September 3, 2018

September 3: MAURICE TILLET – When Giants Get Worn Down

Maurice Tillet: October 23, 1903 - September 4, 1954

Originally published September 3, 2015.

When you’re always the biggest person around, you learn that the world will always treat you a little differently. I was over 11 pounds at birth. I was always the tallest kid in school, and outweighed most of my classmates. As a kindergartner, I was frequently mistaken for an older child. I grew taller than my older brother by the time we were teens. I was taller than most of the adults I knew by the time I could drive, and unlike most gangly teenagers, I was neither lean nor lanky. In high school, I need a helmet big enough to cover my size 8-1/4 head, which my high school was able to borrow from the state athletic association – because nobody else was using it. In the entire state. Of Illinois. And as I became an adult, I grew used to kids staring at me everywhere I went. I got used to people always commenting on my size everywhere I went. I got used to smaller men picking fights all the time. I got used to the good-natured jokes and even the passive-aggressive ones. When I met my wife in my late twenties, she couldn’t understand why I was so uncomfortable with my appearance but after a few years of everyone mentioning things she didn’t think of as atypical (“He’s really tall!”), she came to understand how being almost constantly singled out can eventually lead to a skewing of self-perception. And certainly, being singled out for being overly tall or overweight aren’t nearly as damaging as people singled out for their race or for their gender or for a disability. But there is a similar process at play, because part of the assumption about me is not just that I look different, but that these looks indicate something specific. After years of hard work in my career, I have found a certain amount of credibility as a thought leader. I’ve published a few things, been used as a resource for a couple of other books, and I’ve spoken at a number of industry panels. But I find that meeting people in person changes the dynamic. They almost seem taken aback, as if they shouldn’t be taking advice from someone who looks like me. And it has limited my career. As I get older and it happens with more frequency, I find myself more and more hesitant to leave the house and meet people. When you physically resemble Shrek, as I do, facing people’s perceptions of you is rarely kind. Even less so, I would imagine, if you were Maurice Tillet - the inspiration for Shrek.

February 24, 2018

February 24: HAROLD RAMIS - A Blessed Journey to Selflessness

HAROLD RAMIS: November 21, 1944 - February 24, 2014

“A psychologist said to me, there are only two important questions you have to ask yourself. What do you really feel? And, what do you really want? If you can answer those two, you probably can leave your neuroses behind you.”
Every once in awhile something I’ve recently learned about myself applies to an issue one of my kids is going through, and I share it with them. I’m not sure they even understand, as most of the time I’m only beginning to grasp the issue myself. In recent years I’ve been unfortunate enough to have things break so badly that I’ve had to take stock of my life, and fortunate enough to have been able to make a little sense of it. So when my thirteen-year old talked to me about negative self-talk that stemmed from anxiety, it was a topic I’d given considerable attention in recent years. I explained that this kind of negative self-talk was, in my opinion, a form of self-soothing – a replacement for self-care, a practice she was probably too young to understand and I was old and experienced enough to accept that I had never learned. The juxtaposition was too much for her; she flatly rejected the idea that something that provokes negative feelings could also be soothing. I explained that “soothing” or “pacifying” are not necessarily positive mental health features. I mentioned the quote about comedians (that may or may not be) from Harry Shearer, “Comedians get into comedy so that they can choose when the world is going to laugh at them.” Anxiety is like this version of comedy. The world is going to laugh at you, but maybe you can control it… slightly. For the anxious among us, “Things are going to go wrong. If I remind myself how bad I am and how deserving I am of the pain, it won’t hurt nearly as much.” It’s a form of control that is surprisingly effective as a temporary measure. But one temporary fix leads to the next, and before too long you’ve been at it for almost 48 years, and you’re listening to your child head down that path and you find yourself desperate to help her stop that cycle.

February 23, 2018

February 23: JIM HENSON’S THE CUBE - The Truth Behind the Mask

JIM HENSON’S THE CUBE: aired February 23, 1969

Originally published February 23, 2016.

