My Biases

A fair point of criticism that could be lobbed my way is that my divorce has made me bitter.  

It is true that I didn’t want the divorce at the time.  I loved my ex-husband madly, without limits, and without reason.  In the final analysis, you could argue that it was his choice to end the marriage.  I certainly had shown no signs of giving up on him.  

From a certain angle, blaming our divorce on cultural differences might also be understood as a sign that I am looking for a scapegoat.  Anything to avoid saying out loud that he didn’t love me enough.

Well, he didn’t love me enough.  

Let me tell you about my ex-husband.  He was beautiful.  Charming.  Intelligent.  Funny.  Ambitious.  Good lord, was he handsome.   He spoke four languages.  I adored his mother.  His nieces and nephews were so sweet.  His siblings were endlessly kind.  I had experiences with him that I would have never had access to with another man.  

And yet.

Everything was always someone else’s fault.  He may not have graduated with a Bachelor’s yet, fifteen years after I met him.  And last I heard, that failure was everyone’s fault but his.  

He had all the pride in the world, but so little to be proud of.  

In the end, his sister-in-law said to me “Beda, we don’t understand.  We know what you did for him.”

I made him feel stupid.  When I asked him to think outside the box, he refused and leaned on a faceless, nameless Imam.  I asked him if God was going to come back.  He said yes.  I asked him if he was going to have to stand before God and answer for his time on earth.  He said yes.  I asked him if that Imam was going to put his hand up from the back, interrupt proceedings, and inform God that he, the Imam, was taking responsibility for my ex’s behavior.

“Why do you have to make me feel stupid about my religion.”

I remember that conversation.  Explicitly.  We were in the shower.  We’d been talking about having kids, raising them.  The specter of Ramadan and 12 year olds who were thirsty in the middle of summer and me having to tell them no, they can’t have water.  

Our marriage died in that shower, on that day.  It just took a long time to realize that it was irrevocably dead.  

I wasn’t perfect.  I was young and immature.  I was pragmatic when he needed me to be a die-hard romantic.  I had these ideas about what a marriage was supposed to be and I kept trying to turn us into the picture I wanted instead of accepting what we were.  I was inexperienced: I didn’t have another long term relationship as a point of reference.  I was hard-headed.  I fought to win.  

Before we were married, my Dad pulled him aside and said, “Son, there isn’t anything in 2,000 years of culture or breeding that has prepared you to be married to this woman.”  My dad was right.  Didn’t stop my dad from loving him, from mentoring him, from employing him.  But he was right.  

So…  sour grapes?  Maybe.  But also years of watching him and his friends in our home and in Morocco.  Observing their relationships disintegrate one by one.   Being a part of his family and therefore as much of an insider as I could possibly be.  I was there for Al Eid when the butcher came and slaughtered four sheep on the rooftop deck of his mother’s house.  Heard his family’s sympathy for his brother’s wife, who had married the crazy brother.  But no one could say that.  No one could confront him.  They just listened to the screaming in unhappy silence.  To do anything else would have been shameful.  Or the other brother, the alcoholic whose hands shook until he started drinking again at 10 and may or may not have been bisexual.  All this shit that they couldn’t talk about and so it just festered.  

I was there in a way that the analysts and the diplomats haven’t been.  Not that I know everything they know, just that they don’t know everything I know.  They haven’t slept in that bed and it’s different, once you have.  

Which is to say that Islam isn’t bad, or at least its holy text is on par with Christianity.  Muslims are people, just like any other people: some are wonderful, some are awful, most are somewhere in-between, or both in different ways.  Islamic culture isn’t …  Okay, it’s sub-optimal.  And I say that having fallen in love with walking your bread dough to the local bakers to have it baked while you go to the Hamam.  And avocado juice.  And easy smiles.  Helpful, generous, open people.  Promising young men living with a corrupt government, sitting around and playing cards for spending money because they couldn’t find jobs with their free university education.  Things stay the same because Inshallah is the answer to every question.  When do you want to meet?  <shrug> Inshallah.  Retirement planning?  Inshallah.  Address government corruption?  Inshallah.  

