Friday, May 27, 2011

The Words We Choose

"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." - George Orwell

  Last month, TV cameras caught Lakers guard Kobe Bryant directing a homophobic slur at an NBA referee. The next day,  Kobe released an official statement in which he said "The words expressed do NOT reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian communities and were NOT meant to offend anyone." He explained that he was frustrated and in an emotionally volatile state, when he used the term. He also called in to radio talk shows and reached out to individual gay rights activists, in an effort to make it clear that he does not harbor any animosity towards gay people. In the days that followed, the topic was discussed ad nauseum in the sports world, complete with admonishments, condemnations, and a few dismissive "but that's not how he meant it" excuses. A hefty fine was issued by the NBA, and eventually the dust settled and the subject faded away. 

  And then about six weeks later it happened again. This time TV cameras caught Bulls center Joakim Noah using the same slur. The circumstances were not exactly the same. Noah was directing the slur at an unruly fan, as opposed to a referee. And Noah is a role player for his team, while Kobe is one of the most recognizable names in all of sports. But the circumstances were similar otherwise. Noah also explained that he used the slur in the heat of the moment. And he repeatedly stated that "that's not who I am." The sports talk shows once again took up the topic, and the league once again issued a hefty fine. But the dust eventually settled here too, and the focus soon shifted back to the game on the court.  

  I find it easy enough to believe that both of these men were sincere when they said that they had no intention of offending anybody in the gay community. Prior to these incidents, there was nothing to suggest that either one of them might be homophobic. Some may find Kobe to be a bit prickly, but bigotry doesn't really seem like his style. And in Noah's case, his personal background would lead most of us to expect him to have a more open minded view of people in general. 

  But the fact remains that they both chose to use a word that is clearly recognized across all parts of American society as a derogatory term for homosexuals. And, most importantly, they both did so with the clear intention of belittling a person with that word. That action is a tacit recognition of the fact that homosexuals are viewed by many in our society as inferior or degenerate, and it implies that the person using the word shares this view. 

  That implication may turn out to be false. It may be that in a moment of utmost frustration these men reached back into a playground lexicon for a word that would provide an easy and instant sting. Perhaps in a moment of weakness, they fell back on an old crutch. And it may be that in the years since that playground, both men have matured in their thinking and have come to see the dangers and limitations inherent in such broad generalizations and prejudices. 

  And if a moment of weakness is what it was, then that should be easy enough to forgive. We've all experienced moments when we've felt pressured and made decisions that we later regret. And in that case, a sincere apology will often be followed by sincere forgiveness. 

  However, it is one thing to forgive their actions, and quite another to excuse or dismiss them. The word is offensive for a reason. It is a symbol for an attitude of hatred and intolerance, and that hatred and intolerance has concrete consequences for millions of people. Anti-gay sentiment leads to workplace discrimination and harassment. It perpetuates institutionalized forms of discrimination such as bans on gay marriage. It helps to create a hostile social environment that leads many people, especially adolescents, to suicide. And it drives many to commit violent crimes against people that are gay or perceived as gay

  Of course, using a homophobic slur is not tantamount to beating a person because they're gay. A free thinking adult can choose how he or she is affected by the words that other people apply to them, whereas a violent assault leaves far less room for choice. 

  But words do have an effect too. They contribute, in either a positive or negative manner, to the collective view of a society. And they also have an impact on the person that is speaking. And that personal impact on the speaker is something that neither of these two men seem to fully grasp. 

  When Joakim Noah says that "that's not who I am", he is mistaken. It may not be who he wants to be, or how he wants to be seen by others. But like it or not, our words, our thoughts, and our actions are exactly who we are. Even the ones we regret. So when we find ourselves doing and saying things that we truly regret, our response should be to acknowledge that aspect of our thought process that we're uncomfortable with, and recognize it as our own. And with that honest assessment in hand, we can then begin to work through and correct our faults. And once we've done that, we can then offer a sincere apology that is deserving of sincere forgiveness. And we can bridge the gap between who we are and who we want to be. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Walk Away

"Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools." - William Faulkner

  Sometimes I just want to walk away. From my friends and family. From just about everybody. I just want to throw in the towel. I might keep a select few people in my back pocket. People that rarely seem to need anything from me. But when the moment comes that they do need me, I'd like to walk away from them as well.

