1. When they do something stupid, smile. For best effect, smile as close as possible to the incidence of stupidity.
  2. When they think something is funny and it’s not, smile.
  3. When they express an opinion you don’t like, smile.
  4. When they’re ignorant of something you know well, smile.
  5. When they’re knowledgeable of something you know nothing about, smile.
  6. When they don’t help you, smile.
  7. When they don’t make your life convenient, smile.
  8. When they choose to live their lives without constant consideration of what will bring direct benefit to you, smile.

Follow these 8 simple steps and the people around you will never fail to make you happy.

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electric sheep

Everyone has that day when they’re finally told about the prejudice secretly dwelling in their hearts. Then there’s the day when they actually believe it. For me, the first came when I read Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi.

Fun reading, this book is not. Read the first and last chapters and rest assured you’ve seen everything important. Steele took what should have been a long essay and stretched it into full book size by rehashing concepts over and over. Not that I don’t value his obvious scholarship. I do.

I used to think I had my mind made up about affirmative action. Looking around for scholarships to help pay for college, I kept running into offerings which required the applicant to be Black, or Hispanic, or American Indian.  Clearly this is reverse discrimination, I thought. People can’t help being born white, so why shouldn’t they get all of the same opportunities to earn money that minorities have? If the intention is to correct the structural income differences created by generations of racism, then why not assess need based on financial status? I thought I had things all figured out.

That I felt so unambiguously right should have been a clue that I was missing something. Going into my senior year of college, I had to read Whistling Vivaldi as part of my role in helping with an orientation program. For the first time, I wrestled with evidence that truly challenged my thinking on prejudice.

Steele introduced to me the concept of “critical mass.” Within a group, if there is not a minimum number of other people who seem to share a similar identity, individuals tend to feel like an outsider. Again and again, his (and others’) research seemed to confirm that minority groups (not only defined by race) usually underperformed when they felt like they didn’t belong, and especially when the performer knew of possible stereotypes. Women taking higher math classes. Minorities sitting standardized tests. However, the presence of others who seemed to share a similar identity could reduce or eliminate this performance difference. Throwing a few extra women in a difficult math class took away the constant reminders of those stereotypes. The same thing appeared to happen for new minority university students if they could see that “people like them” belonged just as much as anyone else. To me, this finally justified affirmative action.

I like to think I started behaving differently that day, after being told. I like to think I started being more inclusive. I imagine that I started to vary my default personal pronouns. I like to hope I never contributed to anyone’s experience of isolation. That day when you’re finally told you’re riddled with prejudice is important.

But then there’s the day when you really believe.

Without Claude’s book, I might have read Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep in a completely differently. As is, I read it as a startling treatise on the hegemony of stereotypes and the nigh irresistible shaping power of external opinion. I doubt Dick intended it to be so. In fact, after reading his wikipedia page, I wonder whether Dick ever had intentions about anything. If you’re not familiar with the story, this novel formed the basis for the classic movie Bladerunner. The core premise is that increasingly human models of servant androids are going rogue, to the point of killing their masters, and the responsibility for neutralizing this chameleonic threat falls to a certain task force of bounty hunters, one of their number being our anti-heroic protagonist.

I got chills the first time Rick Deckard killed an android. Gifted with incredible intelligence, super-speed, inhuman strength, this android should have had every opportunity to live on. But the second Rick saw through his disguise, as soon as the bounty hunter pulled his weapon, the android just gave up. Every scrap of fight left him. The android no longer believed he could escape. Even if he killed Rick Deckard, others would find him unprotected by anonymity. Eventually he would fall. It may be Dick wanted us to see this loss of spirit as the defining difference between man and machines which can look, talk, smell, maybe even fuck like us. We might assume that a human would always fight to survive, even when the situation looks hopeless. Man struggles to the bitter end.

That’s more superman than man. I think that people are much more similar to this android than we like to think. We succumb to our beliefs, and any force which can shape those beliefs holds power over us. Claude’s stereotype threat is a tragic symptom of an even greater force operating in our lives. It’s why confidence, especially unjustified confidence, tends to pay social dividends. It’s the reason we start looking for partners which are “good enough” to be with us. It’s the mysterious force which trades money from our wallets for Air Jordans and Coach purses. It’s how demagogues turn us against our neighbors. What we believe comes to function as the truth for us.

Then again, it could be Dick recognized this fact. J. R. Isidore is another inhabitant of Dick’s android infested dystopia. What makes Isidore unique is that he’s a “special.” He has some sort of unspecified mental handicap, or perhaps just an abnormally low IQ. Instead of receiving comfort and support, this world leaves Isidore to fend for himself. He makes a living repairing artificial animals. In a world with an irrevocably damaged ecology, it’s become vogue to own some sort of animal as a pet. Those without the financial means to buy one of the (very rare) remaining animals must keep up appearances with something fake. The title of Dick’s book references Rick Deckard’s rather pathetic electric sheep. Inevitably these fakes have to be maintenanced, which brings them to Isidore, repairman protector of the right to keep up appearances.

