Mustache

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Not a good look for your primary school classes.

I can honestly say – without reservation or pressure from outside parties – that I’m looking forward to cutting this off.

Ah, the mustache, that novelty collective of hair above the lip. The caterpillar, push broom, and soup-strainer below your nose that draws your (male) buddies’ attention, looks of approval, and various and assorted “nice”-es.

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It’s cool. I got one, too.

A large handful of dudes my age have resorted to growing flamboyant hair in one form or another on their faces. Events such as Movember come to mind. It’s a thing, due almost explicitly to the fact that it’s not a thing. What was once fashionable has become sort of a joke, a mild statement of individuality in the company of individuals.

It’s okay if that makes no sense, but perhaps this’ll help? Check out the link.

The wider, bushier, scragglier, and more I-don’t-care-esque, the better, it seems, and, hey, if one is a decent human being, who’s to be told what they can have on the chin, cheeks, or below the nose? Your mug, your decision, so go get ‘em, Grizzly Adams.

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He wasn’t kidding.

Anyway, I’m sort of veering from the topic here, that being that I’ve only grown one kind of facial hair, twice. The ‘stache. The, perhaps, crappiest looking of them all. That’s a matter of opinion, but I’m just going to take a stab and say that it isn’t every man’s dream in this day and age to rock the perfect cookie duster. HOWEVER, we do know that that wasn’t always the case. Just take a quick look at these.

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VROOOOOOOOOOM!

A disheveled Matthew McConaughey gets arrested in scenes for 'The Dallas Buyers Club' in New Orleans

Not gonna lie. I got bigger problems.

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…Yeah

As far as I know, Richard Petty has donned a lady tickler since the early 70s (though he’s scaled it down since then), and Dallas Buyers Club takes place in the mid-80s. And well-known personalities like Jeff Foxworthy, Ned Flanders…um…Yanni, and the guy from the third picture sported lip luggage through the 90s. Of course, it goes back way further than that. One can spot famous upper lipholstery from several historical eras. Just look at this Scythian BAMF from 300 BC.

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Mack daddy of the steppe.

And these other guys.

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Eurasians had a right to be afraid.

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Germany united under one ‘stache.

This is Joseph Stalin at 23.

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Yeah, I know. Not what you’d expect.

Then, he grew up.

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↑ Opposition-eliminating ‘stache.

However, correct me if I’m wrong, but, after the roaring 90s, the trend, unless one’s trying to be ironic, has all but faded away, and, for me, the evidence lies in my two attempts to rock one. Just about everyone has hated it. Aside from my best friend (and fellow AMERICAN!) in Kazan, almost nobody in my office has approved of this thing. I Skyped with my parents on Saturday, and upon seeing my face, my own father declared, “That has to be the worst mustache I’ve ever seen.” A friend of mine mindfully declared in her lovely British English, “Yes, do discard the moustache.” And perhaps the most depressing straw that’s broken the camel’s back came from my nephew of merely four years, in a video his mother made: “Do you love your Uncle John?”…“Yeah, but he needs to cut it off.” Thanks, Will.

Okay, people, I get it. I know when a bromerang isn’t wanted, but what happened? At what point in these thousands of years of human history did Westerners realize they didn’t dig the smoke filter anymore? The change seems rather sudden, does it not? I mean, c’mon. Many Arabs associate the mouth brow with power, and folks in the Middle East have even undergone ‘stache transplants. Would it be outlandish to say that the modern, secular world no longer has room for the nose neighbor? Is this a defining aspect of East-West tension? Its connection to Ron Burgundy and child molesters probably doesn’t help, either.

Eh, I’m really not sure about it all. At the end of the day, two truths have to be accepted. The first is that fashions come and go. For one reason or another, something’s trendy one day, and the next day it isn’t. The second is, well, who cares? If you want it, do it ’cause it’s who you are, not what people want you to be. The more pressing issue in my mind is what the future holds for the lip sweater. In twenty years, what will its status be? What do you think? Have we reached the point of no return?

