Thanks for Nothing

When I was growing up, I loved Thanksgiving. A lot of the best video games would come out around this time, and I would spend the entire holiday weekend glued to my virtual world — when I wasn’t gorging on Thanksgiving dinner and its leftovers. The only worry I had was that I would have to go back to school once Monday rolled around.

As an adult, I don’t play video games, and I try not to gorge as much. My association with Thanksgiving now has nothing to do with food or recreation. Now I am consumed with apprehension over seeing family members I do not often see and wondering where the conversation will turn (or, more likely, what will be avoided). This year the elephant in the room will undoubtedly be the Spectacle-Elect, as I prefer to call him due to the media’s obsession with everything he says and does.

It is no secret that I am the educated, progressive bastion in the family. I am also likely the most politically active in the sense that I don’t just talk and vote but canvas, write, and (at times) organize. This makes it harder to adhere to the prohibition “no politics.” I equate it to telling a clergyman upon his arrival at dinner that there will be no discussion of God or religion. No person of conviction can be muzzled for the sake of “keeping the peace.” And it’s not just about conviction — but entertainment.

Yet, I am not enthusiastic about discussing the dismal state of national affairs. I would just like to discuss something of interest and substance — and this is impossible when people are afraid to open up. Nothing creates uniformity like insular family culture that no one member controls or even fully understands. I loathe uniformity. My favorite family gatherings were the ones where people got so drunk and wild that I became the voice of restraint.

So when I read these pleasant little entries online about ‘how to talk to your racist uncle at Thanksgiving’ that include advice about compassion and patience I wonder why anyone would bother to spend a holiday with his or her family in the first place. If I can’t look my uncle in the eye, call him a stupid redneck, and throw a turkey leg in his face, it just isn’t worth it. I’d rather spend my holiday cursing at the football game alone. I don’t know why we stress at work 40+ hours per week just so that we can stress even more on our days off by continuing to succumb to abstract notions of duty and tradition that stymie the individual. Why keep your mouth shut all week only to do the same thing on the weekend? I, for one, like to blow off steam in my free time.

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Reflections on 30

I have never heard of anyone declaring a resolution on his or her birthday, but I have decided that January 1 is not soon enough for one.

Now that I am 30 (although technically I already was, and there is no significance to this number other than that which society gives it) I am declaring my allegiance to authenticity and shunning conformity.

This means that I will no longer worry about what others, who do not have my best interests at heart, think of me or say of me. I will wait for them to say it to my face, if they are so bold. I am also not going to care about what others do unless it concerns me, or it is my responsibility to care — as in the case of a child or sickly elder. In short, I am freeing myself from the burden of social control.

The forces of social control also demand evidence of accomplishment from which I must also unburden myself. Where is my job? Where are my investments? Where is my girlfriend? Where are my children? These are not only generally agreed-upon indicators (or, perhaps, conditions) of success but also are generally agreed-upon indicators of happiness.

Yet, the truth is otherwise. When I had these things (except the children and investments), I was no happier than I am now. And society’s notion of success, for all the shiny, grandiose images it brings to mind, is meaningless without happiness. Tolstoy had more success as a writer than I can imagine, and he spent years ready to slit his wrists.

For a long time I thought my grapple with success was a tension between accepting mediocrity, given that I come from humble roots, and embracing sacrifice inherent in rising above one’s station in life. I have recently revised this: the real tension is between being what you are and what society thinks you should be.

I choose to be who I am on this day, which is a day like any other in the grand scheme of things. I choose to be brash at times, stubborn at times, shallow at times, deeper than an ancient well at other times. I choose to be compassionate, honest, sensitive, and, above all, self-reflective. If this leads to money, women, etc., then so be it. If it doesn’t, well, the words of Steven Biko from the movie Cry Freedom come to mind:

“I’m going to be as I am, and you can beat me or jail me or even kill me, but I’m not going to be what you want me to be.”

Given that my current situation is not as dire, I will substitute the ‘beat me’ with ostracize me, the ‘jail me’ with neglect or ignore me, and the ‘kill me’ with not have sex with me. The last one at times actually feels like a fate worse than death.

You may laugh, but this is not a joke for a lot of straight men. I used to think my raging desire for the opposite sex was natural, but then I remembered that from day one I was socialized into female obsession — even before I realized I was attracted to women. It was assumed that I was straight and that because I was healthy and handsome I would not only seek out and be sought after by women but also that there would be satisfaction in this game. The last assumption, I just discovered, was actually more damaging than the former. It is impossible to find satisfaction in another without finding it first in yourself (and I don’t mean learning how to masturbate).

I was taught to chase after things in life and let them chase me without the necessary education as to what was out there and whether it was even worth chasing. Moreover, I, like just about everyone else, was not given enough space for self-discovery free of the endless and empty echoing of someone else’s dream.

We say we live in a free society, but this is far from the truth. John Stuart Mill recognized this early — that even liberal democracies control the spectrum of human thought, emotion, and behavior despite their lofty ideals and rejection of traditional forms of tyranny. I do not need a boot on my neck to be forced to comply; I only need to be told that I am an “uneducated radical” for basing a scholarship proposal on the works of Noam Chomsky instead of drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid of an ‘acceptable’ scholar.

I do not need to be forced into a marriage to be oppressed like so many young women worldwide. It is enough to be forced into the role of a ‘man’ rather than be free to live the reality of a man — or, more accurately, of a person who is referred to as a ‘man’ based on physical characteristics. This role compels me to be things that I am not for the sole purpose of receiving things I am told I am supposed to want: sex, a wife, a family, a career, a house, etc. It reminds me so much of a television commercial, where the only thing authentic is your desire to look away and lock eyes with someone who loves and accepts you for who you are and is not trying to distract you from the truth of how vital it is to find that which does not come with any packaging.

I worry that we will reject the sun, the stars, and the moon for an artificial version of all three.

So I say on this day: let me remain incomplete and without the many comforts in so-called ‘life.’ Let me continue to suffer from all the pains and losses that even those who possess those many comforts still endure. But let me do so without shame, narcissism, or the illusion that things can be better if I just had _____ . Let me struggle and suffer through life with eyes wide open, a clear head, and a full heart.