Random Assumptions and Admissions

I’m not as smart as I think I am.

I have several opinions that are stupid, based on misinformation, sloppy analysis, or ideological bias. I don’t know which ones. If I did, perhaps I’d adjust or eliminate them. Perhaps I’d cling to them stubbornly, refusing to admit that I’m wrong. Either way, I’m pretty sure that I’ll develop new stupid opinions. Even Einstein was wrong sometimes. I’m not Einstein.

I have supported some of my opinions that aren’t stupid with misquotes, untrue facts, and inaccurate statistics.

I have opinions about some things that nobody needs to hear. There are some things that are not worth having an opinion about.

Some of the actions I advocate will inadvertently make things worse.

Writing instructors urge the authoritative voice. That voice implies certainty. Whenever I assert certainty, I’m usually hiding doubt. If I’m not, I should be.

At least one thing I’m absolutely certain of is dead wrong.

I have at least one belief, shared with much of the human race, which future generations will consider as ignorant as “the sun revolves around the earth.”

Humility seems obsolete. When I see humility, it’s often a strategic pose.

I don’t assume a story is true because it validates my ideological bias, nor do I assume a story is untrue because it doesn’t.

If I were outraged about everything people think I should be outraged about, I wouldn’t have time to eat or sleep. My blood pressure would be through the roof.

If I took a stand every time I was urged to take a stand, my legs and back would give out.

I can count the number of times I’ve changed my mind in the middle of an argument on the fingers of zero hands, yet I’m always annoyed when I can’t convince others to instantly change their minds.

Most of my friends agree with me politically. Whenever I spend time socially with people who disagree with my politics, I am always surprised to learn they are not the spawn of Satan. I know people who agree with my politics who make me want to pull my hair out.

Preaching to the choir bores me. I wish I could say that, given a choice between an essay that echoes my opinion and one that challenges it, I often choose the latter. I don’t.

Often, when I read opinions that disagree with mine, I look for the most extreme so I can mock it.

Last week, I read an essay online that I thought was smart. I posted a comment, not to praise the writer, but to mock a negative reader’s comment. I regretted it immediately. I realized that I was only posting it to feel morally superior to someone for a few minutes. That doesn’t seem like something a morally superior person would do.

I have never had a memorable conversation in my life conducted at high volume or with a sneer on my face. I have had conversations at high volume or with a sneer, and I regret them all.

Sometimes conversations at high volume are necessary for progress.

Some stories that are in the news today are untrue or grossly exaggerated. I don’t know which ones. I could make a guess but some of my guesses would be wrong. A couple of the stories that are untrue will be stories that I wish were true.

If I could go back in time, I would learn that our history books are filled with misinformation, both major and minor, because we’ve always been careless about documenting things.

Some of the rumors and allegations I hear will be proven untrue. Even if they will be proven true, there is no need for me to rush to judgment, though sometimes I do.

Some people I was convinced were guilty of heinous crimes were later exonerated. I have not forgotten that I once wanted their heads on a platter.

I have said at least one thing recently that might have offended you. I will say something in the near future that might offend you.

I have laughed at jokes that might have offended you. I will do so again in the future.

At some point, I have had an unkind thought, or uttered a catty remark, about every one of my friends and family. I assume every one of them has had an unkind thought, or uttered a catty remark, about me. I deserved some of them. Even if I didn’t, I forgive them.

If they planted a chip in my brain that converted each of my unfiltered thoughts into a 140-character tweet, I would lose all my friends by the end of the first day.

Sooner rather than later, in an attempt to sound witty or smart, I will say something off the cuff that mangles my meaning and makes me sound like a jerk. When someone points this out, I might respond by calling him a jerk. We might both be right. Or neither.

Years ago, I argued with a girlfriend about a historical fact. I retrieved an almanac to prove her wrong. Not surprisingly, the relationship didn’t last much longer. Nobody likes know-it-alls.

Sometimes I say or do something that contradicts something else I said or did.

Even when I know the right thing to do, sometimes I will do the wrong thing.

I call myself compassionate but sometimes I take pleasure in another’s misfortune.

There are things that have no value for me. That doesn’t mean they have no value for others.

I wrestle with my conscience a lot. I resent writers who presume to wrestle with it for me.

If I am exposed to less snark, I won’t feel culturally deprived.

I will say something snarky today.

If the first paragraph is characterized by contempt and derision, I probably won’t read the second.