As for me, this thing’s kind of annoying, and “maintaining” it (yes, I used quotes) is more of a burden than its worth. So to the mirror I go.

Oh, and I’ll leave you with this.

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It’s okay. He’s wearing Hanes.

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Does That Make Me A Bad Person?

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How many times have you heard this question? How many times have you asked this question? The inquiry seems, at least to me, to be nonchalantly thrown around like a flapjack, hoping for a certain result.

It came to mind recently. I don’t know why, perhaps because I felt it was asked quite a bit (Hell, maybe I was asking it to myself.), and if you look at evidence as simple as a Google search, you can see that it is.

This is a smattering of results on page 1 after Googling that very question:

“Does not voting make me a bad person?”

“Does watching porn on my Xbox 360 make me a bad person?”

“I dislike my grandmother. Does that make me a bad person?”

“Does playing GTA 5 make me a bad person?”

“I smoke. Does that make me a bad person?”

A slew of people express various insecurities, all followed up by the same query. What do you think of such a question? Why do we ask it? Are we unsure of what constitutes a “good person” or “bad person”?

Am I the only one who finds that mentality odd? Are you saying you’re unaware of what makes an individual “good” or “bad”, so much that you’ve got to rely on the input of a friend, relative, dude on the bus, or strangers on the Internet? Let’s take a hypothetical situation, shall we? I’ll be the trusted friend, and the guy with the problem…well…we’ll just call him ‘Bill’.

Hey, John. What’s up, Man? So, like, I’m really into this girl, right? Things are, like, going super good, but, you know, sometimes, like, I think about other chicks, you know? Like, I wonder, ‘What would it be like to get with her?’ or ,’Maybe she’s into me.’ Does that make me a bad person?

Okay, ‘Bill’, so you’ve taken me through your mental process, and you happen to ogle a lady or two and perhaps speculate about their unwarranted company. At the end of your spiel your didn’t ask me if this way of thinking was right or wrong. You just asked me if this makes you an all around crappy dude.

Well…crap. I don’t know what else you’re up to. For all I know, you might keep slaves in the closet and a meth lab in your basement. However, if your wondering eyes are your only flaw, then I guess you’re…um?

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Jesse, we need to cook. Does that make us bad people?

 

Scenario #2:

John, my man (gives sweet high five), what’s happenin’? Dude, I was so burnt out on Friday afternoon, and I was supposed to get off at 4:00, right? Well, like, there was some sh*t goin’ down later on, you know what I mean (gives jovial elbow)? So, like, I peaced out at 3:55. What do you think, Man? Does that, like, make me a bad person?

I’m outraged. You come to tell me you bailed five minutes early? Does your boss know about this? You better hope he doesn’t find out, ’cause if he does, you’re on a one-way trip to Shamesville, or, better yet, Fired-sville…

No, dummy, I don’t think that makes you the end-all demon of the neighborhood, unless you killed a guy on your way to the “sh*t goin’ down”. Hell, I don’t know. Maybe stick it out five more minutes next time?

Scenario #3:

I get drunk alone. Does that make me a bad person?

Sad, possibly. Bad, not really.

Okay, these are facetious examples (I also need to find smarter friends.), but the point I’m making is that this stupid question is tacked on the end all kinds of ridiculous anecdotes. You think a warlord, after a hard day of ethnic cleansing, goes back to his tent in the evening and asks his comrade, “Hey, I slaughtered, like, five hundred innocent women and children today. Does that make me a bad person?”

Something tells me he’s not returning to the homestead with that on his mind (I know; it’s a hunch.), and I think the wheels should be turning in yours, too. Are they?

Okay, let’s – if it’s possible – try to separate the “bad” with the “good”. What makes a bad guy?

-Hates and wishes immense harm on everyone.

-Pushes old ladies in front of cars.

-Picks fights with homeless people.

-Sells drugs to third graders.

-Yells ethnic slurs at strangers on the metro.

Alrighty then. And a good guy?

-Well, um, he doesn’t do those things.