  Its not because I don't care about other people and their needs. If anything, I care too much. Or at least more than I want to. But I see them struggle, and I know that I'm relatively helpless. I can say things like, "I'm here for you". I can tell them that I love them. And those things may be true. But what good is that truth, really? The difficult struggles, the ones from which we find it hard to believe that we'll ever emerge, are the ones that we have to fight through by ourselves. They're the internal struggles that really are about life and death. And I don't have the ability to go in there for anybody but myself.

  So I sit on the sidelines and I agonize over every misstep. I try to decide when to offer help and when to back off. I try to decide when to listen passively and when to act. And as I look at these words, I feel like all of this should be simple enough. But its not simple. And its exhausting.

  And sometimes I just don't want to do it anymore. Sometimes I just want to walk away.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Process & The Clock

"You don't run against a bloody stop watch, do you hear? A runner runs against himself, against the best that's in him. Not against a dead thing of wheels and pulleys. That's the way to be great, running against yourself. Against all the rotten mess in the world. Against God, if you're good enough." - Bill Persons

  I ran the Cleveland Marathon this past Sunday in 3:30:12. It was my fifth marathon, and my best one yet. It was also my fastest, but that's not what I mean by my best. It was my best, in part because it was my most honest. I mapped out a training schedule in February, and I stuck with it. I pushed when it was time to push, and I eased up when it was time for that. I recognized my weak points. I considered outside advice. I tried new things. And as the training period came to a close, I made an honest assessment of my physical condition and I set my race day expectations high, yet realistic. But most of all this race was my best because, for the three and a half hours that I was on that course, I never lost sight of why I run in the first place.

  I've been running for three years now. I started the process in May of 2008 because I wanted to run a race with my dad. He's been running for as long as I can remember, and when he told me that he was planning to run a Labor Day Weekend race called the Park to Park 10 Miler in Denver, I decided that I'd do it with him. I figured I had all summer to train, and if my 66 year old dad could run 10 miles, then I should be able to do it at half that age.

  I struggled through the first couple of months. I was forty pounds overweight. I'd spent most of my adolescence and my adult years, eating fast food, drinking heavily, and smoking nearly a carton of cigarettes per week. And though I'd been free of the cigarettes for four years at that point, and had also made significant improvements concerning what I ate and how much I drank, my body was still feeling the effects of years of abuse and neglect.

  But in July things began to change. Even though the days were getting hotter and the runs were getting longer, my body began to grow comfortable with the process. My mind still lagged behind though. It was a struggle mentally, to get myself out there day in and day out. And had I not already told my dad that I'd be running that race with him, I don't think I'd have stuck with it.

  But I did stick with it. I had a five mile route that I ran/walked roughly five days a week. And as the days passed, I kept running more and walking less. And then the day finally came. I turned off of Halsted and onto 21st, and stared at the last few blocks of the route, having not walked once. And as the excitement of that accomplishment filled me, I broke into a dead sprint for that final stretch. (Or what counted as a dead sprint for me at that point in my brief running experience.)

  I finished that run a different person than I was when I started it. For the first time, I had no doubts about whether I'd actually run the race. And I was equally certain that I'd keep running on my own, once the race had passed. Something finally clicked. My mind caught up to my legs, and I was in love. I'd spent most of the first 34 years of my life giving up on things in all areas of my life. But this was different. I committed myself to a long term goal that was mentally and physically difficult, and that I was afraid of, and I was seeing it through.

  A couple of months after the 10 Miler, I ran my first half-marathon in Detroit. A few months after that, I ran my first full 26.2 miles in Austin. And the process has continued since then. I run most days. Sometimes I just take off without knowing where I'll go, or how fast or how far. I just let the run become whatever it is. Other days I'm more focused on a particular goal. I usually know what my next couple of races are, and my runs are   often geared towards helping me prepare for those races. I want to make sure that I continue to improve. I want to keep working towards the goal of getting the most that I can from running. And races and clocks are great measuring sticks for those goals. They keep me honest, and they help motivate me to keep moving forward.

  But the clock itself is not the goal. The process is the goal. The movement, the challenge, and the struggle are the goal. Being aware of myself and my place in the world is the goal. Growth is the goal.

