Tag Archives: cynicism

Mosquito Bites Are Just Insect Kisses

In high school, my history teacher gave us some sage advice.  “Whatever you do,” she said, “Don’t become cynical.”  According to her, cynicism was reserved for old ladies with neon fanny packs and lives full of heartbreak.  It was saved for guys with skull tattoos and overly-complicated facial hair.  But cynicism should not corrupt the young, green, whippersnappers at my high school, she said.  Kids should not be cynical.

Unfortunately for me, her advice was too late.  For whatever reason, I had entered my adolescence with a sharp eye for all that was wrong with the world.  There were rappers getting shot, presidents having affairs, and crazy monkey viruses spreading into our drinking water (I had nightmares about the movie Outbreak for weeks).  Life, as I saw it, should be approached with a rational dose of pessimism:  Lawyers were liars.  Businessmen were drug addicts.  Babies were just future juvenile delinquents, strippers, and Congressmen.  At the core, human beings were just greedy: greedy for sex, greedy for attention, but most of all, greedy for money.

Of course, this wasn’t the healthiest attitude to have.  So in junior year of college, I took a class called Positive Psychology, which was widely dubbed the “Happiness” class.  The class gained notoreity due to its huge enrollment, prompting media outlets to crow about Harvard students trying to study happiness.  And oh, we did.  In our first section, our class was told to go around and give each other hugs.  Our professor sent out emails about yoga.  We were all asked to bring in songs that spoke to our inner happy souls.  Money doesn’t buy happiness, but Norah Jones does.

Even though I was skeptical, I liked the idea of positive psychology, where mosquito bites were just insect kisses.  Everything bad could be seen as good.  Since that class, I tried to apply positive psych into my life.  The volcanic eruption in Europe isn’t a terrible economic disruption… it’s just God’s fireworks.  KFC’s new Doubledown Sandwich isn’t an example of Type 2 Diabetes wrapped in tinfoil… it’s just a protein party in your small intestine.

But even as I try to stay positive, sometimes I still fall victim to my old, cynical ways.  Maybe it’s natural.  Maybe it’s just true, that people are inherently, undeniably, greedy bastards…

When I was a baby, my parents put the following items in front of me: a $20 dollar bill, a bowl of cheesy puffs, and a stuffed animal.  I crawled straight for the $20 without hesitation.  It was a sign.

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Following Fuzzy Dreams

I grew up in a small town outside of Boston, not destitute-poor nor ostentatious-rich.  I had a perfectly normal upbringing, fraught with wonderful childhood memories of uncontroversial activities and agreeable relatives.  I made it through middle school and high school without ever getting arrested, pregnant, or high off crystal meth.  And although I once slept in a parking lot, I was still nestled in the comforts of a Coleman campers tent.

My early life of relative contentment lent me an idealistic view of the world.  It’s easy to be idealistic when everything has worked out, for the most part.  I believe that people are inherently good, even if they can be incredibly stupid.  I believe that government, when run efficiently, can do a lot of good.  And I believe that in our endless pursuit of happiness, we should wholeheartedly follow careers that we love.

Of course, my idealism has always been tainted by another convincing worldview: cynicism.  I’m not sure where my cynicism comes from (there is no reason for it), but it’s always been there, loud and brash. The cynic sits on my left shoulder, while the idealist sits on my right — mirroring the eternal left brain/right brain civil war battles in my head.  To the cynic, my idealism is construed as naivete, as folly; to the idealist, my cynicism is just an excuse to keep accepting the status quo.

So far, the cynic has won.  No, I’ve never taken a risk in my life (even our tent was placed on school grounds).  I’ve taken the steady jobs, made the uncontroversial decisions, and traveled the safe routes.  Along this road, I’ve been incredibly happy and lucky — I really cannot complain about anything.  And yet, there has always been a nagging feeling, pulling at me from that unfulfilled idealist side, telling me that I need to follow “my passion”, as if I knew what it was.  I have an idea, sure… but following your dreams?  Ha!  The cynic gave up on that years ago.

After a few years in the working world, I found myself listening less and less to the idealist.  After all, the cynic is practical, reasoned, and easy.  It’s hard to give up the easy stuff (having a job, having money) to go follow those crazy, fuzzy dreams.  Idealism is for the weak-minded, the cynic says.  It’s for people who don’t have any better options.  It’s for people who don’t actually try anything, because once they do, they become cynics!  (…or so the cynic says.)  So as we get older, the idealist fades.  It only preys on the young, the innocent, and the weak-brained.  As learned, intelligent adults, we should know better… right?

