying.

This fear has actually intensified over the years – I never enjoyed flying, but now I dread the days I must travel the friendly skies. For me, the worst part is takeoff, as the process of fighting gravity and achieving flight just seems totally unnatural and full of hubris to me, like it’s doomed to fail because we’re somehow disturbing nature’s laws or god’s will.

I think I’ve just seen one too many disaster flicks, but I just cannot fathom a more dreadful way of dying: Being trapped for several minutes in a plummeting, shaking vessel with nothing but the sound of screams and chaos to keep you company as you wait for the inevitable crash and the horror that will surely follow. (Well, perhaps drowning would be worse, but with some flights you have the chance of a water crash landing, making it a 2-for-1 special in worst ways to die).

Rationality – Medium. Now I know the stats that say flying is by far the safest mode of transportation, but I still believe the absolute horrific nature of what goes down in a plane crash justifies my fears on some level.

Impact – Low. So far, I’ve been able to just bear down and deal with the white knuckles. I’ve pretty much gone everywhere I’ve needed to go, including a couple of long trips to Europe and China. But with a new daughter, I sure do wish at least one set of grandparents lived within train distance!

FEAR OF DYING

Intensity – High. I’m pretty sure I was like most kids, completely unconcerned with my mortality. But ever since my maternal grandfather got sick some 20+ years ago, I began to be consumed by thoughts of death. Despite the fact that my paternal grandfather was the only close relative who died relatively early (mid-5os), I was convinced that I was going to die young. I think what I fear the most is the process – I don’t know what it’s going to feel like to die, but I assume there is going to be a lot of pain and suffering involved (I imagine it being like the worst flu you’ve ever had and you just don’t get better – though obviously a sudden death would be much different). I saw both my grandmothers die and it was an awful process, one that I think as a modern, evolved society we could handle a lot better. Many nights I keep myself up with thoughts of death and dying, often with me as the main subject. Unpleasant stuff, to say the least.

Rationality – Medium. You would think that this would be one of the more rational fears to have. Everyone does, in fact, die at some point. It’s likely to be quite painful. You don’t know the where or when, so there’s a disconcerting lack of control over the matter. And unless you’re a person of deep faith (in religion or science), what happens afterward is more than a little frightening to ponder. But actually, and partly because of all these reasons, death is a highly irrational thing to be afraid of – and certainly not worth wasting the precious minutes of living worrying about death often involves. It’s going to happen – you don’t know when or how but it’s likely going to suck – and you won’t know what comes next until it does, so why not appreciate your life and good health while you have them.

Impact – Medium.  Here’s the crazy thing – while the pain of death is certainly a major reason for my fear of it, at least a part of what I fear is that I will die with unfinished business and view my life as a waste of time and energy. But it’s my fear of dying, along with all of my other fears, that often prevents me from fully living. How utterly asinine.

The solution isn’t to ignore our mortality, either, which is what I find myself – and a lot of other people – doing, maybe as a kind of survival tactic (I know it’s somewhat contradictory for a person who fears death as much as I do, but even today, when I read about someone near my age who dies – an alarmingly more frequent occurrence – I feel oddly detached from the news, as if death was this surreal concept that won’t ever affect me or those closest to me). Instead, I need to respect death, come to grips with its finality, its inevitability, and its ultimate meaning, and use that understanding to better take advantage of the finite, glorious blessing that is life. Respice finem.

FEAR OF REJECTION/FEAR OF FAILURE

Intensity – High. These are actually two different fears but they’re closely related enough (and this blog is way too long already) that I’m lumping them together. Being rejected means being dismissed out of hand, without even being given the shot to prove yourself – think of the woman at the bar looking for the escape route, or the potential employer tossing the cover letter in the trash. Failing is even worse; It means you are given a chance but fall short of people’s expectations. Think of the woman several months later dumping you, or the boss firing you. In the former case, you fear people think you’re a fraud. In the latter, you know people think you’re a fraud. And in my life, both fears are omnipresent, and hugely paralyzing.

Rationality – Low. The worst part is these fears make little sense. First of all, only the rejected can give rejection its power. Who cares what other people think of us, our looks, our personality, our talents? You will never please everyone so you shouldn’t take rejection personally. Dismiss it. Scoff at it. Reject rejection. And as far as failure is concerned, it’s virtually a prerequisite for success. I defy you to find a successful person who hasn’t been waylaid by a significant failure at one point in their lives. The only trick is not letting failure stop you, which is, of course, a trick much easier said than done.