Isidore is apprehensive of the vidphone. He much prefers tinkering with the cybernetic animals, a complicated task for which he has a surprising affinity. But Isidore’s boss pulls perverse pleasure from pushing Isidore to answer customer calls. He taunts him into answering the vidphone with calls of “chickenhead,” a commonplace slur for specials like Isidore. When Isidore answers the phone, he stutters uncontrollably, drawing more ridicule from his boss. In fact, Isidore stutters at places throughout the entire novel, but curiously concentrated on moments when someone reminds him of his handicap.

I thought I was imagining the distinction until I happened upon a particular android’s observation. He and a group of other android fugtives decide to strategically befriend Isidore, in the hope they could use him as a distraction when the bounty hunters come calling. As the androids pretend friendship with Isidore, sharing food and casual conversation, one android notices that Isidore’s stuttering has stopped. Surrounded by those he thinks  to love him, Isidore loses the destructive “chickenhead” identity. Such a simple shift, but one with far-reaching implications.

I’m not sure what magical property stories have which makes me more confident than a confidence interval; which quality character epiphanies have that’s more compelling than the law of large numbers; how make-believe struggles sway me more than white-coated assurances. I do know that I finally understood prejudice when I read Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. My own prejudice is proven by the simple fact that there are still people in the world held down by harmful stereotypes. Until everyone is free to live and grow on an even playing field, I’m not believing hard enough.

recycling

You’re carrying the recycling bin down the hallway, the payload of soy milk and greek yogurt cartons rattling audibly, when you see a little dog. This takes a second to process, because your brain insists that there can’t be a dog in the complex. There’s a rule against it. You round the corner, nearly running down a woman. She’s graying, swaying, stooped, and dressed in seven layers of threadbare winter clothing. One hand holds the leash which should be on the dog. The other is wrapped around the golden knob of a door which she proceeds to open several inches, then immediately close. Open. Close. Open. Close. Images of zombies come to mind.

She’s blocking the way to the recycling drop-off, nothing to do but push through. Then you make fatal eye contact, red-rimmed blue eyes pleading. Do you help or do you continue on? It’s not even a choice. You speed up, brandishing the brimming bin ahead of you as if to say, “Hey, I’m saving the Earth; no time to save you.” And then you’re through. Freedom. Relief. For once you take the time to sort every item into the proper receptacle. Then you sort everything your neighbors dropped off. You try to stay occupied because you’re well aware of what Odysseus learned. It’s that return trip that gets you.

Not five minutes later, you’re making your way back down the hallway. This time she’s ready. Her gaze locks on, and she lays in with the heavy weaponry. “Will you help me?” Now, you may be many flavors of selfish asshole, but there’s nothing in you that can refuse a direct request for help. So you stop. Fear creeps in to quietly shut down every thinking part of your brain. But falsehood comes naturally. Honey-words leave your mouth, promising assistance.  “I can’t. It won’t. The door,” she croaks haltingly, like a child just learning to shape words. You were thinking blackout drunk, but now you have to consider mental disability. That’s fine, because it’s not as if you would know how to deal with either.

But you do understand problems. That, you’re very comfortable with. The door. You reach out, twist the knob, and swing open the door. Or, begin to, but it’s caught on the chain. Of course, it’s the chain. Now you’ve got to recalculate again. If this is her apartment, why would the chain be on the door? You mentally kick yourself for almost helping her break into someone’s apartment. “Are you sure this is your apartment?” you ask in your most innocent voice. She’s a little confused by the question. “I’m going to knock, and see who else is home,” you say, and then proceed to do so. Surely whoever put the chain on the door will come. It’s 10:30. They may be asleep, but that’s fine. You need rescue.

“This is my house,” the woman exclaims, utterly bewildered. “This is my house,” she repeats. And again. And Again. Now you’re really stumped. The dog starts barking, sensing he’s been forgotten. And you’re still awkwardly clutching the empty recycling bin. “Shh, Corgi.” Your name isn’t Corgi. Then you realize she’s talking to the dog. That’s even worse; he’s more like a beagle.

“What’s your name?” Caught off guard and flustered by the misleadingly named canine, you accidentally blurt out the truth. She continues, “My name’s Marlene. Will you help me?” Aren’t you already helping her? “I’m cold. I want to sleep.” Sleep? Sleep does sound wonderful. But you can only sleep when she goes away. You need to get rid of her. To a place of safety, you amend to yourself. It occurs to you that the apartment lobby has couches. She could sleep there. It’d be indoors, and it’d be cozy. You start to urge her down the hallway, promising a comfortable couch in the apartment lobby.

“This is my house,” she says again. But she follows. Corgi pads along as well. You take her around two corners, bringing you tantalizing close to the lobby and its emancipation from responsibility. At the foot of the stairs, Marlene pauses, clearly afraid. “I’m disabled,” she squeaks out.

Then your savior barges in through a side door, overladen with grocery bags. She takes in the situation through thick English-teacher glasses, frizzy gray hair pointed in every direction. You realize with a little embarrassment that you’re leaned over, arms held out, coaxing Marlene like a dog. What a first impression. Her stern voice: “Marlene, what are you doing?”

