My Dream of the Wolfman

“Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”
– John Lennon

Sometimes I think I must be the only person I know who has nightmares. But apparently, I am not: WebMD estimates that 8% of adults have frequent nightmares. They happen during REM sleep – like the rest of our dreams – and can be caused by discomfort or anxiety, drug withdrawal, PTSD, or even a late snack. (CS Lewis wrote in one of his letters, “Nightmares don’t last” – I wonder what kind of nightmares ol’ Clive had. Did they take place in Narnia? Or perhaps Perelandra? Did they mishmash his fascination with anthropomorphic animals and his experiences in the trenches of the Somme Valley? It’s impossible to know but interesting to think about.) I have nightmares regularly. My earliest memory is a nightmare I had about my family disappearing into a painting.

I have come to believe that I don’t talk about my dreams nearly enough. If I dream about someone I know – which I do, all the time – will they feel uncomfortable by that fact? Or will they feel happy to know that together we successfully defended the White House from the Confederate undead using muskets and bayonets? The vast majority of Americans believe that their dreams have some insight or meaning into their lives. Being unsure whether they do and what that meaning could be gives me some pause about recounting my dreams.

All this is to say, I had a nightmare last Thursday night. It woke me up around 2:30 a.m. I had a sip of water, checked my phone for messages, and then slept peacefully for the rest of the night. I wanted to share that dream.

I was wandering through a lush meadow, its grass and leaves the vibrant green you only see in Kodak commercials, its wildflowers perfect spheres of wisteria and chartreuse atop stems no thicker than spider silk, its stream cackling with a sarcastic murmur. I had a companion, a young woman of an almost otherworldly beauty: her shoulder-length hair was half-spun from straw into gold; her eyes were five watts brighter than her glowing blue dress; her smile a simple reassurance. We meandered through the quaking grass and vernal two paces apart. Our destination was a small cobblestone cottage, with a kitchen embedded with the smell of yeast from decades of breadmaking. My companion walked in first, walking past the rough and rustic kitchen table to survey the meadow through the sink window. I followed behind, leaning against the opposite wall.

I’d forgotten to shut the door.

There hadn’t even been enough time to soak in the view when I was aware of steps in the hall, a gentle footfall followed by rough scratching. It emerged into the light of the kitchen, but it’s difficult to describe what I saw. It was wolf-like, but stood upright as tall as I am. It was cloaked in tattered gray cloth and hunched over. It seemed old. And I did nothing. I neither flinched nor screamed. I didn’t move at all until it pounced on my companion. I ran to help, pulling out fistfuls of fur and hitting its lupine back with whatever force I could muster. That’s when I woke up.

Wolfman
No, it didn’t look like this. This picture is scarier than any dream I’ve ever had.

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My Free Ride

“How many observe Christ’s birthday! How few, His precepts!”
– Benjamin Franklin

Melvin and Caralyn are in their late forties and are married. Melvin was born in Detroit but moved to Minneapolis in 1987, just in time to become a Twins fan before the World Series. In low light he looks an awful lot like Al Sharpton, with the same frizzy triangular hairstyle and high-arching eyebrows. Melvin met Caralyn sometime in the early 90s and the two have been together since. They are both out of work, which makes filling up your gas tank a precarious proposition, much less having a Merry consumerist Christmas. They were lost on their way to Golden Valley this morning, off to Caralyn’s sister’s for a Christmas Eve lunch, driving on fumes westward on University Avenue when they spotted a man walking hurriedly in the same direction. Caralyn said to Melvin, “It’s sixteen below zero. Maybe we should help him out.” Melvin agreed, and pulled his green Mazda coupe alongside the hooded figure. Caralyn rolled her window down and called out, “Sir, you want a ride? We’ll take you anywhere you need to go.” That hooded pedestrian they wer offering to help? That was me.

I studied the car carefully before stepping towards it. If we can define a hypocrite as someone who holds themselves to a lower standard than he holds others, I think it’s fair to call me a hypocrite. I give out a lot of advice I don’t follow myself: look no further than my friendships with ex-girlfriends. Another piece of advice I would give, in general, is this. Don’t take rides from strangers. Especially strangers in coupes: you can’t barrel roll out of a moving car like an 80s action hero if you don’t have a door to open.
But I don’t always follow my own advice.
And I had missed my bus, and was about to miss another.
And it was, after all, sixteen degrees below zero. Beardcicles were forming underneath my scarf.
I climbed in the back seat.

