This Morning

This morning I am happy. My senior students graduated yesterday; I was the MC for the ceremony, which meant I was nervous and uncomfortable all day leading up to it — because regardless of how much time I spend in front of a classroom full of students, it doesn’t take away my stage fright or my introversion. And also, a classroom full of students is quite different from a gymnasium filled with probably 500 people, including parents and grandparents and all of my fellow teachers and my administrators and my wife. Much more nerve-wracking.

But it went well, my speech was well-received, I made my former students cry. Here, for the sake of those who did hear it and want to remember, is my speech; it won’t mean a whole lot to people who don’t know these kids, but these kids aren’t the only ones who suit these words, so feel free to substitute your own children or students for the ones I was talking to and about.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and family, students, teachers, administrators – and, of course, graduates.

Welcome to the Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2019!

(to the grads) I bet some of you thought you wouldn’t make it here today. But you did it. All of you: you did it.

You had help – parents, siblings, relatives; teachers, and friends – and all your online friends, YouTube, Khan Academy, Quizlet, Yahoo answers, Wikipedia, Sparknotes, Slader, 123HelpMe.com.

But the point is: you did the real work. You spent the late nights, and the all-nights; the early mornings, the lunchtimes and the passing periods, cramming and studying and reviewing and furiously finishing assignments. You’ve gone through thousands of sheets of paper, hundreds of pencils and pens, gallons of energy drinks, an average of fourteen Hydroflasks each, and a literal ton of hot Cheetos. You sweated through the tests, the essays, the labs, the presentations. You fought through the despair, and stress, anxiety and depression, fear and anger and sadness and happiness – because honestly, nothing makes it harder to sit down to a test than when you’re having a really good day.

You did all of that. All of it. Make no mistake: if anyone tries to minimize this accomplishment, to tell you that this was easy, that it is not impressive – don’t listen. This is impressive. You are impressive. You made it. High school – all school – is rough. And you’ve made it.

And I only have one thing to say to you: don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.

Seriously – and I say it with love – get out. Go away and don’t come back. We’re all as tired of you as you are of us, and we’re all going to breathe a huge sigh of relief when you all have left. This is one of the most – let’s say “challenging” – classes I think this school has ever seen.

Want to know why?

You’re one of the smartest classes this school has ever seen.

You’re so smart, all of you, that it has been impossible to keep up with you. Impossible to consistently challenge you. Impossible to control you. Speaking from my experience, trying to run a discussion with all of you was insane: too many of you had things to say, and if you didn’t get to say them to the class, you would say them to each other, all at once. It was chaos.

You all burn so brightly that you draw all the air from the room – and because this school, these rooms, are so small, there wasn’t that much air to begin with. I honestly think that’s why you fought so much with each other: too many lions in too small a cage. It was a daily struggle to be on top, to stand out, to show how good you are individually, among all these other amazing people.

So. Now’s your chance.

You’ve been held in this small space, like a flower in a too-small pot, for too. Long. Now – you are free. Free to grow as tall and as grand and as glorious as you can. You will overshadow this place. You will tower over us, spread far beyond us.

I cannot wait to see what you all become.

So get out.

There was a keynote speaker, of course, a NASA scientist and actor who happens to be related to one of our newest alumni. I thought he did a great job with his speech — but I couldn’t help noticing that he leaned pretty heavily on clichés. He was actually quite up front about it: part of his theme was using Google (or technology in general) to find what you need, which was fine since he was talking to a STEM school; but the Commencement Speeches he Googled were apparently pretty generic. It was good and useful advice, but — generic.

So I thought I would write some of my own advice. Here, then, is something like what I would say if I were to be the keynote speaker at a graduation. This is what I would tell a group of students who were about to leave high school and embark on the adult part of their lives — also known as “the good part.”

 

Speeches like this are always full of clichés. Now, I don’t dislike clichés; I think most of them are true, and have genuinely useful things to say. Clever sayings don’t become clichés if they aren’t true, and truth isn’t talked about unless it is cleverly worded; so pay attention to clichés. At the same time, though, be aware of when the overuse of clichés clouds the message: because it’s a rarely known biological fact that people’s ears go deaf while that person is rolling their eyes. Think of them like memes: they are great, they make you laugh and make you think; then you get tired of them; then they’re dead. Clichés are like your favorite food: you can fall back on them when you have nothing new that sounds good; but you can also get tired of even your very favorite food, and that is a sad day.

I think one of the best things we can do is examine clichés, and reimagine them. Deconstruct them. Critique them. Because then we’re actually thinking about things we normally just swallow whole, without any consideration’ and that is no way to live, nor any good way to eat. You’ve got to chew your food: and your clichés, as well.

