Hello, my name is Joe

Remember this song?

Hello, my name is Joe.  I work in a button factory.  I have a wife, a dog and a family.  One day, my boss came up to me and said, “Hey Joe are you busy?” and I said “No.”  He said “Ok, turn the button with your left hand.”

It goes on a few verses to add your right hand, left foot and right foot until in the fifth verse Joe answers “Yes” to his boss’s question.

Life is sort of like that.  One day, you may wake up and find yourself asking “How in the hell did I get hoodwinked into turning all these fucking buttons?”

That happened to me a little while ago.  After a long period of intense schooling and work that did not permit any life outside of my professional pursuits, including any care for the soul, I found a job that suddenly permitted me time outside of work.  Far from being a welcome relief, this extra time simply became the floodplain into which years of dammed thoughts and emotions burst forth.

I began to feel constrained by my marriage and my family and my newly “safe” career – by my responsible, boring adult life.  What the fuck happened?  This is not what I signed up for; this is not what I wanted.  What I woke up to wanting was to return to a passionate, fun-filled embrace of life where every moment was higher than the previous one.  I wanted to be in a relationship of joyous acceptance with a fun, carefree woman who was consumed in her love for me as much as I was consumed in my love for her, where we had no other cares or concerns other than exploring the world and each other, together, with eyes and hearts wide open.  Freedom and possibility loomed large.

But when I refocused my eyes from their farsighted dreaming to the wakeful reality of my life what I saw was a house with a few holes in the walls that sat unrepaired for years, the yard laid waste by my children, laundry a permanent fixture on the living room couch, dirty dishes the newest kitchen accessory, children begging for attention, an exhausted wife sitting on a chair lost in a game, a show or a book on an ipad just barely hanging on to her sanity with barely a bit of emotional energy left for me to spend an hour or two with me every couple of days.  Yeah, it was grim.

The pain of seeing what I longed for compared with what I had was exquisite.  Accepting the fact that the life I was leading was not the life that I wanted was extraordinarily difficult.  There is so much fear and unknown wrapped up in facing our most difficult, and perhaps shameful, thoughts and feelings.  Part of it is the feeling of not knowing what it all means.  What does it mean that I’m living a life I didn’t think I’d be living?  What does it mean that I don’t have what I want?  This is likely why we avoid facing it for as long as possible.

I realized that I had made decisions that, in retrospect, were poorly approached and poorly executed.  I married young when my wife and I were in love enough to want to be together but not loving  (or mature) enough to refrain from hurting one another deeply. I also spent many of these early years in school, racking up a small (negative) fortune in student loans.  I brought children into the world.  In short, I spent the years of my life when I could have been doing whatever I wanted doing things that I thought “should” be done – things that went a long way to creating the obligations I now bear.

Unfortunately, time does not heal all wounds, but merely covers them with scar tissue.  The bursting of the dam flooded me with these unresolved pains of years past.  I began to think about whether I would be better off leaving my marriage and seeking my happiness in the wide world.  I began to think what it would be like to start “meeting people” again, trying to develop new relationships.  In my mind’s eye, I fleshed out the type of woman that I would seek – in addition to being fun, carefree, loving and accepting, I would want to be with someone that is passionate, beautiful, smart, athletic and outdoorsy.  My fantasies were wonderfully freeing to explore – I lived entire episodes of life in my mind without any fear – of consequences at home or of rejection “out there”.

At the same time, I contemplated two contemporaneous real-life examples of men who had left their wives and families to seek their happiness with another woman – one with whom I have a close relationship and another whom I read about in an article online.  Circumscribing their stories, the takeaway was succinctly put by the man in the online article.  He described the crux of his situation to his newfound beau – “The choice is pain or more pain.”  I felt for this man.  I felt for my friend.  I understood exactly how they felt, and I did not and do not fault them for trying to make the right decisions for them and their situations.

I decided to stay with my wife for two reasons.  The first is that while I was imagining a wild and carefree life with “the woman of my dreams”, I carried my fantasy to its logical conclusion…the woman of my dreams would ultimately grow restless and say, “Ok.  That’s enough.  I want a house and kids and to move on to the next stage of life.  I feel like I’m stagnating.”  Call it a nesting instinct or what you will, but I guarantee you that no matter the relationship, the person you start out with will not long remain that person (and neither will you).  In other words, I would end up in exactly the same scenario that I’m in now.  And wouldn’t you know it?  The woman I described as my “dream woman”?  It described none other than my wife.  The few characteristics that I felt were lacking were not lacking so much as prevented from expression.  Once we began discussing our scabbed-over scars and let go of our pain, we freed ourselves to be for one another what we had always wanted and longed for.  It also freed us to be able to say “this is what makes me happy; this is what I need” and to be able to meaningfully sacrifice for one another’s happiness.

