Thursday, April 17, 2014

Repent, heed the end of days (DTH Opinion Column -- Cries from the Peanut Gallery)

The trees are breeding, the tour groups are in full swarm and the academic end times are upon us. I don't have my cap and gown yet, but I already feel that sickly mix of dread and apathy that means our time has come. And sure enough, there's less than a month until roughly a quarter of us ride off in the hellish chariot of post-graduate life, pulled by a hairy mutant beast out of Revelations and sponsored by Career Services.

But while I'm basking and baking in my own apathy, twiddling my thumbs as I await the four horsemen of the collegiate apocalypse (senioritis, last goodbyes, unemployment and alcohol abuse), I figured I'd take stock of my four years here and see how things are looking (generally not well is the answer).

After cleaning up trash, vacuuming under everything and bleaching a couple of surfaces, I think I managed to make something useful out of the greasy clutter that constitutes my four most recent years of existence. Here's a couple of life lessons I've managed to scrounge up (and when I say "scrounge," I really mean "scrounge"):

1. "Hammocking is not permitted in the Arboretum" is something people will tell you from time to time, but I put it in quotes just now because do it anyway. Nature was meant to be (respectfully) lived in, not jealously guarded like a Lego model of the Death Star.

2. Burritos are tasty but gross to eat, grosser to throw and grossest to have thrown at you. But still tasty.

3. Once you've died of deep, soul-killing embarrassment at least once, you're pretty much immortal as far as dignity is concerned. All it took for me was a motley crew of cops and librarians gawking at me in the UL at four in the morning as I held a cardiac event recorder up to the phone for about five minutes and let it loudly beep, deedle and whirr its signals through the mouthpiece like a cyborg E.T. quite literally phoning home (we've all been there before).

Now I roam the earth like an untouchable spirit, numbly making a fool out of myself like Hamlet's dad or Bruce Willis in "The Sixth Sense," freely expressing myself and making myself felt and heard, but largely unconcerned with how people might judge me or my actions. So just be yourself, you know?

4. Learning can be like, fun and stuff.

5. There's no limit to how many library books you can check out! My personal record is 70. ("Overdue fees" get their own column in my monthly budget.)

6. Young adults at the average age of graduation are still at high risk for serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia!

No big surprise there though. We've made it through four years of routinized stress and mental trauma just in time to be flung out into the unstructured void thereafter and expected to cobble together a meaningful existence with nothing but hope, rubber bands and a liberal arts education.

So yeah, support systems are good. Also deep breaths! Take a lot of them.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Driving and/or Sleeping (LCM Bell Tower April 2014)

Between the hot Miami sun, the endless hours of traffic among those unpredictable, irrational animals we call "Florida drivers," and the tremendous amount of time, energy, and effort everyone put into every task over the course of our time in Miami, it was a pretty long week -- and we all felt the strain.

How could I tell? Well, just about every time we sat in the car for longer than 20 minutes (so every time we sat in the car), just about everyone would start to drift off to sleep immediately. People's bodies would notice the lapse in activity and immediately demand a few minutes of deep hibernation, and one way or another they'd be sufficiently recharged to go bounding enthusiastically into the next activity. (Some people's bodies were more susceptible than others to the whole "crash headlong into an impenetrable nap without a moment's notice" thing. (i.e., Kathleen. I'm talking about Kathleen.))

But of course, I happened to be one of the four drivers for this spring break, so I got to be the one jamming to tunez in the front and making fun of the sleepers in the back whenever I needed to bury my envy and exhaustion in a corny joke or two.

As the driver, however, I had a lot of extra time for quiet reflection. When I wasn't brooding about my navigator's song selections or idly wondering how long I could go without another coffee, I thought about the people dozing behind me. In spite of all the tiring work, all the hiccups, setbacks, and confusions, and the sleep schedule that got gradually more irresponsible as the week went on, the positivity never ceased to be astounding. They drifted off to sleep every chance they got, then bounced back into action, smiling and ready to do whatever was required, whether that was manual labor, sharing, or simply just listening.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Maybe Putin needs a hug (DTH opinion column -- Cries from the Peanut Gallery)

What's the difference between Vladimir Putin and a chicken trying to cross the road?