Being there, drinking coffee, people-watching… it’s beautiful.  Perhaps even more so because it is doomed.  The trajectory of history seems to be pointing in the direction of reason, plurality, and technology.  The harder the lumpheads (of any persuasion) try to drag the whole thing backwards, the more certain we can be of a rebound.  Time moves forward, at least experientially.  The quantum physicists might have other views, but the rest of us experience the relentless march of time in a single direction.  We get smarter, and nothing is lost even if we fall, one-by-one, victims of that march.  

“We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.”  Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

My Biases

Could I Be a Conservative?

I mean, theoretically, if Conservative weren’t tainted with asshole in much the same way Feminism has been tainted with joyless, anti-sex, anti-man, word policing*…  yes.  

One of the best articles I’ve read yet about the debacle that is 2016 comes from Vox, wherein a Conservative and Republican turns around and faces what outsiders have long pointed out, and that is that the Conservatives signed up for a marriage with the ugliest parts of our society, and have amplified that ugliness with their rhetoric, and are now shocked to discover that the ugly had no equal measure of loyalty to the Conservative movement.  The second they got the opportunity to ditch the ideals in order to jump into bed with a candidate that gives them a straight shot of bigotry, nationalism, fear, and protectionism, no chaser… that’s what the base of the Republican party did.  The luminaries, the next generation of presidential hopefuls, by and large said that they’d rather be unprincipled and throw their lot in with a short-fingered vulgarian than be accused of helping a Democrat.

Think about that.

They hate liberals so much that they would rather be aligned with a fraudulent, bigoted narcissist than be seen to give an inch in the direction of those namby-pamby Democrats.

The Conservative values I can get behind include fairness, equality, freedom of speech, self-determination.  But I’m more passionate about everyone minding their own damn business and not being an asshole.  Who my neighbor loves, sleeps with, or marries has nothing to do with me.  It doesn’t change my life, it doesn’t affect my paycheck, it doesn’t alter the quality of my relationship, and is therefore none of my damn business.  A predator who is intent on rape doesn’t need permission to lurk in the ladies room.  You don’t send your kids to the bathroom alone, and you didn’t send them to the bathroom alone long before we were talking about transgendered rights.  Someone grappling with their experience in their body at that level should just be left the hell alone to find some peace, and if peeing next to me in the ladies room furthers that, then come on in.  While there may be a woman here or there who is cavalier about abortion, the vast majority of women come to a decision about pregnancy and their bodies through much grief and in incredibly difficult situations.  It is no one’s business but their own.  Unless you’re watching someone inflict harm on another living thing, mind your own damn business.  It isn’t that hard.  

If all those Republican blowhards in Congress (the Democrats are blowhards too) really wanted smaller government, they would write better laws.  They would write fewer laws.  They would let science and reason dictate policy (does pot really need to be a Class A drug?)  They would make publicly-funded campaigns a reality.  They would quit this nonsense where they spend more time fundraising than they do understanding the issues they are supposed to vote on.  Government agencies exist to understand and implement the laws written by Congress.  Write better laws, have better government.  Simplify the tax code, shrink the IRS.  But they don’t actually want the stuff they are squawking about, because if they wanted it, they could have it.  Easily.  Write some shit that makes sense and quit your bitching.  

So yes, you could count me in the number of Americans who would vote for a Conservative if said Conservative wasn’t an asshole bent on panty-legislating, denying climate change, ignoring the historical precedent that brings us regulatory bodies like the EPA or OSHA, and providing unlimited welfare for corporations.  If you find one of those, please let me know.  I’ve got a place for that Conservative right next to my unicorn.   