Impact – High. No fears have done more damage to me than these two. And while I won’t ever know the full extent of the opportunities that I may have lost because I was too afraid of rejection and/or failure, I do strongly believe I never reached my full potential because of these fears. In the words of the Rev. Sydney Smith: “A great deal of talent is lost to the world for the want of a little courage.”

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Distractions

The ability to focus.

In this modern world of tweeting and texting, channel surfing and Web browsing, instant messaging and status updating, that may just be the most vital skill necessary for success.

It is also, alas, something I entirely lack.

For instance, the astute reader of this blog (yes, I understand there should be readers first before I attempt to categorize them) will notice that this post is being written several months after my last post, a pace that is quite shameful.

Let’s just use very round numbers and say it’s been 80 days since my last blog posting. That’s 1900 hours. Let’s assume that 17 of them every day (less on the weekends, more on the weekdays) are consumed by necessary activities (e.g. child care, working, housework – no snickering, mrs. deadman – sleeping, showering, eating, etc.), which leaves about 560 hours of free time. Here’s how I believe a reasonable breakdown of that time was spent:

  • Facebook games – 100 hours.
  • Other Facebook activities – 20 hours
  • Fantasy Football/Watching Football (or other sports) – 240 hours
  • Other non-Facebook, non-fantasy football Internet activities – 100 hours (and only some of that porn!)
  • Dumb, mindless TV – 70 hours

Ok, maybe i kid a bit, but even if I’m in the ballpark, that leaves less than an hour a day for what I would consider productive use of my free time: exercising and playing sports, reading, thinking/meditating, going out with friends, doing crossword puzzles, watching intelligent TV, chatting with the Mrs., having sex, chatting with the Mrs. while having sex, etc. Totally pathetic and certainly not enough time for me to devote to maintaining an interesting and regularly updated blog, let alone to getting me anywhere closer to achieving my long-held dreams of being a successful fiction writer.

When I was in high school, I had this classmate and baseball teammate who wasn’t the most intelligent, or the most athletic, the most intellectually curious, or even the hardest working, but he seemed to excel at most everything he did because he could be extremely focused when he needed to be. I mean, how’s this for focus: In a math class during our senior year, he showed me his dayplanner, which really was more like a lifeplanner because in it he had mapped out a great deal of what he expected the rest of his early years would look like. Among the predicted highlights: President of the United States in 2020.

Now so far, the guy hasn’t been elected to any public office, but given Barack Obama’s meteoric rise, there’s still time. And his resume sure is an ideal one for the job. Here’s just a brief, incomplete synopsis of what he has accomplished so far:

  • Graduated from Duke University as an Angier B. Duke scholar
  • Worked as an undergrad helping war refugees in Croatia and Rwanda
  • Became a Rhodes Scholar and got his master’s and Ph.D. from Oxford
  • Won numerous amateur boxing medals (and has run a sub-3 hr marathon)
  • Joined the Navy as an officer in 2001 and became a SEAL in 2002
  • Deployed four times as Lt Cmdr, including stints in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Earned numerous military awards, including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
  • Started and still serves as CEO of a charity/mentorship program for returning veterans.
  • Has written a couple of books, including a NY Times Bestseller on his experiences as a SEAL and humanitarian.

Clearly, focus doesn’t have to mean just being engaged in one activity. You can still have – and be successful within – a broad array of interests, but I guarantee you this guy wasn’t spending much time watching reality TV or playing Farmville when he was writing his thesis, or training for his boxing tournaments, or fighting in Iraq.

Now I’m sure the ability to focus has always been an important skill to have, but advances in technology have without question made it even more necessary. We’re now always connected. Distractions are everywhere. Hundreds of TV channels to watch, thousands of emails to read, millions of Web sites to visit (and now the ability to watch, read and visit them at nearly any time on nearly any device from nearly anywhere).

Perhaps the economists are right that technology has made us more productive at work – certainly it has allowed me as an investor to do tons of research much faster than was ever before possible – but I believe it has also eroded our ability to focus, especially over longer periods of times. I actually sometimes feel like modern technology is this actively negative force, maliciously keeping us from focusing on the things in life that truly matter. Technology perhaps helps us engage more fully with the world around us, but it also keeps us from engaging more meaningfully, making us like addicts who now crave – indeed, cannot function without – the quick cuts, the flashing lights, the 140-word summaries, the instant gratification.

I think at times about pulling the plug, going somewhere far away (at least a metaphorical move if not an actual physical one) and getting back to the basics: Reading, writing, raising a family, and just trying to find more productive ways to spend the precious days which remain. I think about that at times, but then I think about how much I’ll miss all the diversions, even if they’re fleeting, and all the connections, even if they’re only surface deep. And then I think … and then I think … now where was I?

Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Charity

I basically do everything ass-backwards when it comes to charity.

They say you should give generously. I don’t give nearly enough. I’m not religious, but there is a laudable Judeo-Christian tradition of tithing, which means giving up 10 percent of one’s income to charity (Well, the original intent of the tithe meant giving 10% of one’s income/production to God via the temple – and still means that for many Christians – but has now evolved to encompass charitable giving more broadly). I have no clue if the tithing is meant to be before or after taxes (I’m thinking post-tax), though I often fall well short of that 10 percent goal in either scenario. Heck, many years, I probably don’t tithe my tithing obligations (1 percent, for those not good at math).

They say you should give eagerly. With joy, even. I almost always give reluctantly, feeling a lot like Oda Mae Brown in Ghost when she is forced to give up that million-dollar check to the nuns on the street. I also get more than a little annoyed when people call my house to ask for donations. I try to be polite and respectful as I know these people are just doing their jobs (or even volunteering) and following their scripts, but I find the intrusion terribly annoying. It’s particularly galling the way they keep badgering you when you tell them ‘No, thanks,’ and they just keep moving their requested donation down in increments, to the point where you feel like the cheapest schmuck in the world when you tell them, ‘No I cannot give you $5. Now, please leave me alone.’

The truth is, though, these telemarketing calls are usually quite successful – I am a sucker who has trouble saying no, and usually wear down and give up something just so I can get off the phone. But this surrendering makes me even madder because I feel like I’ve been beaten at a game somehow, and I just know these yeses will only lead to more calls in the future. Which it does – barely a week goes by where I don’t get somebody calling me up asking for money. I now try to avoid answering any number which isn’t recognizable on caller ID, as these bastards always know to block or disguise their names, but once these guys have your number, they will NEVER stop calling until you pick up the phone.

They say you should give anonymously. This makes a ton of sense, as publicizing one’s charitable contributions is more than a bit gauche and tawdry. If the sole purpose of charity is to help others and do good in the world, then you should have little need of attaching your name to donations. But me, I always want to make sure people know when I have given and if at all possible (and impressive a figure), how much. When friends or family ask me to give to a cause, I have never once checked the ‘Donate Anonymously’ box that often accompanies the online forms. And when there is a donation number that will get my name in some sort of stupid brochure, I try and make sure to hit it.

Giving anonymously also prevents the recipient from feeling indebted or humiliated upon receiving aid. A noble idea, and yet one of my favorite ways of giving charity is giving dollars (or worse, pocket change) directly to panhandlers on the street. Why? Because it gives me an immediate sense of satisfaction, hearing their ‘God Bless Yous’ and seeing their genuine looks of appreciation. But do I stop and think about what little good those dollar bills or quarters are actually going to do and how low and beaten down these people must feel that they’ve been forced to beg for my meager assistance in the first place. Yeah, perhaps they are just happy to have the money to find their next meal (or their next score – I make no judgments about how a homeless person finds whatever small happiness he can get in his life), but surely they must also at times feel a tremendous loss of dignity at what they are being forced to do, and the fact that I am getting self-satisfaction out of the small gesture basically negates any of its inherent goodness.

They say you should give more than money. Money definitely helps, but donating one’s time and effort often provides a much more meaningful impact. I fail miserably here as well. One time about a decade ago, I sponsored an inner-city student to help him attend a well-run Catholic school. My brother provided the majority of the financial assistance while it was my main job to help guide him and his family through the process, and make sure the kid was adjusting and succeeding in the new environment. But I was a single guy living it up in Manhattan, and here too, I gave the minimum amount necessary. I made little effort to help him improve his faltering grades, or to give him advice on how to get into college, or to make any kind of lasting impact that could have affected his life beyond his graduating high school. It was yet another example of good intentions gone bad, and I have regrettably lost touch with the student and his family. I also have rarely volunteered my free time for charity since then.

Yet, despite my numerous shortcomings in charitable giving – my poor track record, my questionable motives, my begrudging attitude – I just don’t feel you can do charity wrong. You can do it in better or worse ways, and I resolve hereby to try and keep improving my technique with each passing year – to give bigger and smarter and eagerer.

On the other hand, I am not embarrassed to acknowledge that giving charity also makes me feel good.  The desire to give of oneself to help others is one of the things that separates and elevates us as a species. Whether it’s done because the Bible says doing it will get us into heaven or because natural selection has made empathy a defining human trait, charity is a key ingredient of a successful and well-lived life.


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