Well let's see. They're both conscious, semi-rational social creatures like myself, struggling their way through this crazy world and doing the best they can with what they have. But the chicken seems like someone I could get along with, while I most decidedly would not enjoy getting stuck in a ski lift with Putin.

And why is that? That "different species" thing could make establishing a meaningful rapport with the chicken a little challenging (and we can go ahead and forget about communicating any ideas more complex than "Look, food!"). But with Putin I'd be too busy stifling the aggressive Hitler jokes in my head to manage a conversation. The moral dilemma would be a little distracting -- because he's evil, right? But what does that entail?

Evil is like a good joke. We love it because it's simple, because it makes everything so easy -- it is what it is, and all we have to do is voice our hatred for it or laugh until we hurt ourselves. Comedy and moral absolutes give us relief because we don't have to think, and if there's one thing we college students have good reason to be tired of, it's thinking.

And just like jokes, evil is subjective. Not everyone's going to agree on what qualifies as "funny" or "Satan-esque." (I might be disgusted by Carlos Mencia, Dane Cook or former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, but you might just think I'm oversensitive and full of crap -- because what's a few crimes against humanity in a war against communism? Whatever.)

Of course that's not to say there isn't any sort of universal moral standard for assessing these claims, just as there might not be any universal barometer of "funny," but that's not the problem.

Whether evil for you is Putin, Dick Cheney, terrorists or anti-abortion activists who insist on comparing abortion to genocide and shoving graphic images in your face, that's valid.

But just like jokes, evil is ruined the moment someone explains it. The mechanics that made the joke funny or set up the circumstances for evil to happen are revealed in an instant like the paunchy dimwit behind the Wizard of Oz -- and the magic is gone.

The joke is lifeless and formulaic, not the vivid burst of spontaneity it was a moment before. And now the evil is the result of a terrible string of random existential circumstances, plus the occasional misplaced moral conviction or childhood trauma (trauma here meaning anything from malnutrition and lead exposure to a profound lack of hugs).

For jokes, I humbly suggest we learn to live in ignorance. For evil, however, it'd probably be best if we keep trying to understand. We don't have to condone it, obviously, but a little sympathy might help move us toward a consensus.

And if that ski lift scenario ever pans out, maybe I'll be able to have an impact! But at the very least I'd have an epic selfie opportunity.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Lenten festivus for the rest of us (Daily Tar Heel Opinion Column -- Cries from the Peanut Gallery)

For anyone unaware, we're currently making our way through the Christian season of Lent, a period commonly associated in the popular imagination with affluent suburbanites who nobly commit themselves to exorcising Oreos from their diet for about 40 days each spring.

It's one of those weird niche holidays that seem to exist only parallel to our mass culture -- like Boxing Day, Norwegian Constitution Day and various religious holidays. Also Kwanzaa.

But in the spirit of our long-standing human tradition of cultural co-optation, how about we secularize and assimilate Lent a bit? We don't have to ruin it for practitioners, just make it more accessible.

I'm thinking something along the lines of what secular America has done to Christmas (and what early Christians did to the winter celebration of the birth of the Roman sun god).

And maybe our botched adaptation of Easter can be a cautionary tale. Secular Christmas is a little garish, but it holds onto some useful love and generosity from its sacred equivalent. It's a built-in period for affirming bonds of family and extending goodwill into the world in an intentional way. (Secular Easter is just an opportunity for candy and traumatizing anthropomorphisms.)

Two questions you might be asking: Why draw so heavily on Christian tradition if our nation has so many other traditions? Also: Does America truly need a chance to give up soda or cheese biscuits for a month and a half?

Well if we're going to have a shared culture based on something besides jingoism, self-gratification and Lady Gaga, this is our best bet. And as a nation we don't know enough about any other traditions to adopt them without butchering them.

As for the second question, Lenten sacrifice can be a lot more than just a short-term New Year's resolution. The original tradition is one of sustained fasting (much like strong traditions of fasting in Judaism and Islam), which tends to demand a little more willpower than the still painstaking switch from fried to grilled at KFC.