*Feminism.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.  Feminism is the belief that men and woman should be treated equally under the law.  It is the defense of a woman’s self-determination, even if she self-determines to be a sex worker.  Or a home-maker.  Or a kick-ass lawyer.  Feminism is not an excuse to use the status of historical victim to bully others.  It is not the assertion that men and women are exactly and biologically the same, or that biology doesn’t matter to behavior.  It is not the belief that sex should be performed in birkenstocks with granola on the bed and then only if the man in question apologizes profusely for his patriarchal genitalia first.

Could I Be a Conservative?

Smart Rules: Canaries and Alligators

The trouble with everything costs something is that you can only experience one set of consequences: the decision tree branches, you pick one or the other, and the not-chosen branch dies quietly.  Schrodinger’s Cat, once examined, is either one or the other.  You don’t get to play both out.

I have a supervisor.  My supervisor finds me disrespectful.  I find him intellectually incurious, and therefore limited as a manager of people.  You have to be interested in perspectives other than your own to manage effectively.  His response to my perceived disrespect has been distinctly bullyish.  I spoke up for myself.  And here we arrive at the rule for being smart for the day:

Don’t write a check with your alligator mouth that is going to break your canary ass.

I’m not saying that’s where I am.  Everything costs something: speaking up in your own defense is expensive.  Keeping quiet comes with its own expenses, and the truth is that, more often than not, the person who makes a problem known becomes the problem child and not the person who caused the problem.  Speaking up makes people uncomfortable.  Everyone would rather you do the safe thing, the comfortable thing, and talk bad about the schmuck, wreak havoc with everyone’s morale, complain bitterly and quietly, and then find another job.  The clean answer, the direct answer, raising your hand and saying no, this isn’t going to go down like this…

Both options have their costs.  The one is up front and immediate.  The other is a bit like paying by credit card.  Sure, you think that paying a little bit over time is easier on your finances, but one day you wake up like most Americans with $15,000 on the Visa and 22% APR, wondering how you could have ever been so stupid and what on earth you have to show for the debt.

There is no clear answer here.  In my case, Schrodinger’s Cat is dead and I don’t know how things would have played out if I hadn’t stood up to the bully, because I did, and now I’m the problem child.

Everything costs something.  There are times when that is both a certainty and a comfort.  I would have been paying for this anyway… at least that’s what I tell myself.  Besides.  I’m not sure I was constitutionally capable of keeping my mouth shut.  So there is that to consider as well.

Canaries and alligators.  Make sure your back end matches your front end before you assert yourself.  That’s all.

Smart Rules: Canaries and Alligators

Smart Rules: Don’t Buy Your Own Bullshit

You have a persona.  You perform a polished version of yourself to the world.  The real you is an animal that farts with relish, burps like a champ, scratches at will, and has been known to consume an entire box of krispy kreme donuts in a single sitting.  In your performance of you, your hair is enhanced by product, your socks match, and you eat with a fork and knife.  

The two are not the same.  

Your performance of you is sexless (sexy, yes, but sex is sweaty and funny and awkward.  The performance you is never undone).  The performance you is a fluidless mannequin that always smells of Abercrombie and Fitch.  Or lavender.  Or patchouli.  Or Jo Malone.  Or Axe.  Or whatever.  

But.  Always the but.  

It is incumbent that you never confuse the performance you with the animal you.  Bad behavior happens when these two things get confused.  Dishonesty happens when you no longer recognize the difference between the two, and not just that you become dishonest with others…  I’m talking about the inability to tell yourself the truth about yourself, which is intellectually fatal.  

Your ability to *do* smart (rather than be smart) depends on the honest internal conversation with yourself about yourself.  Also known as being self-aware.  This is how you know your weaknesses and your strengths, this is how you know exactly how grateful you should be, this is where you squash your own pretentiousness before it gets out of control.  This is how you know when you should say sorry.  This is where you invest in the relationships that matter most.  This is how you remain someone capable of introspection, course correction, and intimacy.  This is how you retain the ability to be great.  

Look at the people who have bought their own bullshit.  You don’t want to be these people.