Ah, right. You angel, you. Someone deserves a pat on the back ’cause he’s made it this far without dishing crack cocaine out to nine-year-olds…Yes. Again, ridiculous example. But what’s the point? The point has to do with our inward desire for reassurance and justification, namely, the comfort of others. We get all uptight, and we just need our close friends to console us and tell us we’re okay.

Everybody does this. We live in a world where our self worth is based on outside sources. If we think we suck, we get someone to tell us we don’t suck. We let ourselves down, and look at greater failures for consolation. Let’s take an example from…Dun, dun, DUUUUN!…the Bible:

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’” (Luke 18:11)

Now, there’s something to be proud of. You don’t steal, extract money from the poor, or cheat on your wife, and, yet, you’re kind of a dick. In fact, you and Jesus don’t exactly see eye to eye, do you?

And, gee, I wonder why. What do you think of a guy who boasts superiority over others, who claims such righteousness based on what he isn’t?

Let me just say something. If you live your life according to outside opinions, observations, and comparisons, you are a coward. You turn to everything besides yourself for reassurance, neglecting the most poignant judge who knows you better than everyone else.

How unique are you if you’re not an individual, if you can’t come home at the end of the day, look in the mirror, and respect what you see? The “good persons” of the world neglect to realize that there are millions of others just like them, who live, work, sleep, and don’t do much of anything else. It’s a bland existence in which one doesn’t give his own convictions nearly enough credit.

So do yourself a favor, and look inward. Be you. There is no greater contentment than that which lies beyond the often treacherous hurdle of self-honestly. It can be harder to swallow than the conventional opinions of our peers, but it’s worth the rewards.

But, of course, a little help from your friends is sometimes necessary. We all get that. Just don’t rely too much on it and second guess yourself. Enough “good people” do that already.

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Any Language But My Own

We all know the stereotype surrounding Americans, Brits, Aussies, and other Anglophones traveling the globe. It’s been around for ages: The stubborn imperialists, too lazy to look in a phrasebook or take a foreign language course, parading around, barking English like a bunch of heartless colonists. Grrrrrrrrrrr! It really fries those open-minded, well-traveled Westerners that look at such arrogance and want to frantically insist to the entire world that “We’re not all like that!”

So, which one are you? Okay, it doesn’t matter…

Yes, as one can assume, all stereotypes have exceptions, and the truth is that linguistically-dexterous Americans and others are scattered all over the globe, learning and enjoying various tongues and making plenty of friends. And anyone who’s had such an experience can say that, in the end, it’s hugely rewarding and worth all the frustration.

But, I mean, c’mon. Aren’t I just reiterating a trite sentiment on how great it is to speak a new language and integrate somewhere? We know that already, and if this entry were to just drive that idea home, you’d probably get to the end of it, twirl your index finger in the air, and give a Daria-esque “yippee”.

So I’m not going to do that. Instead, I want to look at the other side of the coin when it comes to being an English-speaker in any of a number of countries. First, you have to face the fact that English is the most widely studied foreign language on earth. I don’t have to look that up, and neither do you. That’s just the way it is, and you can travel to tiny villages all over the planet and find young children who will at least say an English word or two.

And, so, that brings me to my next point as to what it can be like for Westerners abroad. The first example is one that hits home with me and others I worked with in the Republic of Azerbaijan. Almost without question, if you were to travel to a new town or even walk through your own neighborhood, you would expect to hear a lovely, two-syllable greeting from random urchins on the street at some point: “HE-llo!” And that’s how they’d say it, stress on the first syllable, making it even more caustic to the ears. And the short-term visitor may look at such behavior and and find it sweet. Yes, it’s kind of cute the first time you hear it, but only the first time you hear it.

When I lived there, I found these catcalls both infuriating and fascinating. Infuriating for obvious reasons, but fascinating because I couldn’t figure out how these children, in every region of the country, literally from one end to the next, caught on to this habit of yelling that one word to foreigners. I want to find whoever gave them that memo and wring his neck…really, really hard.