  It can be difficult to remember that. Like life in general, running is full of obstacles, distractions, and mirages. There are also times when help or rest are necessary. And there are times when it can be hard to tell those things apart. Mistakes will be made. Efforts will come up short. I'll never be anything close to perfect.

  But there will also be days like last Sunday. Days when I climb over those obstacles, pass the distractions, and recognize the mirages for what they are. On days like that I don't feel perfect, but I feel perfectly in tune with what I am. In that moment I feel every muscle in my body. Every thought in my head is clear and free. I am aware of the breath that I inhale from the world, and of the breath that I exhale back into it. I am aware of the process.

  It's a beautiful thing to experience. And it's tempting to try to stay there. But the world keeps spinning, and staying in one moment won't keep me or that moment alive. I'm going to hold onto to it for just a little bit longer though. I want to savor it a bit more. But soon I'm going to set it down and move on. I've got so many more races to run.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


"The gun goes off and everything changes... the world changes... and nothing else really matters." - Patti Sue Plummer

  I am ten days away from the Cleveland Marathon. The long runs are over, and even the short runs are few and far between. I know I need the rest. My body is tired and sore. I've got minor aches and pains all over the place, and I need to let myself heal. And I will.

  But its maddening. I have too much time to think. Have I done enough? Have I done too much? What pace should I be looking for? What's the weather going to be like? What exactly should I eat that weekend? Should I try out that new fueling tip, or stick to what I know? Am I bringing my ipod for this race? I decided against getting new shoes a few weeks back, was that a mistake?

  The chatter in my head is constant. I don't go five minutes without thinking about the race. I know that the anxieties will evaporate the moment I take that first step. I know that the questions will turn into statements with every mile. But it can't get here soon enough. I need to get out of my head and onto the street. Which is what I'm going to do right now. I've got eight precious miles on the calender today. And I'm going to savor every moment.

  Almost home.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Springtime In Chicago

  Springtime in Chicago does not happen by force of nature alone. Springtime in Chicago is a collective act, shared by the the millions of souls that call this place home. Nature does her part too. The trees, when you can find them, turn green here, just as they do in the suburbs. The flowers bloom on our windowsills and along the downtown streets, just as they tumble down the hillsides in the rural midwest. And the same sun that thaws the lakes for our neighbors in Wisconsin and Michigan, grows more bold and assertive here day by day. It seeks out the last patches of hardened snow and ice, and it vanquishes them to the far ends of our calendars.

  But Nature does not do these things alone. Nature just provides the cue for the people of the city to stand up and yawn and stretch, and begin the work of creating Spring. You begin to feel the rumble when the mercury climbs above forty, like standing on the tracks as a distant train approaches. Curtains are pulled back. A hand pauses above a heavy coat that has been used every day for months, and then moves on to a light jacket instead. Wool caps and furry hoods are traded in for bare heads and White Sox hats. Bicycles are pulled from storage closets. Car windows roll down and cars stereos are turned up. All across the city, construction sites come alive with hammers and curse words and coffee thermoses. Ground crews pull back the tarps at Comiskey and Wrigley. Buckingham Fountain is turned back on in Grant Park. The drawbridges that cross the Chicago River, are lifted up as the first boats begin the parade to Lake Michigan. Basketballs bounce on the blacktop. Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops bring chairs out onto the sidewalks. In Pilsen, the street vendors wheel their carts out from the shelter of their winter homes, and spread throughout the neighborhood offering tamales and sliced mangoes. Hot dog stands open their doors in Bridgeport. Short skirts hug the curves of young women in Lakeview and Lincoln Park. Joggers march along the lakefront path from Hyde Park to Rogers Park. Chess players settle in behind North Avenue Beach. Ice cream trucks snake through the streets of Ravenswood. Beer cans pop open on the porches of Canaryville. Tourists begin to stream from the hotels in The Loop. Bartenders sweep sidewalks in the Ukrainian Village. And in Wicker Park, the babies in strollers and the tight jeaned hipsters fill their lungs with the fresh spring air.

