Candles Always Cry

And Other Stories

Month: November, 2011

Eluding the Goons

Thoughts on “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan.

In the beginning, I liked the heaven and the earth. I liked the reality she portrayed mincing little, I liked the sudden apparating from present to past and back, and from character to character. I even liked the honesty of the theme – resignation and submission to the goon squad.

The goon is time and it’s true that all of us are at its mercy so why deny it? Why color it pretty? Why not let each character start young and full of angst and dreams, and then as time passes disintegrate, be drained of life, become colorless and too tired to be angry, too full of remorse to conjure up old dreams.

One reason why not is that it isn’t true. Not that I would know considering that I’m still young, but I refuse to believe that time doesn’t also bring wisdom, depth, enlightenment, memories. I refuse to believe that all old people walk around with dead dreams inside, wishing only to be young again because what would a do over help? Where could they possibly go right if time is only a merciless thief.

Old people sigh and talk about “kids these days” and in the same conversation they make jokes about being “over the hill” at 40, dread their birthdays, laugh at the one gray hair. They laugh like a doomed captive forced to resort to lame humor in the face of a inevitable end, like they’ve already given up. Then they wonder why kids these days have no respect for their elders, don’t settle down until it’s almost too late, and spend anxious chunks of their lives counting wrinkle lines and beauty marks. If we all meet our deaths eventually why isn’t there a way to do it gracefully, instead of spending our lives running from that fact?

When Will You Start Something That Matters?

Thoughts on “Start Something That Matters” by Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes

I hate motivational books. Instead of getting me to do things, they raise my blood pressure to dangerous heights. I read it as a rebuke. Why I’m still a searching mid-twenties loser and not a successful CEO, an inspiring activist, or at least a mother or teacher and contributing to the community.

I bought this book anyway because I’m a tremendous fan of the TOMS Shoes business model. They’re a for-profit that does what non-profits are supposed to do — help people. They’re a self-sufficient giving company. They’ve mastered the have your cake and eat it too phenomenon. It’s beautiful.

What I did take out of the book was a few defenses for my not-yet starting something that matters: 1) Blake started 4 companies before this one. None reached similar heights. 2) Everyone starts off ignorant. Do it anyway.

What I took out of the book when I forgot to take offense: 1) The timing is never right. The stars won’t align in just the right way so forget the stars and start something that matters. 2) Read biographies to get inspired. Sometimes you have to incubate for a while before your genius can shine through. 3) Simplicity. Just think about one thing you’re passionate about, that you can change. Do one thing well.

The later chapters talk about building trust within a company, working with few resources and other issues you only have to worry about once you actually have employees. He also mentions a few times how it’s important to give in any way possible. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary. I ignored that part.

But lest my introduction fool you,  high blood pressure is really another way of saying, I am motivated but what if I let myself down again?

Stick People

It’s very simple being Jewish and being American; you just have to have completely polar views about pretty much everything.

In Judaism it’s all about drawing lines. The lines between good and evil, Jews and non-Jews, men and women, morning and night. Lines don’t have to be divisive as much as definitive. In Leviticus it says, “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Rashi, the foremost commentator explains that to be holy means to be separated. “Be separated from immorality and from sin.” The Rabbis and sages of the past couple thousand years spent their time sifting and analyzing, uncovering what is good and righteous and what is forbidden.

All for good reason. In a world that is “mostly evil”, the process of separating and good from the “mostly evil” and uplifting it is the purpose of creation, says Judaism. It’s a cosmic game of hide and seek, of Hansel and Gretel, picking out the fragments of light that will lead you to redemption.

In America, it’s all about erasing lines. Sure, we embrace differences, but we do it by emphasizing similarities. We put faces of different shades of browns on the bulletin boards in Elementary School and we recognize Hanukkah and Christmas and and Kwanzaa around holiday season. But then we refuse to identify what exactly separates one from the other. Men and women aren’t really different, except for some relatively unimportant biology. Religions aren’t really different, just rename G-d, and give certain religions more time to mature and then die. Ethnicities aren’t really different. They just eat different foods.

When it comes to good and evil, it’s so quaint to divide the world up that way, so childish not to see the human element in every act. Serial killers have good intentions (at least one does), greed can be ambition, betrayal can be love, and running after happiness at the cost of your responsibilities is the sacred right of every American. When Osama bin Laden was killed debates sprouted about whether he was inherently evil, if there even was such a thing as total depravity. We were afraid of labeling the man who designed the most elaborate plan for killing innocent people as evil. As though the labeling itself spelled doom for our carefully constructed world of gray points of view.

If there’s someone who knows a world that is black and white, and gray — a world where there is absolute truth, and genuine celebration of the human mind and heart — please let me know. Before I get erased.

Scandalized

You can tell a lot about a person by what scandalizes them.

Some people won’t admit it, when what they thought the world looked like, is suddenly and shockingly proven to be wrong, and everything changes color. They’ll just shrug, maybe give a little chuckle that means, “I knew that” while the sound of the world recedes. But when they go home and they close the lights they start to wonder how many other truths aren’t there, how many alternate realities are out there, dancing and killing themselves, while his version of goodness sleeps.

Scandalized hurts. It’s losing a little bit of your innocence, a little bit of your faith and trust in goodness. It adds a little to that bitterness, the shield you carry. It makes you a little more of a complacent adult who accepts each piece of shock with a nod, like he’s been waiting for this for a while now.

If you can admit it, you can also absorb it. If you can let your whole self vibrate with the shock. If you can kick and beg and grab on to ideals like they don’t belong to children, you can stay open to life.

If there was one thing I could tell children, or parents of children, it would be to value innocence a little more. Only one person I know says you can reclaim lost innocence. He believes there’s a soul that’s untouched by whatever betrayals and dirt and hopelesness you’ve seen or heard or hidden under your pillows. Nobody wants to be small-town naive, but if they knew what a price they’d pay for cool, maybe they’d wait a little longer to pay it.