This next example also ensued frequently in that mountainous South Caucasian country. I remember the first time it happened. I was in the village where I served, having dinner with with a couple older relatives of my host family. Upon meeting the man of the house and shaking his hand, his next question was: “По-русски знаешь?” (“Po-russkiy znaesh?”).

I’m sure you can tell that that’s Russian he was speaking. What you may not know is that the question he was asking is not proper Russian by any stretch of the imagination. It basically translates as: “Do you know in Russian?” However, one can assume he was asking if I speak that language, and this is how nearly all Azeri men ask the question. (And, yes, it was particularly prevalent among men, as opposed to women.)

Now, why they phrase the inquiry in such a way I really don’t know, but, regardless, countless Americans and I ran into this question over, and over, and over again. It didn’t really matter what language we felt comfortable speaking in with locals; the principle stayed the same: Azeri men, particularly those over forty, love to speak Russian. Now, when you view this scenario from the outside, doesn’t it seem a bit odd? You’re not Russian, and he’s not Russian, and you’re not in Russia. However, they pride themselves on being able to communicate through this medium, which does an American who learned the Azerbaijani language no good. I mean, good God, Man. Do you not care that I made the effort to learn your language? (And, yes, 96.6 percent of the population speaks Azerbaijani. Sorry, people of Baku. If you think most people in the country speak Russian as a first language, you are wrong.)

I digress from the point, though. These folks aren’t necessarily spouting Russkiy to annoy me. Really, they’re either: 1. Speaking a language I apparently know better (false) or 2. Simply showing that they know something other than their native tongue.

Whatever the reason, when I was fresh off the Caspian boat (and more naïve), I found this baffling. Wait, Dude. Your country’s free now. Why would you want to do anything that jars your memory of the dark days of communism? Surely, you want to get past that.

Well, not really. Turns out, every country has old people, and they long for the good old days. And in the case of these fellas, not without good reason. Showing off their Russian skills was oftentimes a way of remembering a time of greater order and security, when education was strong and products were cheap, and the lowliest of farm boys could learn a language that allowed them to communicate with comrades from Latvia to Kyrgyzstan. And if we look at the current situation in eastern Ukraine, we can see that this sentiment is perhaps more alive than we first thought.

And it doesn’t end there. Another language of fascination in the former Soviet Union is German. I was wondering around the Azerbaijani region of Neftchala one day when a young guy randomly started speaking to me in Deutsch. I think this was because he met an American earlier who knew it, and so now we all know it. A couple friends and I were trying to get a taxi in downtown Kazan, and one of the drivers assured us: “ein moment.” Um, okay. You know, we aren’t German. A lovely individual student of mine, when I asked her if she knew any English, admitted she didn’t, but insisted, “I can speak Deutsch.” Well, alright. That…um…doesn’t really help here, but let’s carry on.

An Australian colleague of mine admitted she ran into similar issues in China. Despite learning some Chinese, when she would go to the market and attempt to work through her imperfect Mandarin, the locals just wouldn’t have it, and they’d instead get some young guy to interpret in his imperfect English, which had to have ground her gears to no end.

And the story perpetuates itself again and again, no matter where you go. Of course, it doesn’t play out in any one way. Some people are patient and will communicate in Azeri, Russian, Chinese, or Swahili with pleasure. Others won’t. The point is that the brutish foreigner isn’t always tromping around hollering his English at unsuspecting, clueless locals. More often than you’d think, the opposite is true.

And so my message to people across the globe is this. There’s no need to be insecure. There’s no need to assume that an outsider wouldn’t bother to learn your language. You may just want to practice your English. I get it. But your attempt to switch the mode of communication mid-conversation is as disrespectful as if he never cared to try in the first place, and, in fact, it just makes him feel more awkward. Basically, what you’re saying to this visitor is: “You’re not from here.”

