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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

No Success Like Failure: UNLIMITED POWER, by Anthony Robbins (Part 5)

“with fears and frustrations”

*****

Of the many reasons why I live in New York, “project management” isn’t in the top 100. Hell, it isn’t even in the top 1,000; the top 10,000. On a list that includes “being able to attend theater every night” and “walking across the Brooklyn Bridge” on one end and “being stuck on the wrong side of 5th Avenue during the Puerto Rican Day Parade” and “six-dollar pints of light beer” on the other, “project management” falls much closer to “six-dollar pints,” maybe a notch above “waiting for the 7 train on one of those outdoor platforms in Queens on a windy night in January,” but just barely.

I am here to write. To surround myself with other artists; to subject myself to other artists, yes. But mainly, importantly, to write.

In the same way that Christians periodically retreat in an effort to remind themselves of their commitment to Jesus, so too do I have to occasionally step back and take stock of where I am and what I’m doing. I don’t require a What Would Mamet Do? bracelet to remind myself of my devotion—and, even if I did, the wiser course is probably What Would Mamet Not Do?—but every so often a mental check-in is valuable, nonetheless. Such a renewal of vows, as it were, does not require the public spectacle of, say, a Promise Keepers meeting, where I realize the sheer numbers are supposed to enhance the experience, though I’ve always thought they diminished it, trading, as they do, the intimacy of individuality for the Leni Riefenstahl-like mass of up-reached hands and streaming tears.

No, any issue my priorities and I have are strictly between me and my priorities, though I could maybe be talked into an AA-like support group, if things were to ever bottom out.

“Hello, my name is Kirby.”

“Hi, Kirby!”

“It has been three months since I’ve written anything that was worth shit.”

In their current form, however, the check-ins are brief, usually nothing more than an internal “What are you doing with your life?,” and they usually occur after things that really don’t matter—things like work—begin to seem as if they actually do. A blown deadline that nags more than it should. A prolonged stretch of going in early and/or staying late. Just generally not leaving it all behind at 5:00. Nothing at work should ever affect any part of my life that doesn’t happen at work.

"Project management" is at the opposite end of a list that includes this near the top.
“Every complex system whether it’s a factory tool or a computer or a human being, has to be congruent,” writes Robbins. “Its parts have to work together; every action has to support every other action if it’s to work at peak level. If the parts of a machine try to go in two different directions at once, the machine will be out of sync and could eventually break down.”

The great curse of my life—other than the fact that I can’t play guitar—is that society fails to value the skills that I possess enough for me to parlay them into something like a living. I don’t know how to buy or sell stocks. I don’t know how to scrape out the carotid artery when it becomes too constricted by gunk or even how to read a blood-pressure pump for that matter. I can’t throw a ball fast enough or jump high enough. I can tell you generally why the Ten Commandments shouldn’t be displayed in public classrooms, but I can’t argue precedence. Speaking of God, He sure knows I can’t carry a tune. I know enough about a few things that I feel capable to teach what I know to others, but I lack the requisite certification to make that transfer of knowledge official. I can’t really build anything. If I hammer a nail, it’s going to be crooked; if I saw a board, I’m going to lose a digit. I have no big idea for a business of my own. I don’t even have any small ideas. I barely understand how my bike works, let along my computer.

You know what I’m good at? Here’s what I’m good at: I can fix your sentences (and write a few of my own), and I’m really, really good at noticing when the font that’s supposed to be Calibri is actually Cambria or when that 12-point heading is really 11 or when the period is mistakenly bold.

I have degrees in English, writing, and philosophy, which means I can read, write, and think. Plug that trifecta into a Craigslist search and tell me how many rewarding, full-time opportunities emerge.

“We can learn to produce the most effective behaviors, but if those behaviors don’t support our deepest needs and desires, if those behaviors infringe upon other things that are important to us, then we have internal conflict, and we lack the congruency that is necessary for success on a large scale.” That’s Robbins again, obviously, in a line that stings not a little but a lot, for, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I’ve been incongruent my whole life.
Tell me something I don't know.

I had occasion recently to sift through a number of old notebooks. They stretched all the way back to my freshman year of high school and then extended forward through my four undergraduate years and multiple graduate programs. As I flipped through, I was struck by how similar their contents were throughout those 15 years: The information in the first third of every spiral was the official notes for the class. Whether it was Journalism or Western Civ until 1660 or Psych or Soc or Algebra I or Biology or Performing American Culture or Contemporary Southern Women’s Fiction, I had all of the sanctioned information right up top, in enough detail that, give me two hours with any given notebook right now, and I could still ace the quiz.

In the back of the notebooks, however, that’s where I kept the important stuff. In the back, without fail, for as many years as I have proof (and probably for even longer than that), I have story ideas, song lyrics, character sketches, snippets of dialogue. I would sit in class, give a shit for as long as I could stand to give a shit, and then flip to the back where I would release that which had been at the fore all along. Thankfully the quality of the back-of-the-notebook material improved from Ms. Admire’s ELA class in my ninth-grade year to that which appeared in the back of Dr. Schultz’s 19th Century American Novel class as I was finishing up the course work for my (never completed) doctoral dissertation. But the general idea stayed the same: What I was supposed to care about up front; what I actually cared about in the back.

The only time this didn’t hold true was when I was at Carnegie Mellon, where I studied playwriting. During those two years, everything that mattered was up front. There was no back. Those were two good years, where people thought of me as a writer and where it was my job to write.

