I Confess. I Cheated.

cheat

You’re in school taking the most important and hardest class you’ll ever take.  There’s a lot of pressure because if you make an A you’ll be guaranteed a job.  A B might get you the job depending on how everyone else in the class does.  But you’re pretty confident because you’ve worked harder than your classmates.

First test you make a B.  A few of your classmates make Cs and Ds but the majority make As, and you wonder how they did that.  Soon, you hear that one of your classmates has a copy of all the semester’s tests, obtained perhaps by cleverly hacking into the professor’s computer.  The ones who are cheating ask if you’d like to come over and “study” with them for the next test.  You decline because you don’t want to be a cheater.

You study more than you did for the last test because you know you have to just to keep up.  You end up with a B plus.  They make As again.  They’re contacted by job recruiters.  You are not.  Even some of the ones who made Cs and Ds on the first test are now making As, moving you closer to the bottom of the pack.  You’d like to tell on them, but you have no proof.  Besides, that would really tick off the whole group, and they pretty much detest you anyway for your goody-two-shoes routine.

You do what you have to.  You join them.  You make your A.  You get the job.  You’re financially independent and so happy about that.  You get married and have kids, whose piano and tennis lessons you can pay for thanks to that good job.  Your family is happy.  No regrets.  You and your college buddies laugh about that class years later.

Now you’ve got this great job in a tight economy.  Again, you’re working your butt off, eating lunches at your desk, never taking sick days or personal days, yet the productivity of your co-workers is surpassing your own.  You know they’re cutting corners, backdating documents, shredding customer complaints and doing what they can to stay a step ahead of the curve.  One misstep and they could be fired.  They know that.  You know that.  At the same time, you know that management tacitly condones this behavior as long as they don’t make an obvious blunder that forces management’s hand.  You have a family and hate taking risks especially when it comes down to your livelihood.  However, you wonder that if you can’t keep up with the pack and their inflated numbers, you might lose your job.   You give up vacations, work on holidays, extend your work week to eighty hours just to do what your co-workers claim they do in a forty hour week.  You have your integrity.  You keep up this pace for twenty years, put your kids through college, watch them have families of their own, and finally you retire.

When you look back, you wonder what it would have been like to spend just a little more time with your kids?  You regret not spending more, because when it comes down to it, isn’t the family the most important thing?  You feel bitter at the rest of the world who seems happier than you with fewer wrinkles around the eyes.  They never faced the consequences of their misdeeds.  Or were they really misdeeds?  You wonder if making three follow up calls and fibbing on the required fourth would have made that much of a difference.

We face these kinds of tough decisions every day, sometimes without even considering the moral and ethical significance.  Cheating and getting ahead is the easy decision.  Choosing not to cheat is the tough one.  However, cheating does, after all, imply getting a competitive advantage.  What if you are at a competitive disadvantage if you don’t cheat because everybody else is?  It’s easy to justify it in our own heads when we are pursuing our goals to be successful and respected.

Let’s be honest.  What we all want is to be successful.  Society puts pressure on us to be successful.  In our culture, success is measured by the acquisition of things.  A businessman who nets one million dollars is more successful than one who nets a hundred thousand dollars.  No one asks to compare their bookkeeping or business practices.  An NBA superstar who has five championship rings is more successful than one who doesn’t have any.  Even successful parents are ones who produce successful children, children who are able to obtain a lot of things and money.  Sometimes we need to see ourselves as successful.

It’s time for me to come clean.  I am a Scrabble cheater when it comes to games played on my mobile device.  At first I just played against a friend at work against whom I racked up a record of twenty wins and no losses.  I branched out and began playing other players online.  I’d lose a few games here and there, but I was much more serious about the game than ninety-five percent of the other people that I played, so that in itself gave me an advantage.  There was one guy I liked to play.  We’d have close games but I’d win about eighty percent of the time.  Then his average score suddenly shot up by sixty points.  I’d been playing long enough to know the difference between making good use of the board and pulling insane words out of nowhere, and not just crazy two or three-letter goofy words like ZO and ZA that every Scrabble player with a hundred games under his belt begins to know.  These were words like ALUNITES or HODJAS or ORIGAN (no, not “origin” or “Oregon” but “origan”, in botany, another name for marjoram).  I didn’t want to directly accuse him of cheating but I sent him a message that said, “Are you a Muslim botanist and chemist?” to which he replied, “No.  Someone just played these words against me once, and I remembered them.”