The second reason is that I agreed with the man in the internet article:  the choice really is between pain and more pain, but his phrasing lacks pronouns.  Re-worded, it goes like this:  “the choice is my pain or their pain.”  Leaving my wife and kids to seek my own happiness at their expense was…unimaginably stupid, so I chose my own pain.  And it’s not what you might think.  My pain wasn’t begrudgingly accepting a life I didn’t want.  It was allowing that part of me to die that mourned the mistakes of my past so that a love for the present could be given space to grow, like an old rotten tree crashing to the forest floor clearing room in the canopy for young shoots to bask in the sun’s radiance.

Hello, my name is Joe, and I work in a button factory.  I have a wife, a dog and a family.  One day I decided to embrace the pain of my past so that I could finally live in the present.  I push the buttons I need to in order to enable my happiness and the happiness of my wife and family and friends.  That is my life, and it is enough.

My Penis

As a male, I am terribly offended by my penis.  It has the gall to try to think for me.  On occasion, it will assess the data stream from my eyes and ears and tell my brain when pleasing sights and sounds intercept me “I want to get in there” without regard for the social or personal implications of such an action.  When I was younger, this happened quite often.  As a brother of a high-school friend put it when asked whether he would have sex with so-and-so (who wasn’t considered to be an attractive specimen), “a hole’s a hole,” and so an unchecked penis would likely go foraging for whatever shelter would have it. 

Now, however, my brain is becoming increasingly agitated with my penis’ lack of discretion and discernment.  The reason, you see, is that my brain decided that mere copulation just wasn’t doing it any more.  I have been married for what I consider to be a long time.  I have had sex with my wife many hundreds of times, probably in the neighborhood of a thousand, give or take.  And each year it gets better.

How, you might ask?  Well, it certainly has nothing to do with our bodies.  Each year we get a little further away from the youth-oriented picture of perfectly toned sexuality portrayed in the media and voraciously consumed by penises all over.   No, it’s all in the eyes.

It took many years and many discussions and many fights, but my wife now knows me through and through, and I know her through and through.  I am not proud of each part of me, and I still do not enjoy when certain parts are brought into the light of day, but each of those parts, including those that are so, so socially unacceptable, have seen the light of her day and have been accepted with a minimum of resignation, even if not fully understood.

When I look into her eyes when we make love, I see her looking into my bare and naked and vulnerable soul, and I see love.  I see tender acceptance.  Her tender acceptance of me in her eyes in that moment is far more meaningful than the physical acceptance of my body into hers.  Caresses no longer touch only the surface, but signify fondness for my thoughts, my desires, my fears and even my shame.  It is a wonderful thing to lay bare your shame and to have it treated gently, with love and tenderness and understanding.  It is a far more powerful aphrodisiac than anything that can be drawn from the physical senses.

This is not to demean the art of the quickie.  Time, energy and biochemistry may all combine to require satiation of the biochemistry, which can do wonders to keep the engine of marriage from seizing, but to be totally consumed by the experience….to be consumed requires the connection.  It requires the eyes.

So, to my penis I say SHUT UP.  You may still be necessary, but you are no longer sufficient.  It’s the eyes that have it.

Fear and Hope

It is said that fear and greed make Wall Street go ‘round.  I look around me and I would say that fear and hope make the world go ‘round.

I was raised in a very authoritarian household where my father’s will was sufficient for any and all decisions and actions in the household.  He was not to be disobeyed.  For me, the fear of “the worst that could happen” had always centered around physical damage.  I had learned early enough to close myself off emotionally, so further emotional damage was not of particular concern to me, but it seemed to be the manner of control over my mother and my sister.  Or perhaps I simply was incapable of identifying it as it happened to me.  The physical damage was easy to see, and feel.

Discipline was enforced with a belt or a hand and without getting into the gory details, I will objectively say that I was abused.  However, as I got older and taller and stronger, my fear of physical punishment waned, and so I began to rebel, as all teenagers are wont to do.  Notwithstanding my newfound assertiveness, a lasting lesson had been impressed upon me:  my father (and by extension I came to learn in the decades afterwards, any authority figure) knew what was best, and I was not capable of venturing into the world on my own.  Such is the unseen damage I had not been able to identify or catalogue.

The ultimate break from my father was both liberating and imprisoning.  I left my parents to join a church – in essence, trading one authority figure for another, one all-knowing power for another.  The church, however, offered one thing my father had not – a reason for the commandments written from heaven: to “keep us safe”.  Sunday lessons could ultimately be boiled down to “obey and you will be safe.” Eventually I came to realize that these Sunday lessons veiled a lesson equally damaging in its own way to my father’s lessons – that you should be afraid if you don’t obey.

You won’t be safe.  You won’t be happy.  But it goes beyond simple platitudes and it accuses the thing that the church purports to uphold above all else – the freedom to choose.  Sure, you can choose, but if you don’t choose the way we tell you to choose, then you’re choosing the wrong.  In other words, don’t bother thinking about things for yourself, but follow our pat advice and you’ll “be safe.”

I no longer desire to “be safe,” at least as defined by others.  I no longer fear my competence to make up my own mind based on my own experiences, thoughts, feelings and learning.  I want to venture into the world, following my own conscience, as educated by the teachers I have chosen for myself.  As opportunities and choices present themselves to me, I no longer wish to cower in fear of “what might happen”.  I now wish only to embrace the risk inherent in “what could be.”