Ready? Here we go.

“All you need is love.” One of my favorite songs, and one of my favorite cliches. Also true — kinda. It’s not true that love is ALL you need; but it is true that love is one of the most important things you can have.

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The first piece of advice I want to give you is this: find love. True love, if you can; genuine and lasting love, at the least. I did, and there is not a day that goes by that I am not shaken to my core by gratitude and happiness because of it. And though I think I am extraordinarily lucky in love, I am entirely sure that all of you can find love, too. Make it a priority: make time for it, time for the looking and then time for the love once you find it. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, if that’s not what you’re after; it can certainly be love for family, for a parent, for a sibling, for a child; it can definitely be love for your best friend, or for a beloved pet — although, as much as I love my pets, I would recommend finding a human person to love. Because human persons talk back to you, and because pet persons die too soon. But it doesn’t have to be a spouse-type person, and it doesn’t have to be only one person. But in all the years I have spent with my wife, nothing has mattered to me as much as going home to her, as having her support and her companionship, as loving her and being loved by her. Don’t settle for something less than that: keep looking until you find it, because a half-measure of happiness will keep you from the full measure, and it isn’t worth it. If you think you’ve found it, and then you turn out to be wrong, don’t stay: divorce that person, leave that person, kill that person and stuff them in a sack.

Okay, don’t do that last one. But definitely leave the relationship and look for something better. Don’t give up on love. Not ever. And if you lose love, unless the memories of that love are enough for you, go out and find more love, find new love. Always. Life is better with love than without: and I truly believe everyone can find someone to love.

Next: “Never give up on your dreams. Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

Image result for if you aim for the stars and miss meme

Okay, once again, there’s truth to this. You should have some kind of ambition in life, and it is better if it is grand; but if it is grand, it will also be, for the vast majority of us, unachievable. Which means you will have two options: give up, or keep working for something you may never accomplish. (Whatever you do, don’t look at the affirmational quotations for this one. As someone who has tried for twenty years to be a published author, and who is still a high school teacher, it both amuses and disturbs me to hear celebrities who caught their lucky break telling people to never give up. Sure, if I had been handed my dreams when I was 17, I’d believe that anyone could accomplish anything they wanted to do — if I was arrogant enough to think that luck came to me because of my talent. I’m not bitter.)

Personally, I would recommend not giving up. Not because of this landing among the stars nonsense; that’s neither true nor meaningful — I mean, if my “moon shot” is to be a published author, what does it mean to land among the stars? I can certainly imagine a second-level success — say, I sell some pleasing number of books which I self-publish, or I get to a pleasing number of followers on this blog, both of which are secondary goals I’m working towards and would be happy to achieve — but how does that fit the metaphor? The moon is infinitesimal compared to the stars, which are infinitely farther away; so what does that mean? Nothing, that’s what. But that’s okay: the point is really that working towards your dreams is a good thing to do regardless of whether or not you achieve the original dream. I really prefer this quote to the cliché, because I think this captures my experience and a lot of other people’s, as well. (Makes sense that it came from an actress whose best-known role came when she was 36.)

“As long as you keep going, you’ll keep getting better. And as you get better, you gain more confidence. That alone is success.” –Tamara Taylor

That’s why I say it is worthwhile to have a grand ambition, even if it is one you will never achieve.

But that takes me, in a roundabout way, to what may be the most important advice I have to give you; though it is also probably the most vague. It is this: there are two kinds of people in this world, and two kinds of experiences.

(There are a bunch of these memes…

 

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But this one’s my favorite:)

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Here are my two kinds: One is the kind of person, and the kind of experience, that limits your future choices, your freedom, your ability to control your life; the other is the kind that expands those choices, that freedom, that ability to make up your own mind and to control your own life. Look always for the second kind of person, the second kind of experience. There will be many choices you will make in life, and many of them will limit your future freedom: and those are the choices you have to be most careful of. You have to make them at the right time, and for the right reason. Choices like what to study in college — after you decide whether or not to go to college. Like what job to take. Where to live. When, and if, you will marry; when, and if, you will have children. These are the defining choices in life, and if you are not yet ready to be defined, don’t make them.

More importantly, don’t EVER let someone else make those choices for you. Don’t let someone pick you for marriage unless you pick them, too. Don’t let someone pick your time to have children, or with whom. Don’t let anyone push you into a career path, and don’t push yourself into one unless you want that career to define you. Until you are ready to make that choice, and lose the freedom to choose again later. (Though here’s a secret, and another cliché I won’t deconstruct: it is never too late to change your mind. Though it does get harder as time passes and you get more settled in your place in the world.)