Whatever.  I knew he was cheating.  It’s easy to hop onto the internet and use an anagram solver, and no one on the other side can ever prove it.  He started beating me.  It made me mad.  I watched my win/loss record fall below ninety percent, not that it really matters since no one but me ever looks at it.

So then, I started doing it, using the anagram solvers.  I started to beat him again.  And it felt good.   I didn’t feel guilty about it.  If that’s the way he wants to play, that’s the way I’ll play, I told myself.

The point of all this is not to suggest that cheating is the proper way to go but merely how easy it is to justify to ourselves that not only is cheating the better way but also the vital way.  There is an insane pressure placed on us from birth to succeed, and although many of us are brought up in the Christian tradition of humility and charity, we all know that piety and moral purity are not the main criteria society considers when labeling a person a success.

Since we are social beings, how others see us is so important to how we define and view ourselves.  We want others to like us and we naturally hide our flaws.

So now we come to Lance Armstrong.  Of course I had to watch his interview with Oprah.  I genuinely feel bad for him not because I sympathize with what he did but because I can only imagine how painful the fall from the top to the thorny pit of despair must be.  The truth is, we’ve all been in his situation.  You might say my Scrabble example is nothing like Lance Armstrong because there was nothing really at stake.  But really, that makes my actions even more preposterous.  The only thing at stake was my own vanity.

I’ve talked to some who might understand why he cheated, but cannot tolerate the way he viciously went after the people who accused him of cheating.  Anyone who has had an affair and is trying to hide it will scorch the earth before they reveal their lie.  It’s not noble or right.  It’s just a desperate attempt to stay above everything and scrape and claw at whatever might catch before the inevitable avalanche sends us tumbling down the mountain.  The deeper and more important the lie, the more people we are willing to hurt to protect it.  The way I see it, a man at his worst is usually no worse than most men.

To be clear, I’m not excusing Lance Armstrong’s behavior.  His titles should be stripped, a ban implemented, and his legend in the sport of racing tarnished.  But I don’t hate him either.  I’m just considering the reality that Lance Armstrong, like us all, is human.  Perhaps that is the biggest disappointment.

lance

2011 – A Year in Review

It was a sad year.  Hope and optimism were replaced by fear and cynicism.  This writing doesn’t aim to restore positive feelings.  Instead, this lament offers only to capture my mood in this tiny moment of history but large moment in my life.

The year began with a horrific bang: an assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  Before we even had an opportunity to reflect on the victim or the assailant, fingers were already pointed and blame allotted: Sarah Pailin for putting Gifford’s name in crosshairs in a campaign ad or Glen Beck for stirring up a hatred that would induce people to commit acts of violence against the opposition.  However, if this was truly their underlying goal, they did a lousy job.  Considering their millions of followers, surely more than one would have risen up to embrace this suggestion of violence, if that’s what their words really were.  After enduring hours of media speculation on the dangers of voicing such opposition to a set of principles, it turns out the young assailant had little interest in Pailin or Beck.  But when something senseless happens, I suppose it feels good to make some sense of it all by blaming something bigger.  Right, Lee Harvey?

There was a tsunami that reminded us that despite our ability to combat the wrinkles on our foreheads or the crows feet around the eyes, we are still no match for a mighty wave.  It’s amazing that despite the devastation to the infrastructure of one of the world’s greatest economic powers, the financial ripple was not as severe as it could have been.  Or maybe when you’re so deep in a free fall, plummeting to your own painful collision, you don’t notice the rain falling all around you.  As said the one fish to the other, “what the hell is water?”

There were uprisings in the Middle East that were surprisingly neither orchestrated by the US nor directed at the US.  And while the protestors voiced support for our liberal ideals, it was not our government but our social media corporations that armed the cause with a free-flow of information.  The days of conquering the world with military might are over.  Now, globalization and free trade have opened the door to a new conquering force led by Colonel Sanders, McDonalds, Starbucks, Apple, and Disney, all who won’t stop until the market is cornered and cultural homogeneity is complete.  The new battle for world dominance will not be fought by emperors and kings but by billionaires and golden CEOs.  Will they by more or less ruthless?