  • John Mayer.  Incredibly talented.  Bought his own bullshit.  Is a totally unironic twat.  
  • Lindsay Lohan.  Incredibly talent.  Got up her own ass about how talented and special she is.  By all accounts, a complete ass.  
  • Johnny Depp.  Beautiful.  Talented.  Completely unaware that he’s become a parody of the aging actor; as of this writing, an alleged domestic abuser;has disappeared into the quirks (also unironically); and is gradually becoming more and more ridiculous as the days go by.

People who seem to have avoided buying their own bullshit.  You want to be these people.

  • Helen Mirrin.  Talented.  Beautiful.  Sense of humor still intact.  Aging exquisitely.
  • Mark Ruffalo.  Avenger.  The boy next door.  Hasn’t lost touch with the world the rest of us live in.
  • Bruce Springsteen.   Really, there are no words.  Also doesn’t seem to have lost touch with the real world.  

Don’t buy your own bullshit.  

Smart Rules: Don’t Buy Your Own Bullshit

Armchair Operatives

War. Torture.  Espionage.

So the Trumpster has had something to say about waterboarding.  In classic double-speak, “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  Gets its own acronym and everything: EIT.  We’re going to do all that, and more.  This is a man who knows his audience: all around the country, armchair operatives cheer and then carry on with all the things that they would do were they in charge; were they combatants; were they younger, fitter, or remotely acceptable to the CIA’s applicant screening process.

It’s so easy to know what you’d do, how you’d react, and how wildly successful you would be, just as long as you can keep your tired ass settled into that comfortable chair of yours.  Easy to talk about winning, doing whatever it takes to win, including torture or letting India and Pakistan nuke each other.  

So what if the extensive study of the data shows that information extracted under duress is unreliable.  So what if we jeopardize our own people by walking away from international standards.  There is an ache in that place where testosterone used to flow that can only be filled by this fantasy of a world in which inflicting pain on another human being is satisfying.  Justified.  Reasonable.  Defensible.  Without negative consequence.

My father.  Love him to death, but he’s an armchair operative.  He wishes he’d been able to go to Vietnam.  He thinks another life where he was a sniper, offing people who needed to be offed, would have brought him a different kind of satisfaction.  He thinks he could have taken an “enemy” life and come out of it unscathed.  We don’t argue this point, because … why?  The point is moot.  He’s one vote, one man, one Fox News consumer, and the truth is that he doesn’t own a gun, isn’t a sharp-shooter, never made it to Vietnam…  He can believe what he wants to believe, fantasize all he wants about what it might feel like to wake up in a Clive Cussler novel, break a man’s arm for information, then execute him anyway, because that’s what the morally ambiguous good guy does in the books.  

Thing is, how many killers do you know?  Accidental, convicted, pre-meditated, secret, soldier, spy…  Here’s what is missing from the conversation: forget about the suicide bombing mastermind who lived to plan the next attack and got caught.  That isn’t a humanity that I’m particularly interested in.  The argument against armchair operatives isn’t because said mastermind is defensible.  The argument is about what these acts do to the soldier who isn’t in the armchair fantasizing, but is patrolling the halls of a military prison?  What impact does inflicting significant pain on another human have, not on the prisoner, but on the person wielding the power?

An individual who can take another’s life without remorse, without empathy, is someone with a pathology.  Those without empathy may come out of such situations no different than they were when they started.  Everyone else, those who sign up for military life out of patriotism, need for structure, desperation, ambition, or a sense of adventure…  what do acts that counter empathy do to those people?

How many real life killers have you talked to?  I’ve interacted with three.  One might have been borderline sociopath, but that might have also been an aftermath instead of an original condition.  Not one of them came away unscathed from an interaction that left one of the two participants dead.  