I have written first paragraphs characterized by contempt and derision.

I have written blog posts and comments that took a lecturing tone. The number of people whose minds were changed by my lecturing is probably less than one.

The person lecturing me probably has things on his hard drive or search history he wouldn’t want me to see.

When I read a memoir, I assume 25% is untrue or grossly exaggerated. If I ever write my own memoir, you can assume the same.

The other day, I was writing something about a time in my early twenties when I was a major film buff. I included a story, which I’ve told numerous times, about a Saturday afternoon forty years ago when I saw three movies, one after the other, on the same block in Manhattan. I remembered two of the films but it had always bugged me that I couldn’t recall the third. I remembered that The New York Times has old editions scanned on their website, so I got the bright idea to check their movie ads for that week. I discovered that my story was a crock. Not only had I never seen any of the other movies playing on that block then, but one of the two films I did remember was playing in a completely different part of town. It’s a trivial story, but it bothers me that I can’t trust my memory.

It seems that, on the Internet, stories have to be awful or extraordinary to garner attention. Very little of real life is awful or extraordinary.

When I read a story online that seems either awful or extraordinary, I suspect it might be a hoax. I’m right about that a lot.

I read a lot of clickbait stories that can be summarized as, “Hey, look at this asshole!” I assume that some of the subjects of these stories aren’t really assholes.

If anybody cared enough to hack into my emails, they could easily make me look like an asshole.

At least one person will read this and think, “Fuck you, asshole.”

I’m imperfect. I try to remember that everyone else is too. I don’t always succeed.

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Bad Times, Good Times

I rarely discuss my family in public, either in this blog or on social media. Much of what I do say or write is invented or exaggerated for comic effect, which has led some readers to tell me, “Your wife is so funny!” (Trust me, she isn’t.) I have no trouble discussing my own life in detail – battles with depression and writer’s block, for example – but I consider their privacy to be sacrosanct. My wife jokes that if she died, I probably wouldn’t tell any of my virtual friends, which I think is nonsense…. no wait, she’s probably right.

Today, however, I make an exception. This past weekend was notable for two reasons. It was the anniversary of an event that has had awful consequences for our family; and it was the date of an event that made us gloriously happy.

First the bad. It was two years ago yesterday that my wife lost her job with a Fortune 500 company. She hasn’t worked a day since. She had worked full-time from the mid-1970s and had experienced only three months of unemployment in all that time, but now that she is in her sixties, she has trouble even getting an interview. After many starts and stops, I’ve finally hunkered down to write an e-book about age discrimination and her long-term unemployment – finally finished a first draft, yay me – so I’m saving the details for that. Suffice it to say that it has been a difficult time for us financially and, especially for her, emotionally.

But if my wife’s future – and mine – are looking a little dim, my daughter Nicole’s is looking very bright. Friday was the day she graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.

Like many high school graduates, Nicole went off to college with only a vague idea of what she wanted to do with her life, and one year at Boston University did nothing to clarify it. She had long been interested in baking, especially desserts, and after repeatedly filling our DVR with shows from the Food Network, she realized it was her true passion. She applied to, and was accepted by, the Culinary Institute but before starting there, she spent a couple of years working, including stints at two different bakeries that went out of business, saving money for tuition.

(Nicole and her friend meet Food Network's Alton Brown)

(Nicole and her friend meet Food Network’s Alton Brown)

The Culinary Institute, a beautiful campus along the Hudson River in Hyde Park, just a mile south of the FDR estate, is not like other colleges. Its curriculum is not the usual “Math class at 9, spend an hour lazing on the quad, American Literature at 11.” Rather, it is broken up into three-week segments, each with one intensive class on some aspect of the business. They have a new entering class every three weeks, with the majority entering the Culinary Arts program (the path that leads to being a chef), with a lesser number joining the Baking and Pastry Arts program (Nicole was one of about 20 in her group). You have the same classmates in each class; it’s like Army enlistees going through basic training together. Nicole herself said it’s like a military operation, and the expectation for co-operation and hard work is high; the easy A’s and grade inflation that occur at other schools does not exist here.

Since many of the classes include work at some of the campus restaurants, students are often required to be up before the crack of dawn. The program also requires a four-month internship at a food business; Nicole spent last winter working at King Arthur Flour in Vermont, which required the girl who used to hate rising before noon to be at work at 4 a.m. five days a week, often in sub-zero temperatures. The difficulty of the program weeds out the students who aren’t serious.