Let me say one more thing about work: this one?

Image result for do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life

Complete bullshit. (You can tell by the background. What the hell kind of job does this image represent? Forest ranger? Have fun chasing poachers and meth cooks all over those mountains, in between rescuing dumbass dayhikers who thought they could just take a jaunt through those woods without equipment because they were in the Brownies. Also have fun getting furloughed when the government shuts down the next time.) Jobs are work. There is always work, or else nobody pays you for it; and the aspects that are work are not going to be fun. Jobs are always difficult, even if you love them, because you can’t possibly love every aspect of them (unless you’re on a whooooooole lotta drugs, and that has its own drawbacks.). I love some things about teaching, I really do — but I HATE the paperwork, and the grades, and indifferent students and overbearing parents, and a few other things as well. I love writing — but I HATE promoting myself. Even if I achieve my dreams of being a professional published author, I will need to write to very strict deadlines, and I will have to worry about my next book being a failure and sending me into the oblivion of Used-To-Be’s. I will have to travel, and speak publically, and participate in conventions and panel discussions and incessant insipid interviews, and I’ll have to be positive ALL THE TIME. I will hate that.

Honestly, I think the best way to view a job is to refuse to let it define you, unless you choose to define yourself that way. Back to the idea of limiting or expanding your freedom: if somebody wants to tell you that you are a teacher, and therefore you can’t be, say, a stripper on the weekends, don’t listen to them; you can be a stripper who teaches during the week. If you don’t care what you do for money because your passion is elsewhere, is in your avocation or your craft or your art or your family, then good: somebody asks what you do, you tell them that you make kayaks in your garage. They don’t need to know — they probably don’t really care — that you deliver pizzas for money; the kayak-building is FAR more interesting and important. So the point is, define yourself by your passion, not by your job; don’t expect your job to BE your passion, though it is certainly nice when they coincide. As much as I hate parts of teaching, I love, so much, that I get to spend all day every day with words, with literature, with reading and writing.

 

There are some other, smaller pieces of advice I would like to give, but they don’t come from clichés and they don’t have their own memes (Advice from a writer and a teacher: stick with a theme only as long as it makes sense; when it’s not working any more, drop it.). One is to take advantage of opportunities when they come up. Saving things for a later day is too often saving them for never; freedom to choose in life hits an early peak and then steadily decreases — until the very end, when you gain the freedom that comes with loss. That is, once you have a house and pets and a family and a career you want to keep, it becomes much harder to travel the world — until you lose all of those things. So if you have the chance to travel, do it.

Another is to pay attention: look around you. Take your time: you actually have quite a lot of it, and it will feel like more if you pay attention. I recommend walking, often, with your eyes and ears open to your surroundings.

Another is to read, and to keep learning. Doesn’t matter what you read, doesn’t matter what you learn; if you read the conspiracy theory websites that show how the Rothschilds are behind the measles outbreak, at least you’ll learn how crazy people are — and if you believe what you read, then the rest of us can learn to avoid talking to you, which is really for the best.

An important habit related to both of those is to always question. Question yourself, question your world, question your assumptions. You have to be careful not to take this to the point of permanent uncertainty and anxiety, but that has more to do with knowing when to trust the answers you get or the answers you make, and to move on to a different question; you can always come back to this question later. (Example: should I have written this blog? Is this too long? Is it a terrible topic, that everyone will find boring? Do I seem too arrogant, giving everyone advice? Well, I’ve written this much, and I don’t have a better idea, so — here it is. If I lose readers because of it, so be it. I’ll write something short and pleasant tomorrow. Also, I’ll hopefully get some feedback on this, which will help me know if it was the right thing to do. Also, please comment and Like content you enjoy, always. One of the best things to happen to me in the last few months was when someone read my book and sent me a comment telling me how much they liked it. I’m still floating from that one.)

Actually, that’s a real piece of advice: speak up. Do it in writing, do it anonymously if you are uncomfortable with direct conversation and confrontation; I certainly do, and I do almost all of my talking through a computer keyboard. I even write letters to my students when I want to chew them out, and you know what? INCREDIBLY effective. Feels much more formal and serious when I tell them in a letter that I’m sick of their bad behavior. Highly recommend it. But: speak. Up. Always. Positive and negative. When you are grateful that someone did something nice, say it — not just “Thank you,” but “I appreciate the way you gave me that/helped out with that/did that nice thing.” Tell your loved ones not only that you love them, but also what you love about them. As often as you think of it, say it. When someone angers you or upsets you, say something. When someone makes you uncomfortable, say something. Don’t suffer in silence: say it. Always. The worst case scenario is that you’ll be a pathetic whiny sniveler, and this way, the rest of us will know that and avoid you: so then everyone wins.