These armchair operatives, warmongering politicians first and foremost, don’t know what it costs.  Forget international law.  Forget morality.  What does it do to the individual inflicting pain?  What does killing do to the killer?  Killers live with it, forever.  It is the psychic equivalent of the Roman torture where a corpse was lashed to a living human until the decay of the corpse ate into the flesh of the live victim.  They carry that shit around.  Anyone with any capacity to feel empathy carries the memories around: the broken cries, the smell of fresh blood, the literal deadweight of a body no longer animated by spirit.  And that memory eats away at literally everything.  

My uncle killed his first man in the Battle of the Bulge as a 16 year old.  Hand-to-hand combat and he was the one to survive.  60+ years later, he told me the story, his memory as perfectly formed as if the whole event had been caught from multiple angles in high definition video.  He killed a German soldier, vomited, and then took the dead man’s coat so he could keep on with the mission.  

A friend and once-upon-a-time lover wouldn’t talk about it, but every year around the anniversary, he inevitably disappeared into a black hole of self-loathing.  And that’s how he described it.  

An acquaintance who talked about how those soldiers who couldn’t handle “the life” were pussies, the further he got from “the life,” the harder he worked to stay distant from himself.  The men from his unit were categorically unable to form lasting bonds with anyone but themselves.  They lied compulsively, hurt those who dared to love them, drank heavily and dangerously…  The acquaintance was not a happy man, his friends were not well-balanced people.

You can’t expect good people to commit violent acts and come out of the exchange unscathed.  Nevermind what we do to those who plan suicide bombings or massacres.  My empathy and concern is first absorbed by what we do to ourselves in the process of dealing with the monsters of the world.  You do not eliminate monsters by creating new monsters.

And any armchair operative who thinks that killing or torture is without consequence, so long as you aren’t the one being killed or tortured…  I don’t recommend gaining the experience just to find out how wrong you can be.  Ghosts are only a fiction if you have a very narrow definition of what makes a ghost.  

Armchair Operatives


Another e-mail exchange with Katherine Otto, another resulting blog post.  

Here in the US, we complain about Government.  Big government vs. limited government, government overreach, government oversight…  What is the right size, what is the right role…  A recent Vox article pointed out that all this anger that we’re hearing about, the justification for the left’s support of Bernie Sanders and the right’s support of Donald Trump, isn’t anger stemming from economic pain, but anger at politics.  So let’s unpack the things that make up the government and talk for a minute about what we are complaining about when we complain about government.  

First, there are two components of Government: the Branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) and the Bureaucracy.  For those of us for whom civics lessons are in the far distant past, the Executive Branch of government is the President.  The Legislative Branch is Congress, and the Judicial Branch is the Supreme Court.  The Branches of government are primarily political in nature – populated by politicians (defined as people who campaign to get elected to office) and people who are appointed by politicians.  

And then there is the Bureaucracy…  The thousands of men and women who write policy, order supplies, count beans, interpret Congressional or Presidential mandate, hire people, push papers around, order IT services, etc.  The Bureaucracy is, in most ways, at the mercy of the Branches.  Congress makes laws, allocates spending, sets priorities, and tells the Bureaucracy what to do.  For example, Congress writes the No Child Left Behind Act and the bureaucrats at the Department of Education start taking a complex law and unpacking it into guidance, policy, and programs that meet the intent of the law.  More or less.  Further, each of the departments in the Federal Government is likely headed up by a political appointee, someone who is only there for 4 years or the whim of the President, and doesn’t necessarily know, understand, or respect the organization they are suddenly in charge of.  

There may be no legitimate defense of the Branches, or at least the people who populate the branches.  It seems that we don’t send our best and brightest to legislate, we send our most craven and narcissistic.  That is by design.  First, we pick the bastards.  We don’t go for the politician who tells us that we can’t have it all, or that religion really doesn’t belong in our government, or that the founding fathers weren’t fundamentalists, or that everything costs something, or that taxes are a small price to pay for being an American with all the protections and privileges that affords.  Those aren’t the people we hire, by and large.  We send the ones who tell us what we want to hear and confirm our biases.  And then they get there and they gerrymander the system so that they can cherry-pick their voters to stay in the halls of power.