From a narrative perspective, I’d love to say something eventful happened. But nothing did. Melvin brought me from point A to point B, making plenty of conversation on the way. He taught me about the Alberta Clipper. He talked about growing up as one of thirteen kids and how it took two cartons of eggs to make breakfast. “That’s how I knew my momma loved my dad. She kept poppin’ ‘em out.” He, like Tom, asked me if I was single. “Single as they come,” I said.
“Yeah, boy. Enjoy it while it lasts.”
Caralyn punched him in the arm. “Melvin! Don’t say that! I bet it’s lonely this time of year.”
I didn’t reply to that. It wouldn’t make anyone happier to hear what I’ve got waiting for me on Christmas Eve is an empty house and a bottle of Scotch.

Melvin never asked me for money. I offered to buy them breakfast, but he declined. I offered to put some gas in his tank, but he declined again. The whole ride, my eyes were on the needle of his fuel gauge, dancing in the red. When we got to my building, I pulled out all the cash from my wallet – $8 is hardly a generous Yuletide offering – and I laid it on the backseat without a word. Hopefully when they found it they weren’t insulted. I don’t know. But it’s nice to be reminded that you don’t have to know someone to make them feel cared for on Christmas. And it’s nice to know that there’s at least one person in the Twin Cities who will risk running his tank dry as a chalkboard in order to bring a stranger to work, just so he can escape the cold a little while.

Al Sharpton
Unrelated Al Sharpton Publicity Still

My Lunch With a Stranger

The waitress led me to the far side of the dining room, close to the buffet line. When I’d told her I’d be dining alone, I didn’t expect to be sectioned off, away from the families and groups, like a neatly-segmented garden plot. “We’ll plant the turnips over there.” I had three cohabitants in my ad hoc leper colony. Two had dutifully faced the wall, resigning themselves to stare at the taupe wall paper and 1970s-era Asian artwork. The third was a man in his mid-fifties, with close-cropped gray hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and wire-framed glasses. His short-sleeved plaid shirt was tucked fastidiously into navy blue trousers, elongating his already lanky frame. My guess was he was a college professor. If you have any idea who Harold McGee is, he looked like Harold McGee. He was the sort of man you’d expect to drive a Prius. Instead of facing the wall, he faced the dining room, surveying the familial landscape. I filled a plate with fried rice, cream cheese wontons, and sweet and sour chicken and I walked over to this man. “I don’t like eating alone,” I said. “Would you mind if I joined you?”

He gestured for me to sit down. His name was Tom – I was really hoping it would be Harold – and he was a computer engineer. He had been in Minnesota since the mid-80s, hailing from Madison, and enjoying a condo in the Capital Hill neighborhood. He spoke slowly, in a soft but focused baritone. It was the sort of voice you would expect to hear on morning radio. The sort of voice that made me wish I had a fireplace and a formidable whiskey selection. By the time I was mopping up the last of my sweet and sour sauce with the crusty remnants of the wonton skin, I’d learned that Tom is an avid hiker, racquetball player, and is planning a trip to the Swiss Alps next summer. I also gathered he’d traveled to four continents thus far, needing only Asia and Antarctica to complete the set.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon says we are freer speaking to strangers because they see us for who we are rather than who they want us to be. While we were dancing around the elephant in the room – talking about holiday plans, trying to diplomatic about whether the other person was alone by choice or by circumstance – Tom finally just blurted out his question. “Why are you here alone the weekend before Christmas?”

I told him I am single and that my friends are all traveling or busy with their families. That it’s just another Saturday for me, and the fact that it’s so close to a holiday is entirely incidental. I knew the follow-up question before he even opened his mouth to ask it. “So why aren’t you married? The first thing you said to me was that you don’t like to eat alone.”

I took a breath. “I don’t expect I’ll ever get married.”

Tom pressed on. “But why not?”

It almost felt like he was talking to himself, scolding himself for his regrets and mistakes. But I answered him anyway. I told him about my misadventures. I constructed an overwrought metaphor about being like a brand of bourbon nobody’s ever heard of. “Is it really gonna be worth $38.99? Screw it, we came here to buy pinot grigio.” I explained that every single time I’ve been dumped, that conversation has included the phrase, “It just didn’t feel right” and the echo of those words has left me feeling paralyzed and powerless. He nodded as though he already knew this story. We were, after all, lepers in the same colony.

We talked for a little while longer. When I got up to use the bathroom, he paid for my lunch and snuck out the door. I was hoping he’d left a note with some sage advice, something I could hear in his Morgan Freeman voice as I meditated on how to incorporate it into my life. But there was no such note, no cinematic revelation to be had. But it’s all the better: that just means I have to supply my own. And who in the world can speak more directly to my hopes and insecurities than I can? So the wisdom I give to myself is this. Don’t let your past dictate your future, and if you’re going to create a prophesy to self-fulfill, make sure it’s for a life you want. There are, after all, bourbon drinkers in the world. And Tom? Thanks for lunch.

