Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What If?

“There’s something I need to tell you,” I said, pushing those reluctant words off the tip of my tongue. My boss looked at me knowingly as his eyebrows and smile sank in unison. “I’ve found another job.” He paused. “Ok, well, I wish you all the best. Thank you for all that you’ve done here,” he stated flatly. No tears. No cheesy music under wise parting words. Just a simple handshake and that was that. A large chapter of my life closed in four sentences.

I’ve been contemplating this day for months now… ten months and six days to be exact, aka since the day I started. I’ve been dreaming of this day. I’d call it quits, whether another job was lined up or not. I’d use my not-so-hard-earned savings – meager as they are – and start up a new life in or near NYC. I’d do whatever it took to get by – working in a coffee shop, busing tables, or strapping on some stilettos and pole-dancing the night away – just so I could be “really living” (I still don’t know what that means exactly).

This topic has raised some pretty heated discussions with friends, families, and even a homeless man (he insisted I keep my job). Their arguments always started with the same two words: what if. What if you can’t find another job? How will you pay your bills? What if you get into an accident and you break your neck and you don’t have insurance? What’s gonna happen then? What if the Chinese launch an attack on our homeland and take over the US and you’re stuck in a wheel chair with no control over your limbs and they capture you and use you as some motorized pawn in a human-sized game of chess? What if THAT happens? I bet you’ll wish you had kept your shitty job then.

As impulsive as I can seem, I realize that a couple of those scenarios are plausible concerns, but I refuse to let the “what if” mentality dictate my life. As a kid, I would see people in shitty jobs, hating a lot of their day and struggling to find joy when they could. I always wondered how they ended up there. I now understand. No one ever plans to end up there. But one compromise leads to another. And all of a sudden you find yourself under a fluorescent light by a coffee machine trying to convince someone that you really can’t believe how crazy this weather has been.

I believe there are two fundamental ways to view life: you either love life, or you fear it. Ok, that’s a bit extreme. I’m sure most people find themselves along some gradient between “love life” and “fear life.” Underneath it all, however, I feel you can look at life and all the uncertainty Linkit holds, and try to barricade yourself in a little risk-proof underground shelter made of what-ifs. Or, you can accept life for what it is, a fucked up roller coaster of highs and lows and excitement and disappointment and success and mistakes and love and heartache, and make the most of each second. It's funny, I feel the fear-based perspective creates the illusion of safety, but ends up sweeping people away. As unpredictable as the second way can be, it seems to me those that let go of the reins seem to be the most in control. Enough of that philosophical, new-age jibba jabba. Back to my day.

After my anti-climatic chat with my boss, I trotted down to the lower deck of the garage and got in my bird-shit covered car, still feeling the anxiety crushing my chest. I turned on the radio, hoping for some musical reassurance. Drive by Incubus was on. I could not imagine a more fitting song for the moment. Life can be consoling sometimes I suppose, but only sometimes. (btw, if you have somehow avoided a radio for the past 15 years, check out the song here.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Counting Days

Every day, I have a very big responsibility at my job: changing the company’s time-stamp. For the past ten months, I’ve literally watched day after day after day go by. Each time I turn that little plastic dial, I feel a small piece of me die on the inside. Mostly the part of my body that holds my hopes and dreams. Just kidding. Well, kinda.

For those of you who don’t know – aka strangers on the internet who happen to come upon this blog – I’ve been working as a customer service rep/all around office bitch since last August. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to an amazing array of people, ranging from twang-tongued southerners looking to trade penny stocks to Nigerians looking to trade penny stocks to Indians looking to – yup, you guessed it – haggle with me relentlessly over charges I have no control over. Between these every-day-in-a-lifetime experiences and the endless series of paperwork I process and file, this job satisfies me in a way that could only be compared to licking chalk.

It’s been getting to me, though. My whole life, I’ve been led to believe by a number of sources – my family, good grades and SAT scores, and my own inflated self-image – that I am an exceptional human being. This job is not something an exceptional human being would find themselves in. Yet day after day, month after month of switching that time stamp, here I am still, talking to people betting on get-rich-quick schemes and penny stock dreams.