Nicole was serious. Which is why, on Friday, the school gave her the Katherine Angell Academic Achievement Award for having the highest GPA of her graduating Baking class (she was the only one above 3.5; only one of the Culinary students had higher).

N CIA graduate_2

After a ceremony which included the singing of the only alma mater to rhyme “our own way” with “Escoffier,” graduates and their families celebrated at a buffet with hors d’oeuvres created by the current students, who showed off their skills and precision. Honestly, I didn’t know what half of the dishes were, but I sampled as many as I could. All of them were beautifully presented; my favorite was a lemon meringue in the shape of a tulip.

As I write this, Nicole is somewhere in northern California, probably sitting in a bakery or restaurant. The day after graduation, she boarded a flight to San Francisco with two of her classmates, one of whom lives in Napa Valley, for a well-earned ten-day vacation, eating their way up and down the California coast. They had a long list of places to try, to which some of my California friends on Facebook kindly added. A week after she returns home, she will begin working in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant near Union Square in Manhattan. It will be hard for her – the starting pay isn’t great and the commuting costs and time will be extensive. (Heck, it will hard for me – I’ll have to pick her up at the train station after midnight five times a week.) But she has a plan, she has dedication, and her future promises to be quite a feast, to which I say: Mangia!

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Writer’s Block

A writer not writing is practically a maniac within himself.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Since Christmas, I have published just two new blog posts. I wish I could say it was because I was slaving away on the Great American Novel. I wasn’t. Something depressing happened: I lost the joy of writing.

It didn’t happen overnight. Rather, it was a gradual process over the last eighteen months. I still spent part of many days with an open document on my screen. However, my thoughts stopped jumping from my brain to the page. I increasingly doubted the wisdom of every paragraph, every sentence, every word. Nothing was ever good enough: the analysis was too shallow, the humor too facile, the logic too slack. On the rare occasion that I finished something, I hesitated, or declined, to post it. Once I began doubting the value of my creative ideas, the creative ideas dried up. My mind became a battlefield between my desire to write and my sense of futility, and futility won.

This is not a problem for anyone but me, of course. I am well aware that if I never produce another word of prose, the world will not notice. However, like many who spend dreary days pushing papers, ringing up cash registers or manufacturing dispensable products for a living simply because they require a paycheck, I need a creative outlet, something I can point to and say, “I did that.” I don’t have a green thumb, I’m tone-deaf, I can’t draw a straight line, I can’t cook, I’m too poor to travel, jogging bores me and my wife is prepared to call 911 whenever I pick up a hammer and nail. Slinging words is all I’ve got. I take it seriously. Without it, I feel adrift.

I always wanted to be a writer. A compulsive reader since childhood, I briefly majored in journalism at college before choosing a career path with a steadier income, a decision that I often lamented. When I began writing on a whim twelve years ago, it was like reconnecting with my high school sweetheart and learning she still carried a torch for me. I felt decades of suppressed inspiration bubble to the surface. It was strictly a hobby because I had a well-paying day job and my only readers were my immediate family, but I had no ambition beyond that. It was the happiest I’ve ever been.

When I started a blog five years ago, after my well-paying day job ended, and suddenly had an audience that didn’t share my DNA, I was buoyed by the feedback. I felt like I was developing a clear, distinguishable voice. I enjoyed all phases of the process, from the initial outpouring of words and thoughts to the discipline of sculpting them into a final form. I couldn’t imagine writer’s block because I had more ideas than time to write. Although I recognized that having 30-40 readers in a world of seven billion people meant I was in no danger of being stopped for autographs, I was satisfied.

“You should write a book,” several people told me. “You should be marketing yourself.” I had made a little bit of money from writing – enough for a couple tanks of gas, an oil change, and hey rotate the tires while you’re at it – but it was accidental, not part of some career strategy. In fact, I had no career strategy and no plan to develop one. At my age (I recently turned 63), the scraping and hustling required to earn probably meager rewards held no appeal for me.

However, I gave it a shot. I had written several political satires, so I decided to write more and collect them into a self-published book for the 2012 Presidential election. Though I was reasonably satisfied with the result, I knew the subject matter ensured it a brief shelf life. Further, the aftermath required business skills – marketing, salesmanship, self-promotion – that are not part of my genetic makeup; I’d rather chew glass than persuade someone to buy something he doesn’t need. As a result, the book’s readers were mostly the same people who read my blog. I was disappointed but accepted it.