And many groups today use Lent as a time for reflection on the individual and community level, effectively assessing and reshaping the collective identity of the group to reorient it in relation to the world.

So instead of the individualized self-improvement of New Year's resolutions, Lent can be and often is more about self-discipline and introspection. And who couldn't use a little more of those in their lives?

Let's be honest: we're animals. We're products of our circumstances. Impulse control and critical self-reflection are skills -- just like driving, shooting or caring -- that must be endlessly honed and practiced.

They also happen to be essential for a healthy society, and some regular exercise with them might help mitigate the obesity, political polarization, violence and sexual assault that happen to be systemic in our society.

Worth a try? If I were us, I'd be ready to try anything.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

In defense of just faking it (Daily Tar Heel Opinion Column Cries from the Peanut Gallery)

So you don't care about basketball. You don't pray toward the Smith Center five times daily, you don't get a sense of humble reverence in your heart from reciting the names of UNC point guards into antiquity -- and maybe you don't feel anything toward Duke but a vague antipathy.

For whatever reason, you just don't buy into the whole "school spirit mob mentality" with its blind enthusiasm and mass fervor. That's cool, but what makes you think you're so special?

I know it's all silly in the grand scheme of things, and I could intellectualize about school spirit as an artificial cultural phenomenon all day if I wanted to be obnoxious, repetitive and cliched -- but I'd rather join in the fun.

I might not be able to convince myself that it really matters how many balls we get through hoops, or if our sports can dramatically outmaneuver the other universities' sports and elevate our sports to the greatest sports ever to have sportsed in regular season play -- despite our abysmal sportsing percentage on the sports line.

But I sure can act like I care, and caring is good. In the religious pantheon of college athletics, you could call me a practicing Tar Heel agnostic.

Communities like UNC are the social structures that give our lives shape and meaning, but they're also fun. They're filled with people who care about you and have fun affirming their commitment to an abstraction -- through and in their caring about you.

Indulging in some healthy school spirit -- or whatever your chosen abstraction may be -- pulls you out of yourself and your brooding ego. You can't be unhappy or lonely when you're not fully aware of your finite individuality!

The passion you each feel and perform for UNC in shouting about free throws translates to compassion for each other as Tar Heels. And as long as the community is a healthy one, your involvement in it reorients you in relation to other communities as well.

Practicing my love for the UNC community and its members builds synaptic bridges of empathy in my mind. It sharpens my sense of fellow-feeling and draws out my social antennae, setting me up to sincerely care my way into any community I see fit to fit myself into.

Obviously you'll get less out of all this if you secretly don't care, and you might feel awkward for a while, but "agnostic" is actually a fairly misleading term for this -- you're putting so much thought into acting like you care that you can't help but start caring.

You can only sing the alma mater, shout "I'm a Tar Heel" and march to Franklin with people who love you so many times before you start to believe it means something. And as much as I may pretend to be secretly above the groupthink of school spirit, my love for the community runs deep in my Carolina blue blood.

It deepens with every chant, every collective scream at a Wade Moody 3-pointer or Michael Jordan name drop.

It's a good feeling. And in some not insignificant way, I'm a stronger, more compassionate human being for feeling it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Hacking at some racist trees (Daily Tar Heel Cries from the Peanut Gallery opinion column)

If a tree celebrates Presidents Day in the forest, does it make a sound? And at what point do we care?

I guess it depends if the tree's of voting age? It'd seem significant if the tree's potential for civic engagement weren't limited to a small circle of soil. Or if anyone else were around to be inspired to a newfound respect for the office of president by the oak's fervent patriotism.

But let's set trees aside for the moment.

Holidays, like public monuments and the political blogosphere, are stubbornly fixed set-pieces in the ongoing stage production that is our society.

They are prominent, largely unshakeable features of the structure in and through which we go about our lives. Like trees! And like trees, they're only relatively stable because we've stuck them in the ground good and tight, and ignoring them is easier than buying a chainsaw on a college budget.

Unlike trees, however, holidays, statues and buildings named after Ku Klux Klan organizers are man-made. Thus they only really "do things" when we celebrate or regularly attend classes in them.