“I’m disabled,” Marlene repeats.

“She’s drunk,” your hero announces. Then she leads all three of you, Corgi bringing up the rear, back down the hall to the stubborn door from before. Marlene opens the door, catches it on the chain, and gives up. One look tells your hero all she needs to know. “Marlene, did you take the dog out the patio door? Come on, let’s go around outside. Let’s go.”

Marlene looks at you. “He was nice to me.” You weren’t nice to her. Marlene leans in for a hug. Stale beer fills your nostrils. Images of germs, the comically green mobster-like blobs on television, float through your head. Just before Marlene can get her arms around you, your right arm shoots out to hold her at bay, turning the hug into an awkward clutching. The two of you bump temples, softly. Marlene seems content with that.

Then your unnamed hero takes off, pulling Marlene and Corgi in her wake. She has a world to save.

Queen_of_Hearts_(Elizabeth_of_York)

There’s a war going on between my old and new selves. My nostalgia-tinged childhood is weeping with joy while the most recent, progressively enlightened iteration of myself sulks in shame. Ender’s Game is finally becoming a movie. In the near-decade since I first cracked open the novel, that story’s been one of the few I’ve bothered to re-read, and at vital points in my life too. After my parents announced their divorce. Again to comfort me through my first real romantic rejection. Once more right before leaving to start collegiate life.

So what’s the problem, you ask? Card has strong feelings about sexuality. Hell, let’s be candid. Card hates gays. He’s not ashamed of it, and he’s quite outspoken.

I think it’s safe to say that my coevals and I aren’t entitled to have lukewarm feelings about rights for those who are gay. We’re either convinced of the absolute immorality of non-hetero sex or we’re fervent supporters of equal rights. Myself, I’ve been brought into contact with too many wonderful individuals irrevocably damaged (but not impaired) by prejudice. I’ll always remember the day one of my best friends came out to me. I didn’t know how to tell him I already knew; he’d come out to another of our best friends months before. He’d waited to tell me because of my Christian faith. Never before had it occurred to me that a faith-label could create distance, could drive a wedge between me and the people I care about.

But the question here isn’t whether Card is wrong; I’ve got my mind settled on that issue. What still needs to be decided is whether it’s “wrong” for me to have this kind of pants-wetting giddy anticipation for the Ender’s Game movie, even if it’s written by an unapologetic bigot. Can art be separated from the artist?

Art is never one specific message. Even for something like Piss Christ. Every audience bring something to the art experience. It’s probably the scariest thing about being a writer. I always know that what I’ve written makes sense in my head. But to see it make sense in someone else’s head, that’s the true test.

I wouldn’t argue that a piece of art should necessarily mean something different to every person who views it. Communication of a consistent message is, I think, one sign of a great work. However, it is also nice if something can have relevance to more than just the current generation. Such a feat takes substance. It’s a sign of genuine creation, rather than commentary. The sight of The Creation of Adam will hopefully evoke something within hearts for generations to come. With any luck, we’ll forget about Jersey Shore in a few more months.

It wasn’t reading that made me question my faith. Especially not the His Dark Materials series. For those unfamiliar, the HDM series was one of the many fantastic young adult novels which rode the Harry Potter wave to popularity in the past few decades. Among the highlights of the series: a quest to kill God. It’s successful. To the young me, raised in a church, but armed with only the most rudimentary apologetic tools, (granted, these tend to be the most effective) I still had no problem with this. If he could be killed, then he wasn’t the “real” God. Dilemma solved. Fourteen year old me put the stunt out of mind and returned to the business of enjoying a wonderfully imaginative series. And in the process, I saw beautiful examples of what God’s love meant to me. Magical “dust” came into being when people lived good lives, an amazing product of our own free agency. In my own vaguely complicated way, I saw this dust as a compelling picture of the wisdom behind a theological, as opposed to material, conception of the world. Was this Philip Pullman’s intention? Yes and no. Consult unbiased commentators like snopes or Pullman’s own website, and you’ll see Pullman unapologetically discuss his disgust with religions in general, and with certain actions taken by the largest faith institutions. explicitly talks about his desire to promote atheism through his novels.

But another, more nuanced intent can be seen as well. Commenting on the Anglican Church, Pullman explores some of his own, if not religious, at least spiritual instances in life. He acknowledges how the subtle nurturing of the church is an undeniable part of who he has become as a person. Even as an enlightened adult, you cannot unlearn those memorized prayers, forget those moments in the pew with stern, stolid grandparents, or tamp down the shared identity of having at some point participated in worship. Those not raised in the church are hard-pressed to hide from religion’s media bombardment. Pullman, while fed-up with theological efforts to control and stifle, admits to having had experiences of his own which he can only describe as “intense, transcendental feelings.” Even if not of an organized bent, he can at least see how the spiritual plays an inescapable part in the life of any person not raised by wolves.

For me, I ultimately took comfort from Pullman’s work. My image of God became more malleable, more resilient against a world best equipped to wash away those who cling too tightly. A quote from his website suggests Pullman might be more than a little okay with my liberal interpretation of his books: “The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind.”