Looking back, it’s kind of sad that our one true moment of collective joy and jubilation arose from the death of one man—Osama bin Laden.  Something now seems hollow about that victory, perhaps kind of what it must feel like when you finally get back at that high school bully at your 40th class reunion after years of careful planning, only the satisfaction is fleeting when you realize everyone else but you has moved on with their lives.  Like the Count of Monte Cristo, we are left wondering if the price for revenge was greater than we were really willing to pay.

2011 was the year of the flash mob.  With instant, on-the-go networking, we were able to arrange masses to do cool and hilarious things like coordinated dance-offs or practical jokes on crowds in subway stations.  The Arab Spring taught us that these same viral mobilization techniques could also launch revolutions.  So, at the end of the year we started our own.  Occupy Wall Street.  There is no denying the protestors’ claims that big businesses have become increasingly powerful and controlling over our daily lives or that the income disparity in our country is growing wider as our middle class shrinks and the rich get richer.  It had been a while since we’d seen a real populist movement, and “we are the ninety-nine percent” was the occupiers’ battle cry.  Their points and criticisms may be valid, but what is more sobering is the reality that our ninety-nine percent is the rest of the world’s one percent.  For now.  Other countries are beginning to copy the United States’ path to prosperity.  China and many Latin American countries with growing economies and middle classes modeled their development plan on our own Homestead Act of 1862 signed into law by the great republican, Abraham Lincoln, the same Abraham Lincoln who warned us of the dangers of the nation’s wealth being controlled by the few.

2011 was a year of great bickering.  This is what is perhaps most disheartening.  It’s kind of like watching fans rooting against their home team because they disagree with the way management assembled the team and hired the coach.  We are a land of many ideas, and the free exchange of these ideas creates opportunities for progress.  Now, progressive is a dirty word.  Moderate is another dirty word.  To stand the middle ground is to get caught in the crossfire of opinions and words launched like missiles with the intention to inflict harm.   Respect is all but gone.  Just as online media has made it possible to mobilize instantly, it can also spread hatred and misinformation like wildfire.  I see hatred growing in people’s eyes.  Hatred for the opposition.  It’s not a game anymore where the opposing sides argue passionately before meeting later to share some drinks.  Civil discussion is gone.  It’s much more personal now.  There are those filled with so much hatred they would even vow to never shake the president’s hand if he came to visit.  We walk out when we disagree, or we disrupt public meetings with “human mic-checks.”  Eisenhower cautioned us to never confuse a unity of purpose with a unanimity of ideas, but the idea that you’re either with us or against us has pervaded the way we view the world at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

225 years ago, Ben Franklin wrote the following for the constitutional convention:

I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.

Now, he would be called a flip-flopper and tossed to the media wolves.  Such is the age in which we live.

Freedom’s Just Another Word

Consider Bob.  Bob wakes up at six a.m. when his alarm goes off.  He doesn’t want to wake up.  He stayed up all night playing poker.  He was up a hundred bucks at the beginning but ended the night with pretty much the same amount he brought to the table.  Kind of the story of his whole life.  It’s the price to pay for friendship.  His wife will later accuse him of being greedy and trying to win it all, but there’s no way she’ll ever understand the social taboo of winning your friends’ money then leaving without sharing a few drinks.   They would deride him for putting money over friendship, as if money had nothing to do with poker night.  The point is, he’s pretty bitter about not being a hundred dollars richer, and now the alarm is hammering into his head.  He has a choice.  He can go back to sleep and miss work, or he can get up and get ready.  Or he can take the middle rode and hit snooze, making a sacrifice with each press of that oversized button: first the breakfast, then the coffee, then the relaxing shower, then the careful shave. And if his flailing arm becomes so automatic in its slap of the snooze that he’s not even consciously aware of it until it’s 7:25 and he has to be at work at 8, then he might have to skip the shower and shave altogether and opt for a greasy swipe of deodorant instead.  Today he gets up on time as if he’s a puppet of obligation.

