A man goes on a journey, a guy walks into a bar

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

According to the late novelist John Gardner, there are only two kinds of stories: “A man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.” I figure the “a guy walks into a bar” qualifies as the latter. Here’s one that recently made me laugh:

A vegan, a cross-fitter, a Linux user, and a Raspberry Pi enthusiast walk into a bar.

They’re all the same guy.

One guy walks into a bar.

Why won’t he please shut up!

As a vegan myself, I find jokes about them funny. And my second-oldest friend is a cross-fitter. I’ve lots of Linux users in my circle. And one dear tech hobbyist friend loves to tinker with Raspberry Pi. It’s fun to laugh about yourself.

But here’s the thing: The joke doesn’t match my experience. I’ve heard nowhere near the amount of evangelism from those four groups in my entire life, than the amount of blowback from people complaining about them over just the past half dozen years.

Why?

If we’re honest, I think we have to admit that deep inside, these things make us feel judged.

  • Every time I see a cross-fitter’s post about some physical accomplishment, I feel a twinge of guilt for not taking better care of myself, not walking more, not using the free gym membership for seniors.
  • Every time a Linux enthusiast recommends dumping Windows or Mac for the open-source OS, I feel a twinge of foolishness or laziness for doling out cash to “rent” a corporate OS. Yes, there are valid reasons to justify that rental, but most of the work I do could just as well be done with open source software.
  • Every time someone mentions the customized computer they built to their own specs, I feel just a little bit ignorant and spendthriftish.

In each case, the thought is fleeting, but deep inside the feeling lasts awhile.

I’ve seen this with the topic of home schooling. “But how will your children learn social skills?” It’s couched as a question but serves as a criticism. And from my experience, home schoolers virtually never start the conversation, never say, “Well, I home school my children.” Instead someone else says, “Missy here home schools,” and the criticisms start flying.

It happens with veganism. “But where will you get your B12?” Most who ask the question have no idea what B12 is, why it matters, or what options there are. “How will you get your protein?” Same thing.

It happens with pacifists when they’re bullied or abused. It happens with religious persecution.

Not long ago, Cracker Barrel added a plant-based sausage to their menu and much of its customer base lost their minds. Logically, the response should be, “Well just don’t order it.” But emotionally, it seems pretty obvious that by its very existence, a plant-based sausage makes the traditional pork seem less healthy. And people don’t want the shadow of that implication cast across their breakfast plate.

People who home school imply, by their very existence, that public school is flawed. Which casts a shadow on parents who accept the status quo. Plant-based diets cast a shadow on the modern meat industry. Pacifism casts a shadow on the violence so inherent in our civilization, from household level to mass shootings to wars between nations. Religious faith—okay, in that case I gotta say that American Evangelicals have sort of spoiled things for the rest.

But in my experience, that guy walking into the bar doesn’t have to say a thing about his enthusiasms. The minute he asks if the fries are cooked in the same oil as the chicken, no matter how casually, the “So you think you’re better than us” circuit trips, and the blowback begins. It’s just human nature.

Worst Commercial Placement Ever

Cleaning up some old, unpublished posts at lestersmith.com, I came across this.

Whether you were a Battlestar Galactica fan or not, this “Worst Product Placement Ever” clip is worth watching to the very end.

When Giving Up Isn’t

Photo by Sedki Alimam on Unsplash

“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”

Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot

Maybe other people go through life without regularly reexamining their own actions, striving to improve. I don’t know. What I do know is I can’t help but look back in order to look forward.

And looking back, I’m starting to realize that a central theme of my life since childhood has been shame. Specifically shame from failure.

One instance of a shame that has haunted me in adulthood is having walked away from an uncompleted Master’s Degree. To understand the significance, you need to know how close I came to completion. (No humblebrag, just fact.) I’d finished every needed course—two solid years of study—with an A grade in all but one, a B. (My graduate entry GREs had been a perfect 800 in both the language and logic sections, a 760 in the math.)

All that was left was the formality of a final, comprehensive exam. And for the first time in my overachiever’s life, I partied through the night before, unable to study. Then walked into the test, filled in two sections, thought “There’s no way I’m making somebody read this bullshit,” and walked out, half finished, never to return.

Jennifer had labored hella hard to keep a roof over our head through those years, and we’d gone far into debt with student loans, but for some goddam reason, I just couldn’t step through that final door. I rationalized it with the truth that I was already working full-time for a game publisher, more than 40 hours a week, with a family of 4 children also needing attention. But even then I knew it was clearly a rationalization.

Nowadays I recognize it as an unconscious walking away from a trap. Getting that Master’s would have led further into a career in academia; there was no way this guy here could have done otherwise: Pursue a PhD, then the pursuit of increasingly rare tenure somewhere, to spend my life writing post-Transcendental Derridian Subjectivist critique of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus or some such. No disrespect meant for PhD’s, but my soul would have withered.

That “walk away” doesn’t feel like rationalization. It feels like an unconscious pattern of turning away from traps, to instead achieve something joyful.

I had walked away from a great factory job after eight years, by not waiting out a layoff. Because it was clear I’d never otherwise have the courage to leave, to risk entering college as an undergrad at 30. My dad argued that I should return to get in 10 years for a vested pension, and rightly that I could take courses at night. But I’d have never escaped, and nowadays that factory is gone, its pension program ravaged.

I had walked away from GDW, as much as I loved the company and companionship, and as much as my star was rising there, to take a job at TSR. And not long after, GDW was no more.

I had walked away from TSR shortly before its collapse—and please hear me out. For most of my colleagues that change was nothing but a blessing, folding them into WotC, which treated them like royalty, honoring their years of TSR service with WotC stock options, though that new employer had no legal obligation to do so.

For me and mine the move would have been destruction. It’s no exaggeration to say that some members were still traumatized by the previous transit from Illinois to Wisconsin. I couldn’t uproot them again without destroying the family.

There are other walkaways I could list here since, but you get the point.

Ultimately it has all led to this place. A history of paths taken and things achieved, because other paths were abandoned. And at last maybe I grasp that “abandon” needn’t be a synonym for “shame.” To paraphrase Stephen Fry, it needn’t necessarily bedevil me. It may have fed my better angels, if people who judge me less harshly than myself are to be believed.

Lamotrigine, Meet Bupropion

Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

I’ve finally acceded to taking an antidepressant. Here’s hoping it helps me get past the depression of acceding to take an antidepressant. :-/

Seriously though, Jennifer has been suggesting for years that it might help take the edge off sensory overstimulation that exacerbates this migraine/seizure condition. I’ve long resisted, but June was nigh unbearable, and anticipation of Gen Con in August has been slipping from joy to anxiety. (Ugh, the thought of sharing air with a plane-full of strangers.) :-(

Here’s to acquiescence. Lamotrigine, meet Bupropion. Play nice. :-|