Does this always benefit the artist? My most dearly held example of art being turned against the will of the artist is the story of Anthony Burgess‘s A Clockwork Orange. The book would later be immortalized by Stanley Kubrick in his 1971 film of the same name as one of the most flamboyantly vulgar mainstream movies of our time. The masses never could overcome the deliberately shocking depictions of sex and violence to see any sort of more subtle message. Burgess turned out this, his most famous (in North America) work in a little over three weeks, a rushed masterpiece to meet his contract quota. Burgess intended the story as a satire of exactly the sort of behavior it depicts, demonstrating through extreme example the consequences of trends he had noticed in popular culture. Ironic that it would, through transformation into a new medium, lose its satirical bite. The reversal would haunt Burgess the rest of his life.

But what about Card? With the introduction of the much anticipated Ender’s Game movie, he’s receiving a good deal of backlash for his position on gay rights. People have even gone back to some of his older works, in particular his Homecoming Saga, which actually features a gay male character. As an early teen, really during the period before all of my friends started discovering their sexuality, I had little to no exposure to what it meant to be gay. Most of my insight was glimpsed through little windows, like Card’s Homecoming Saga. Zdorab is one of many characters who find themselves caught up in the almost deified machinations of the planet Harmony’s controlling artificial intelligence. Privileged to be one of the few to restart the human race, but the tragic irony behind Zdorab’s election is his well-concealed homosexuality. Over the course of the series, Zdorab convinces himself to overcome his lack of attraction and father a child with another character, Shedemei.

Gay means a lot of things to a teenage boy raised on bathroom stall scribbles and locker-room talk, but nothing remotely accurate. Later years would teach me through the valuable friendship of many who were openly gay. Yet for those early teenage years, I still knew relatively little of what it meant to walk through the world with a different sexual orientation. And then I read Card’s homecoming saga. Through the words of an alleged bigot I saw the dehumanizing effects of bigotry on a lone human soul. Card never portrays Zdorab’s struggle as a battle with temptation or a hedonistic hobby. Critics cast Zdorab’s eventual procreation with Shedemei as Card suggesting gay people should simply grit their teeth and ride the heterosexual train anyway. This interpretation never occurred to me. If anything, I saw Zdorab as a hero, sacrificing an essential part of his identity to contribute to the reseeding of the human race. Nothing in the book implies people should give up their orientation when not pressed by the moral imperative to preserve our species. Despite Card’s words in public, he seems to have generated stories which tell with some honesty of the struggles human beings undergo in a bigoted world.

No matter what artists may desire, whatever they may intend, the true message of their work is its impact. Pullman seems to have embraced this fact, and presumably still writes because he sees more good than bad in the produce of his hand. My personal hero, Burgess, fell into despair because of the dark turn his three-week project took. Card must submit himself to the same social forces as these authors. Whatever his personal feelings, Card’s works stand alone, and their message will be a result of both their content and what society wants to see.

I’m thankful to Card for giving me that piece of my childhood, but I in no way owe his ludicrous ideas about orientation any fealty. Boycotting this movie isn’t the right response. Hell, if this were a gay-bashing story, we have a responsibility as part of society to see it, if only that we can then participate in its denunciation. When you disengage from culture, you’re giving up your vote. Those ideas which make you most uncomfortable are precisely where you’re most needed. See you at the movies.

Orange_Water_wings

There’s already a family splashing around when I show up to swim a few laps. Well, most of a family. Three little kids bob in the water, rendered genderless by the sheer number of floatation devices strapped to their little bodies. The mother’s covered head to foot, Muslim, Sikh? I don’t trust myself to know which. I smile as broadly as possible, shooting out a squeaky hi as I fast-walk past her. She smiles back. Raptor eyes return to the three bobbing shapes. I wonder for a second about the odds of her jumping in the water after them, covered as she is, should something go wrong. But I notice how she’s perched on the lounge chair, anything but relaxed, coiled to spring.

I shuck off my shirt. For an absent moment I wonder if it’s rude to be partially unclothed if she doesn’t have that option. Am I being insensitive? Or is anxiety about offending itself testimony to my ignorance?

Sliding into the water on the far side of the pool, I try to block the family out of my mind. I start to swim. Like always, it’s humbling. When I run, I can convince myself that I’m fit. Then I try to swim, and my body screams. My lungs whine, my arms ache, and my legs rebel. It’s not my element.

Sputtering after a length, I grab the edge of the pool. I overhear a little boy’s voice say, “He’s resting. Is he resting? He’s resting, right?” I need a good deal more rest, but I take off again anyway. Why do I care what this boy thinks?

A few more lengths pass. I get the second wind (the second current?) and I’m much more comfortable. I’m ahead of my usual pace. It’s going to be a good day.

In the periphery of my vision, I glimpse a dark blur. For some reason, I reach out for the side of the pool. That’s when she strikes.

“Hi!” Based on the voice, probably a little girl. It’s alarmingly hard to tell, with short, slicked-back hair and a buoyant sheath around her middle.