Harold Mcgee
Unrelated Harold McGee publicity still

No, You’re Not Actually Attracted to Confidence

“Confidence is ignorance. If you’re feeling cocky, it’s because there’s something you don’t know.”
― Eoin Colfer

Consider this thought experiment. You’re at a crowded bar, and you notice two different men approach the bar to order. The first looks around, pauses, and hangs back a moment. The second casually walks up to the bartender, makes eye contact, and recites his request in a clear, loud voice. Which of these men is more confident? The second man is being more assertive, yes. But assertiveness is not the same thing as confidence. Perhaps the first man noticed a queue and had recently read Emerson: “A great man is always willing to be little.” Perhaps he suddenly can’t remember the name of the drink he wanted. On the other hand, maybe the second man is already drunk, or self-entitled, or just watched the TED talk on power stances. In the moment when you are forming a first impression of someone, it is easy to over-interpret these things. We confuse assertiveness and hubris for confidence all the time.

You may think I’m splitting hairs. If one has confidence – belief in one’s self-worth and abilities – won’t it be made evident through assertive and bold behavior? Given enough time, perhaps. But I am focusing on a specific context: the split second in which we formulate first impressions about people and make snap judgments about their qualities. Yes, sometimes getting to know someone better changes our appraisals of a person. And yes, sometimes those changes in appraisal make us find that person more or less attractive. But the point I’m trying to make here is this. If we can’t accurately identify confidence in our first impression of a person, then we can’t claim that it’s confidence we find attractive.

I have a friend named Sonia. Sonia is small in stature with dark hair and olive skin. She has an incredible amount of energy, like a puppy on a road trip. (For you pop culture nerds, she was Manic Pixie before your fellow pop culture nerds realized there was such a thing.) Sonia also teaches violin lessons. She once told me that one of the most difficult things to teach her students was how to be gentle. “In order to be gentle,” she said, “first you have to be strong. If you’re not strong, you’re not being gentle, you’re being weak.” This has been one of the most impactful things anyone has ever said to me, and it certainly applies here. The touch of assertiveness based on a total lack of self-awareness may feel exactly the same as the touch of assertiveness based on confidence. But one has strength behind it while the other one does not. How can you tell the difference?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the masks we wear and the difference between who we are and who we say we are. So to me, this is not a trivial difference. If we find assertiveness attractive because it implies confidence, and we find confidence attractive because it implies competence, then we can waste a lot of time and heartache discovering that our early impression was mistaken. Ultimately, I think we oversimplify these things quite a lot. It can be difficult to identify what exactly it is about someone that attracts us so much. Maybe it is something identifiable like a symmetrical face combined with strong opinions on why Adrian Peterson is the greatest running back of all time. Maybe it was natural touch at the exact right moment. Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” I guess my riff on his wisdom is, “An unexamined dating life is …well, something, I guess. Probably easier than the alternative.”

normal
(Unrelated Donald Glover publicity still.)

Donald Glover and the Problem of Brand Management

Donald Glover

We’re all stuck here
I’m afraid I’m here for nothing
I’m afraid of the future
I’m scared I’ll never reach my potential

Donald Glover epitomizes overachievement. While still a student at NYU – an RA, no less – he managed to parlay a spec script he’d written for The Simpsons into a gig as a staff writer for 30 Rock. Over the first three seasons, he penned some of Tracy Jordan’s most iconic lines. Not one to get too comfortable with short-term success, he gave up his Emmy-winning writing job, packed his bags and moved to Los Angeles. At that point Glover quickly earned the role of Troy Barnes on Community, a role written for a white actor. “When you think of the former high school football star, you think 6-foot-2, white, meathead as the model for that kind of character. Since I’m not 6-foot-2 or white, I just thought about what I could bring to it,” Glover explained to NY Daily News. “I thought about Smash Williams from Friday Night Lights, like the cocky quarterback, and played around with that.” Building up his reputation for versatility, Glover adopted the moniker Childish Gambino (taken from a Wu Tang Clan name generator) and started recording hip hop albums. Rather than just repackaging his comedic stylings in song form, Glover, says Grantland writer Steven Hyden, revealed “a more ambitious and sneakily serious artistic temperament… positioning himself as a hip-hop outsider critical of materialism and machismo.” His most recent album, “Because the Internet” – about how living in an electronically connected world has left so many people feeling alienated from one another – was released last week. Donald Glover’s career arc has been nothing short meteoric.