I live with a strange philosophical contradiction.. It’s one of the things that has led me to this project. I’m by nature a strange paradox that I live with. My natural, programmed reactions in the split-second between stimulus and response - when decisions are cast that will either make my responses happier and healthier or more confused and distant – is to generally choose the latter. My natural reactions tend towards self-doubt, guilt, and shame. And yet, in the midst of all of that, I’m always struck with the belief that things can be better. That they should be better. More importantly, that I could make them better, if I just knew how. I don’t always have evidence to support this belief; it’s just something I feel, deep-down. So this project (and much of what I’ve been trying to figure out in recent years) is an attempt to understand how to create that better life that I can’t prove, and that I can’t necessarily define. A quote from Dr. Cornel West provides a good description of this process:
“I believe that critical energy, applied to any body of information, can unearth some truth. But for every unearthing, you don’t find absolute truth – you find another fallible truth, and then still another. That’s because each revelation is tied to another concealment. You reveal what’s been concealed, only to repeat the process into infinity. Enlightenment has no end. The paradoxes are never resolved.” 
It’s not necessarily the easiest concept to swallow, particularly when seeking answers. The idea that truth – all aspects of truth, forever – are products of concealment. That any truth is clarifying some things, but intentionally not addressing others. And if we search for the truth behind the part being concealed, we find more truth and more concealment. And Cornel West is claiming that the process is never-ending; that we can never reach a final, ultimate truth. Taken at face value, that’s not very comforting. Humans aren’t really wired for that kind of reality. Our brains are designed to recognize patterns and to constantly attempt to organize the world around us. So, the idea of absolute truth is important to us. We’re wired for it, and we look for it. We look for it in science, we look for it in religion, we look for it in mathematics. We can even convince ourselves that we have the right answers, and it’s the rest of the world who doesn’t know something that we do. We play a game with truth – with reality itself – and convince ourselves that we’ve figured things out. But Cornel West – and many, many others – would argue that truth and reality don’t work that way.

February 22, 2018

February 22: CHUCK JONES – Creative Work is Never Competitive

CHUCK JONES: September 21, 1912 – February 22, 2002

Originally published February 22, 2016.

I think every parent attempts to introduce their children to the things they loved as a child, with the hope that their children would have a similar positive reaction. It also seems to me that these introductions fall flat about 80% of the time. I got lucky with Sesame Street and certain Jim Henson shows. I missed with The Doors and Willie Nelson and The Dukes of Hazzard. But I remember the excitement I felt when Chuck Jones cartoons became available on iTunes years ago, and I was able to purchase Duck Amuck for my iPod. I had hoped my kids would love it as much as I did, and as luck would have it, they did. They would regularly watch it while we were driving somewhere, laughing at all the same gags people had laughed at for 55 years.

February 21, 2018

February 21: MALCOLM X / EL-HAJJ MALIK EL-SHABAZZ – A Rare and Difficult Change

MALCOLM X / EL-HAJJ MALIK EL-SHABAZZ: May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965

Originally published February 21, 2016.

I have made a lot of changes in my life in recent years. There is still plenty of opportunity for me to improve my life, but I’ve done a fairly decent job of making some improvements. And so it catches me by surprise when old patterns arise and around me, and I find myself slipping into patterns I thought I had eradicated. Something happens at work or something happens at home that re-ignites old patterns without my awareness, and suddenly I’m thinking in ways I’m not aware of, and behaving in ways I thought I had eradicated. Change is frustrating, because we never truly now when we have truly evolved into a different state of being, or if our new behaviors are just a temporary, untested state. We want to believe that we’re a different person, and it’s a slap in the face to find out that we were just different because we hadn’t been tested. My high school football coach used to say, “In times of stress, men revert to their original form.” I’ve experienced that recently. Changes I was sure I’d made for the better turned out to be fairly shallow and untested changes. As soon as I ran into some triggering stressors, I reverted right back to the way I used to be. It’s difficult to change our beliefs and behaviors. Hell, it’s hard to stop smoking or to lose ten pounds. And so when I see someone who can fundamentally change themselves, I have to take notice. When they fundamentally change themselves twice, it’s almost miraculous. The fact that one of the most politically divisive figures of the 20th century was one of the few to be able to accomplish this makes it even more interesting.