Well, except you.

But that’s what you get for being a whiny sniveler.

Last thing, and it’s not cheerful, but it’s true, and it’s important: people love telling younger people that life gets harder, that high school is nothing compared to college, and that college is nothing compared to the real world. I heard that all through school — “When you get to high school, it’s going to be MUCH harder . . . When you get to college, that’s when school/professors/assignments/grades get REALLY hard . . . When you get out into “the real world,” you’ll see how much better you had it while you were still a student!” — and I’m sure you’ve heard it too.

Well, here’s your last truth from me: it’s all bullshit.

Every stage of life is hard. And every stage of life has rewards that make it bearable. College is harder than high school academically; but the freedom you gain, the agency and control over your own life, makes it worthwhile. Also, you get to meet much better people. That same combined difficulty and reward comes with moving out of school and into the world of jobs and such — whether you make that transition after high school or after college doesn’t matter, it’s always the same — you gain more responsibilities, but also more power. The power gives you more freedom and more agency — you earn your own money and you can spend it how you want, for instance — but the responsibilities reduce that freedom, as well.

It’s always like that. When you are older you will probably have more financial security, but your health will probably be worse, and you’ll be aware of your dwindling years to enjoy your life. When you are young, you have all the time in the world — and too much of it has to be spent struggling.

I’m not saying this to depress you, just to let you know: it doesn’t get worse. In most ways, it gets better, because even though there are troubles to weigh down your joys, there is something else that happens as you go through life: you get stronger. Whatever does not kill you, right? It’s true: you get stronger every single day you are alive. It doesn’t make the troubles you face less — but it means you have an easier time handling them. And as long as you keep your eyes open, and take the time to recognize what you have, your happinesses will seem greater. I am happier now than I have been at any time in my past. Last year I would have said the same thing. Ten years ago I would have said the same thing. (Not nine years ago, though. That was a shitty year. But you can’t avoid those, so don’t worry about them. Try to get through them, that’s the best you can do.)

I’m going to end this with my attempt to make my own cliché — but because I thought of it, I actually find it much too annoying to just say; so I’m going to say it with memes. (Another piece of writer’s and teacher’s advice: know your audience.)

They tell us to never give up — but sometimes, giving up means you can walk away, and go find something better to try. So the best way to look at this is:

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or

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Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

Me Mates are all Jemmy Coves! Wot wot!

So I’m wondering: how far should I be willing to go for my friends?

Now, it so happens that the meme world has quite a bit to say about friendship — but unfortunately, as always with the meme world, the information is not very helpful.

 

 

So my  friends are people I like and do stuff with. Okay, I knew that; those are the people I call my friends anyway. But what does “do stuff with” mean? Do I have to do stuff with them in person? Because then a number of my friends probably don’t count any more, since I literally haven’t seen them, face to face, in more than twenty years. And what does “like” mean? I mean, I like cupcakes, and I like my students. But those are two different feelings. Do I have to like my friends all the time? Do I have to like everything about them? 51/49, like/dislike?

 

I like the sentiment, but I don’t know quite what it means. One of my friends had a lot of trouble finding an au pair that would actually remain reliable for more than a few months. He lives 2,500 miles away from me. How do I make that my problem? I suppose I could look through online listings of au pairs, but is that really helpful? I don’t have children, don’t know anything about au pairs, let alone good ones. Do I fly to Massachusetts to help him interview? Do I become his new au pair? And what if while he is looking for an au pair, another friend is dealing with a sick parent, out in California? And another friend, living in Louisiana, needs to find a cheap apartment?

Maybe I just tell them that I’m sympathetic and will help in any way that I can. But when I know there’s no way I can help, it feels terribly hollow to say that. I don’t feel like a friend when I can’t help. But I can’t always help. Does that make me not a friend?

Maybe it matters that this says “BEST friend?” Do we really still make that distinction? I mean, the Sims do, and 4th graders; but do we all think that way?

 

So I have to know things about someone that nobody else knows. Well, that simplifies things pretty well, because there is exactly one person in the world that I am that close to. I suppose my wife is my only friend.

So what do I tell all those losers who think I’m their friend?