I thought so too.  But then, in December of last year, I decided that I needed to take a totally clichéd leap of faith.  I went into a meeting with the CFO of my company, which was set up to talk about my budding finance career.  In that meeting, I told her that while I enjoyed finance, my real passion was in writing.  She argued.  I tried to fight back.  She argued some more.  I dropped off a script that I wrote.  She gave me the cynic’s trademark move: a deadly raised eyebrow.  But I had already made up my mind.  Though I could never persuade her otherwise, I was glad to contribute kindling for her office fireplace; I was going to become a writer.

So in May, I’m moving out to Los Angeles in my first real attempt to try and make it as a writer.  What kind of writer?  I’m not sure.  It’s still a somewhat fuzzy dream, but with support from friends and family, it’s getting clearer.  And although I’m not taking a completely crazy leap of faith (I still have a full-time job), it’s one step closer to the fuzzy end goal.

Even if it doesn’t work out, at least I’ll have saved the fading idealist in me, who had been teetering so close to the edge of the rye field.  After all, I still need a left-brain counterweight to tone down that cynic.

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Old and Alone With Cats

There have been several incidents in my life that have led me to believe I will end up old and alone with cats.

Why I Will End Up Old and Alone: Three Explanations 

  1. CATSI am highly cynical. I view the world through the eyes of a grumpy old man. I even judge babies: “That one’s going to end up in prison. He looks like a drug dealer.” 
  2. My parents ruined me by telling me that I’m so smart and beautiful, I’m obviously going to find someone else who is also a 10.  Sigh… if only God made other human beings as amazing as myself… And how am I going to find him in this bargain basement of sevens? 
  3. A fortune teller told me so. I was sitting with a friend while she received her fortune (setting: strip mall in Orange County, so it’s obviously legit). In the middle of her little ritual, the fortune teller paused, looked at me, and told me that I was too stuck up and would end up old and alone. For serious. Apparently I look like a lost cause.

But honestly, it’s not just me. At least I have a handful of friends who will also be headed down the old-and-alone path with me. And you know what? It’s for good reason too.

Why No One Should Even Consider Dating Us: Three Reasons

  1. We are selfish. Our careers come first. Even if we hate our careers. And really, our uber-rationality leads us to a short-only investment strategy. We think: why spend so much time and energy on someone with marginal returns right now? I know someone who described an ex fondly, saying, “Cost-benefit wise, it just wasn’t worth it.” 
  2. 04ivy2_650We’re huge snobs. We sincerely believe that 90% of people in this world have at least one of three damning characteristics: too lazy, too stupid, or too asymmetric. I have one friend who will only date Ivy Leaguers (excluding Brown and Cornell)… because obviously, all graduates from the Ivory Tower are hard-working, smart, and enormously attractive. 
  3. There’s an icebox where our hearts used to be. In response to a friend’s semi-breakup, another highly sympathetic friend (the one who will only date Ivy Leaguers) wrote, “it’s use and abuse. that’s how we roll. on with the next.”

Maybe one day we’ll change (see standards graph below).  But honestly, ending up old and alone is likely just a foregone conclusion. The question now is: with or without cats?

STANDARDS1

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If He Liked It Then He Should’ve Put a Ring On It…

A few weeks ago, the number one movie in the country was the chick flick He’s Just Not That Into You. The movie featured a quintet of charming women who were all incidentally looking for love, and only love. Career? Eh. Family? Pooh pooh. Happiness? Well of course… as long as it’s got a diamond ring attached.

hesjustnotthatintoyou1

To me, the women in the movie would have made Susan B. Anthony turn in her grave. They were caricatures of the worst attributes in the female populace: needy, obsessive, and undeniably crazy, fawning shamelessly after their male counterparts. I didn’t enjoy the movie all that much, but then again, it was hard to relate: the only time that I shamelessly hunt down men is when they’re serving h’or dourves. I’m not a huge fan of romance novels, winking emoticons, or using “heart” as a verb.

jasonBut that’s not to say that I don’t appreciate a good love story. Like so many others, I became addicted to ABC’s The Bachelor this winter, with Jason Mesnick. I watched while Jason played the role of the charming, sensitive dad from Seattle. I watched him make heartbreaking decisions week after week, until it was finally down to two, Molly and Melissa. I watched as he proposed to Melissa, and broke Molly’s heart in New Zealand… And then I watched him pull a little switcheroo in the “After the Final Rose” follow up, revoking his love for Melissa and asking Molly to take him back.

Uh yeah. If there is any reason for my cynicism, it’s this guy.