But what happened to me? The person I’ve been as of late – insecure, distant, impotent (kidding…) – is not the person I saw myself becoming when I left college. I wanted adventure. I wanted to see what the world had to offer. I wanted to help people in real ways, not just updating their account balances. Worst, I’ve been losing sight of my only two real values: that I can always be better than I am, and that I can always help other people better themselves. 45 minute-long commutes on the turnpike followed by standstill traffic outside the Holland tunnel can suck the souls out of even the most resolute.

I’m well aware that people have endured MUCH worse than my current plight, but I’m also realizing more and more that my situation won’t change unless I change it. Despite my thinning hair and excessive body hair, I feel far too young to settle. If I am as pathetic as this job seems to suggest, I will find it out the hard way.

That’s right. You heard it heard first (or I might’ve told you). I’m quitting my job. Shoot off some fireworks. Throw some confetti. Act mildly impressed while fearing for my financial future.

So, what’s the next step? Excellent question! My answer: I’m not sure. I know that I will be teaching geometry at St. Joe’s for four weeks, which will most likely forever be the best job I ever have. After that, we shall find out. All I know is that in the coming days, weeks, months my life will be filled with plenty of writing, humor, job applications, rejection, improv, new faces, and lots of “learning experiences,” aka mistakes. All I know is that it will be an adventure, one more perilous, uncertain and probably idiotic than any before.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Yes and...

In my first Intro to Improv class, we ended the session with a little game called "Yes and." This game's rules are simple. Two people are given roles and a setting by the rest of the class. They have to create a scene with one another spontaneously. The twist, each person has to respond to their partner with "Yes, and..." and then add on to whatever their partner just said, no matter where it takes them. You don't know where you are going. That's the point. It doesn't matter. The idea is that you are supposed to build a scene TOGETHER with your partner, accepting what the other person says and then responding with a "yes" and adding to it. For noobs (like me), this is tougher than it sounds. There's a desire to take control of the scene and to make it YOUR vision, but that game quickly becomes "Yes, but..." which nobody likes, not even your Grandma.

After class, I was thinking a lot about this idea of "Yes and..." and how it could be related to real life. There's so much potential in that phrase. Anything can happen. When you say "no" there's nothing more to be said; the idea is dead. When you say "yes, but..." you're not doing much better. You're pretending you're open to a new idea/situation/experience by saying "yes" right before the "but" lets the excuses roll in. (Side note: Yes, I know that Jim Carrey already made a movie about this)

By nature, I've spent most of my life a "yes but" person, but within the last two years I've realized how much that way of living is 1) lame and 2) stupid. Planning for Guatemala, I thought about all the possible locations I could go to, countries, volunteer sites, etc, but ultimately that didn't matter too much. Despite my efforts to plan ahead, I had little choice but to throw myself in head first and trust in myself that I'd be able to resurface. The experience was all the more special because of that. Before taking my comedy class, I had little-to-no reason to believe that I'd be an entertaining speaker. In fact, there had been numerous occasions in which I was an exceptionally boring speaker with zero charisma and negative audibility. But, I went against "reason" and said that I was going to be funny (If you haven't seen it yet, check out a video of me NOT sucking here

I don't want to be preachy (and if I ever am, I really do apologize. Tell me that I'm being preachy and I will swiftly kick myself in the face repeatedly until the preachiness is gone), but I don't believe there's anything you or I CAN'T do. There are plenty of things I WON'T do, but I'm thoroughly convinced now that CAN'T is a state of mind. The next time an opportunity to do something out-of-character for you comes your way, I dare you to take it. I've never regretted saying yes to something. Sure, I've looked foolish plenty of times. Sure, I've felt incredibly awkward. But I've never, never, never walked away having learned nothing. Come to think of it, the only times I've learned nothing are the times when I've done the same shit I do every day. So challenge yourself, say yes and...