“Hi.” I say it with a smile, injecting as much friendliness and non-threat as humanly possible. With first blood drawn, the other kids feel it’s finally safe to approach. They scramble our direction.

“What are you doing?” What a relief. A question I can always answer.

“Swimming laps. For exercise.” Again I smile, for lack of anything more interesting to contribute. How can I call myself a conversationalist if I don’t even know how to talk to a kid?

“Why?”

Vanity, I think immediately. I respond, “To stay healthy.”

“Healthy?” Kids don’t bother to conceal confusion.

“To stay young, like you.” It’s an almost truth if I don’t think about it too much.

“But Mommy and Daddy and Adi and Mommy don’t- Mommy didn’t bring her swimsuit- and Adi didn’t bring hers. But she’s in S’Arabia.”

That takes a moment for me to process. “Well, that’s a pretty good reason, I say,” stating the obvious.

Now the other blobs have floated their way close enough to gain genders. A young boy, and a bashful girl who’s probably a few years older than the others.

“Where are you from?” asks Big Mouth.

Again showing off my highly developed conversational skills, I point towards the apartment complex. You can actually see my window.

She flops around, spewing water everywhere, incredulously, squinting as if looking for something through the building. Then she slowly turns back and eyes me like I’ve just tried to cheat at Go-Fish. “No! I mean where are you from.”

“I’m from America.”

My lack of understanding clearly frustrates her. “No, I mean where are you from. What country are you from?”

“I’m from here,” I repeat, a little catch in my throat.

“No, what country are you from? Like, I’m from S’Arabia. And Adi’s from S’Arabia.”

I take a moment to think this over. Finally: “I’m from Texas.”

A smile takes over her face. “Are you a cowboy?”

If she’d been 15 years older, I’d be miffed by the use of the stereotype. As is, I smile against my own will. “No, no. I’m not a cowboy.”

“I’m going to ride a horse.”

“Really?”

“Yep. When I’m 4, I ride a horse.”

Now the pudgy boy has paddled his way over. “How many do you have?” he says.

I decide he’s not talking about horses. “I have 21 years, I tell him.”

“Right now I’m 5,” brags the first girl.

“Oh really? My little sister’s 5 too.”

“Really!?” The girl’s jaw drops open.

The pudgy boy has a different perspective. He starts to paddle towards the side of the pool. “Like anyone cares!”  he shoots towards me.

But my interrogator is still confused. “What!?”

“That’s impossible,” continues the boy, implying that someone might care just a little bit.

By now the three have me surrounded, positively pinned against the side. It’s a blockade Nelson would have been proud of.

“I should probably…” Again, I show off my linguistic mastery by making swimming motions with my arms.

Then the boy spits water on me. I don’t really mind. Hell, I’m in a pool. Odds are good I’m swimming in the kid’s pee anyway. But I seize on the excuse to leave the conversation. I leap between two inflatable dreadnoughts and swim another length.

As I approach that side of the pool again, another dark blur hovers nearby. I come up.

“Sorry!” the boy squeaks out. It’s a hit and run. He starts paddling away. I look over at his mother, who smiles at me and mouths an apology. They’re good kids, I decide. She must know what she’s doing.

barrel

Today we’ll score our personality tests. Or so we were told by our torso of a psych professor. Not fat, but an astonishingly barrel-like man. He rolls back and forth across the front of the lecture hall, confidently pronouncing about the distribution of different personality types in our class. Since we’ve got 80-100 students in the class, there ought to be enough to get fairly even dispersal.

For homework, we’d been instructed to fill out an online questionnaire and designate his email to receive the results. Walking in at 9:25, I took the proffered score sheet, an indecipherable alphanumeric jumble.

The barrel spews out words. Anyone with an EX score over 3.5 should raise their hands. Maybe half of our number raise the trademarked college student bent-armed salute, refined over the generations to convey as much participatory reluctance as possible. These, we’re told, are the room’s extroverts. They thrive on social interaction.

My score is way lower, a 1.6, so I don’t do anything. The barrel starts again. Now he wants everyone with an EX score below 1.75 to raise their hands. I do so. In my sleepy state, it takes a few moments to realize everyone’s looking at me. I’m the only one with a hand in the air.

Perfect. Of course the other introverts wouldn’t identify themselves. My professor addresses me. What traits do I think make me an introvert? How about the fact that I never speak up in class and I never do things to draw attention to myself? He nods, deeply contemplative of my sarcasm. “Fascinating,” he says.

frog

I’ve been told the best way to get humans to bond is to have them risk their lives together. Surely the second-best way to bond must be performing. Nothing’s scarier than getting in front of people and saying, “Hey, I’m worth paying attention to!”

Intending to meet people while nurturing my inner actor, I signed up for a 24 hour play event in my new town. For those unfamiliar with the concept: a series of (short) plays are written, rehearsed, and performed by various groups, all in a span of less than 24 hours. The crowds are usually pretty forgiving, because dropped lines, miscues, and ad libbing are common. Plenty of people show up just to enjoy the train wrecks.

They call roll. A man with a theatre-beard and a ponytail calls my name, a rare perfect pronunciation, and my hand shoots up. He points at me, then jerks his thumb towards the back. I’m with him. He calls several other names. Everyone meanders to the front.