By 7:30 he’s on the road.  It takes him longer than he thinks to get out of his neighborhood because there’s only one way in and one way out.  But since he’s moving at the speed limit he doesn’t get the absurdity that even though the main road passes directly behind his property, it takes him seven minutes to exit the neighborhood, loop around the block, and make it to the main road.  While another access point to the main road would open his neighborhood up to thru traffic, that’s the last thing he needs when he has two kids who like to play outside.  Once he meets the main road, rush hour traffic is a bitch.  There are no shortcuts.  Apparently, others don’t like thru traffic through their neighborhoods either.  The city planners are idiots, he thinks.  And does every mom need to spoil her kids by driving them to school instead of making them ride on the buses, which are running half empty?  He convinces himself that if he lets that red Mazda cut in front of him, that that is going to make the difference on whether he is late or not.  He squeezes the gap, but damn that bitch to hell, she cuts in front of him anyway.  Everyone seems to be conspiring against him to make him late.

Didactic aside.  The truth of the matter is that commute times to and from work have been consistently about 30 minutes on average for the last 4000 years, as if that’s the threshold to which humans can endure without going insane.  Once, Prehistoric Joe probably thought it would be much easier to live right next to the river, but after one good flood washed away their clubs and hides and especially after the subsequent tongue lashing from Prehistoric Jane, Joe knew better than to settle so closely to their water supply.  Even Roman planners built their cities with a 30-minute commute in mind.   The outskirts of a Roman city could not be more than 30 minutes away from the center.  As we move faster our cities have grown bigger.   When that interchange Bob and three hundred other angry motorists complain about is completed, it will only facilitate more growth in the area and traffic will swell once again.  The half hour commute is here to stay, but we won’t tell this to Bob.

He gets to work, which, even though it makes him stressed by the end of the day, isn’t that traumatizing in the grand scheme of things.  He likes to flirt with Wendy.  Of course, his wife wouldn’t approve, but it’s not like she (his wife) can see him.  He’s a free man when he’s at work, unless he slaps Wendy on the butt, which he’s really itching to do, but he’s worried doing that might get a sexual harassment claim levied at him.  Damn those frivolous lawsuits and feminist laws that prevent him from just being a man.  Once a year, he and every other employee at the office have to attend sexual harassment awareness meetings and sign off that they’ve read the information pamphlet carefully and promise to abide by company procedure or else face disciplinary action or even termination.  Rules, rules, and more rules encroach on his freedom to reach out and meet that sumptuous tush.

Meanwhile, Wendy is the first of three generations of female workers in her family to be able to go to work free from the abuse and degrading behavior of her male coworkers.  She’s not a liberal feminist and hates when people label her as such.  Nevertheless, she goes home angry that her boss can be so hardheaded and that she’s been passed over for a promotion when she’s clearly more qualified.  She knows the real business, as far as the internal politics is concerned, goes on after work when the men hit up the neighborhood bar and share a few drinks before going home.  She’s never invited…anymore.  She was invited once, but since she’s not a drinker, she ordered a lemonade.  The others teased her before settling into an uncomfortable period of awkwardness where they weren’t willing to relax and talk until she took a swig of some real stuff.  A co-worker tried to buy her a shot.  She politely pushed it away, and he reacted as if she’d just slapped his momma on the face.  Damn social entrapments.  But she’s an independent woman, thirty-five, and still in her entry-level job.  Today on her way home, it’s Rush hour—Rush Limbaugh.  He’s making her angry—in a good way, she thinks.  She’s being enlightened.  She works her ass off and these socialists in power want to give her hard-earned money to people too lazy to work.  Her husband calls just as the show is getting interesting.

“Hey, hon.  I’m just getting off of work, but I’m going to stop at the supermarket before I get home.  How was your day?” he asks.