... you can fill in the rest.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

From Make-Believe to Make-It-Happen... and then back to Make-Believe

Living in the house I grew up in, nestled safely in my parents’ basement, hidden from the dangers of truly independent life, I get to do a lot of pretending. I can stay up late or wake up early and imagine all the possibilities that my life holds. These are wonderful moments had in the dark of my room, wrapped up in the warmth of my blankets. I imagine myself writing a screenplay that not only makes you laugh, but makes you think as well. I imagine myself traveling again through Latin America, or Germany, or even some place completely new to me like India or China, pen and camera in hand and having life-changing conversations and experiences that I can bring back with me and share. Sometimes I’ll humor the songwriter in me and daydream about myself in a coffee shop, winning the hearts of ladies and gents alike with my gentle acoustic strumming and my clever socio-political lyrical commentary.

Then I turn on the lights and it all disappears. In a flash, I’m hurled back to reality, back to my cluttered bedroom, back to my business slacks and button down shirts that seem just a little unnecessary for the work I do, back to driving down the Turnpike, back to the reality that it’s a lot easier to play make-believe than it is to take any real steps toward fulfilling any of my night/early morning visions.

That’s how I felt, at least, until the start of December. I decided no more of this pretend scheisse, it’s time for me to get outside of my head and do something. Anything. I settled for two things: trying my hand at standup comedy and – get ready for it – joining a barbershop quartet… temporarily.

Let’s work backwards here. Yes, I joined a barbershop quartet. No we didn’t wear funny bow ties, boaters or suspenders, and there were a lot more than four guys; it was a whole choir… of old men. It started with a letter I received randomly. “Come join us for four weeks free and learn some Christmas carols on Monday nights.” I literally had no excuse not to do it. I showed up at the Rahway Senior Activity Center and was greeted by over a dozen old-timers with snappy one-liners and lots of Brut cologne. Side note: no one checked a cell phone.

I’m not the best singer, but the guys were encouraging and I had a great time singing alongside them. I learned two things in these four weeks. 1) The human voice is an incredible phenomenon and when harmonized can sound powerful, beautiful and rich. 2) Christmas carols get old very, VERY quickly. (Side note 2: they’re called the Jerseyaires. Check’em out and I dare you not to smile watching them).

I also have been doing some standup comedy. I started with a little five-week comedy course taught by Joe Matarese, a comedian you may or may not have heard of. Each week we had to get up on stage for about 5-8 minutes and try out our jokes. I thought I had some killer stuff, but when it was class-presentation time suffice it to say that I did not fill the room with belly-busting laughter. Maybe this isn’t for me, I thought. Or is it?

I wasn’t going to give up so easily. I made up a list of all the open mics hosted throughout NJ that I could find online. I found one up in Rutherford, NJ at a little coffee shop the following Friday. It was time for me to do what I feared more than most things in life: talk in front of more than three people.

The cafĂ© was tiny, and to my initial dismay the audience consisted of six teens and their parents, along with my faithful companions/unconditional laughers Paul and Joe. A few other comedians turned out as well. The first three comedians went – a long-winded EMT and two high school kids with some pretty funny jokes – and then it was my turn. All day I had feared this moment. It’s hard to express how irrationally afraid I’ve always been of speaking in front of people. It should be a psycho-physiological case study for the power of anxiety on the body. My speech usually increases threefold in speed. My tongue tends to hide under itself. And I completely lose the ability to make eye contact with anyone. Not this time though. I was going big, laying it all out there.

Looking back, though my act was far from perfect it was also infinitely better than I could have anticipated. I was confident (maybe too confident). I joked with the crowd. I got laughs… occasionally. Most of all, I had fun. I left with a high I’ve never felt before. As sad as it may sound, that night was one of my proudest moments since moving back home. I did something I never thought I would have the balls to do. (Side note 3: I’ve done a couple more open mics since then. If you’re around, this Sunday, January 9, is my comedy class’s “graduation show” at the Stress Factory at 7:30. Tickets are $20 a pop with a two item minimum – and we’re not talking New York prices here. The tickets are also good for any non-special event night at the Stress Factory, so it’s two shows for the price of one!