Huge age differences in our group. It’s strange coming from the artificial college environment where you spend four years surrounded by perfect coevals. Very disconcerting to be interacting with this 30 something director, who apparently has a kid. I’m socializing with people who’ve procreated!? And then there’s the graying, slightly overweight man with the well-trimmed beard. He’s got the clear look of the bard; tons of Shakespeare has slipped past that beard. The third guy in our group also has an excellent beard. In fact, he carries with him the air of coolness, like the kind of guy at the top of every girl’s list. But at the same time, he’s reserved, not dominating conversation at all. An attractive person without an ego; I take an immediate dislike to him.

Why, I ask myself, did I not grow a beard? I’d fit in much better.

Then there are the girls. I list them second, but it goes without saying that they were noticed, and in greater detail, first. There’s the stage-hand playing actor tourist. And that’s fine, it’s one of the reasons 24 hour plays happen. Casual acting opportunities. She smiles a lot, slips catnaps into the rehearsal schedule, compliments everyone appropriately, and references her marriage as often as possible.

The bulk of my male awareness centers on the second girl. She initially repels.  Though clearly little older than myself, she dresses unironically like a 65 year old. Loafers. Waist-high pants. Thick, horn-rimmed glasses. On someone with more confidence, this could be a hipster look, but as if ashamed of herself, she avoids eye contact, muttering words straight into the carpet. But I know she’s pretty. A nice figure, great hair and skin. Hair, eyes, nose, and the rest roughly in their designated places. A degree and a nice job; a fondness for video games; knowledge of obscure writers. What more could I want in a girl? Still, it’s baffling to see such a beautiful girl shackle herself with self-defeating body language. It’s like the first 30 minutes of any Julia Roberts movie.

The final girl is the quintessential train wreck. An unemployable reservation child bumped from city to city her entire life, and finally settled on studying theatre. Devoid of prior theatre experience, she must be in it for the big paychecks. Her speech patterns speak to her lack of education. I tamp down the thought as soon as it pops into my head. But it’s there, for a second.

I hate the play almost as much as its author. Shoeless, he ambles through the audience house wearing athletic shorts and an Athletics jersey. His jacket hood is up, and his arms swing so much I worry he’ll spill his open beer.

Frustration froths inside throughout the first read-through. It’s a fable, in the sense that most of the characters are frogs, or talking trees, or halves of a hole. Yes, two actors work as a team to represent the absence of dirt. Fortunately, I’m cast as a man. Even if one-dimensional, predictable, and boring, at least the part’s the correct species, right?

Specifically, I’m an explorer. With each successive read-through, my character invades the pristine Caribbean island, home to the venerable leptodactylus fallax (or Chicken Frog). Bravely, each iteration of the explorer scrapes the potentially cancer-killing fungus from the Chicken Frog, basking for a few moments in the promise of altruism before succumbing to hunger and trying to eat the nearly extinct frog. Not surprisingly, the explorers’ gluttony are their undoing. Each tries to use a helpful talking tree for firewood, briefly, before being crushed by his own felled timber.

Again and again I become the explorer. Rehearsals start to seem endless. The play is only 6 minutes long and we’re given nearly 8 hours to rehearse. Line memorization is less of a problem than remembering who I actually am.

And yet, our born-again theatre major cannot get her lines straight. Long after our married girl masters speaking tree and our Julia Roberts perfects her holiness, this supposed theatre major cannot remember her 6-line rhyming poem. Professional theatres can fire people. Even community theatres can shuffle people around. In a 24 hour play, casts are stuck. Those of us versed in theatre understand this, and know that criticism at this point will only cause more harm. We can’t risk making driving her to quit. We need her now, even for just 6 little lines of frog poetry.

So we break out all of our memorization advice, every single trick we’ve picked up over the years. Still, she struggles. And then, in time, after putting in a great deal of practice, she gets worse. It’s a miracle. Still, we keep rehearsing. I explore more, becoming the prototypical blundering, environment squandering human over and over. Slowly, and quite against my will, I start to perceive nuances. The man’s obliviousness to the pleas of nature become less preachy and more tragic. The tree’s breathy whistling becomes truly ominous. The wailing of the holes actually speaks something into my heart about nihilism. A monologue from our doomed Chicken Frog, in the hands of our experienced bard, takes on deep undertones of loss and loneliness. Where before I’d seen a cliched, prideful man, I now see a well-meaning person led astray by temptation. Good intentions leading to a flawed result.

Surprisingly, our little play comes together. But our theatre major still can’t master her handful of lines. How frustrating, to watch her incapable of spitting out 6 measly little lines and walking offstage. That’s all the play calls for, all we ask. Just a little prologue to set-up the action. By this point she’s spending equal parts of time lamenting future failure and practicing lines. It’s not a good sign. Lining up behind the curtain, we grit our teeth against the worst.