During the show, I was G-chatting and exchanging text messages with a few friends. Some immediate reactions from the peanut gallery after Jason’s big announcement:

“I feel like I just found out Santa Claus isn’t real.”

“I could throw something.”

“Please don’t date a douchebag… This definitely makes me reevaluate the way I treat girls.” (Thanks, AV)

susanbMy problem with the whole thing is that it’s just another example of a woman getting screwed over by a man, and then running right back into his arms. Just like in HJNTIY, it astounds me that we continue to chase after d-bag guys. Molly, if he liked you then he would’ve put a ring on you… the first time. He wouldn’t have let you go, and he certainly wouldn’t have proposed to another woman. In essence, you don’t deserve to be treated like crap. (Ahem, Rihanna, are you paying attention?)

In the end, I imagine Susan B. Anthony on the silver dollar, rolling her eyes: “Well, it looks like we haven’t made much progress on the feminist front… Damn, I can’t believe I busted my ass for this. Women empowerment? Please. If I could do it all again, I’d just get married. I want some of that Rutherford B. Hayes. Mmm hmm.” Go get ‘im, girl.

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The Sellout Life

We all know friends who cheerily (and perhaps smugly) proclaim that they have life all figured out: The dream job? Already got it. The ideal career? On their way. The five-to-ten year plan? All mapped out in Excel, with colored tabs.

For those of us who do not have it all figured out, it’s easy to hate these people.

basketFor some of these friends, we wholeheartedly agree that their jobs, are, indeed, perfect… for them. Such modern vocational eccentricities as basket-weaving, tornado-chasing, and non-profit work/teaching typically qualify as “dream job” worthy. Thus, for our panda-saving teacher friends who love their jobs, we salute and applaud you. For our wicker-wielding basket weavers, we wish we shared your passion. The stories of consultants-turned-pastry bakers have inspired us to keep making cupcakes while we churn out our Powerpoints. We are unequivocally happy for our friends who have followed their dreams, and (usually) forgone the riches.

But then, what of the friend who is also our colleague? What about the cheerful pitch-making investment banker? The smiling number-crunching accountant? The unrepentant coffee-fetching sales assistant? Who, in their right mind, could truly enjoy the soul-sucking work of betas and cash flows and Xerox malfunctions? Yes, there may be lifelong accountants working in windowless cubes who have found a way to squeeze joy out of balancing a balance sheet. There may be i-bankers who enjoy not sleeping, consultants who enjoy not having a home, and lawyers who enjoy not being honest. But most of us look at such friends and immediately discount them as sellouts, money mongers, ladder climbers, naifs, and/or deluded cherubs. We cannot possibly believe that they would actually like their tiring, mundane, “sellout” jobs.

DREAM CHASER —————- “SELLOUTS”

Author/Artist ——————- Advertising/Marketing

Public defender —————– Corporate lawyer

Doctors without borders ———- Plastic surgeons

Microfinance ——————- Investment banking

Physics professor ————— Hedge funds

Human rights worker ———— Consultant

Fifth-grade math teacher ——— Accounting

We’re trained to think that the left is somehow better than the right, that “selling out” is a condemnation worthy of disgrace. But no, it’s not impossible to like accounting, and it’s not wrong to have ambitions to be a principal controller. It’s easy to be cynical about our jobs when we haven’t figured everything out yet, and it’s even easier to be cynical about the choices of others, especially when they take the convenient “sellout” route.

In the end, though, we should probably be fair in how we treat our cheery, smug friends; we ought to congratulate them on their convictions, and embrace the environmentalists along with the i-bankers… Either that, or we shun them both for having figured out their lives before we did. Weaving class, here I come.

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It’s Not Personal, It’s Just Politics

Updated (4/13/09): With Al Franken finally winning the Minnesota Senate seat, thus concludes the saga of the 2008 election.  I wanted to revisit this post from Election Day, November 4.  I remember writing this piece on Monday night, staying up well past 4 AM on Tuesday to gather all my thoughts about the upcoming election (the official timestamp on this is 7:57 AM EST, but I was in Los Angeles at the time).  That night, I had been supremely afraid that regardless of the outcome, our country would be polarized in choosing a new President–I myself had threatened to move to Canada if McPalin won.  It’s interesting to reflect back on the election now, almost five months later.  I recall the heated discussions I had about the candidates’ economic policies.  I remember sending out fiery emails directed at my closest friends.  I even recall talking up an elderly gentleman at a nightclub in LA.  Upon learning he was from Florida, I passionately implored the man to send in an absentee ballot… and I even gave him my phone number (bad idea).  Now that the dust has settled, I think this post still accurately reflects my feelings about politics as a whole: its genesis is unique to us all as individuals, but its consequences–impassioned debate, renewed social interest, and mobilizing for change–are universal.