  And as the creation of Spring nears completion, and the first signs of Summer appear, we may, if we're paying attention, get a moment to pause and take in our handiwork. Its a bit like looking back at the two hour line you waited in just before you finally get on the roller coaster, and realizing that leaning on the railing and eating popcorn with your girlfriend was part of the ride too. It might be the cool May evening that asks you to put on your sweater one last time. It could be a quiet mist on the lake as you take in an early morning jog. Or it may happen while pulling the last packet of hot chocolate from the kitchen cabinet as a midnight thunderstorm washes the streets outside. But the moment is there somewhere, waiting to be found. And for that moment, suspended in between the comings and goings of different worlds, we can see our place in it all. We can see our inseparable place in the infinite movement of everything.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Judging The Invisible Man

  Judging another person is a difficult and tricky undertaking. But judge we do, none the less. When we come into contact with people, we assess, among other things, their words and actions, and we use our own assumptions to fill whatever holes those observations leave, and based on these brief and inadequate perceptions, and our own views of right and wrong, we summarize and judge the qualities and attributes of those people. Its something that we all do, though we may try to convince ourselves otherwise. Its just how we're wired. Our brains crave definitions and categorizations. We need to be able to label things in order to walk down the street without being overwhelmed by everything we see. When crossing the street, we don't see all of the individual qualities of an oncoming automobile. We don't consider the tires, the body, and the driver. We don't speculate about the engine or the suspension. We simply see a car coming, and we decide when and where to cross the street based on a concept of moving cars in general that our brains have already put together. Our eyes simply take in far more than our brains can process on a conscious level, and so our brains choose to organize those images in a way that makes it possible for us to function.

  And we do this with people too. Certainly there are exceptions. We can limit our assumptions and make a conscious decision to consider the unique individual qualities of a person when we choose to do so. Just as we are capable of considering an individual car when we choose to do so. But given the number of people that many of us come into contact with, whether it be on the street, at work, in the store, or at a social gathering, it is unlikely that any of us are going to find a way to do this with all people, all of the time. And if we're honest with ourselves, I think we'll find that most of us aren't even trying to do that most of the time.

  So we categorize. We generalize. We stereotype. We simplify. When we do this with people that stand physically before us, we have a lot to work with. Tone of voice and body language. Age, gender, ethnicity, and clothing, just to name a few. And while those qualities provide a hopelessly insufficient means of wholly recognizing the dynamic nature of a human being, they can help us make necessary assumptions concerning what this person might mean to us. When I go into a store, I can assume that the person wearing a shirt with the store's logo is an employee. I can also differentiate between a robbery victim's cry for help, and a homeless person's request for money, based on tone of voice, body language, and probably personal appearance, even if the only words I hear from either person are "please help."

  There are also obvious limitations and drawbacks to making generalizations about the people we encounter, and those are well documented. This particular alleyway in our thought process is fertile ground for miscommunication, lies, and sweeping prejudices. And at times the consequences have been catastrophic.

  So what happens when we take this method of processing data, that is so ingrained in us, and is in many ways indispensable to us, and is yet so limited and potentially dangerous, and we limit it even further by blocking such tools as tone of voice and body language, while simultaneously extending its reach by establishing communication between billions of people that would not otherwise have direct access to one another? In other words, what happens when the world hooks up to the internet? And more specifically, what changes in the way that we communicate with each other when we're using the internet?

  With the advent of e-mail, message boards, social networking sites, and blogs like this one, we have undergone a dramatic shift in how we interact with our friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers. And we have gained quite a bit from this shift. We have the ability to stay in regular contact with people that just a generation ago would have drifted to the other side of the barrier of time and distance. And the relationships with close friends and family that we would have had anyway, can be enhanced with these new tools. The internet also opens the door to a seemingly infinite world of ideas and perspectives that offers far more depth and variation than the world of libraries and newspapers. And this world also has a demography that is far more complex than even the most diverse of traditional social environments. We can read about political protests in Syria or San Francisco, on the websites for NPR, Al Jazeera, the BBC, and Fox. Or we can find a blog that offers thirty-two variations on grilled cheese sandwiches, after reading about why gay kittens won't go to heaven. And we can then carry that information with us to a social networking site like Facebook, and share our thoughts with people we know, and often with people that they know.

  And in this sense, the social networking sites are just an extension of traditional social settings. Facebook, for example, is a lot like a big on-line cocktail party. Topics may vary from one group to the next. This bunch by the coffee table will prefer to discuss the day to day aspects of their lives such as work and family. The guys over there by the TV will talk sports for hours. Somebody in the kitchen has had one too many, and is making people uncomfortable with details that seem way too personal. And on the back porch there are those people that just can't help but dive into the dreaded politics and/or religion conversation, because that's what fascinates them.