But we see meteorites most clearly when they are burning up. In October, Glover hand wrote seven notes on Residence Inn stationary and shared them with the world via Instagram. “I am afraid of the future,” he wrote, the first line of several dozen exclamations of occupational, existential, and relational angst. “I’m afraid my parents won’t live long enough to see my kids. I’m scared my girl will get pregnant at not the exact time we want…. I’m afraid this is all an accident.” Hyden described it like this: “The missives were crafted with the naked intimacy of a tortured journal entry and the slickness of an artful ad campaign. Glover printed out his thoughts cathartically in all caps and with self-conscious melodrama, alluding cryptically to a personal battle with … the collective burden of miscellaneous fears and insecurities that many humans wrestle with every day.”

The thematic parallels between his outburst and his album, Because the Internet, beg a question. Were these notes designed to stir up controversy before its release? Or were they the real, unfiltered anxieties of a man most of us only know through his performances? In the aftermath of his Instagramming, Glover tweeted, “I keep hearing that I’m ‘troubled’ or ‘depressed.’ I just thought that was something most people were experiencing.” He told People magazine, “If I’m depressed, everybody’s depressed. I don’t think those feelings are that different from what everybody’s feeling. Most people just don’t tell everybody. I was just tired of telling people I was tired. It felt like every day someone would ask, ‘What’s wrong. Are you OK?’ And I would say, ‘I’m tired, I’m tired.’” It could be that Glover the overachiever is dabbling in brand management; it could also be that Glover the man has some major insecurities and, like most of us, had a day where he could not keep them to himself. Glover told the New Musical Express, “I don’t see why being insecure is such a bad thing – some of the worst people in the world were very secure with who they were.” We may never know the truth of the matter. But Glover’s outburst underscores the schism between who we are and who we present to the world. It helps us understand the tension between a man and his brand.

I feel like I’m letting everyone down
I’m afraid people hate who I really am
I’m afraid I hate who I really am
I’m afraid this doesn’t matter at all

Writers Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell often exchange e-mails and publish their conversations as a record of what two lay philosophers talk about. In one such exchange, they discussed at length Lebron James and his decision to sign with Miami in 2010. Before long, the conversation turned to brand management. Says Gladwell, “At the very top of the pyramid athletes make as much — and in many cases much more — from their endorsements as they do from their actual playing. Tiger Woods made just over $2 million from golf in 2011 and $60 million on the outside. LeBron made $14 million on the court, and twice that off the court…. People like that are in this strange position in which their virtual selves — their brands — are more valuable than their actual selves.” Suddenly athletes in particular and celebrities in general find themselves having to make decisions based not on what’s good for them personally but what’s good for the brand. Gladwell continues, “And what’s the brand? It’s this abstract thing managed and created by some guy in New York with whom his ‘fans’ might actually be more familiar than he is.”

There is an error in Gladwell’s thought process: the difference between a regular person and a celebrity is not that celebrities deal with this disparity while ordinary folk do not – we are all valued in one way for the service we provide and valued in another way for who we are as people. We are all building brands, just like Lebron James, and just like Donald Glover. Mark Zuckerberg agrees. “Think about what people are doing on Facebook today,” he says. “They’re keeping up with their friends and family, but they’re also building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand. They’re connecting with the audience that they want to connect to.” The key differences are scrutiny and amplitude. Lebron’s teammate Shane Battier put it like this. “(Lebron) sneezes and it’s a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he’s really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over, and he handles everything with an amazing grace and patience.” The rest of us don’t face the same scrutiny – I have sneezed twice this morning without so much as a “Gesundheit” to be heard – nor do we deal with the same kind of financial stakes. But we have all become image crafters and brand managers.

I think the problem here is not so much that we are marketing our brands. The problem I see is that the more we do this, the fewer people there are that seem to know who we really are. Fewer people can differentiate between the producer and the product. And it is having a major impact on intimacy and interpersonal relationships. Brad Meltzer once wrote, “There’s nothing more intimate in life than simply being understood. And understanding someone else.” But how can we offer this understanding when there is a disconnect between who we are and who we tell people we are? How can we ever know someone else if they are doing the same? “Most people are other people,” Oscar Wilde said. “Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” That was true a hundred years ago. How much more true is it today? Dating coach David Wygant describes the Internet as the number one intimacy killer in the world. But it is not the Internet per se that is killing our intimacy. It is that we use the Internet as one more barrier, one more checkpoint, one more obstacle between who we are and who we want people to think we are. “I only want to do things where there’s a connection to other people,” Donald Glover told Time magazine. “I feel like sometimes we lose that because the Internet makes it hard to do.”