(N.B.: You can’t get mad if I just called you a loser. Because:)

Now, if I don’t think it is particularly offensive to shout “F*CKNUGGETS!” when I stub my toe, should I be willing to say it in front of friends who prefer not to hear cussing? Or wait — they’re not my friends. My friends are only the ones who yell back “YEAH, HOT BUTTERED DI*K-BISCUITS!”  (Side note: I love those asterisks. I hate that they’re necessary, but I love them. So much. “Profanity? No, I meant ‘Focknuggets.’ It’s a German bar food. And ‘disk-biscuits’ is Cockney for pancakes. Why? What did you think it was?”) But what if I’m around their kids, or their aged grandparents who have taken holy orders to become Catholic nuns? (Yes, including their grandfathers. Don’t try to determine another person’s gender identity, you social fascist.) And maybe it’s that I should be the good friend, and not cuss around friends that I know don’t like cussing? Should I be considerate of my friends’ delicate sensibilities, or should they accept me for the foul-mouthed hooligan I am? In a friendship, who bends to whose standards? If others have to bend to mine, can I mess with that? I mean, can I get someone to agree to be my friend, and then punch them in the face and steal their sandwich, and then just say “Hey, that’s how real friends act. You can punch me and take my sandwich, sometime, too.”

Maybe I should just forget all of this, and when I stub my toe, yell, “Oh, dash it all, what deuced rotten luck, eh wot wot?!” Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we lived like moderns but talked like Victorians?

 

This one kind of cracks me up, because really, it makes no sense. It combines this idea of insincerity with an idea of priorities. Because it recognizes that people have busy schedules, but, it says, YOU should be THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THAT PERSON’S WORLD. Nothing else will do. Anyone who claims to be your friend, but for whom you are not THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD is a faker, a liar, a superficial person who doesn’t care about you, really care about you, deep down, where the real feelings are, underneath all the bulls*it. They just want something from you. Which apparently you, who want them to literally drop anything else in their lives in order to pay attention to you — what, you don’t want anything from them? Okay, sure.

And you represent that with Minions. The definitive image of depth and genuine human sympathy.

But again, that makes it pretty simple for me. I have one friend. My wife. All of the rest of you shouldn’t waste your time on me. Because I just want something from you.

 

But here is the meme I agree with.

 

You damn right, CM. Damn right.

 

 

The answer to all this, of course, is that it depends on the friend. With some friends, I am willing to drop most stuff, give up most stuff, if they needed me. With others, I’m willing to give up little stuff — like maybe some of my free time. Sure, I’ll do that. Other friends, I’d give up sleep, I’d give up food, money, comfort. One friend, I’d give up anything I have in this world, other than her. And I call them all my friends. On some level, that’s a problem, because a language as large and varied as English should be able to make distinctions between those types of friends; and we sort of do, because of course I don’t call her my friend, I call her my wife. That shows the differences in commitment quite handily: I would not die for most of my friends; I would die for my wife. Sure. Makes sense.

The issue is that we have grown overfond of the specific word “friend.” So fond we now use it as a bloody verb, like “text” and “impact.” Bah. According to the internet, I have over 350 friends, but if you asked me to name my actual friends, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t run out of toes. If you named some criterion like “Friends are only those people you see regularly, say, every three years,” then I wouldn’t even run out of fingers.

But we want to call lots of people our friends; that’s why Facebook uses the term. (Not that Twitter or Instagram or the various blogging/content-sharing sites are any better: the term “follower” is almost weirder and more fraught than “friend.” But one strangely warped internet term at a time, eh wot wot? Else it’ll be a fifteen puzzle! Don’t want to get the morbs. [Victorian slang here. It’s some pumpkins.]) It’s not enough for me to call her my wife — that could imply all sorts of different relationships. I have to include the description, “And she’s my friend.” In fact, I generally call her my “best friend.” Not that it isn’t appropriate, but the point is, we’re trying to bring in the term “friend” to relationships where it wouldn’t normally belong. It is now a more inclusive term, rather than exclusive — applying, in some way, to everything from acquaintances to co-workers to the love of my life.

Which means, when it comes to determining my relationship with my friends, deciding just how far I am willing to go for them, it isn’t enough to just say to myself, “He/she is a friend. Therefore I will _________ but I will not _____________.” (Sample answers: share the last cookie/die.) Where, then, do I draw those lines? If I call someone a friend, how much — let’s call it “tolerance,” since that’s generally the measure of my relationship to other humans — does that entitle them to?