I don’t care where you are. Russia, the US, Japan, Brazil. Wherever. A lot of the time, the nicest thing you can do for a foreigner is treat him as an equal. I’ve learned through my experience that that can be surprisingly challenging. I’ve certainly given people a longer look than necessary or felt tempted to test out my language skills with Work and Travelers, but, really, that’s not why they’re there.

You’ll find a little patience and understanding goes a long way, and you might make a friend of two.

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Chinese Food

Everyone has their images of different foods. It doesn’t matter if you’ve tried ‘em or not. The Mexicans have their tacos, nachos, and beans; the French have croissants, escargot, and wine; the Russians have borscht and vodka. The accuracy of such conceptions isn’t really the issue as much as the dishes we automatically associate with different countries.

In my 5+ years of living in the former Soviet Union, no nation has endured such cruel culinary stereotypes as the Chinese. These poor, hardworking folks, through no fault of their own, have somehow cast this image of a daily menu consisting of the creepiest, crawliest, snakiest dishes no self-respecting Azerbaijani or Russian – who delight in boiled cow’s feet and gelatinized meat pieces – would choke down. Where on earth these associations came from is beyond me, considering Chinese food’s delightful (and portable!) reputation in the US of A. And to top it off, there’s a freakin’ sushi restaurant on every corner in this town. I’m not kidding. They’re everywhere, serving up about a thousand roll variants, several of which I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot poll, particularly the dessert ones. Think about it. Dessert sushi.

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Sushi in ten minutes, or my staff go to labor camps.

Alas, in the great city of Baku and Tatarstan’s capital, there are a couple Kitaiskiy restaurants to speak of. In fact, the “Great Wall” restaurant in Baku was one of our favorite places to sit, drink cold Efes, and indulge in sweet n’ sour pork. So, today, I was excited to head to Kazan’s “China-Town-Cafe” with a handful of friends and colleagues to experience Russia’s take on grub from The Middle Kingdom. Authenticity wasn’t as much on my mind as the simple fact that I like Chinese food, wherever it may be served, and I was interested to check out Mother Rossiya’s spin on the staple meals we non-Chinese-people-outside-of-China hold dear.

(As a side note, I wouldn’t know the first thing about real Chinese food.)

Unless you’re used to P.F. Chang’s (I don’t know anyone, besides Stan’s dad, who’s been to P.F. Chang’s.), the joint is much nicer than the Cantonese eateries one frequents stateside. Now, when I rock Chinese food, poshness isn’t on the list of priorities, but it was welcomed by the seven of us as we took our seats around a green marble Lazy Susan, next to a slew of empty tables. Yes, business was lacking today, but that’s not uncommon at a lot of restaurants here. In fact, I’ve noticed this running theme in more cities than one in this region. How these establishments stay open with such little clientele, I don’t know, and I don’t wanna know. But to be fair, a handful of random tables were filled, and for all I know, the place might be jumping in the evening.

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For some reason, it looks a bit like a Pizza Hut to me.

Anyway, we opened the menus and got to check out the different items in Russian, Chinese, and English. How ’bout that?

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Here’s a closer look:

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We were relieved to find out that the place featured virtually every kind of snack: cold snack, meat snack, duck snack, chicken snack, and fish and sea snack. The only things missing were fruit snacks. It also sported fourteen kinds of garnish, fine aromatic chicken, and several meats on the live pan. Because I’m a coward, I didn’t order anything on the live pan.

Our mouths watering, we ordered, and when it came to my friend Paul’s turn, we found out something that took us aback somewhat. Wanting some rice-based dish, Paul learned that another member of our party had asked for a meal containing the last bit of rice in the restaurant.

Did you catch that? The Chinese restaurant was running out of rice. RICE! What kind of Chinese eatery runs out of the county’s #1 staple? That’s like McDonald’s running out of fries, or Taco Cabana running out of tortillas. It doesn’t just happen; something’s gotta be really wrong. That, or the staff just doesn’t feel like swinging by the corner store. Whatever.

Luckily, they had about the fifth thing Paul requested (Chicken on the live pan. Dude’s got balls.). We sat around, shot the breeze, and sipped on gassy water and fruit tea.