I’m afraid this is all an accident
I’m afraid I’ll regret this
I’m afraid she’s still in love with that dude.
I’m afraid there’s someone better for you. Or me.

Like the lovable Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock, Donald Glover comes from Stone Mountain, Georgia. Stone Mountain, as described by the Village Voice, “sits in the shadow of a large relief sculpture of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson carved in the side of the mountain of the same name. It is the place where the Ku Klux Klan was rebooted in 1915—and Martin Luther King references it in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.” Living in a city with such an intense racial history had an impact on Glover. “Growing up in the South, people didn’t like me because I was black. And it took on this thing: I’m gonna be me so much, and be so likeable, that I will change their minds. And I know now that that’s impossible. But I had to try.” On top of that, Glover’s parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses – he had to hide his appetite for television from them since he was not allowed to watch it – in addition to being foster parents, which forced him “to do anything to get his parents’ attention—puppet shows, plays, skateboarding.” Still just a child, Glover was already hard at work on his brand.

There is a great irony of all this personal brand management. We do it because we are insecure. We say to ourselves, “People won’t like me if they know who I really am.” So we create a fake version of ourselves, which in turn makes it impossible for someone to love us. So when you see a crack in someone’s interpersonal façade, take note and learn a little something about that person. Affirm them for their genuine self. When someone you know seems a little bit melancholy or a little bit melodramatic, maybe cut them a little slack. Maybe they are trying to market their CD. Or maybe they are trying to set their brand aside for a little while and show you who they really are. After all, what’s so bad about being insecure? As Donald Glover puts it, “Hitler was very secure in who he was – he was also a huge asshole and one of the worst people ever. This is who I am, and I’m insecure.”

Note: The italicized verses are a three-stanza poem I “wrote” by remixing sentences from Glover’s Instagram letters.

Sage Rosenfels and the Infinite Sadness

“A sobering thought: What if, at this very moment, I am living up to my full potential?”
– Jane Wagner

1) Sage Rosenfels looks like a cross between Opie and Alfred E. Neuman, if this child character/cartoon hybrid were to morph into a 30-something former football player. He has close-cropped strawberry blond hair, a freckled nose, and a lanky frame. It’s not hard to imagine him catching a nap under a straw hat, a blade of wheatgrass bobbing lazily on his lips as he snores softly amidst an Iowan summer. It’s likewise easy to picture him reading to leukemia patients in a pediatrics unit, or volunteering to be the designated driver every New Year’s Eve. He seems down to earth and easy to root for – who couldn’t cheer along someone who evokes clichés as easily as you or I exhale? He exudes “Middle America” the way Marilyn Monroe exuded “sex appeal” or Megan Fox exudes “cosmetic surgery.”

Rosenfels joined the Minnesota Vikings in March of 2009. Before that, he had been a member of three other teams and played sparingly. Nobody would ever think he was the next Johnny Unitas, but he was never a liability either. (Okay, maybe once.) As Star Tribune columnist Michael Rand put it, “Rosenfels was never a great NFL quarterback, but he was a perfectly functional backup QB who, when called upon, could start for a team in a pinch.” At the time, the Vikings were coached by Brad Childress and had the much-maligned Tarvaris Jackson penciled in as starter. Stop and think about the excitement he must have had for the opportunity to unseat a shaky and unpopular incumbent and step into an offense featuring Adrian Peterson, Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, and a rock-solid offensive line. As he was flying to Minnesota, he must have felt the way a man feels on the doorstep of his beloved with an engagement ring in hand, a moment so rife with optimism and opportunity. A moment where nothing could possibly go wrong.

But something went wrong. The Vikings never let that competition play out. Instead, they coaxed Brett Favre out of retirement and Sage’s window of opportunity slammed shut. Rand continued, “A QB who came to the Vikings with plenty of time left thinking he had a legitimate chance to be a starting quarterback never threw another NFL pass. We can’t help but think about how one move that seemed like a career-maker ended up essentially being a career-ender.”

Sage

2) Our dreams don’t have to sit on such lofty cusps for us to think, “What if? What if this one thing had been different?” “What if…?” is a difficult question. It is the question that leaves Olympic Silver medalists despondent and Bronze medalists joyous. According to the research of Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich, most silver medalists are discouraged by focusing on the mistakes that kept them from winning a gold medal. Most bronze medalists, on the other hand, are content to have won anything at all. Psychology Today writer John Tauer describes it this way: “The reference point for silver medalists was likely ‘If only I had just run a little faster, I could have won the gold medal!’ One can imagine that after years of training, missing on a chance to be considered the greatest in the world, an opportunity that might not present itself again, could be incredibly disheartening.” Or as William James said in 1892, “So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has ‘pitted’ himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn’t do that nothing else counts.”