Similarly, the Bureaucracy is less than perfect.  No one makes decisions because they are afraid of failure, which means a choice place on the front page of the Washington Post and the unenviable experience of testifying before Congress.  The outrage machine combined with a crippling dose of risk aversion means that there are policies layered upon policies.  The Bureaucracy creaks under the weight of over 200 years of someone’s dumbass mistake or corruption turned into a policy to prevent *that* from ever happening again, except people can always be relied upon to come up with some fresh way of being stupid.  So another layer of policy goes on top of the previous policies until it is a wonder that anything gets accomplished.  

Everyone ends up frustrated.  

Except.  Always the except.  This Government, warts and all, has to serve each citizen equally.  Which sometimes turns into pissing off each citizen equally.  Whatever gets done by Government tends to get done slowly.  Yes, this keeps us from dazzling progress, but it also protects us from good ideas that sound good in theory and work out disastrously in practice.  The Bureaucracy measures six times, sharpens the saw, measures another three times for good measure, calls a committee, conducts a study, measures again, and then *maybe* progresses to a cut.  Maybe.  

Is that a bad thing?  I don’t know.  It is certainly a frustrating thing for many people.  But is it *bad* that we can’t conceive of one answer and only one answer and go after it singlemindedly to accomplish an end in a time span that can be measured in days instead of years?  I don’t think so.  Because you’d have to trust that the people calling for that plan know what they’re doing and have adequately prepared for third- and fourth-order effects.  You’d have to trust that the decision-makers, our legislators, were operating off of evidence instead of ideology.  You’d want to make sure you weren’t one of the people on the minority side of the issue.  And you for damn sure wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a rough patch or a slice of bad luck.  


Turn Around (Brighteyes)

Because I can’t help myself when it comes to referencing unrelated pop lyrics.  

There must be people who read more self-help books than me.  Consumers of TED talks that get to the bottom of way more presentations by earnest smart people offering the answer to everything.  But I’ve read my fair share…

It is entirely possible that I was ruined by writing poetry.  While I’d hate to be held to the poetic standard without exception, I certainly feel free to apply it liberally everywhere else: the best use of words is to say exactly what you mean with as much economy as you are capable of.  A book on Essentialism that stretches to 200+ pages is a contradiction that risks the entire premise of the book.  

Most books have this problem.  We authors tend to fall in love with the sound of our own voice in the same way that children in the midst of a tantrum keep crying: they get used to the rhythm of it and the body just perpetuates the posture.  I’m sure I am as guilty as anyone.  On the other hand, I get fussed at for writing too sparsely, so maybe it is only the blog where I wax eloquently to excess.  

Anyway, pushing aside my digressions, what I’m trying to say is this: much of the self-help advice I’ve come across comes down to a simple chunk of advice.  Turn around and face whatever it is you are trying to get away from.  

There are many ways to get to this:  

  • Mindfulness, which advises to approach with curiosity whatever you’re trying to squash in yourself.
  • The metaphor of a car in an unwanted spin – turn into the spin to regain control.  
  • Ariel and Shya Kane – what you resist, persists.  
  • Dawna Markova (I will be singing the praises of Dawna forever, but even she could have condensed), who advises readers to sit with their demons and seek understanding.  
  • Deri Llewellyn-Davis says fuck the fear and sends you off to do the thing that scares you the most.  

I’d never tell anyone to forgo reading.  Buy a book.  Buy loads of books.  Buy my book, while you’re at it.  All I’m saying is that you’re going to come back to the same simple concept time and time again.  To find that freedom most of us are seeking, turn around and face what constrains you with curiosity and compassion.  Stop running, and your fears will stop chasing you.  Give up, but in the nicest possible way.  Surrender.  

There.  Hundreds of dollars in self help books in two paragraphs, one bulleted list, and some tangential rambling about poetry.  

Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it.  –Jean de La Fontaine

Turn Around (Brighteyes)