So, let’s go back to the beginning. Am I anywhere closer to moving out or finding a better job? Probably not. Do I feel like I’ve gone somewhere? Yes. Looking at my life sometimes feels like looking at a blank MS Word document: it seems like I can create anything out of it and also nothing at the same time. Sometimes I worry about making the “right choice,” but I’ve been feeling like this so-called “right choice” is just an illusion. Maybe Nike had it right all along. Just do it. Am I a great singer now? Not by any means, but I’m better than I was before. Am I hilarious and a wildly successful standup comedian? Yes. Point being, I’ve been feeling more fulfilled. Instead of daydreaming about the infinite possibilities that life holds and then lamenting how many of them I won’t ever get to taste, I’ve zoomed in on one field. Now I can daydream about jokes that I’ll actually use.

And now, back to sleep :).

Monday, December 6, 2010

So, if you haven't ever heard of, go there NOW. Unless you're at work. Or somewhere else where you can't watch videos/don't have sound on your computer. TED is a series of conferences that hosts experts in range of fields to give engaging lectures on important discoveries, inventions, and ideas. Tickets to these conferences cost a pretty penny, but the good people at TED are kind enough to post'em all online for FREE!

Here are a few new ones worth checking out:

Bart Weetjens: How I taught rats to sniff out land minds: The title kind of says it all. He also taught rats to detect tuberculosis in a matter of seconds using a basic reward system with the over-sized rodents.

Marcel Dicke: Why not eat insects?: Don't be grossed out! He gives a very compelling argument about why we should start considering incorporating insects into our diet. A few of the highlights, we already eat about 500g of insects every year unknowingly in our food, production of animal meat requires 10kg of resources to produce 1 kg of meat while with insects it will yield 9 kg of food, the health benefits of eating insects are essentially the same as eating meat, and locusts are "the shrimp of the land."

I would highly suggest that the next time you have 20 minutes to kill and you find yourself on Facebook or YouTube why not check out a Ted Talk instead?

Monday, November 29, 2010

My Cheesy Title Explained!

So, my old blog title Live. Learn. Hope. Repeat was easily the corniest thing I've ever come up with in my life, but I had good intentions! I swear. I got it from a quote from Mr. Albert Einstein that I particularly enjoy:

"Learn from yesterday. Live for today. And hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning."

Like any short quote, it probably means as many different things as there are people who have read it, but here's what it means to me.

Learn from yesterday. Looking back on my life, I know I've done some silly, stupid, and - occasionally - psychotic things, including but not limited to regrettable middle school jokes, horribly handled breakups, and eating street food in Central America. Am I supposed to look back on my mistakes in shame, block them from my memory, and try to prolong this illusion that I'm not a flawed human being like everyone else? Fuck no. To me, making a mistake is 1) human and 2) a damn good way to learn. Wishing things turned out differently is futile and can only lead you down a path of denial, delusion and depression. The past can't be changed, but the future holds infinite potential. Our past failures are there so we know what not to do in the future. The most regrettable decision we could make is to look at these mistakes as anything but learning experiences.

Live for today. Life gives us no guarantees and it is impartial to and unconcerned with your plans for the future. Any moment can be your last, so why not make the most of each that you can. Every waking moment can be used to improve yourself and the lives of those around you. Bored? Learn to juggle. Or shuffle cards. Feeling more ambitious? Learn an instrument. Or how to dance. Look up a place where you can volunteer and tutor kids. Or better yet, go help your little sister with her homework. Do something to make today worthwhile, and if you're lucky enough to wake up tomorrow, do it again.

Hope for tomorrow. Some people might look at what I'm saying and say, "What's the point if you're just going to die in the end?" That's obviously not how I see things. We are flawed creatures that will always be incomplete, yet the thought of us being complete puts a sour taste in my mouth. Without the chance of ever being "finished," we have infinite room for growth. Tomorrow we can be better than we were today. And, as long as we're alive, we always have that choice. Our futures won't be perfect, but they can be pretty. They'll have mistakes, but ones that we can learn from. Life is a state of mind. Whether is hope-filled or hopeless is your call.