February 20, 2018

February 20: HUNTER S. THOMPSON – Too Exhausted To Live, Too Curious To Die

HUNTER S. THOMPSON: July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005

Originally published February 20, 2015.

When Hunter S. Thompson shot himself ten years ago, I was saddened but not necessarily surprised. I rarely consider how people I admire are going to leave this world, but Thompson was one who seemed destined to leave this world the way he lived within it – completely on his own terms. It was the kind of life that couldn’t help but attract controversy, and so for Thompson to slowly face away and be laid to rest gently in a quiet Aspen cemetery was inconceivable. It would have been a travesty. And so as sad as I was to see him go, I was relieved that he got to leave in a manner that felt appropriate to me. It feels odd to say that an unexpected gunshot to the temple is an “appropriate” way to end a life, but if you don’t understand that statement, you likely don’t understand Hunter S. Thompson.

February 19, 2018

February 19: thirtysomething - You’re Never Truly Prepared

thirtysomething: “Second Look” airs, February 19, 1991

Originally published February 19, 2015.

I was just shy of my 21st birthday and a college dropout who couldn’t hold a job but who could hold onto unhealthy relationships. I spent my days watching TV and movies and regularly wondering if things in life were going to be okay. My favorite show at the time was thirtysomething, which was surprising. Most nights, I either slept in my car or on a friend’s couch – not necessarily “homeless”, but certainly “unrooted”. thirtysomething, on the other hand, was all about roots. Baby boomers with spouses and children and careers and mortgages. They were vulnerable and filled with angst, and viewers either loved them or hated them. I loved them. It was cinematic TV: brilliant characters, realistic mise-en-scene, angular cinematography worthy of Citizen Kane-era Orson Welles, great acting. It was a cinephile’s dream, and despite not being able to relate to the characters on any appreciable level, I really grew to care for the characters. In the show’s final season, one of the female characters was diagnosed with cancer. She spent the season undergoing chemotherapy and contemplating her own mortality. It was a theme through the season until midway through the season, when Nancy had her final cancer surgery and after an episode of worry and consideration about life and death, she was pronounced cancer-free. The characters gathered at the hospital to celebrate. As friends arrived and the celebration increased, they found out that the one missing friend – Gary, the whimsical college buddy turned English professor who had finally married and had a child – had been killed in a car accident. I remember watching the show in disbelief. I’d experienced the unexpected death of characters I liked before, but this felt different. Unexpected is one thing; this was a complete sucker punch. Because the entire episode had been about how people deal with looming mortality. Cancer diagnoses, by their nature, cause this kind of thinking. But it’s a “cause and effect” thinking. There was no “cause” for Gary’s death; he died as a result of living an everyday life. Gary’s death was a testament to the cruelest part of life – that sometimes, no matter how hard we fight it, we can never be prepared enough for the cruelty that life brings.

February 18, 2018

February 18: HARRY CARAY – The Metric that Matters

HARRY CARAY: March 1, 1914 – February 18, 1998

Originally published February 18, 2016.

I spent most of my youth in Chicago, despite being born in Ohio and descending from generations of Ohioans. Being born in 1970, I was the perfect age to discover baseball right as The Big Red Machine, the dominant Cincinnati Reds teams of the mid-1970s, began to dominate baseball. My parents and grandparents were all baseball fans, and I was hooked. I was a fan of Johnny Bench and Pete Rose. I tried to always wear Johnny Bench’s #5 or Davey Concepcion’s #13 when I picked a Little League uniform. My grandfather eventually retied after selling his company to then-minority owner (now majority owner) Bob Castellini, and we would regularly go to Riverfront Stadium and sit in Castellini’s personal seats, just down he row from Marge Schott and her St. Bernard, Schottsie. I remain a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, despite spending 17 formative years in Chicago. Living on the north side of Chicago, it seemed like everyone I knew was a Cubs fan. Even my parents, who were born and raised in Ohio by Reds fans, eventually shifted their allegiance to the Cubs. But I could never get onboard with the Cubs worship. Yes, I appreciated the fact that Wrigley Field was still nestled snugly in an actual neighborhood. And yes, I appreciated the ease of getting to the park on the el. But Cubs fans, on the whole, were annoying. They partied like amateurs, made too much noise, treated the neighborhood they claimed to love like a garbage can, they invaded cool bars like locusts and acted like they owned the place… More disturbingly, they had a very strange relationship with losing. They seemed to enjoy it. The Big Red Machine (and later the “Nasty Boys”-era Reds of the early ‘90s) had trained me to enjoy winning big. They were dominating teams. Cubs fans seemed to enjoy the cellar, and never seemed to mind the century-plus without a championship. They clung to a weird shabby nobility, girded with nachos and Old Style and trips to the Cubby Bear after. To this day, I don’t understand Cubs fans. But there is one thing about the Cubs that I always loved, and always will. The Cubs had one thing that will always be legendary: Harry Caray.