“Fine,” she answers, as if she could say anything else.  She’d like to tell him how crappy her day was—he’s her husband for God’s sake—but the times that she’s tried this, he’s slowly retreated into a secret tunnel inside that cave that is phone silence.  Neither of them feels free to ask anything that might penetrate their wall of security.  She can’t ask him where the money goes, because he might take it that she doesn’t trust him.  They don’t trust that the other can handle inquiring questions without becoming defensive.  So, they don’t talk anymore.  Really talk.  To each other, they’re just safety belts that come into use only in case of an accident.  One day, unless an accident saves it, their marriage will collapse on itself.  Maybe she secretly hopes for this.  Bob at work seems to be interested in her.  “Damn those lazy socialists!” she yells after she hangs up the phone.  She’s almost home when she remembers that she’s out of dog food and she’s mad at herself for not telling her husband to pick up some at the store.  Whatever.  Let them eat steak, she thinks, but Steve her husband will volunteer to go back to the store and buy some food, making her feel guiltier in the process.  She turns around and detours to the pet store.

Steve returns from the supermarket, and his wife is still not at home.  Did she go drinking with the guys again?  He went to a company party once and saw how Bob looked at her.  Is something going on?  Is she with him?  He can’t stand the thought.  At first he’s saddened, then he’s angered.  He calls her again, but she doesn’t answer.  Since he lost his career job when his company went belly-up, he’s been working at the Shoe Palace selling ladies’ shoes.  Doesn’t pay well.  Better hours though.  But he senses Wendy’s resentment at their lower lot in life.  He’s tried to be a better husband.  More helpful.  But the truth is she’s the breadwinner, and that’s just not acceptable to his family, especially his brothers who tease him mercilessly.  He’s also ashamed when they go out with her friends from the office.   He feels small.  Each day that he tries to be a little more helpful to his wife, he feels a little more empty and depressed.  This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.  “The man is the head of the household,” his pastor said, but he sure doesn’t feel like it.  What else can he do?  Where is she?  That slut.  Oh, the love of my life, he thinks. We were happy once, right?  Stupid banks.  Stupid financial crisis.  Stupid deregulation.  Why doesn’t Wendy see that it was the Republicans that caused this?  She’s so cold-hearted and fixed in her ways.  Maybe Bob’s a Republican and is in to that free trade crap.  Free trade my ass.  It had a lot of costs.  Opened the doors to cheaper imports costing American jobs, my job.  Why doesn’t she answer the phone?  He’s feeling desperate.  He was going to cook dinner, but now he doesn’t feel like it.  He goes to his bedroom, but their happy wedding pictures on the wall make him feel even more depressed.  He goes into the bathroom.  Locks the door.  Here, he’s free.

A moral?  In our day-to-day lives we are free—and responsible—to make choices and accept the consequence of these choices.  We isolate ourselves in protected neighborhoods.  We hide in the anonymity of our cars where we feel free to unleash our anger.  While we are bound by some rules that are intended to protect the freedom of others, we are free to attack these rules as being to loose…or too strict.  We are free to tangle ourselves in our own abstract fantasies until we become victims of our own minds.  We are free to blame the government, though it has always struck me as odd that in one string of thought we can view the government as hopelessly dysfunctional yet still believe that this same government has the ability to manipulate our lives as if it were their personal agenda to make us miserable.   We are free to let our own fears and suspicions get the better of us even after we experience time and again that the cost of distrust is greater than the pain of betrayal.  Yet, we also are free to choose the things that will fulfill our lives.  We are free to consider that perhaps the things that anger us most are the things that really affect us the least.  Or we can stay angry.  We are free to embrace humanity, including our faults and missteps, instead of running from it.  We are free to perceive the world as we wish.

We are free to enslave ourselves.

We are free to escape.

Why I Don’t Hate Casey Anthony

“What do you think of the Casey Anthony case?” the barista asked me while I waited for my pineapple smoothie.

“I feel bad for her.”

Inside the tiny coffee shop, heads turned and jaws dropped. The barista seemed stunned. “You’re the only person I’ve talked to that feels this way, and I’ve talked to a ton of people about this.”