Never stop questioning. Never stop questioning. Einstein believed the universe will always be an infinite mystery, but one that we - with our finite and puny intellects - can understand and appreciate. I would extend that mystery to include ourselves as well. There is always, always, ALWAYS more that we can learn about ourselves, about each other, about our society, about the world, a tree, a squirrel... about everything. The second we think, "Ah-ha! There... I have the answer!" is the second that we are doomed ultimately to be wrong. Our picture about everything and everyone will always be incomplete. All we can do is fill ourselves with a good healthy dose of humility to fight the urge to prove ourselves "right" and instead find the courage to ask, "Hm. What more can I know?"

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Happiness: A Choice?

Coming out of college, my biggest goal in life was to be happy. I don't mean happy in the "let's go prancing through the prairie" sense or a constant, never-ending state of elation. I mean I wanted to be satisfied with myself and whatever I was doing, regardless of my situation. If I wanted to extend it a bit, I could say that I wanted to always be bettering myself while helping others better themselves. The rest - a job, a family, friends - would take care of themselves so long as I kept this perspective. Sounds simple enough, no?

Coming out of college, it started off smoothly enough. I got a sweet teaching gig in the summer that made me realize how much I enjoyed teaching and then I headed off to Central America which was obviously an important experience to me.

The months since returning home, however, have been a different story. Suddenly my optimistic outlook was up against the nitty gritty details of everyday life. I wanted to better myself, but most people seemed to be ok with staying stagnant. I wanted to appreciate the little things in life, but others seemed content with complaining about them instead. The job search went to shit and I settled. My mood changed seemingly beyond my control. One day I could feel happy and satisfied and the next I could find myself questioning and doubting the most fundamental parts of who I was (I call these swings my "man-period"). Suddenly, happiness felt less like a choice and more like a fickle emotion that dropped in whenever it pleased. I felt subject to my surroundings and my emotions. Was my "happiness is a persective" idea just a bunch of bullshit?

It's easy to argue that yes, my idea is bullshit. There is so much beyond our control: where we were born and who we were born to, what genes we inherited and how our brains are wired. I look at someone like my grandma, someone who has been crazy for as long as I have known her. When I was a kid, it used to seem funny to me. I used to ask her if she was pregnant because I knew she was insecure about her weight. It seemed so obvious to me that she wasn't fat that I thought it was harmless. I used to think she was being thoughtful when she would extravagantly wrap our Christmas gifts in such well-decorated packages that you felt guilty tearing apart her creation. Being somewhat grown up now, I'm beginning to see how much a need for attention and the shallow desire to always be young and pretty has influenced her life and taken her down paths that no remotely rational human being would go down. She doesn't have a job, but she goes on 36 hour shopping binges. She asks me to help her with a yard sale on a late November weekend that she doesn't try to organize until 3pm on Sunday afternoon, roughly an hour before sunset. Worst of all, she is able to manipulate the deep desire we have to help her. She'll twist the guilt knobs and make you feel like the most ungrateful person in the world until you cave and do her bidding.

Mostly, I look at her and I wonder, Did she ever have a choice? Could she have avoided this road?

I know, despite my deepest wishes, I'll never have an answer to those questions and I fear that it is possible to reach a point beyond saving.

I don't know if happiness is a choice that we'll always be able to make, and it seems that it is naturally easier for some than others to find. For the sake of ourselves and the sake of those we care about, I believe that if the choice is ours to make, we have the obligation to do so. It is not an easy path to follow. It involves a painful honesty - one that breaks down the consoling lies we tell ourselves and recognizing ourselves for who we really are - and a lifelong commitment to questioning . After all, we'll never fully conquer ourselves. Only once we understand who we are - our biases, our emotional flaws and what we find genuinely fulfilling - can we start living in a way that is truly satisfying. The choice is ours to make, and it may not always be there.