Psychologists have a different term for the “What if?” game. They call it “Counterfactual Thinking.” You identify a turning point, the fork in the road, and imagine how things might have gone if you’d done things differently. Imagining how things could have gone better is called “Upward Counterfactual Thinking.” Imagining how things could have gone worse is called “Downward Counterfactual Thinking.” (While we’re on it, there is another separate axis of thought one can apply: If the first axis is whether the outcome would go better or worse, the second axis is to either add or subtract elements from the scenario. Think, “In a world where Steve Jobs never existed, what would cell phones look like right now?”) But which is better? If we’re going to ask ourselves, “What if?” then is it better to imagine how things could have been better or how things could have been worse?

Psychologist Timothy A. Pychyl notes that each of the two have their own emotional and behavioral consequences. “On the one hand, upward counterfactuals may make us feel bad as we think about how things might have gone better. On the other hand, we might learn more effective strategies for success through this reflection – if only I had done X, maybe next time. We benefit from these thoughts. Similarly, downward counterfactual thoughts may benefit us simply by improving our mood. Despite our lack of success, we can take solace in the thought that it’s not as bad as it could be.” Noting research on this, Pychyl concludes that maintaining a preference for downward counterfactual thoughts suppresses our ability to grow. “(We) need to add ‘It could have been worse’ to our list of ‘flags’ that should signal to us that we’re making an excuse and potentially deceiving ourselves in a costly manner.” Often the healthiest thing we can do is take a long look at our roads, determine how we could have done things better, and then move on.

3) Laura Kray is a professor at the Hass Business School at Berkeley. She has wavy chestnut-colored hair down to her shoulders and looks like Flo from those Progressive commercials, the difference being Laura Kray might be able to sell you insurance. Her primary field of research is counterfactual thinking, which seems strangely appropriate for a doctor of psychology teaching at an elite business school. Kray authored a study that found that the more we engage in counterfactual thinking, the more likely we are to believe our lives are fated. “The irony is that thinking counterfactually increases the perception that life’s path was meant to be,” says Kray, “which ultimately imbues one’s life with significance.” In other words, the more we focus on the what ifs and what could have beens, the more likely we are to believe that things have been arranged in a certain order. We start seeing our circumstances as destiny. She continues, “Considering how our lives might have been different helps to connect the dots among our life experiences. The contrast between reality and what might have been shines a light on the opportunities, relationships, and achievements that wouldnʼt have occurred without these key elements in our life story.”

Perhaps this is the problem. Sometimes things do seem fated. As with Sage Rosenfels, my dating life, or anyone who has lost out to someone else for a promotion, there isn’t always a neat moment of “This is what you could have done better.” It may even be that there is nothing at all you could have done to change your outcome. And so it becomes, “This is who you are.” Some arms can’t throw as far as others, and some smiles don’t have quite enough charm. Perhaps Sage took his body and abilities as far as he possibly could have taken them. But Sage Rosenfels at his prime and peak was still no match for Brett Favre at 39. No matter how much we want to root for the good-natured and soft-spoken Sage Rosenfels, how we want things to be is never a match for how things are. When Sage Rosenfels announced his retirement from the NFL in 2012, Adam Kaplan, NFL Insider reporter, shared his lament on Twitter. “Sage Rosenfels announced his retirement this evening via his Facebook page. Good guy.”

How to Discern a Man’s Character

“What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”
– A.A. Milne

In some ways, dating relationships are like a three-legged table: one leg is attraction, another is compatibility, and the third is character. If one of these three is lacking, the table will be unable to stand, or – in your best case scenario – have an irritating wobble. What I want to talk about today is character. We treat character as almost an afterthought, something to pay attention to only if there is something glaringly wrong. (And then in some cases we ignore or excuse clear evidence of poor character. “Sure he got drunk and peed on a squad car, but he was having a stressful day. It could happen to anyone.”) I think that we need to reverse this process. Bad character should be a deal breaker, yes. As this Psychology Today article points out, there are some serious red flags we all need to pay attention to. But I think the standard needs to change: if you can’t identify clear evidence of good character, that should be a deal breaker too.