Perhaps it’s the writer in me that keeps my harsher emotions at bay. In fiction, for characters to be believable, they have to behave a certain way and are not allowed to defy the logic of their being. I have a deep sympathy for these villains who are unable to escape their own limitations. But Casey Anthony is not a fictional character, yet I wonder why it should be unnatural to feel bad for a woman who may or may not have killed her child. Even if she committed a heinous act, isn’t she a fellow human being. If religion does not beg us to care for all men, doesn’t civilization? Do we not feel compassion for those who slip and fall? I have heard my church pastor say that there is no man or woman so lost to be undeserving of our love. Do we begin to qualify this statement? It’s the same reason we don’t hate those who hate us or try to harm us. We may disapprove of one’s actions or disagree with one’s opinions, but to hate? Hatred has a way, once you let it in, of making itself comfortable and spreading like a virus, manifesting on the surface as anger and fear.

The gushing vitriol towards Casey Anthony is what is more unsettling to me than anything and reflects something about who we are as a country. We have become a country that lusts for opportunities to exact revenge, revenge against terrorists, revenge against ex-spouses, revenge against former employers, revenge against the utility or cable companies, revenge against opposing political parties. People will cite the “eye for an eye” aphorism, but it’s this type of thinking that we exchanged for what we call civilization. What if Casey Anthony were your sister, the one you grew up with playing with Barbie dolls or My Little Ponies? Or what if she were the next-door neighbor who helped you move in? We don’t know who she was nor can we determine the angle of reflection that shapes her perceptions of the world. We have a limited portrait, two-dimensional, painted largely by the media, of a woman whose entire life is now defined by one event. No man or woman is without redeemable qualities. No one but her knows if she feels pain or remorse. Something led her astray in life, but shouldn’t we be trying to steer her back on a path more agreeable to a civilized society? Hating her does not accomplish this. Neither does banishing her. For that matter, neither does forgiving her (forgiving only allows us to get back on the right path). And revenge doesn’t undo what was done. The best we can do is forget and move on…and allow her to move on.

If, however, we should insist on being angry, shouldn’t our anger be directed at the judicial system? Should we now condemn our founders’ ideal that it’s better to let nine guilty men go free than to send one innocent man to prison? Do we really want to reconsider this philosophy? I get a sense that as a society we already have. I think there are many now who would argue that it’s better to send nine innocent men to prison than to let one stinkin’, son-of-a-bitch, no-good criminal go free. It is reflected in our tendency to get the evildoers out of sight, out of mind, even if there is some collateral damage along the way. It is reflected in our urge to wipe Afghanistan off the map after we were attacked, even though it was a relatively small group that wanted to do us harm. It is reflected in our suspicions towards Hispanic minorities who might be here illegally. It is reflected in our attitudes toward criminals in general. In 1950, roughly 70 percent of the population believed the role of prisons was to correct behavior while 30 percent believed it was to punish. In a recent poll, those numbers have flipped.

We are dangerously veering away from what it means to be civilized. We are more concerned with forging a unanimity of opinion than welcoming opposing views not just for the purpose of debate but for deeper illumination. We live in an op-ed world where the news is no longer the news but endless commentary passed onto us as news. We are told what to think, how to feel. Instead, we should treat each suggestion with suspicion and ask questions. At one time, we had to guess at the opinions of our news anchors, but now their alliances are firm and conspicuous. And now, since we can broadcast our opinions on social media and message boards, it is no longer just the media stoking the flames of fear and hatred; we are cultivating our own mobs!

And here I am doing the same thing, using social media to opine with no authority to do so. But as a writer of fiction, I am feeling boldly uninhibited, which tends to happen to people who dance along the line dividing fantasy and fact. When I write, I feel obligated to explore deep inside the core of characters, extracting enviable qualities that are sometimes embedded within a coarse rind. I think a writer must willing to turn a villain into a hero or to find the darkened heart within a pleasant man because to do otherwise would be to imprison characters and to shield them from the life-shaping encounters with chance. I do this also because I am acutely aware of my own defects. I am defined by my limitations. Anytime I have a gut reaction, I check it with skepticism. I don’t believe any writer is so arrogant as to refrain from doubting every word set to paper, so our work is a result of wrestling with ideas and philosophies that never quite get resolved. As Anton Chekhov once said, a writer’s responsibility is to offer questions, not to answer them. The only point I feel I can definitively make is that it’s difficult if not impossible to be definitive about anything. It’s why writers often linger in shadows where forms are without absolute color or contour, and it’s why I resist my primal urge to hate Casey Anthony.