Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Don't get a big head over the swollen face

People really need to check themselves about this case.

The mug shot of the alleged abuser's beaten face has been clogging my Facebook feed, with lots of cheers and heavily implied fist-pumping. Because, hey, who doesn't want to see an abusive jerk get his comeuppance?

But this follow-up story reminds us that this is a real, and tragic, incident that was almost made worse by bloodlust. It takes a saintly show of humanity to halt your father from fatally stabbing your abuser, especially in the heat of the moment. That's about as high a road as high roads go. Fortunately, the victim's father took heed. 

The high road is often the hard road. It chucks vengeance in favor of being better than the bad guy. That's an ideal few of us reach even in the best of times.

The beating was a regrettable incident undeserving of all the accolades it's getting. I like to think the father would agree, even though he thwarted worse abuse. If you must cheer anyone in this incident, cheer the boy. Two wrongs don't make a right, but mercy in a time of anger just might.

Somebody teach Pharrell Williams to play accordion

In the 1998 film The Truman Show, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is unaware that his entire life is a reality show, and that his idyllic existence on Seahaven Island is but a sham on a studio set. To discourage him from catching wanderlust (and thus finding out the truth), his local newspaper routinely runs headlines touting Seahaven Island as winning the best-place-in-the-world award (yet again!), and his local travel agency sports pictures of plane crashes and other warnings of the dangers of going other places.

Like many people, I’ve jokingly wondered over the past 16 years whether my life is an engineered production just like Truman’s. (Sure seems like it at times.) But finally, I have proof that it isn’t.

The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch has declared Lafayette, Louisiana — my hometown — to be the happiest city in America. Which I get, because Lafayette is generally a pretty festive place. It’s not the best fit for me personally, but I can see why people love living there. It's pretty cool to see it excel for a nonbusiness reason for once. Four more Louisiana cities, including Baton Rouge, round out the top five, with Lake Charles close by at 8th and New Orleans at a too-low 59. That's a lot of Louisiana. Exclamation points!

Had this been released in mid-2013, right before I moved from Lafayette to Reno, Nevada (114th), or in 2007, when I first left Lafayette for Springfield, Missouri (237th), that would have been some Truman Show stuff right there. But with this show-unfriendly timing, I guess I can breathe a sigh of relief the next time I’m in the bathtub. Though there’s still the possibility that my life really is a reality show, and the puppetmasters want to make me feel bad by releasing a glut of Lafayette-is-the-best-place-in-the-universe stories since my move to Reno. In that case, sorry about the ratings plunge, guys.

For me, sliding 113 spots in the happy ranking was an excellent move. I love living out west, with mountains, bike trails, beaches, laid-back people and a distinct lack of oppressive humidity. I recently lived in two of the top five “happiest” cities, during which I tended to range from somewhat unhappy to catatonically miserable. My brother lived in a third city among the top five for a while, and told me I wouldn’t fit in in that one either.

Is my sense of happiness out of step with America’s? Well, probably, but that was a rhetorical question.

Lists like these are inevitably skewed. They imply that the key to happiness can be found in a particular spot. Conversely, if you don’t get along in those places, obviously there’s something wrong with you. Neither is necessarily true. You can happy in a toxic-waste dump or miserable at Disney World. Your particular situation matters for a lot.

So, continue to be happy, my Louisiana friends. I’ll be over here making Reno happier. You can probably watch.

Education, or competition?

(Inspired by this and this)

At the height of Bart Simpson mania in 1990, when I was in fifth grade, I had a green Bart cap adorned with a button that read, "Underachiever — and proud of it." It was a joke, but it turned out to be true in my academic life. Sort of. And, as it turns out, I am proud of that. Sort of.

One of America’s biggest problems, I think, is that we view education (among many other essentials) as competitive rather than as something to benefit everyone. We care more about how highly ranked someone is than about everyone doing reasonably well.

This mentality is a big part of what compels parents to send their children to private and/or elite schools — so the children can get a leg up against all the other children, so they can eventually get into an elite college ahead of all the other students and eventually land that coveted career position ahead of all the other applicants.

Whether this is the cause or effect of a broken public-education system is up for debate. Either way, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. When a parent looks out for No. 1, they’re less concerned about the system as a whole, if not outright scornful of it. How is the system supposed to improve amid such disinterest and disdain?

That cycle is one of the many hazards of applying capitalistic principles to the common good. It’s not about ensuring every child in America has a quality education; it’s about who can claw hardest to the top of the class. Those who make said clawing a priority give themselves permission to not care about those stuck on the bottom; after all, why don’t they just claw up themselves? Fie on them if they don’t play the game!

Even as a kid, I didn’t care for overachieving. I decided at an early age that I would involve myself only in that which I really wanted to do. Perhaps to a fault; one of my teachers’ most frequent complaints was that I wasn’t trying hard enough in classes outside my areas of interest. After an impressive straight-A and honor roll run in elementary school (where I was in gifted classes from second grade on), I transferred to another school in 4th grade and made honor roll the first six weeks. After that, I never made honor roll again until the first six weeks of 9th grade, and not again until the final six weeks of 12th grade. (Math was usually the culprit.) I was no stranger to Fs on my report card during this time, though those tended to be tied either to insanely hard gifted classes and/or classes where bullying was rampant. But ultimately, I did what I had to do and never failed a class (though I did repeat Algebra I for credit purposes).