  But there are critical differences and limitations as well. That same vast source of ideas and perspectives that can provide fresh new insights, can also make it more difficult to discern the value of any given piece of information. There are no more gatekeepers of information. And while that has clear advantages for many of us, it has often come at the expense of accountability and credibility. 

  Our personal conversations and relationships can become more murky as well, as it becomes more difficult to judge the tone of a conversation and the nature of the people involved. After all, the image of others that we get via sites such as Facebook, is one that that person has crafted in order to appear as they would like people to see them. Whether projecting an image of confidence, happiness, and prosperity, or one of frustration and self-pity; when we sit in front of a computer, we mold an image of our choosing, in a way that we are unable to do in person. And our perception of what is being said, and the meanings behind the words, are shaped in part by those distorted images. 

  We also choose to say things to people on line that we wouldn't say in person. Stripped of the ability to see first-hand the impact of our statements, and potentially face repercussions, we often become more careless and aggressive in our choice of words. And while we are speaking from behind these avatars that we have created for ourselves, we are making assessments of, and passing judgements on, real life people. Assessments and judgements that effect how we see those particular individuals, and also how we see people in general.

  I came across one example of this just a few days ago. President Obama had just released the long form copy of his birth certificate, in order to set aside the distractions of "sideshows and carnival barkers", and my sister posted the story on her Facebook page. In her view, this is an issue that really isn't an issue. Like the President himself, she is hoping that this will put the topic to rest once and for all, thus allowing the country to address more practical issues such as high unemployment rates, massive debt, and prolonged war. Most of the people that commented on her post seemed to share this view, as do I. But there were a couple of exceptions. One person appeared to remain unconvinced about Obama's birthplace. And another referred to the President as a "clown" that had "no real experience running anything", while also expressing his hope that Donald Trump would be ushered into The White House in next year's election. But neither of these people, even when pressed, chose to back their points with specific fact-based explanations as to why they feel the way they do.

  It is difficult to read comments like those without passing judgement on the people that are making them. From my perspective, the comments are ignorant and pig-headed at best. They appear, like so much of the right wing anti-Obama rhetoric, to be the product of fear and uncertainty. An irrational, knee jerk reaction to some perceived threat, that usually goes unidentified and unexplained by the person that feels threatened. Or if the fear is explained, it often turns out to be based on misperceptions or outright falsehoods. (That is not to say that everybody that is critical of the President is unable to explain themselves in a thoughtful manner. Nor is it to say that legitimate criticisms do not exist. But the carefully considered critiques that do exist are being lost in the deluge of  ignorance, fear, and lies.)

  So I take that bit of information, and I use it to form an image of the people that made those comments. I fill in the holes with my own assumptions, and based on my views of right and wrong, I assess and judge that image. And as I do that, I add another piece to my view of the world and the people in it. And by extension I alter my view of myself, and my place in the world.

  In a separate exchange with my sister, she conveyed to me that, politics aside, these were good guys. And I have no reason not to believe her. My sister is an intelligent and educated woman, and I trust her judgement. And I've met plenty of good people that happen to have what I see as bad politics. I would imagine that there are some people that see me that way as well.

  But that abstract knowledge does not carry the weight of my direct exchange with those people. And my direct exchange is limited to that small group of letters on my computer screen. I don't see that guy at the playground with his kids. I don't see the other guy using his day off of work to help a friend move. We're not trading jokes over a cold beer. And on the internet, we're not even offering each other a soft smile, a firm handshake, or a nod of respect. We're just giving each other one terribly small excerpt from a long and complex story, and leaving each other way too many blanks to fill in.

  So we walk away from the exchange with negative impressions of each other. But more importantly, we walk away having reduced another person to nothing more than a cultural stereotype. We've simplified them for the sake of making sense of them.We walk away thinking that the other guy is stupid, naive, or a jerk. And both of us could very well be some, or all, of those things. But what we can not be, is that and that alone. Human beings are simply not so static and one-dimensional as that. But we are often going to see each other this way anyway. Because this is the trade off that we accept when we log on. We open ourselves up to a world in which we can see billions of men and women. But the catch is that they're all invisible.