I feel as though there is a simple answer to all of this, and it is, “You have to decide, on an individual basis, how much tolerance each friend gets. Put up with a friend for as long as you want that person as a friend, and then stop.” And I feel that my audience is probably thinking this, and getting bored with my philosophicality here. (Hence the Victorian slang, dash my wig! I’ll be poked up if I shoot into the brown here!) And that’s fine in theory, and I’ve probably been putting that into practice, really, for the last few years.

But I’m tired. Having to decide whether or not to stick with friends who are on the margin; trying to decide if I should encourage and support them, or joke around with them, or neither, is becoming exhausting. Even worse is pretending to be friends with people I don’t really like very much, but have some reason to pretend to be friends with, reasons like working together, or for. I used to be in the staff band with one of my administrators, and I really didn’t like the guy, though I wasn’t going to tell him that. And of course, some of the time, he was great — like when we were actually playing together. If I have a friend that is great some of the time, and crappy some of the time, how much of the time does he have to be great to make up for the crappy? Should I just get rid of any friends who are at all crappy? But what if my good friends, who get a whole lot of tolerance, have an opinion I happen to disagree with? An opinion I disagree strongly with? How crappy does that have to feel for me before they cross the line and get dumped?

I try to be forgiving with my friends. I don’t actually mind disagreements. I ended two “friendships” this past weekend, both times because the person shared a meme joking — joking — about the atomic holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was an easy call. But I have other friends who consistently mock Bernie Sanders followers, which generally includes me and several of my other friends. So now the question becomes, do I speak up when they say or post something that annoys me? Or do I ignore it, for the sake of the friendship? What about those who mock everyone who ISN’T a Bernie Sanders fan? Do I really have to decide on an individual basis, every time they say something? In an election year?

This is further complicated for me because I generally have to be careful about what I say on the internet; my past statements and profanity very nearly lost me my license to teach. And I’m friends online with many — hundreds, probably — of my ex-students. I’m pretty open to becoming friends with them, but to be honest, I don’t have a whole lot in common with a lot of them. I remember them fondly from class because they’re bright, or they worked hard, or they had interesting things to say in discussion; but now that I interact with them casually and socially, I find out things like, they only care about cars. Or they’re devoutly religious. Or they’re prickly and combative. Or they believe astrology. Or they want to vote for Trump.

So now what? Do I dump them? Or do I ignore the annoying foibles? For how long?

Do I have to keep a balance sheet for each of my friends? And if I do — where are the cut scores?

I also worry about myself. How much can — should — I interact with them? I am, after all, a lot older than them; if I joke along with their jokes, like a friend, does that make me seem like a creepy old guy desperate for friendly interaction? Do they think that of me? Are they just putting up with me despite my annoying habits out of some sense of obligation because I was their teacher? Of course some of them are — but which ones? If I call them on their bull*hit, does that make me their straight-up honest friend, or some hypercritical *sshole? Of course the difference is in our relationship: but what if they’re of that group of people that prefer straight-up brutal honesty? Do I assume that? Do I use my own standards, and expect them to cleave to what I think is right? Am I more friendly or less friendly if I pick fights with people? What if I say something harsh, but I add “lololololololol” at the end of the comment? Is that something a friend would do? How about an acquaintance? How about a former teacher who gave you an A? How about a former teacher who gave you an F?

I really don’t know. But I’m thinking I may stay off Facebook more, or thin out my friends list a bit, to save myself some effort. And maybe that makes me a bad friend. Maybe I should be willing to put the effort into the friendship, whatever kind of friendship it is. I really don’t know.

 

I don’t think I have a final insight for this other than: I think we should start using terms other than “friend.” I would like to suggest, as one alternative, “chuckaboo.” Wot wot? Dash my wig, I’m off to bitch the pot. I’m going to get half-rats.

 

Gun Is God

I saw this on Facebook today. And my immediate reaction was to attack: Well but that isn’t the same thing at all — people have an inherent right to freedom of religion, which is codified in (though not granted by) the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. And religion isn’t used to kill people. And pssh — Iowa. Come on. Like anything intelligent ever came out of Iowa.

Then I immediately thought: but the right to bear arms is also in the Bill of Rights. Even if I think it shouldn’t be. The Second Amendment does represent a natural right, the right of self-defense. Even if I think there are better ways to go about defending one’s self.

And as for religion: seriously, Dusty? It isn’t used to kill people? Even apart from the indisputable facts that have led to the prejudice represented here (more on the prejudice later), namely the sheer number of Islamic terrorists and war-mongers of the last — what, sixty years? — religion is behind most of the wars of human history, or has at least been used as the justification for them, as well as countless atrocities — the Inquisition, the witch-burnings, the Holocaust, the pogroms, chattel slavery, colonialism — Jesus, do I need to go on?