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A piece of the Aggro Crag.

After a short wait – and two visits from some random village guy named Igor who was in town for some reason – we got our food which was, on the whole, pretty good. I got the wide rice noodles with pork and ordered them spicy. However, the dish was so mild it made me wonder what the mild variant tasted like. Regardless, I chopsticked it down in no time, and it was made easier by some material on the noodles that gave them a sort of…um…lubrication effect. Maybe that’s just the consistency of wide rice noodles. Nonetheless, not delving any further.

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It isn’t rice noodles without freshly sliced tomato (or a square-shaped plate). Wait, where’s the dill?

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China loves you. Um…dill?

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Mooooooooooooo. Dill?

When all was said and consumed, everyone was satisfied, and despite any lack of edible grains, this place got the stamp of approval. I was also happy to see that a handful of Russians do, in fact, partake in Chinese fare, and no doubt they’re all the better and worldly for it. Oh, and it tastes good. Молодец.

 

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Why?

A gentleman and his lovely wife are upstanding citizens. They’re honest, work hard, and would do anything for their two kids. They never miss a Sunday at the Methodist church and help out at the soup kitchen on Saturday mornings. They’re healthy, happy members of their communities, rightfully loved and appreciated by their friends and families. One day, the man comes home and reveals to his spouse that he was let go from his software engineering position for a younger, less-experienced candidate who’s apparently gonna amp up the company with his youthful vitality, contrast collar shirt, and goatee. Meanwhile, the married couple has no idea what they’re going to do.

A twenty-five-year-old woman and her best friend are inseparable, the kind of pair that always knows what the other is up to. They finish each other’s sentences and know just what to say when one of them is having a hard time. An enormously edifying, loving relationship endures into adulthood. Then one day, during a typical coffee date, one of them reveals that she has acute leukemia. Six months later, that amazing, loyal friend, who never wished harm on anyone, passes away.

A young couple dresses up their six-year-old for another school day. They smile, and the husband puts his arm around his wife’s shoulder as their little girl trots off to the classroom. Pleased as can be with how their daughter’s growing up, exploring her small world, and coming into her childlike own, they consider themselves extremely lucky. Until later that morning, when a troubled young man breaks into the school with a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle.

Eesh. Brutal. Things change in an instant, don’t they? Gosh, and it’s never at a convenient time, either. At different moments in our lives, we’re all like Sisyphus, pushing and pushing to reach that apex, that goal, however grandiose or modest it may be, and then things crash down. Whatever you’ve worked for, the life you’ve envisioned, has been ruthlessly shut down by outside forces, and in the meantime, the boulder lands directly on your head and stomps you into the ground.

Upon hearing some sad news a while back, I sat in bed and thought about the emotions that manifest themselves when life’s been mercilessly unfair to us, and, of course, these occurrences touch every inch of the spectrum: My teacher gave me an ‘F’ because she hates me. My beloved grandfather had a heart attack. Our son was born with special needs. He dumped me because I’m unpopular. Though we may have different opinions as to the significance of these examples, the principle stays the same: We didn’t deserve it.

(Okay, in some cases, we may deserve an ‘F’, but still…)

And to me, the question that bears heaviest on our minds is why. You picture it being screamed at the top of a woman’s lungs in cinematic fashion, or whispered into the moist hands of a man slumped over in his chair. We ask the question without really expecting an answer, because, well, an answer doesn’t come, at least not during that initial gut reaction to tragedy. For me, that scene in Forrest Gump comes to mind, when Forrest is cradling Bubba “by that river in Viet-nam,” and Bubba, trembling in his best good friend’s arms, looks Forrest square in the eye and asks, “Why’d this happen?” Of course, Forrest, being the straight talker that he is, simply says, “You got shot.”

“I would of thought of something better to say.”