Extracurriculars were a similar story; I did what I felt like doing and nothing more. In middle and high school, I wrote for the school newspaper in years I was eligible and ran track. In high school, I was also involved in football as a manager and as a player. I dabbled in many one-shot activities as well. I knew, and was sometimes told, that it was better to join lots of clubs, which many classmates did. But it wasn’t my style.

Eventually, I graduated 188th in my class of 421 (according to my report card), making honor roll only twice, as noted above. Most of my teachers still remember me fondly and most casual observers of the time would tell you I was pretty smart. But to paraphrase Richard Masur in Risky Business, I wasn’t Princeton material. On paper, anyway.

Part of my mentality was shaped by the fact that I lived just a few blocks from the second-largest university in Louisiana, which at the time had open admissions (not that I needed that). I planned to attend there and continue helping out at home. Second, I didn’t let my academic transcript validate me; I wanted to do as well as possible, but I knew who I was and what I was capable of doing. Third, many of my classmates were absolute grade-grinds — usually the ones from well-to-do families — and they seemed miserable most of the time. Who needed that?

For me, college wasn’t much different; my grades got better, mostly because they had to. I made the dean’s list multiple times and graduated twice, albeit with no honors (as if that mattered after the walk).

I might not have enjoyed the elite status that comes with good grades, mega-involvement, an Ivy League pedigree and deep pockets, but I never aspired to that. I got a damn good education, and know that life is sometimes a grind and a climb. To this day, I devote myself to a handful of enriching activities, not stretching myself too thin. I have friends who did attend Ivy League schools and genuinely made the most of it. I’m proud of them, but not jealous. Because, like them, I pursued what I wanted. There was no legacy guarantee for them, so they had to earn it as much as I earned my way. I put them — and myself — in higher regard than those who coast through the system for a name on a piece of paper.

If we made higher education better for everyone, then pedigree would matter less, and the prestige-seekers of the world would have to find somewhere else to be superficial. Which, given a genuine, earned education, they’d be smart enough to do (or, perhaps, smart enough to realize how shallow that is).

Anyway, having a degree doesn’t make you better than someone without one. Some, if not most, of the most hardworking people I know didn’t finish college. They’re smart and bust their asses every day. They deserve a fair shake too. Just like with college kids, it’s the work and the heart, not the letters, that should matter most.

Monday, July 21, 2014

My memory of the moon landing

(Actually, this is from July 21, 1969, but it all blurs together.)

More complaining about irrelevant stuff

Two spaces after a period is absolutely NEFARIOUS. The devil, I tell you!

I know people who do this, and I love many of them. But reading such copy is a mental case of the hiccups. Furthermore, editing extra spaces out of every sentence is a giant hassle, and is something that not even a group edit will always fix in full.

But what I like least about the practice is why people do it: more often than not, it’s because it’s what they were taught in typing class back in the typewriter days. It made sense back then, in the age of monospaced fonts, but it’s the computer age now. It’s just plain stubborn to stick to that.

Doing something strictly because it’s the only way you’ve ever done it is one of the worst reasons to do anything. There’s comfort in routine, sure, but sometimes it’s worth it — both for others and for yourself — to evolve.

Or, at the very least, break out the old Smith-Corona, which would be pretty cool.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Minding my Ps and social cues

For most of my life, I've gone by Ian McGibboney, save for brief phases when I introduced myself as Ian Paul McGibboney. For most of my life, I listed my initials as IPM, whether or not I was in a Paul phase (though now I stick mostly to IM, despite the inevitable questions of if my middle name is Bill).

But I have never, ever gone by Ian P. McGibboney. 

Paul is an awesome name. But P is a goofy initial. Try not saying it like Rosco P. Coltrane.

"Ian PEEE McGibboney!"


Also, Ian McGibboney is poetry. As is Ian Paul McGibboney. (My high school friends often sang both versions.) Ian P. McGibboney, on the other hand, is two lines of verse separated by a speed bump.

Nope again.

And it's not as if I have to differentiate myself from all the other people with my name, like others do. "Oh, Ian P! I thought you meant Ian J."

Nope a third time.

Then there's the OCD aspect. P and Paul have equal numbers of syllables (one). By abbreviating Paul, I save no time or breath, and I'm axing exactly three letters from my name, further throwing off what is already a significant letter-count imbalance. If I'm going to write my name out, why not write out the whole thing? I'm so close anyway. Ian P. McGibboney. It's like an itch that can't quite be scratched.

Strike four.

Finally — and the NYT article talks about this — middle initials can be pretentious. Not always (there are practical applications after all), but sometimes. It's no accident that they're favored in settings where being esteemed counts more than being approachable. That works for some people, but as far as I'm concerned, everyone can call me Ian — friends, family, colleagues, strangers, mortal enemies, whoever. Maybe it's the millennial in me, but egalitarianism sounds pretty good.

You either respect me or you don't. No amount of P will change that.