Struggling with a Life that You Didn’t Think You’d Have

I am somewhat disappointed in this article Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy.  It’s not that I didn’t chuckle at the truth contained therein.  It’s not that I think the article was wrong in any particular way.  But it’s myopic.  It’s not the whole story.

The gist of the article if you haven’t read it or if it becomes unavailable is that:

1)   Happiness = Reality (minus) Expectations.  If reality exceeds expectations, you’re happy; if vice versa, you’re unhappy.

2)   Generation Yers are Delusional [in their expectations and, due to facebook image crafting, believe everyone is doing much better than they]

3)   Therefore they are unhappy.

Setting aside for the moment the obvious problems with oversimplification, I was more focused on the myopia that lead the author to think this was unique to Generation Yers – or even to Generation Yers’ career happiness.

First, whether or not this is uniquely American, I do not know (but at least in *********, the country of my ancestry, this is not the case), but there is an assumption in the U.S. that a career (and perhaps by extension the consumption it permits) is the sole or main measure of human worth or a life’s success.

A few years ago, while my life was consumed by a “prestigious” and “sophisticated” job that generated a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance, I slowly realized that I was fat and unhappy, bordering on depressed (or fully seven layers in, according to my wife).  I began to look at everything I was doing as completely pointless.  Nothing mattered.  I suppose it was a problem of perspective – given a large enough time or geographic scale, one could fairly claim that nothing anyone does matters.

But then, the epiphany!  If nothing matters objectively, then anything can matter subjectively!  If God or the Universe or History cares not what I do, then I can do whatever I want.  But what is it I want?  The Happiness Blog pointed me in the right direction with a valuable lesson – You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.  Happiness was no longer an ephemeral concept without my grasp.  Because nothing matters, anything can matter, and we decide what matters.  It’s nothing more than a choice.  And choices have consequences or trade-offs.

Now, a few years removed from a consuming job, and at the expense of my career, I have chosen to have a life rich in experiences.  Most of these experiences involve love – my family, my closest friends, my other friends, my hobbies.  I chase what matters to me even though none of these things Matter in the sense that there’s a “Big Book of Matter” written by God or the Universe that determines what things matter and what things don’t.  Nothing is but what we make of it.

Second, struggling with a life that you didn’t think you’d have is not a problem singular to Generation Yers.  It’s so obviously one of general human application that it is…befuddling that commentators focus so much on the “spoiled” Generation Y.  Guess what?  Life will teach them hard lessons in due time.  The fact that some commentators await Gen Yers’ introduction to the potholes of life with glee says much more about the commentator than the subject of comment.

Finally, this article, although not explicit, appears to contain what many of these types of articles contain – implicit inter-generational blame.  The absurdity of inter-generational blame is apparent, regardless of the direction, but it’s most absurd when a child is mocked and blamed for absorbing lessons taught and beliefs instilled.  In the case of this article, Gen Yers are implicitly mocked for “believing they are special” because their parents told them “that they could be whatever they wanted to be, instilling the special protagonist identity deep within their psyches.”

In short, we’re all just animals on a rock floating in space making meaning in our brief span of consciousness.  Generations before us have done it; generations after us will do it.  What makes this generation of young adults worthy of singling out for praise, mockery or any other comment?

No One Thinks That

I find those with convictions to be unconvincing.  You’ll find them all over the place – in politics, in your workplace, in your churches and in your social circles.  Many are so certain that their point of view is correct that they not only stop questioning the world around them, they proselytize to convince others to stop questioning and to start accepting their convictions.

The world is a fascinating place and our place in this world is far from certain.  Life is full of ambiguity.  It is full of nuance.  Rarely is a person of conviction correct, because the answer is rarely “the” answer.

I have no problem with those who live by their convictions, since in reality convictions underlie every action and choice ever made by any person ever. Some may be put off by the word “conviction”, but synonyms include morals, guiding principles, teachings, paradigms, beliefs, conscience.  Where my concern arises is that the longer those convictions remain unquestioned or even unexamined, the more convinced we become of their correctness while simultaneously the more disconnected from reality we become.

In reality, there are multiple acceptable solutions to any given problem, and in most cases, we won’t know whether the answer we have chosen was “right” until a choice has been made, consequences have followed and a post-mortem is performed.  My view is not limited to discrete “problems” and “solutions”, but is also broadly applicable to the ways in which we think, act and live – whether we have lived “correctly” will perhaps not often be questioned or answered until we are at the end.

We often focus much on the most visible part of the process – the end result, which may be an arrived-at solution, a decision made or a chosen lifestyle.  The less visible part is perhaps more important and it is on this that I focus – the process used to arrive at the end result.  Do we simply move forward by our convictions without much thought as to why or do we move forward in a thoughtful, reasoned and deliberate manner?  Do we choose our convictions or were they chosen for us?  Do we act or are we acted upon?

For my part, I wish to go through life with my eyes wide open.