February 17, 2018

February 17: HUEY P. NEWTON – Power to the People

HUEY P. NEWTON: February 17, 1942 – August 22, 1989

Originally published February 17, 2016.

It’s midway through Black History Month, and a couple of weeks after Beyonce released her new single “Formation” via a Super Bowl half-time show that – based on my Facebook feed and what I’ve seen on the internet – caused white people to collectively lose their fucking minds. During the show, Beyonce and her dancers adopted black leather, afros, and berets similar to those worn by the Black Panther Party, which had been formed in 1966 in the same Bay Area. The song, “Formation”, is Beyonce’s warm embrace of her African-American heritage and culture, with the inspirational coda “you might just be a black Bill Gates in the making”. “Formation” – the song and the Super Bowl performance – was an embrace of black heritage without any sense of marginalization. Critics are still arguing over whether it is appropriation or homage, but from my perspective, either answer is irrelevant. What is important (as evidenced by the backlash) is that a statement about the pride in African-American heritage and culture is not coupled by marginalization. It is not “it’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand”. This was “it’s a black thing, and it’s going to be as important and embedded as Bill Gates”, an uber-symbol of white homogeneous capitalism. The core of Beyonce’s statement is a reference to the core of The Black Panther Party’s statement, “All Power to the People”. THE people. All people. Not poor people. Not black people. Not rich people. Not white people. THE people. As defined by the Black Panther Party, “power to the people” was the ability of every person to choose their own destiny, fairly and equally. “Power to the people” is nothing more than the right of every person to be considered, equally. It was an idea learned the hard way by Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton.

February 16, 2018

February 16: JIM HENSON’S TIME PIECE - Time Is Meaning

TIME PIECE: Nominated for an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film on February 16, 1965

Originally published February 16, 2015.

It’s Monday, and I’m already completely overwhelmed at work. This is far from an uncommon state, although things had been going smoother for some time now. But this week, I’m behind on critical things and have tons of rapidly-approaching deadlines and numerous meetings and random requests filling my day. I tend to work with either music or a movie playing in the background - just enough white noise to keep me from getting exhausted, and just enough escapism to keep me from getting depressed or stressed. When I’m really overwhelmed, though, I will occasionally stop what I’m doing and watch something short: a music video on YouTube, a cartoon, something. Today, I watched Jim Henson’s Oscar-nominated, non-Muppet short film Time Piece. It’s a film that fascinates me in its simplicity. In the film, the main character (played by Henson) runs frantically through his life, constantly dealing with time in one way or another. He’s either oppressed by time or reveling in it. His existence is constrained by time and often kicking as its boundaries. In the PBS Great Performances tribute to Jim Henson, longtime Henson collaborator and writer Jerry Juhl talked about the film, and more specifically, about Jim Henson’s relationship with time. In the interview, Juhl said, “There was never enough time for Jim. There never would have been enough time.” If you’ve read many of the previous posts in this project, you probably recognize why this quote – and this aspect of Jim Henson - resonates with me. Because at the end of most days, I fall asleep – usually accidentally, while doing something – feeling like there wasn’t enough time. That there were far too many tasks left incomplete, too many desires left unfulfilled, too many thoughts left unstarted, too many words unspoken. And far too few times where I felt “in the moment”, unfettered by the stress and the worry about all of the other things left hanging over my head. And in my darkest, scariest moments, I begin to think that there never will be enough time, and that someday I’m going to die after spending my life worrying about how many things needed to be done yet never actually doing any of those things.