Monday, September 29, 2014

On having it coming

We all got it coming, kid. 
—William Munny, Unforgiven
Someone I loved hit me once.

I can tell you exactly when and where: Sunday, January 22, 1984, in a service hallway in the Flour Mill apartment complex in Georgetown. I was a sophomore in college. One of that year’s leaders of Mask & Bauble, our theater group, was hosting a Super Bowl party. Washington’s team lost ignominiously to Oakland that year, 38-9, but I left before the game ended.

The person who hit me was someone I’d had a romantic relationship with, but at that point we hadn’t been dating for almost a year. He was seeing someone else, and so was I, but our breakup had been more than usually complicated, with some long-term repercussions. I was only 18; he was only a couple of years older. We’d been avoiding each other, but I’d gone to that party knowing it was likely I would see him, because I wanted to see him. Sometimes it works that way.

I don’t remember why or how we wound up alone in that hallway, but I’m sure it was because I wanted to talk to him, and he wanted to avoid a scene. I don’t remember what I said to him. What I remember is an open hand striking my cheek, and a small popping sound because my mouth had dropped open as I realized he really was going to hit me. Not hard — he didn’t knock out any teeth, he didn’t leave a mark. And I remember what I thought:
I guess I had that coming. 
Yesterday my friend Sue Lin and I had breakfast at a funky coffee house in downtown Baltimore, and she gestured to me as we sat down. “Do you see what that girl’s wearing?” she asked.

I almost gasped. A very young woman at the bar was wearing a Ray Rice t-shirt. She was flirting energetically with the young man beside her, whom I assume was her boyfriend. It was hard not to leap to conclusions about her, about them, even (or especially) when she pulled out her card and paid for their breakfast. During breakfast I saw her turn a couple of times on her barstool and look over her shoulder, as if she expected people to be reacting to her shirt, as if she were wearing it to make some kind of statement.

They left before we did. I suppressed the impulse to jump up and intercept her on the way to the door. What could I have said to her? What should I have asked? I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

If you haven’t seen the video of Ray Rice knocking his girlfriend out, don’t watch it. What it shows is Ray Rice and his fiancĂ©e having an argument before they get on the elevator, and it continuing once they’re in the elevator. She’s a slender woman; he’s an NFL running back. She flies at him, apparently scolding, and he cold-cocks her with a punch to the face. She goes down like a deflated balloon, and she is out. He drags her out of the elevator, then picks her up at the waist like a blow-up doll and drops her, still unconscious, immediately outside the elevator door while a hotel security manager looks on.

The Ravens have suspended Ray Rice indefinitely, but that wasn’t what happened first. What happened first was a press conference at which Janay Rice, having married the man who punched her, apologized for her role in the incident.
I guess I had that coming. 
Even now, I’m ashamed of my own behavior when I think of that January afternoon. To do that young man justice, years later I got a handwritten note from him, apologizing — for the slap, presumably, and for other things. I would like to say here, 30 years late, that I’m sorry for the damage I did him, too.




Nobody has that coming. Nobody. Not in an elevator, not on a football field, not in a hockey rink, not on a playground. If you strike someone in anger, you are disqualified from further play. You leave the field. You apologize, you make amends, you get whatever help you need to learn more appropriate ways to manage your anger.

So I guess what I want to ask that girl I saw at Spoons yesterday — what I would ask her, if I ever see her again — is, “Do you think you have it coming? Do you?”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

On human nature, nationalism and self-determination

Scots are voting on independence today. I'm not a Scot, and I don't vote in the United Kingdom. I have no opinion on the referendum, nor am I entitled to have one. But the debate has stirred a lot of thoughts in my distracted brain.

Above the auditorium entrance in Georgetown's Intercultural Center, which houses its School of Foreign Service, is a quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist:
"The age of nations is past. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudices and build the earth."
As a 16-year-old college freshman more than 30 years ago, I believed that. I wanted to do that. I saw that the division between our side and theirs was artificial and unsustainable, and I believed we were moving toward a new era of communication and peace.

This is why it's always young people who lead revolutions.

It's not cynical to say that human beings can't be trusted to do the right thing, it's history. The gift and curse of our creation is free will: we are capable of great goodness and great evil, but mostly we incline to indulgence and expedience. As an old boss of mine liked to say, we are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. That's not a moral judgment, that's just biology. We breathe, we excrete, we eat, we reproduce. We fear darkness and danger, so we band together, and then we fight with each other because no group allows every member to get everything they want (Yeats on Ireland: "Great hatred, little room"). But because we are human and not rats, we yearn for meaning and we dream of freedom.