Now I know that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, areas where they excel and areas where they struggle. Nobody is perfect. I’m not saying anybody should be looking for shortcomings and then hold them against that person. There is a world of difference between having a weakness you are working on improving and a habitual failing you are comfortable with. What you should be on the lookout for are patterns of behavior that show that there will lead to conflict in the relationship. (Also, I should point out that this isn’t merely a shared values thing: shared values fall under compatibility rather than character. If you prefer to abstain from drinking but they don’t, it’s not a character issue for them to drink a beer.)

The question then becomes, how do we spot these patterns? When you’re dating someone, they tend to be on their best behavior in the short term. But we tend to leak this information in subtle ways, and that goes way beyond how we treat our waiters. So here are some shot-in-the-dark, totally not comprehensive, wildly guessing ideas on how we can determine a person’s character. I’m going to focus on men since I feel I have a better grasp on how men reveal themselves than women do, but I suspect most of these items apply to both sexes.

1) What sort of friends does he keep? How does he treat them, serve them, and interact with them? The quality of relationships a man maintains reveals what he values, whether he can be counted on when the chips are down, and whether or not he’s capable of healthy boundaries.

2) How does he treat women he doesn’t consider to be potential romantic/sexual partners? There is a neat division when it comes to men. There are the men that only treat a woman well if he eventually wants to sleep with her, and then there are the men who don’t think their romantic interest should determine how they treat people. If chivalry, politeness, respect – or whatever else – aren’t ubiquitous, then they are imaginary.

3) How does he spend his free time? I’m not going to rail against passive entertainment: sometimes that’s necessary. But that shouldn’t be what someone spends all, or even a majority, of their free time doing. Nick Offerman has this to say: “One of my tips is get a hobby and … (do) something with your hands, so that at the end of two hours you have a tangible result to your time.” This might be a little flowery, but I think that we should be in constant pursuit of something. Be it to become a better woodworker, a more learned individual, a faster runner, or decent cook, dedicating your spare time to some pursuit is a good thing to do. After two hours, or weeks, or months, or years, what does he have to show for his time?

NickOfferman_main

4) How does he cope with hardship and adversity? There are some men who absolutely shine when trouble comes their way. They rise to the occasion. Other men hide until trouble passes. And everything in between.

5) From this point forward, what is his life’s trajectory? We all face successes and setbacks. What’s more telling than short-term achievement or disappointment is what happens next. Having been promoted, is he now content to rest on his laurels? Or does he see it as an opportunity to put himself in a position to take another step further down the road? Likewise, when things don’t go his way does he give up? Or does he regroup and continue working hard? In short, is he planning for the future? Is he driven, or is he complacent? This applies to all areas of life, not just to a career.

Again, I don’t think this list is comprehensive. I don’t even necessarily think that it’s practical. But what I do think is that we must start raising our standards. A lot of heartache can be avoided by placing more emphasis on character – and acting on the character issues we notice – than we do to this point.

To Thirst Beside a Fountain

“To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.”
– Yiddish Proverb, or perhaps Malcolm Gladwell

There were (at least) two points I had hoped to get across in my last post. The first was that we are good at lying to ourselves. As Jodi Picoult put it in her novel Vanishing Acts, “You can fool yourself, you know. You’d think it’s impossible, but it turns out it’s the easiest thing of all.” We want to think we are honest and objective to our own minds, and incapable of being otherwise, but this itself is another lie. Dostoyevski said that lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others. Who am I to disagree? (If you want proof, just consider the fact that everyone believes they are an above-average driver.) The second point was that we must believe we can accomplish something – flukes of discovery aside – before we can accomplish it. Henry Ford said it this way: “The man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t are both right. Which one are you?”
Horseradish
I don’t know if it’s the cause or the effect of depression to give up self-belief, or to see it as a lie. Do I think my life will amount to nothing and therefore I am depressed? Or am I depressed and therefore my life will amount to nothing? This is a much more intimate version of the chicken-and-egg argument. And whatever the case, the result is the same: a person hogtied by sadness, drugged by self-pity, choking on the prophesy that nothing good will come of their life. And so they become preoccupied by their own mortality. Aaron Weiss captures the feeling well in “Carousels,” saying, “Counting the plates of cars from out of state, how I could jump in their paths as they hurry along.”

And here’s the rub. Whether it was the chicken or the egg that came first, the depressed person is probably correct in their beliefs. As noted in the New York Times, unfounded optimism cannot put up a fight against depressive realism: “several studies have found that people with depression have a more accurate view of reality and are better at predicting future outcomes.” From a cognitive-therapeutic perspective, this means that correcting errors in thinking (known as “false cognitions”) can sometimes be a matter of convincing a person to once again start lying to himself, to start believing — in the face of a storehouse of evidence — that things could yet turn around.