The curtain opens. Frog-man, tree, and two hole halves kneel, sit, or stand frozen. I wait offstage. The frog-girl, our theatre major, crosses to center stage. Her first line comes out. Then the second, and the third. The first five come out beautifully, followed by 9/10ths of the 6th… and then she stops. Slowly, the frog-girl turns and exits. Not perfect, but enough to get the point across. The main action commences. We execute just as rehearsed. Lying crumpled in a heap with the holes and the tree, a dead frog prostrated just beyond, I realize that the frog girl lives. Of everyone, the frog girl lives. She’s our protagonist.

Our theatre major got more out of that experience than the rest of us. We put on a performance. She faced a fear.

Now I’ve got the number of a beautiful, unattractive girl in my phone. What will I do with it?

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It’s your second ever Quaker Meeting of Friends. You get out of your car just as another man dismounts his bike. Where’s your bike? What does driving say about your environmental priorities? You say hi automatically. He says hi back, of course, since he’s not a jerk. Inside, you’re panicking. Is it okay to talk outside? You know that people aren’t supposed to talk during the Meeting. But you’re still outside. That’s different, right? You resolve to hold open the door for him, hoping that makes up for your impulsive greeting.

You know a Quaker Meeting isn’t like your standard church service. No pastor paces back and forth, extemporizing on the truth of the universe; there is no pastor. Nobody gets up to sing; there is no choir. Nobody welcomes you at the door. You go straight to your seat. It doesn’t matter where you sit, because everybody’s got the same view. Every chair is turned towards the center, so you can see everyone. Not that you expect much. The others aren’t that interesting to watch; they’ll just be sitting, contemplating the inner truth we all have stashed away inside us. But you get the sense that you shouldn’t be watching other people. Eyes should be closed or aimed at the trees outside the window, or at a corner, or at the floor, or at your laces. If only you’d brought a pair of chocos. Then you wouldn’t stick out so much.

Some people will be breathing deeply, eyes shut, almost like they’re meditating. A part of you rejects the idea of social security pulling white folks meditating, so you decide it’s something else. Maybe they really are communing with the spirit inside them, as they claim. You give that a try. The spirit’s there all right. That familiar feeling, from when you were younger, that sensation of interacting with God. You correct yourself: some undefined higher power. That spine tingling feeling which, in the moment, is better than an orgasm. And you do your best not to think about sex. Anything but sex. You’re not sure if the Quakers have everything right, but you have this feeling that even if God doesn’t exist he’d surely burst into existence to scold you for fantasizing in the midst of a spiritual act.

It’s not that hard, to forget sex. All of the others are a good deal older, way out of your range. Except that one woman, but she’s still ten years your senior. What if Quakers are a dying breed? Why don’t they appeal to your generation? Explanations from your statistics classes spring forward: small sample size. Maybe this is an anomaly. You decide it’s not. Your generation wants to do something. Waiting around is for failures. It’s what gets you shoved off the meritocracy ladder. Your generation’s god, when he exists, expects you to be proactive. There’s no inner voice with spiritual wisdom. When you sit in a silent room for an hour, that hour of your life has just been thrown against a wall and shot. You don’t get it back. No ROI for introspection. A crow caws outside, mocking the silence.

You remember that someone once told you that you’ve got a gift for introspection. Suddenly it has value again. You realize that you’re not quaking in good faith. So you clear your mind again. That’s when the story comes back. It’s that novel idea you’ve never sat down to write out. You know you don’t need to. It won’t disappear like other ideas; day after day you get it back. Little pieces of its world get revealed, dependable advent candies of inspiration.

This time’s different though. Your mind is truly bored, maybe for the first time in your life. Dull days have netflix. Dentist offices have magazines. Long car rides have shifting views, or maybe fitful sleep. But this Meeting just has the inside of your head. No distractions, no options but creation. The story goes further today. You see more of the characters than ever before. Faces come as clear as day. You hear voices practically. The beginning thrills, the middle pulls, and the end approaches. You’ve almost got it.

And then they’re shaking hands. Someone, an elder somewhere, must have started it. That’s the signal that the Meeting’s over. You’re done. One man,  he must be the elder, asks if anyone felt any stirrings to speak from the spirit. So you could have talked, as long as it was a message from the spirit. Nobody claims a revelation. Anything else someone would like to share, he asks. A woman comments on the crow, that it was pretty. You wonder for a second if she did something wrong, in speaking up, if she violated some sort of taboo since the elder doesn’t praise her opinion. Then it occurs to you that he might be deliberately reserving judgment. Why would it be his place to judge her feelings on beauty?

They make announcements, attending to the minutiae that must exist to keep any grouping of people tumbling along. Then a break for fellowship. A woman, prematurely graying, comes forward to speak with you, asking you about your life in a small talk sense. So you tell her, revealing a bit more than you intended. It’s big talk now. For some reason, she reciprocates, talking about her children. Right now they’re sleeping, and will probably make it to a later service. The oldest is in high school, struggling to reconcile biblical and contemporary ideas of equality. You wish him luck. His youngest brother still plays with blocks, so nobody makes him go to the Meeting. The middle child reads books during Meetings and insists he’s an atheist. An image of that atheist friend you have pops into your head. Then you wonder why reading books couldn’t make you an atheist too.