Until very recently, I had never been that political. Having been too young to remember George H.W. Bush, I essentially grew up during the Clinton administration. Thus, controversy and scandal marred my perception of politics in the formative years of my life. I was thirteen when the Lewinsky scandal broke, and, like many other thirteen-year olds at the time, I developed a rather cynical judgment of politicians. My views were reinforced–and most likely helped–by my parents’ own cynicism. My mother and father had immigrated to this country separately in the early ’70s to attend graduate school at Indiana University. They met serendipitously at IU, finding out that they had once been kindergarten classmates. After marrying and graduating, my parents moved eastward to Massachusetts to raise their young daughter. American politics at the time was foreign to them. During grad school, their perception of U.S. politics had been molded by classmates who had lived through the polarizing ’60s, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam. Government and party were ever-changing characters: at times hero, at times villain. Thus, when my parents became American citizens, they registered to vote as independents. My mother favored candidates with strong morals, and my father favored candidates that pissed off my mother. My childhood was one that was thoroughly apolitical. With regards to politics, apathy towards candidates was almost deemed to be more reasonable than hope.

gore-bushThe first election I took an interest in was 2000. For some reason, I was immediately put off by Al Gore and his highfalutin “locked box” rhetoric and “I invented the Internet” claims. The way I considered it, politics was less about the issues and more about the candidates themselves. Al Gore was a stuffy elitist, while Bush was an easygoing, sensible everyman (or so I thought). Times were good, the economy was strong, and America was still a well-respected leader in the world. Had I been old enough to vote, I may very well have voted for Bush back then. Overall, though, neither candidate inspired me to care much about the outcome. When Bush was finally announced as the winner of Florida, I remember having an entirely neutral feeling about it all.

When I turned eighteen, I registered to vote as an independent. My first opportunity to cast a major ballot came in 2004, in a markedly different presidential election than the one four years ago. In the post-9/11 world, we were facing a war, terrorism abroad, and a crisis of national security. My own understanding of American politics and government had matured since 2000. Whereas previously I had based my preference solely on the likability of a candidate, I now realized that there were more important issues at stake. Our country was at war. The power of the president had been expanded. Four years of American jingoism and cowboy politics was enough. Although I did not personally like Kerry as a candidate, I found myself firmly in the company of the anti-Bush moderates.

2004 was disappointing, but it was also a personal revelation of sorts.

martyAfter the election, I found myself becoming more aware of politics. I started to discern the conservative principles within the economics taught by my college professors (“taxes are bad”). I began to notice the bubble of social liberalism that seemed to swell only within the gates of Cambridge. I remember getting into an argument with the president of the Republican Club about the war. I had to break up an emotional discussion about abortion in the dining hall. On spring break in Cancun, six of my closest friends got into a heated battle about affirmative action while drinking margaritas at the pool. At that point, I realized that politics wasn’t just a ho-hum dinner table topic like it’d been treated at my house; instead, for many people, politics were real, inflammatory, emotional, and raw.

I can see now that my background and upbringing laid the foundation for my political predisposition. The experience of my parents instilled tolerance, moderation, and a general skepticism. As I grew older, I came to develop ideals that were shaped by these base values. Throughout my discussions, arguments, and fights, I started to piece together the strata of my own political views. My experiences in college and beyond have further informed my politics.

So, that is my personal journey into the world of politics, which has led me to the 2008 election.

During this presidential campaign, I have had frequent, impassioned exchanges with close friends over our differences in choice for president. (I even berated a friend–a McCain supporter–on the streets outside of Les Deux at 2 AM while eating a street-meat hot dog… low point). Although these fights were trivial at the outset, they often felt inherently personal. After all, we each had our own unique stories that had shaped our ideals. Influences such as family, religion, education, race and wealth informed our politics, to varying degrees. Thus, attacks on our politics seemed almost like personal attacks on our values, experiences, and perspectives on how we see the world. It almost became a tale of us vs. them, of good vs. evil.

obamavoteBut, I often need to be reminded that even though politics can signal differences in values, these differences do not necessarily mean that Democrats and Republicans can’t be friends, lovers, or soul mates. Differences cannot trump friendships or shared experiences.