While one person in the exchange gives that concrete reason for his friend’s situation, we can only imagine that what’s going through the other’s head is: Why’d this happen to me. It’s not about that specific chain of events leading up to death, failure, and sadness; it’s us wondering why on earth we were singled out as victims. The thought may occur to us for a brief moment before the gunshot wound takes us, or it may sit on our minds for longer periods of time, leading us to believe that there truly are uncontrollable powers against us, in the form of people, environments, or even God. Diabolical entities that have conspired toward no other goal than our downfall. Goodness, it hurts, doesn’t it? In my mind, there’s nothing worse.

And from there, what path do our psyches take? For many of us, we get angry. We become immensely pissed off at the people around us, our circumstances, and the anything-but-fair ways of the world. We break out our index fingers and look for potential targets of blame, and we don’t have to search very hard. Hell, it could be anyone’s fault. But, then, what follows our outward, jaded view? Perhaps we look inward and analyze the many specific instances in which we did wrong. We begin to blame ourselves ’cause clearly we’re crappy people who deserve everything we get, right?

It’s funny how we see the universe sometimes, isn’t it? As if there’s a giant scale that has to constantly balance out our good deeds and bad. When we’ve sinned one time too many, we’re due for some kind of retaliation. Or we take a step back and wonder: “But I’m such a nice guy. Why would this happen to me?” As if being morally upright and good to others is supposed to make us immune to disaster.

“I’ve even kept kosher just to be on the safe side.”

Alas, we all know the world doesn’t work this way. We’re reasonable enough to recognize that there’s no kind of metaphorical demerit system in the air that justifies punitive action for a person who hasn’t been faithful enough. So then the question of why shifts to the nitty gritty. Okay, what really caused this? Was it lack of gun control? Harmful chemicals in our food? Sub-standard healthcare? Incompetent security officials? Badly-lit streets? Poor lifestyle choices?

These questions deserve answers, but do they really change how we feel at the present moment? “Oh, Uncle Jim didn’t exercise enough. That’s why he died of heart disease.” You don’t just shrug it off after that. It doesn’t matter if the cause is plain as day, or if we “saw it coming” for years and years. It still happened, and there’s going to be that empty space in our hearts that longs for what we don’t have.

If it appears I’m narrowing human suffering down to a convenient formula, I’m not, nor am I claiming, by any stretch of the imagination, to understand what each and every person goes through. Everyone’s different, and everyone copes with hard times in their own way. But how do we get past it all? I mean, throughout human history, people have persevered through countless, unimaginable hardships, and the stories we often hear are the inspirational ones. Dostoyevsky conceived the idea for Crime and Punishment after gambling away much of his fortune. Creed’s Scott Stapp wrote Torn after he was kicked out of Lee College, living in an apartment with almost nothing. You ever heard the testimony of a former addict? In 2007, I got to listen to two women – one with a constant stream of tears rolling down her face – from Magdalene House in Nashville speak of ruthless circumstances from an early age. Unprovoked and undeserved, these ladies suffered endless psychological and physical abuse, with nothing to turn to but drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. However, despite all that, they’re now sober and completely independent. If “Why me?” had been the only – and unanswerable – question these people asked, what would their situation be now?

The world isn’t fair, and the sooner we recognize that, the more constructive we can be. This is not to create the image of a bleak, merciless planet earth that dishes out dysentery to jungle children and lets rich jagoffs buy their second Hummers (I mean, he needed a blue one.). It’s to acknowledge the fact, however hard it may be, that these things occur. What has befallen you, whether it was in your control or not, happened. It went down at some point in time, there’s nothing you can do to change it, and if you let it define your emotions, actions, and lot in life, you’re effed.

What you can do is learn, and focus on today and the days ahead. It’s not a simple process, and no one can expect to feel better tomorrow, or the next day. Nonetheless, walking through the hurt, embracing the fellowship of family and friends, and laboring on in the face of such unfairness are well worth it, and say a hell of a lot about you. Give me a friend or colleague who’s jumped some hurdles over one who’s always had it easy any day.

And while I can’t provide a 12-step program on how to overcome all adversity, I can say that dwelling on the “Why?” isn’t going to take you very far.