I continued to post political satires, but by Election Night, I had grown sick of it. Ridiculing politicians felt like picking low hanging fruit. In fact, I was weary of political discussion, with its partisan rancor, constant outrage and snarky commentary. I no longer wished to contribute to it. I also realized that by relentlessly mocking Republicans, but not the liberal pieties that also sometimes bugged me, I was tailoring my writing for the approval of my friends, validating their pre-existing beliefs. Subtract the entertainment value, if any, and it seemed like a pointless endeavor. That troubled me. I decided to cut back on blogging and return to writing for myself first and worry later about readers, if any.

I wanted to try my hand at fiction. I wrote one short story (posted on another website) that I liked, but nothing else I produced seemed satisfactory. I knew I didn’t have the chops to write a serious novel, but I had an idea for a comic one and read some comic novels – The Magic Christian, A Confederacy of Dunces – hoping they would inspire me. They didn’t. I started writing anyway but quickly sensed that the idea wouldn’t justify, say, 75,000 words and I would be spending months toiling on what would be one more piece of disposable trash tossed upon the 21st century content landfill. Whenever I spent an hour on it, I hated myself. I abandoned the project.

I began writing first-person essays, which I’ve always enjoyed. They were long and personal, too much so for blog posts, and I doubted the wisdom of spending so much time on things that might never see the light of day. Worse, I couldn’t finish them. There is no sense writing about yourself if you are not going to be honest, and I questioned the accuracy of my memories. I second-guessed every sentence – which is normal and healthy – but I also third-, fourth- and fifth-guessed them, like a person with OCD constantly checking if the stove is turned off. My writing folders slowly filled with projects in varying degrees of incompleteness.

My struggle deepened when my wife lost her job. Writing immediately dropped low on my list of priorities; it now seemed an inconsequential, unprofitable, and ultimately masturbatory activity. My wife encouraged me to keep writing but I found it difficult to concentrate. Besides the frequent interruptions – I had always been able to block off a few uninterrupted hours of solitary time for writing, but no longer – I felt guilty about having an enjoyable pastime while she was feeling miserable.

As she joined the group dispassionately dubbed “the long-term unemployed,” I thought her plight might be a good subject for an e-book. We have friends in the same boat, people in their AARP years who have been abandoned by the economy and forced to drain their retirement savings too early, and I thought I could provide a voice for them. However, I froze. My reticence about opening up our lives to public discussion proved daunting. I was also aware that, as a white, heterosexual male, America had given me advantages that had been denied to many others – our worst year was better than many others’ best year – and I feared that my complaints would sound like privileged whining. Instead of composing a cogent narrative, I just scratched out some random sentences or phrases, like a bored student doodling in the margins of his notebook. I abandoned that project too.

What had been a labor of love was now just labor. Few ideas were bubbling; my mind seemed as flat as an open can of day-old Pepsi. My humor muscles had atrophied. I felt out of sync, like a baseball player who had developed a hitch in his swing, flailing at curve balls and not swinging at fastballs he used to knock out of the park. I confessed my quandary privately to a couple of my writer friends. Their advice, essentially, took the form of aphorisms like “follow your heart” and “take it one step at a time;” well-meaning but useless, like telling a depressed person to start his day with a smile.

I made one last attempt to stimulate my creative juices by going through my old writing. My plan was to choose the best things I’d ever written and winnow it down to 25. But I had trouble winnowing it up to 25. Few pieces seemed as good as I remembered them. When I read the rare one that met my approval, it was like looking at a picture of your younger, slimmer, more confident self and wondering: Whatever happened to that guy?

I told a couple of people that I was taking a sabbatical from writing, hoping my frustrated urge would eventually overpower my doubts. In fact, I was actively avoiding reminders of my failure. During the day, I embraced any distraction from my growing inventory of unfinished writing projects. But at night, when I should have drifted into a peaceful sleep, I tossed and turned obsessing about my absent Muse.

I keep expecting the joy to return. It hasn’t. (For example, this essay has been languishing on my laptop for weeks, waiting for me to conquer my procrastination and apprehension enough to finish it, though maybe the fact that I did finish it is a good sign.) In the grand scheme of life, my loss is pretty damned unimportant. But I expected writing to play a major role in the rest of my life. I had spent much of my adult life lamenting its absence. If I have an average life expectancy, I might have twenty good years left. I don’t want to lament them too.

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