Posts Tagged 'living'

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: Evil

“I may hate the sin, but never the sinner.”

I first encountered that quote many years ago while reading Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense, and it has stuck with me ever since, upsetting me in a way a throwaway line in an obscure book rarely does.**

How can one separate the sin and the sinner, I wondered.

Just read the history books, studded with crimes committed on such a grand scale that you question how we could possibly be an evolved, enlightened species.

Or watch the news, and see the just-as-horrific, but much more intimate, personal acts of violence and cruelty happening right now, right down your block, acts which you are ultimately just as powerless to stop as those in the history books.

With all the evil menacing the world, how can one allow for such a distinction between sin and sinner? Surely, they are both worthy of our scorn and anger and – if there is justice in this world – our punishment …

A couple of months ago, I was watching Bob Costas interview Jerry Sandusky, the ex-Penn State coach accused of committing terrible sexual atrocities against numerous young boys who had been entrusted to his care. The coach was trying to assert his innocence, but it was an incredibly damning performance, full of odd pauses, incongruous justifications, and frankly, sheer lunacy. In my mind, he was guilty of something, and if only a fraction of the alleged crimes were true, then this was clearly a very evil man, deserving certainly of our hatred, not to mention of the harshest punishment imaginable that a civilized society can dole out.

But upon reflection, I realized something important: I couldn’t relate to this guy at all. The things he allegedly did, the way he was trying to explain himself, his entire thought process, it was all completely foreign to me. How could I possibly understand him? I wasn’t attracted to little boys. I couldn’t go around committing acts of tremendous brutality on innocent kids, and then find ways to justify my actions. And then I thought of another quote (also widely misattributed to the Bible):

‘There but for the grace of God, go I”

I mean, what if, for whatever reason – whether because of a genetic predisposition or something that happened during my childhood (or both, which appears to often be the case with true pedophiles) – I was only attracted to little children.

How awful and how difficult would it be to have to go through life constantly denying a key part of one’s essence and the pleasure associated with sexual satisfaction? Would I be willing to resist the temptation to act on my illicit desires? Probably so, but only because my conscience wouldn’t allow me to hurt others, even if for my own benefit, a trait I attribute to the extremely constructive nurturing I’ve received … something which Sandusky almost certainly did not have.

So I saw the situation in a new light. I was fortunate to have a strong, normal upbringing, showered with love, instilled with high morals and values, taught the power of self-esteem and the difference between right and wrong. Just as importantly, I was wired to accept all those lessons and internalize them – to do and be (mostly) good.

Sandusky, on the other hand, clearly has faulty wiring. Assuming he is guilty, he was cursed with an abnormality, a disease, which I was blessed to not have. He also likely had a destructive childhood, or at least destructive events within his childhood, that made it too hard for him to avoid the disastrous consequences of his disease and/or made it too easy for him to justify those consequences.

The same can be said for the vast majority – if not all – of the people who commit similar atrocities. That’s not to say we should forgive these people; certainly that is a difficult thing to ask, especially if we or our loved ones have been personally victimized by such evil deeds. Nor does it mean we should be lenient in our treatment of those people. If anything, this mindset may call for harsher punishments: If genetics is the root cause of evil, then redemption and rehabilitation are virtually impossible; and if nurturing is to blame, the best modern medicine and psychiatry has to offer won’t likely accomplish much either.

No, we may not forgive or show mercy, but we can perhaps understand evil in a more constructive light.

I was recently reading  an article in New York magazine about Levi Aron, the Hasidic Jew who kidnapped, murdered and – in a subsequent panic – dismembered an 8-year-old boy in a crime that generated a great deal of local publicity for its grisly nature and unusual circumstances. At the end of the piece, the distraught father of the boy is cursing Aron, and a fellow Hasid is trying to comfort the dad with a passage from the Talmud.

“I told him he shouldn’t hate,” the man said, “because God is in everything.”

I’m not a religious man, so I don’t know about God’s relationship with evil – if He is responsible for the awful atrocities that permeate our world, then he is not worth my faith or devotion. But I do agree that hate isn’t the appropriate emotion for dealing with evil men.

No, Darrow had it right. You can hate the sin, but you should pity the sinner.

Pity the sinner, and be thankful that you are not one of them.

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**Many folks, myself included, believe the quote or one like it was something Jesus said in the Christian bible, but it’s actually a paraphrase of something written in a letter written by St. Augustine – Ghandi also referred to it in his autobiography.

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.

The Alphabet Game: The Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living

When Mrs. Deadman and I want to amuse ourselves while whittling away some time, we often play the alphabet game. It’s quite a simple affair. Most of you are probably familiar with it, but for the rest of you, this is how it works:

Someone picks a random category or topic (say, ‘Clothing Store Chains’ or ‘Diseases’). Then, the other person (you can play with more than two, but surely you can find better ways to pass the time if you’re in a group) thinks of an answer belonging in that category and starting with the letter ‘A’ (say ‘Abercrombie and Fitch’ or ‘Alzheimer’s’). Then you continue down the alphabet, alternating answers as you go (Typically, you skip ‘Q’ and ‘X’ because those are virtually impossible unless your topic is medical TV dramas or lame musical instruments). If one of you can’t think of an answer that fits, the other one gives it a shot. You don’t really keep score or anything, you just know when you’re not pulling your weight and then get mad at the other person for being so smug and clever.

The Mrs. and I have played The Alphabet Game riding trains, walking the dog, lying in bed, and most impressively, while dancing our first dance at our wedding (neither one of us was at all comfortable with all those sets of eyes upon us, and playing the game ended up being a great way to speed up those awkward few minutes. And as a bonus, on our wedding video it just looks like we were having a fun, thoughtful conversation. BTW, the topic was ‘Our Wedding Guests, by First Name’).

In any case, I’ve had trouble for some time staying dedicated to this blogging thing. Ok, that’s putting it mildly, and having a 5-month-old daughter has only made it worse (Plenty more to write about, of course, just not the time). So in a desperate, Hail-Mary attempt to get back into the writing habit, I figured why not play my own little version of the alphabet game. Maybe it will give this blog some structure and keep me motivated.

Every week or so, I plan on writing a post on a subject that begins with a different letter, methodically going down the alphabet (and probably skipping Q and X).  Sometimes the blog will be about a nebulous concept, sometimes a specific issue or person. Sometimes it will be a short piece, other times long. Sometimes serious, other times not so much. Sometimes when I’m feeling lazy and there’s a timeless topic that fits, I may just reprint one of my earlier blog posts (not like anyone’s read them … or, sadly, will be reading this). That’s the plan, anyway.

Now when I finish (not ‘if’ dammit, but ‘when’), I’m not sure what I’ll have, aside from hopefully 24-26 blog posts that are somewhat interesting, at least to members of my immediate family. I’ve always assumed my life would be a short one and I’m oddly obsessed with issues of death and mortality, so especially now that I have a daughter, I guess mostly I hope as a finished whole, the series will stand as some sort of silly personal legacy, helping to define who I am, what I care about, and why I rock (and if never finished, it will stand as an even more appropriate legacy of why I don’t rock).

Whatever this ends up being, it sure as hell won’t amount to a Guide to Living, since that is like Tony Robbins-pompous and can’t really exist … and if it could, I certainly wouldn’t be the one to compose such a thing. I can’t imagine anyone more clueless on the topic of proper living as me. Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living just sounded good to me.

So let’s get it started … sometime soon, of course.


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