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Stagnation

January 11th, 2014

Alarm goes off. You keep lying in bed. You don’t need more sleep, but you tell yourself you do. You remain horizontal because you can. After all, it’s Saturday, that deserved respite after a long week. No plans. No obligations. Just time to yourself.

For many of us, “me time” is much appreciated. No one to tell us what to do. No coworkers and strangers to keep up appearances with. We introverts feel we need it so badly, don’t we? We roll outta bed in our faded shirts and sweatpants, don’t look in the mirror, turn on the kettle, and get down to the business of binge-watching Modern Family and scrolling through photo albums of friends we barely know (and whose lives we – shockingly – don’t care about). “I needed this,” we say, and one thing is certainly true: rest is important, and we know that go-go-going all the time isn’t good for us.

What strikes me as I think about it is what we do to relax, and believe me, this guy can do some serious unwindin’. Being a teacher, I’m typically free on the weekends, and though this isn’t the unbending routine, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion on Sunday evening wondering what the hell I did with my two free days before work starts again. An empty bag of Doritos sits on the living room table, and my web browser abounds with YouTube documentaries I have no business watching. The weekend’s done, and when asked on Monday how it was, I shrug off the question with trite answers like: “You know, hung out around the house” or “nothing much.” (Ugh. “Nothing much”. That’s the worst response ever.)

And this has been you before.

Hey, no fingers pointed. We’ve all done it and not felt too good about it. Part of being human is letting yourself crawl into your safe space. It’s where we feel good. It’s that warm, snugly bed, the TV series we can watch for hours, the twelver of Bud Light, the box of Keebler Fudge Stripes on the shelf, and the mindless online game. These outlets are free of judgment or distraction, and it’s no wonder we retreat to them for long periods of time, especially when no one else is around.

It’s amazing what we feel we need, and what we let ourselves do. I experienced this yesterday as I sat on the couch in my shorts and wool socks until 3:30 in the afternoon. The most productive thing I’d done up to that point is boil water for instant coffee, and the longer I sat there, the harder it became for me to even think about what needed to be done. I paced and looked out the window: “Hmm. Look at that snow. I don’t wanna go all the way to gym, and I ain’t joggin’ in that.” Pacing continues, and useless streaming video carries on until, for whatever reason, I snap and throw on a long-sleeve shirt and nylon pants. If you’re like me, exercise kinna catapults you into a productive day (a day that starts at 3:30?), and I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t feel any better if I didn’t sweat it out for a little while. I stretched and made my way down the ten dark floors of my Soviet-style building and crossed the slush and puddles of Meridiannaya Street to a little park with a snow-covered, semi-hidden path around its perimeter. You have to run with caution in winter, obviously (especially when you have ankles like mine. Is it true that as we get older, we just feel more and more broken?), but as I felt the wind and snow against my face and heard the countless squealing children tumbling down to the park’s frozen pond, I realized a lack of caution was just what the doctor ordered.

I think it’s safe to say that life is made up of these little leaps of faith that we either take or don’t, and, no, as my example illustrates, they don’t have to be anything extreme or outlandish, but they have to be something. Something that energizes. Something that makes you think. Something uncomfortable. The world has too many boring people in it, and if we refuse to live boldly from time to time, we stagnate. We sit around like a filthy pool of water, getting worse as time goes by. I’ve been there; you’ve been there; everyone’s been there. And we second guess ourselves, don’t we? Out of fear, we do nothing.

My grandmother used to say, “You’re only stuck if you think you’re stuck.” And for better or worse, it’s true. You’re your own worst enemy, the only one who’s really in control. When it comes down to getting your foot out the door, no one makes that decision but you.

It, of course, has many interpretations, and I’m not really talking about “turning your life around” or something equally cliché. However, if there’s something on your mind, it wouldn’t hurt to get the wheels turning. Who knows? You may put on the shirt and track pants, squint at the cold wind, march your sweaty, snow-crested self back into your apartment, and say, “I’m glad I did that.”

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