Unconsciously, your body position shifts. You hear what your body language is saying. Arms crossed, you must be trying to emotionally cut yourself off from this woman, from the big talk. You nod and smile, knowing that you won’t be able to reveal anything else, at least not in this conversation, at least not today.

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A recent shift away from doctrinal Christianity left me with many estranged friends. It’s a weird place to be, because I recognize that in a lot of cases we still care about each other, but there’s a wall between us. And I, as the undeniable builder of the wall, have felt and feel powerless to fix things. Yet, a few weeks ago, one old friend reached over that wall and tossed me a book. It was Donald Miller’s “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.” I read it.

On the surface, Miller’s book is the story of how his first big hit, Blue Like Jazz, became a movie. But it’s really about what he learned from that process: that a truly well-lived life resembles a story. The characters care about something. They struggle. And then, hopefully, they succeed.

It’s rare for me to commit to just one book at a time. Often I’ll have a fiction book and a non-fiction book going at the same time; one keeps me sane and the other gives me useless facts to lord over other people at parties. Since my religious falling out, I’ve also been spending each morning reading essays on religion and meditating. It’s a decent surrogate for the Bible reading and prayer which used to fill my mornings. The latest essay is by McTaggart, “God, Evil, and Immortality.” You know, easy stuff. McTaggart outlines why, in his eyes, the presence of evil in the world necessarily precludes God’s omnipotence. If God is truly all-powerful, he must be permitting evil to exist. If God allows evil, he cannot be called good. And if God isn’t good, he isn’t a god we should worship. Or so it goes.

As careful as McTaggart may have been in covering his philosophical bases, he overlooked what is now a pretty common explanation for this seeming contradiction: God is a storyteller. Evil makes creation complete, just like a story without a villain isn’t really worth reading or watching. I’d heard this explanation before, but thought of it as merely quaint. However, juxtaposed against McTaggart’s rigorous analysis, this pithy explanation gained new esteem in my eyes. This seemed to be an explanation which McTaggart fails to address.

If I had to guess, I would suspect McTaggart would argue that a truly omnipotent God could devise a way for stories to be meaningful without the presence of evil. He dispenses with the argument in favor of free will in this kind of fashion. In reply, I would have to question the ability of a being of limited perspective (e.g., man) to evaluate the comparative worth of any one of the theoretically infinite variations on what it means for a story to be meaningful. I’ll admit, this response just returns us to our circular-thinking origin point. If God is omnipotent, the explanations for his existence hold up; if he is not, they don’t. Circularity often seems to be the best I can do when dealing with philosophy.

Then what do I find in Miller’s book, just a few minutes later, but the statement: “God is a master storyteller.” A little surprising to see this idea come at me from two different directions. I like it. I enjoy thinking of myself as being merely a character in a story. Much less pressure that way. But on closer examination, I feel that the story explanation solves less than I might hope. God’s story doesn’t necessarily have to follow the Christian narrative. The knowledge that there is some kind of plan doesn’t confirm that the plan is good. Too often I see people jump from making a general argument for human spirituality (e.g., why do we perceive beauty?) and then claim they’ve proven there is a God. And then: if God, then obviously Christianity. If Christianity, then clearly the Bible. If the Bible, then the Springfield First Southern Baptist Church’s interpretation.

Why can’t the “story” be the fall of Christianity? I’m not necessarily saying it should be. I think Christianity is well-suited to modernity because it’s so adaptable. I just think we can’t eliminate any possibilities.

And if I really am just a character, and God’s holding the script somewhere, calling my lines from the wings, does this really change the way I’m going to live my life? As much as people like talking about different “possible” futures, there is, and always has been, only one way that the world actually “will” turn out. Leave those suggested alternative universes aside, and admit that something was always going to happen in the future. So our world’s always been predetermined, at least in a sense. If there is a plan, then I’m part of it whether I know or not.

Reading Miller’s book was the final impetus to get me to start this blog. I want to live a story-filled life. Based on prior experience, I know that one of the best ways to bring about change is to kick introspection into overdrive. The additional practice writing certainly couldn’t hurt.

And who knows, I might be the most important character. Maybe I’m the villain.

Really, this blog exists because I want to be accountable for the way I live my life. Soon, I’ll be going through a massive transition, taking on a new job, my first place, new friends, and complete interpersonal freedom. Hermit or socialite. Friend or recluse. It’s really 100% up to me. Fun, fun, fun. But it is. Truly. Writing for an audience is a good thing. Journaling has been wonderful for me over the years, and the worst consequence I could imagine coming out of this blog would be for me to cease keeping that personal log. There’s no better way to befriend yourself. However, blogging might be a good way to befriend the world.

My hope is to be 1) useful and 2) entertaining. Being funny is in my mind not just desirable, but a duty. I’ve occasionally written comedy for a breakout sketch comedy group in Houston called Be Kind to Strangers. Telling stories that make people laugh is one of the most satisfying pursuits I’ve ever undertaken. Check out some of their stuff (and a little of my own work) at bekindtostrangers.blogspot.com.