Absurd of me even to take up this argument, if this is all I have.

But that third one — that’s kind of right. Tom Arnold is from Iowa. So is Michele Bachmann. And Steve King, of course  (The moronic Congressman, not the author.). Ashton Kutcher. Charles Osborne, the guy with the world record for the longest lasting case of hiccups. Sure, there are a couple of scientists and mathematicians on the list of Iowans, several astronauts, and a few authors I like — Bill Bryson, especially — but you don’t get away from Michele Bachmann that easily. Not even with the Ringling Brothers.

So what does this mean? I’ve been arguing against guns for years and years now, and here I find myself stymied. Does it mean I should be changing my stance on gun control? Have I been unfairly critical of gun owners? Has this meme changed my argument? DID IOWA JUST WIN THE GUN FIGHT?!?

Well, no. It didn’t. The problem with this argument is that it equates religion and gun ownership, claiming that a prejudice against one is as morally and intellectually bankrupt as a prejudice against the other. This much is true: prejudice is always morally and intellectually bankrupt. It is also always instinctive for humans because we evolved to be hunter-gatherers and our minds are evolved to discover patterns, so we see them everywhere, and frequently use them as a basis for action and reaction; when we eat  the red berries and they are tasty, then the next time we see red berries, we assume they’ll be tasty. And sometimes they are tasty, and the prejudice is therefore efficient; and sometimes they are toxic and we die, and the prejudice is inefficient. Evolution argues that it is more frequently efficient than inefficient when used as a survival strategy — but that has no bearing whatsoever on the value of prejudice in society. There, the value is almost always outweighed by the costs.

But that doesn’t mean either that gun ownership is equivalent to religion, nor that the argument against gun ownership is equivalent to the argument against Muslims.

First: religion and gun ownership. Sure, both are personal rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Both are defended fanatically on the Fox network. Both are, theoretically, under attack by liberals with an agenda — and neither actually are. And yes, both often catch the blame for atrocities carried out by terrorists.

But religion, however it may have been used in the past, whatever people may think of it, is not a weapon intended to do harm. The goal of religion is truth, and subsequent salvation. The question of relative harm as it is created by religious tenets, as in, “If I allow you to die unshriven, you will burn in Hell forever; therefore I should torture you until you confess your heresy and renounce your beliefs– and then you’ll go to Heaven!” is certainly a troubling one, as religion here grants people a moral justification for doing harm; but that is an application of a specific religious principle, carried out by the person — it is not the intention of the religion as an entity.  Christianity was not founded in order to justify torture or slavery or war. I won’t say that those things are a misuse, as that implies that the actual intended purpose is a correct and proper usage of the religion, and as an atheist I don’t accept that; but I think there can be no argument that religion was not and never has been created intentionally to do harm.

Firearms, on the other hand, were invented, produced, and evolved over time intentionally and specifically to harm others. They exist for that reason. The possession of firearms is considered a right, both a natural right and a right in the Constitution, because of that reason; people may own firearms simply for amusement, but that is not why they feel a right to own them — if so, we’d all have the right to a Playstation 4, and I would currently be suing Sony. We have the right to bear arms because arms are the most effective way to harm others so that those others cannot harm us: the ability of firearms to do harm A)rapidly to multiple targets, B) from a distance that keeps the bearer safe from retaliation, and C) without physical strength, dexterity, or training, is unmatched in the world of weapons. This is why people use the Second Amendment to protect guns, rather than, say, swords and spears and personally owned stealth bombers. It is a disingenuous argument to claim that any weapon could be used to kill another person — and therefore the government can’t take away my gun. There is a reason why guns are the focus of the argument: because they are the most effective and efficient killing machine on the planet. The millions — billions? — who have been shot since the invention of firearms show this.

So we should not make analogies between religion and firearms, not even in criticizing anti-religious prejudice with anti-firearm prejudice. And let me just add: why would you want to do that? When I used to debate online against guns, I was frequently dismissed as a hoplophobe, one who suffers from a morbid and irrational fear of guns; the classic, er, “argument” that goes “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is based on the same objective understanding of firearms as inanimate objects, incapable of independent action, and therefore the incorrect focus for the fear felt by those who promote gun control. But this emotionless, objective, apparently logical stance is lost if one makes the comparison between gun owners and devotees of a religion; now those who own firearms are — true believers. Members of the faith. Followers of their prophet/messiahs, Smith and Wesson and Remington and Colt. This is not an opening which gun rights advocates want to give us hoplophobes.