So with that in mind, even if you’re a hardcore Obamanite, please reach out across the aisle today and shake hands with a McCainiac at the polls. If you’re a Palin fan, hug someone wearing a Barack the Vote shirt. If we do that today, we can unite together as Americans with common stories but perhaps differing opinions. We can present our politics as giving us a menu of choices, not a good vs. evil parable. We can show off our democracy around the world, and get our youth excited about our political leaders. Then regardless of the election outcome, we will all have already won.

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Random Thoughts on… Optimism

About six years ago, I went to a Red Sox game with my father.  He had gotten tickets from a co-worker who didn’t want them anymore, and had sold them to my dad for a small profit.  To be honest, I wasn’t that excited to be going to the game.  Back then, I felt that professional athletes were egotistical, overrated, and undependable as role models; there were far too many of them landing in the news, on their way to jail or rehab.  Plus, the Red Sox weren’t going to be in the playoffs, Pedro was out, and already the players seemed to be squabbling about their multi-million dollar contracts.  I felt that I was just too old to get excited about over-glorified athletes playing a game.  It was just baseball. 

When we got to Fenway Park (after surviving the mosh pit on the Green Line), there was a mother and her young son in the row behind us.  The boy was about eight years old, dressed in full Red Sox attire, and ready to catch foul balls with a baseball glove.  Once the game started, the little boy was absolutely captivated.  He would sit as close as possible to the field with his elbows on his knees and whisper words of encouragement to the players three hundred feet away.  His enthusiasm was infectious; I found myself at the edge of my seat, springing up every time a foul ball came our way.  But by the ninth inning, all my hope had capitulated into moping about another Red Sox disaster.  Fair-weather fans in front of us were in their element.  “You guys suuuccck!  Jeez Nomah, you pay off the ump for that call?”  When the game finally ended, I heard the kid sigh and slump back in his seat.  “Man, that last hit was so hard, I thought it was gonna get through.”  His attention to the sport, his optimism and hope-that made me admire him yet feel sorry for him at the same time. 

During high school, I used to coach a program for little kids around the ages of four to ten.  In the spring, we played baseball.  I watched these determined, diligent young kids try their absolute hardest: they ran out every hit, whether it was a clean single or a little flub in front of the plate.  When they came into the game, they mimicked Nomar’s meticulous tidying of his batting gloves, even if they had none.  Sometimes I felt an obligation to talk to them about sportsmanship and playing the game right.  The way I saw professional athletes in those days was something I hoped they wouldn’t see until they got much older.

But those kids played the game because it was fun for them and they liked it.  They would brag to each other about who could hit it the farthest, who could run the fastest.  They talked about what it would be like in the major leagues.  Back then, some parents came up to me and thanked me for working with their children.  They’d say that they were surprised, because I was a teenager and they thought all teenagers just liked to rebel against their parents.  One mother actually asked me if I was coaching because I was sentenced to community service.  I tried to tell the parents that not all teenagers were like the stereotype, but I’m not sure most of them believed me.  I could tell by their nervous looks that they were dreading the day their little angel turns sixteen. 

As I reflected over the numerous Sunday afternoons, I realized that although I had never done anything overly spectacular, the kids still looked up to me with the same reverence they bestowed on their sports heroes.  Six years later, I understand their parents’ unyielding watch and nervous glances.  I had believed that children were naïve to put faith in a character I reasoned to be unworthy.  I had presumed that what I read in the news about some professional athletes were vices of all pro athletes, yet I had scoffed at the parents who had assumed I was just like the teenage stereotype.  It seems we get more cynical of the world as we get older, and we no longer have faith in our once-reasonable dreams or our once-adored role models.  We lose the trusting nature and unconditional optimism we had as children.

Cormac McCarthy wrote in All the Pretty Horses, “…It was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”  Sometimes I want to warn kids today, with their high-flying expectations, so that they won’t be disappointed if they stumble upon failure.  I want to warn them against investing too much trust in their role models, since no one is without fault.  But, now that the kids I coached are teenagers themselves, I don’t want them to lose their ability to hope, their capacity to dream.  I don’t want them to stop cheering when their team is down 7-0 in the bottom of the seventh.  I want them to try out for their high school baseball teams, root unconditionally for their beloved Sox, and encourage the new generation of the possibilities out here, in a world that is sometimes far too cynical.  I hope they’ll never look at one bad apple and assume the rest have gone bad as well.  I hope they’ll have the heart to relive their childhood dreams, even if they don’t believe in them anymore.  I hope I will too.  Perhaps then the truths of life would not have to be hidden from children at all, but embodied in their heart, in their spirit, in their optimism.

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