So what's a holiday do if it just sits on campus and gets ignored? Does Presidents Day do something to us simply by existing -- even though we didn't get a day off to contemplate its significance and nurse our snow-weekend hangovers?

We're conscious of it, so that's something. And a lot of states use it to celebrate just George Washington and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays, so maybe that specificity mixes things up?

Alabama excludes Lincoln and celebrates Washington and Thomas Jefferson's birthdays -- even though the latter isn't until April. Presumably because that other president presided over one of the greatest periods of death and violence in American history?

(At least they're not celebrating Andrew Jackson -- I think the irony alone would be enough to kill me, or at the very least uproot thousands from the land they've lived on for centuries and force them to march thousands of miles so white settlements can expand comfortably.)

So Presidents Day must have some symbolic value in shaping how we see our society. But what about holidays like Labor Day? We get a day off, so it must be significant, but does it play a role in shaping our values or ourselves?

Probably not, because until the age of 16 I'd never considered Labor Day to be about anything beyond pregnant ladies and obscure fashion codes. (I had to check Wikipedia to be sure it's actually about the American labor movement. It is.)

We actively celebrate Veterans Day, but that's a tree we've altered over time. (It used to be Armistice Day -- so a bit more about "peace" than "soldiers.") But what about Columbus Day?

And while we're on the subject of memorialized racism, what about all these Confederate legacies and quiet monuments to racism scattered around our campus? Lingering relics of an ugly past slowing our moral march forward? Useful symbols of injustice to rally around (e.g., the Pit Preacher)? Dead metaphors like Labor Day?

I'm undecided. But if we get a consensus going I'll chip in for a chainsaw.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Obama makes it to the end zone (Daily Tar Heel Op-ed column -- Cries from the Peanut Gallery)

Making sports analogies is like being political on Facebook. It gets you a lot of attention, and you can be saying intelligent things, but it's nothing some blogger hasn't already beaten to death, and unless you're astoundingly subtle you'll alienate half of your audience right off the bat -- but we keep doing it.

Anyway, we've just gone through two of the bigger significant American events of the year in a week and a half: the Super Bowl and the State of the Union.

One is a pageant of commercial excess, a scripted display of pretense and coercive prowess masking empty pandering and desperate appeals to and for various demographics -- the other one has Peyton Manning.

They really are more alike than different, but the Super Bowl is a lot better at doing what the State of the Union is really meant to do in the first place -- you know, assess the state of our union and whatnot.

The Super Bowl is that time of year where our whole diverse, opinionated society gets together and drinks until it's not awkward (family reunions!). We try not to talk about anything divisive -- but you know some people can't help but chime in (and you can't really blame them, because it's not like Uncle Ben stops being a dick over Thanksgiving, we're just actively trying not to talk about it).

The State of the Union, on the other hand, is when a small segment of our nation gets packed into an auditorium, fidgets in silence for a couple of hours and claps until their hands snap off.

Even with the embarrassingly uncompetitive little league soccer match that somehow passed for a serious athletic event this Sunday, more people watched it than have ever watched anything on a screen at the same time in American history. And the people that didn't watch it all posted statuses to make sure everyone was aware of exactly how little they cared.

In both events there are always going to be farcical attempts and failures to somehow make everyone happy. (See: Bruno Mars and Red Hot Chili Peppers with their guitars unplugged.)

The smallest, subtlest things carry a lot of meaning, and they're easy to miss. Bob Dylan had all of 30 seconds to talk to America during the Super Bowl, but he only needed for four to write off three-fifths of the world's population ("Asia makes our cellphones").

All things considered, however, I thought our union looked pretty great this year. (Except Jerry Seinfeld -- at this point it feels like he's dropped the jokes and we're just watching him age). It definitely wasn't much worse than any other recent year, and maybe even a little better. But that's not to say there's not massive room for improvement.

As with both the State of the Union and the Super Bowl, you always feel like there's something missing -- something incredibly pertinent but eerily absent from the conversation, that we'd really prefer to just leave off the table for now. Native American slurs, drone warfare and sex trafficking, perhaps? Oh well.