But the real problem with this meme? It’s a meme.  The concept of the meme was created by Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist; Dawkins described the meme as the modern version of genes, now that mankind survives through social adaptation to environmental pressure, rather than biological adaptation. That is, rather than better genes propagating more than worse genes through reproduction and natural selection, we make adjustments for “bad” genes through our society: we take care of people who can’t survive on their own; we use medicine to give those with “bad” genes a full life; we create niches for those with differing strengths, so both the man with the strong back and the man with the strong mind can survive and thrive. The ideas that create those situations, the belief that family members should take care of those who cannot take care of themselves, for instance, are spread through our culture, and help that culture survive, along with the people who spread it. Our modern human culture is our survival strategy: we live and reproduce because our culture protects us far more than our bodies do.  Because of that, although we are continuously evolving as a species, today, our genes do not change very much; rather, our memes do.

The purpose of a meme, like the purpose of a gene, is not to create the perfect being, or the perfect argument: it is to reproduce. That means it has the qualities that will make it most likely to spread and multiply, not necessarily the best qualities. Blonde hair and blue eyes do not make someone a better human being — but if they make that person more likely to reproduce and spread those genes, then those genes will survive and thrive. Watch Idiocracy: there’s a meme, a reproducible bit of culture, that shows why neither genes nor memes need to be the best to be the most successful. It shows, in fact, how memes are become more powerful than genes in human evolution: successful memes actually make people’s genes worse, and the people themselves less biologically adapted to survive.

So this:

is not the best thought, not the best argument, but it is likely to be reproduced and propagated; therefore, it is a successful meme.

What internet memes do — what the meme that started this blog did — is oversimplify, because on the internet, simplicity is king. That’s why so many memes are crude line drawings, or this sort of simple joke. They use the same photos again and again, and the same font, and the same sentence structures and joke patterns because those things have been selected, have proven successful in the past, have been propagated and reproduced.

And all of that’s fine. Memes are jokes, and plenty of them are funny — this one cracks me up:

And this one is not only funny but true:

But none of the things that make these successful memes make them good thoughts or good arguments. Just — good at grabbing people’s attention so they click “Share.”

So for that, this meme

is successful, because it has an interesting enough idea, formulated in an eye-catching way — with a picture that is both relatable and idealized, because that guy looks ordinary and also badass; and using the all-caps font with red for a highlight; short words, simple sentences, rhetorical question — and so it was shared. And it is also successful in that it provokes thought: it took me some time to work my way through the meme’s rhetorical question and come to my answer. Time spent thinking is always good.

The answer is: no. It is not time the 80 million gun owners in America get the same treatment. First because gun ownership is not a religion, and the analogy doesn’t work. Second because although there is a right to self-defense, it should not be realized through firearms, which are unnecessarily deadly even when used to protect one’s self. The Second Amendment is wrong: arms should be regulated, for the safety of all, because private gun ownership creates as much danger as it eliminates, and generally more; the presence of weapons creates a feeling of safety far more often than it creates actual safety, and yet those weapons are most often used to do more harm than could be done without them. We could certainly get into a debate about personal liberty versus safety — so long as nobody quotes the Benjamin Franklin meme. Which oversimplifies and relies entirely on the persuasive power of the author’s name.

Lastly, the answer is No because, simply put, gun owners have never been treated the way that Muslims have. Yes, massacres that have been carried out with firearms have led to calls for gun control — but thanks to the Second Amendment, they have never led to even the beginning of a discussion of banning guns. Armed police and military are expected and appreciated. The only gun law that was passed using a mass shooting as impetus, the Brady Bill’s ban on assault weapons, was allowed to expire, because gun owners and manufacturers made it pointless. We can still buy extended clips like Jared Lee Loughner used in Tucson when he shot Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others — without reloading — and we can still buy weapons online as James Holmes did before he shot 82 people in Aurora. People speak out against guns, as they do against Muslims (And let me note the prejudice inherent within the meme itself, when it claims that every terrorist attack is related to Islam — only days after Dylann Roof killed nine people in a church in South Carolina. With a gun given to him for a birthday present, and therefore requiring no background check. He could also have done what Adam Lanza did, and used his parents’ guns.), but no laws ever pass, no action is ever taken. No innocent gun owners are beaten in the streets as happened after 9/11; no gun owners are unfairly targeted in airport searches; nothing has been done that is analogous to the Bible Belt states’ bans on Sharia law. No Baptist preachers are burning Guns & Ammo.

We have not yet invaded Austria to eliminate the Glock company.

 

In summation, all I have to say to this meme is this: