Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Friday, February 24, 2006

Choices (or "If You're so Fricking Talented, Why Do You Work In Insurance?")

Never was a sports fan. When all the kids went around my elementary school with their Dallas Cowboys t-shirts or their Pittsburgh Steelers sweatshirts, I wanted to be like them, to fit in. Problem was, I wasn’t particularly good at it. I wasn’t interested in the games themselves. So, good geekboy that I was, I went with what mattered to me – how cool I thought their mascots were.

I remember liking the Dolphins and the Cowboys (was there a team called the Bengals? I recall liking them, too, since they were tigers, and from Ohio). I wore a Dolphins sweatshirt and people would ask me about Dan Marino and I’d pretend to know what the heck they were talking about. I remember feeling confused and trying really hard to be like the other kids and just not knowing how to do it. How do you pick a favorite team? What were the criteria? I knew that just liking the mascot was totally beside the point, in my heart I knew this, but I couldn’t figure out how it worked.

Being a rather strange child I thought about it fairly deeply (as deeply as a six-year old can think, which is sometimes pretty deep). My thought processes gradually evolved over many years and eventually went like this:

If you are cheering for a sports team, then you must like something about them. but what? It’s not like you’re playing the game with them. You don’t get fired if they lose and you don’t make any money if they win (this was before I became aware that people bet on sports teams, which seems incredibly stupid to me. Joe Montana has a bad day and you lose two hundred dollars. Brilliant. Gambling isn’t a sin because it’s immoral – God just hates stupid people).

Is it because you like the way they play, or you think they’re better athletes? My dad always talked about hating Knicks because he thought they played dirty ball and whined when their opponents played rough back. I thought that was a good reason to dislike a team, and that made a certain amount of sense, but there are plenty of people who liked them for the same reason. And as far as skill goes, there are many athletes of equal or, on some days superior skill on other teams, and even the most skilled team loses some days.

It sort of makes sense if the team you cheer for “the home team” but there are plenty of people who are from, say, Cincinnati, who don’t like the Bengals. Why not? Growing up first in Columbus, Ohio and then in Arizona, neither of which had a professional sports team, I myself was bereft of regional loyalties.

I finally came to the conclusion (and though the arguments are a little more fleshed out above, they existed, in nascent form, in the mind of the six-year old I was) that the choice was entirely arbitrary. I didn’t think of it in those terms, I just remember a feeling of loss. I understood something which confused and hurt me, but which I knew to be true. There was no real reason to like a sports team. You could like any team, for any reason, and it would be the right team, for the right reason. You could have arguments in the schoolyard (and, as we all know, kids did, with all the sophistication of a senate debate: “Cowboys rule!” “Steelers kick ass!” “Dolphins suck!”) until the last bell rang, and you would still never convince anyone of anything, and never prove it to anyone that Staubach or whoever the fuck was a better quarterback. This made me crazy, because now my arguments with my schoolmates lacked all conviction. How could I argue, when I knew that there was no way to argue someone out of an opinion that had no rational criteria?

This started to cause me problems in other ways, too. How do you make a decision about, say, ice cream flavors. What flavor of ice cream do you want? I don’t know – they’re all good. Which do I like more? How should I know? I haven’t tried them all, and anyway, what criteria would I use to say, “Yes, I like Huckleberry Crunch more than Rocky Road”? The question “What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?” could send me into absolute paroxysms of self-doubt and confusion. And then the kids who would try to argue the relative merits of one type of ice cream or another – oy! I had nothing to say. Oh sure, I’d argue, but all the other kids knew my heart wasn’t in it.

Then they’d ask me what I want to be when I grew up. When I was younger, it was easy. Space was cool, drums were cool. I wanted to be an astronaut, or a drummer. Eventually, though, I realized that any choice I made was, once again, entirely arbitrary. You could do anything! So how could you know what you wanted, what you were good at, unless you did it? And you clearly couldn’t do everything, or even most things. And what if you did it and it turned out you didn’t like it? I knew most people didn’t really like their jobs. So I’d pick things. A musician, a rock star (two different things, donchaknow), a marine biologist, a minister (I’ll tell you that story some other time), a writer (that one seems to have stuck, for some reason), a comedian. But my choices, again, lacked conviction, because I knew there was no reason to want any one particular thing, except that I wanted it, and that just didn’t seem like a good enough reason.

Maybe, my religious upbringing suggested, God had a plan for us, and each of us was specifically made to do one particular thing. This was comforting, and made a certain amount of sense. But after reading “Being and Nothingness” at the tender young age of 13 and realizing that even the concept of God was arbitrary, I realized I was well and truly fucked. The fact that a billion people in China didn’t believe in Jesus at all broke my brain.

Looking back, I think my failure to achieve any success or reach anything of real lasting value stems primarily from this. I knew that you could believe anything you wanted, do anything you wanted, eat anything you wanted, even die, if you cared to. So why do anything?

I’m still not sure I know. But I do know this.

Last night, a little after midnight, my toilet clogged and overflowed, sending shitty water all over my bathroom, soaking the rugs. I wanted to go to sleep, but I had to fix the toilet, or deal with the stench and filth in the morning. So I stayed up an hour or so, bailing out the shitty water, unclogging the toilet, mopping up the shitty water soaked floor, wiping down surfaces, hanging up rugs to dry. And I realized something.

Sometimes it’s not arbitrary. Sometimes you really have very little choice. Certain choices become unacceptable, and you know exactly what you have to do. Even if you don’t want to, sometimes you gotta clean up shit.

I pulled on rubber gloves, and behold, I was comforted.

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