Teilhard wrote about nationalism in the wake of the Great War, where he had served as a stretcher-bearer at the first Battle of the Marne, and the battles of Champagne and Verdun. After the war, he got a doctorate in geology, and he spent most of the rest of his life doing paleontological fieldwork in China. What he learned and what he found gave him a mystical insight into the universality of the human condition, over both time and geography, and an understanding of the futility and wasted energy of national boundaries.

Because the first thing that nationalism does, Teilhard understood, is dictate who does and doesn't belong to a group. We are Us; you are Them. We celebrate Us, we reject Them, like that "Simpsons" episode about the old enmity between Springfield and Shelbyville. If you believe, as Teilhard did, as I do, in an omnipresent and all-forgiving God that created us all, there is no Them. Who would be Them? Who does God call "Them"?

Do away with nationalism, then, but it leaves us still with the drive to self-determination, which is not only a human desire but also, in this post-Eden exile, a human obligation. Especially now, in 2014, when our religions seem to be failing us and our governments and public institutions have become too large and complex to be held accountable in any meaningful way, we crave some sense of agency over our own lives. Or at least I do, which is why I have been self-employed for the past 15 years, and why I moved to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, and why — or at least one reason why — I never married. It's not a noble thing; it's not so far removed from my three-year-old self, who snatched away utensils, washcloths, and items of clothing from adults with a shove and "By myself!" It's the teenager's manifesto: You're not gonna tell me what to do, man.

The problem with insisting on independence, I have found as I approach my sixth decade, is that people will give it to you. Cooperation and collaboration take time, energy, compassion and compromise. It is, in the short term, often harder to do something as a team than on one's own. It's just that teams can do more, for longer, without tapping out every one of their members.

My big lesson, after almost five decades on this planet, is that it's a lot harder to be a good team member than it is to be a solo operator. The mistake people make — or at least, the mistake I made, and continue to try to correct in myself — is thinking that belonging to a team means that the team comes first, and that the team's interests override its individual members'. The best teams balance the needs of the group with the needs of the individuals, and operate on a constant cycle of feedback: What do you need? What do we need? How are we doing? What are we doing? It's hard, and the bigger the group, the harder it gets.

So maybe Scotland has the right idea: take it down a notch. Make the group smaller, so that we all listen better. Can we get to a point where no country's big enough to marshal an arsenal that will destroy the world? That's probably naive. It's certainly romantic. But I watch today's election with fascination and hope. Whatever the outcome, it would be nice if it meant everyone listened to each other a little more closely.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Freelancing and the Law of Diminishing Returns

diminishing returns, also called law of diminishing returns or principle of diminishing marginal productivity, economic law stating that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output.

Encyclopedia Brittanica

I could give you anything but time.
Elvis Costello

It's Labor Day, and I'm working. I worked yesterday, too. I worked Saturday. This is the nature of things when you have clients instead of employers, and when your clients pay for prompt attention and rapid response. If I want to take time off, even a day, I have to let clients know in advance; I've learned this by making the mistake of not letting clients know in advance. A lot of what I do is not especially time-sensitive — does it make a difference, really, if you get manuscript edits back on Wednesday instead of Monday? — but some of it is, and some of the work I do is not the kind you can leave for 24 hours at a stretch without some kind of backup in place. I have no backup. That's also a common issue for freelancers. 

I'd hoped to take a week off in July. I announced it to my clients well in advance. I had plans, or at least plans to do nothing, for at least five days and maybe as long as seven. But then one of my clients got an offer, and in turn made me an offer, neither of us could refuse. I figured I'd find a week to take off in August. 

Instead, this August was the busiest I've ever had, in 15 years of freelancing. I turned work down in August. I'm still catching up. And I am exhausted. 

A friend said to me yesterday that I work all the time, and it was meant as a personal criticism, not as a compliment. I admitted it. How could I deny it? I've gotten myself into a spiral I don't know how to break, though I see that it is unsustainable. I feel so anxious, all the time, about so many things I can't control. The only reliable remedy I've found for that anxiety is completing a task for a client, and the only sure motivator for me is an external deadline. So I keep the to-do list full, and I move from task to task, and I am so tired and distracted I put my phone in the dryer yesterday. (I heard it thunking before any damage was done.) 

I need — I need — what do I need? It's more than a single day off, but I don't know what. 

A Facebook meme is going around about the Ten Books that Have Stayed With You, and I posted my list last week after Erin Mitchell tagged me. One of the books I always include on that list is Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. My mother gave me a copy for Confirmation, and it ranks second (only behind John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things) as the book I've most often given other people. This morning I pulled it out again, and found this:
I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact — to borrow from the language of the saints — to live "in grace" as much of the time as possible.
If I could find that place, I tell myself, I would not need to be so busy. If I were not so busy, I tell myself, I could find that place. 

I have no answers to this.