I have come to think that this is the wrong approach. Perhaps, when I hit that moment of melancholy, when I completely set aside my self-belief, I can finally entrust my fate and my future into the hands of God. Maybe the solution or the cure isn’t to replenish my ability to lie to myself, but to give in fully to that fact, and then put my trust instead in my Creator. I don’t remember who said it, but I once heard someone say to believe and have no hope is to thirst beside a fountain. It could even be that what we tend to call a mental illness could be the pathway to right thinking, and that the encouragement to return to a belief in myself is like turning around just shy of my destination. What is required is a replacement of belief, to trade the idea that I can bring bright, beautiful things into my future for the certainty that God will use me and place me as He sees fit. I don’t know how that will work. But I would rather trust in God than trust in myself.

All that’s left is to commit myself to taking this lesson from The Sing Team:
Let my sighs give way to songs that sing about Your faithfulness
Let my pain reveal Your glory as my only real rest
Let my losses show me all I truly have is You

Giving Up

Staring at the bottom of your glass
Hoping one day you’ll make a dream last
But dreams come slow and they go so fast

– Passenger

We live in a society that seems to especially loathe quitters. We may not place them at the same level as, say, racists or pedophiles, but we hold the same general contempt for quitters as we do for bad drivers, oil tycoons, or folk musicians. It’s ingrained in the advice we give each other, the inherent ethic of achievement in our nation. How many versions of the phrase, “There is no failure except in no longer trying” can you think up? I know Elbert Hubbard, Chris Bradford, and Bruce Lee all composed variations on that theme. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn has a more flowery rendition: “The worst thing one can do is not to try, to be aware of what one wants and not give in to it, to spend years in silent hurt wondering if something could have materialized – never knowing.” From Norman Vincent Peale urging us to believe that it’s always too soon to quit, to Fannie Flagg telling us to never give up before the miracle comes, or Emma Goldman asking us to believe that our ability to dream is all that keeps us alive, the gospel of unflinching optimism is woven into the fabric of our collective attitude.

But this begs questions in my mind. What about the dreams of people who can never achieve their goals? The would-be dancer with balance so bad she makes a Jenga tower look stable. The man with a heart for healing but no stomach for bodily fluids. We’ve all seen enough episodes of American Idol to know there are some people who should – must – take a long, serious look at whether they can achieve what they hope to achieve. And the obvious examples aren’t the most difficult to deal with. What about the people who get close enough to a dream they can smell its musk, but never quite close enough to apprehend it? There are writers who have written books that will never get published, and there are published books that will never sell. There are professional football players who will never make an active roster, or play in an actual game, much less drive their team for the Super Bowl winning touchdown. Is it quitting on yourself to make subtle edits to your fantasies?

That doesn’t even touch on those tortured souls who have all hope beaten from them like a slave driver whipping a runaway. Some actors can’t take the devastation of another failed audition. Some hearts can’t survive further breaking.

I guess I’m wondering, is hope alone sufficient? Is it a failure to let go of an unattainable dream if we find a new dream? Does it matter what vessel we use to store our hope so long as we keep it near and pour it into another once it cracks?

There’s a great exchange in the film State & Main where a writer, Joseph Turner White, is in search of a typewriter. “I can only write on manual,” he says.
His director shrugs him off, “I know the feeling.”
“That’s a lie. You know, that’s a real fault.”
“It’s not lying,” the director says. “It’s a gift for fiction.”

We have an incredible ability to spin our narratives to maintain a narcissistic belief in our heroism and achievement. “It wasn’t giving up. It was opening a door for a new dream.” Or something to that effect. (Perhaps one of my various PR savvy friends could suggest a better spin.) Now I’m not suggesting that we should give up on fresh perspectives or looking at things in a new light. I’m saying that we know well enough when we are lying, and that honesty ought to be a higher value than not giving up, not quitting. Maybe quitting is not the same thing as defeat. As the novelist Mark Halperin puts it, “What happens when you let go, when your strength leaves you and you sink into darkness, when there’s nothing that you or anyone else can do, no matter how desperate you are, no matter how you try? Perhaps it’s then, when you have neither pride nor power, that you are saved, brought to an unimaginably great reward.” Maybe, just maybe, we ought to live in the space between the understanding that we cannot accomplish anything without believing, and that there may come a time to let go, and if we must let go we can do so without regret or shame. As the great philosopher Beyonce said, “Thank God I found the good in goodbye.”

Beyonce