The problem is that they were only two years, and once I entered the workforce, the old habits re-emerged: crack a notebook from my five years on the job, and you’ll find meeting notes up front and a revised outline for Act I in the back. Right now—I shit you not—right at this very minute I am hunched over a cramped cubicle on my lunch break at a temp gig, writing in longhand on the back of an agenda from a meeting we had last week (Item 1: Training Update).

It doesn’t take a world-renowned guru to see that my life might possibly maybe lack congruence. Huh, do you think?
Get congruent, baby.
“It’s easy for people to put things like this [deep-seated goals] off and get trapped into making a living rather than designing a life,” Robbins writes. And elsewhere: “A lot of very smart people spend their careers totally frustrated because they’re doing jobs that don’t make the best of their inherent capabilities.” I like “designing a life,” by the way. There’s poetry in it. The Avett Brothers express the same idea, if only a little more melodically: “Decide what to be, and go be it.”

I know people who live like this. Ask them at a party what they do and they’ll tell you that they’re a painter, when in reality the only canvas they’re in charge of is an Excel spreadsheet. I’m an actor. Oh, yeah, what restaurant do you work at? That kind of thing. I know writers who think it’s appropriate to apply for a copyeditor position by submitting a resume that lists their recent workshop productions. They aspire to nothing more than temp work, just in case they have to attend an out-of-town tryout ahead of their Broadway premiere. Ride the Greenway, and every cyclists who buzzes by—“on your left, your left!”—is wearing a yellow jersey.

I admire the hell out of these people. I love them for the ego it takes to blindly deny reality and to instead embrace their self-created fantasy. I love too that they refuse to be defined by what they do. I wait tables. That does not make me a waiter. Talk to me at a party and, firstly, I’m going to lead with my passion, not my occupation, and, secondly, fuck you for trying to pigeonhole me anyway. They would scoff at Robbins and his ilk, but really they’re not so far removed from one another. Robbins would applaud their ability to control their own minds. He might even include their story in the next version of the book: Unlimited Power 2: Electric Whoosh-a-loo.

I wish to god I were more like these people. I wish to god if, when you asked me what I do, I didn’t avert my eyes and sheepishly say, “It’s really too boring to go into right now.” I wish you didn’t have to wait for some other subject to come up before somehow I eventually allowed, “Oh, yeah, writing. I mean, I dabble.” But I’m not wired that way. I don’t believe that things are true just because I really, really want them to be true. In fact, quite the opposite. On the rare occasion that I do actually let myself envision something good happening it’s almost guaranteed not to. The surest way for me to lose something I think I’ve got a shot at is for me to picture myself getting it. If I didn’t cleave them in two after reading the words “we’re sorry but,” rejection letters would be crippling: It’s not that you didn’t give it to me; it’s that in my head I already have it, and you’re taking it away.

According to Robbins, this defeatist attitude means that I’m getting what I deserve. My life is a self-fulfilling prophecy: I refuse to envision the best; therefore, the best will never come. My Pulitzer is an elbow-patched Tweed jacket away, but I’m just too stupid to realize it. As is so often the case with this book, Robbins undoes a keen observation with a gross oversimplification. Being a writer or fulfilling any kind of professional goal is not the same as being a reality-tv star, not even if your professional goal is to be a reality-tv star. You don’t call yourself a writer and then start writing. You write. That’s it.

Even if all too often it is relegated to the back of the agenda.

For now, anyway.

Monday, May 23, 2011

My Hometown

It just doesn’t feel right to post about books on a day when my dad woke up with no roof. He and the rest of my immediate family live in Joplin, Missouri, which was devastated by a tornado on Sunday evening. At the time that the tornado twisted its way through the town, I was at Sushi Yu on 181st Street, trying to explain to the woman behind the counter that I had only ordered one shrimp-tempura roll, not two. Jonah put his hand in the goldfish bowl. “Come on, buddy. You know better than that," I said.

At that moment, my dad was huddled in a closet as the wind scattered his belongings across the rapidly disappearing neighborhood. “It was amazing, Kirb,” he said in a spotty cell-phone conversation much later that night. “One minute it was just raining, and the next thing I know, all of my windows are shattering. It sounded like lightning. I tried to open the garage door, but the wind was holding it shut, so I got into the closet.” Five minute later, he re-emerged and found that he was now a part of the sometimes-not-so-great outdoors. “That beautiful picture of my mom and dad,” he said. A gold chain on the kitchen counter remained exactly where he had left it. The hummingbird feeder in the backyard swayed in the wind.

I had heard the news from my mom, who happened to be in West Virginia at the time and who had received a call from her brother, who lives in one of the Carolinas. “Looks like a tornado hit Joplin pretty good,” he said. “Everyone OK?”  Their mother, my grandmother, is in a nursing home there. “I don’t know,” she said.

In New York, you live your whole life hoping to avoid the cover of the Post. In the Midwest, you don’t ever want to be the lead story on the Weather Channel. They were live, cars stacked on top of one another in the background, pyramid-style, like it was a piece of modern art. They were in front of St. John’s hospital, where we used to get chased by the security guards for skateboarding in their parking garage and where a patient was rumored to have been sucked right out of a window during the storm. As was true with most of the images I scrutinized online that night, I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at. Reference points had blown away. At St. John’s, the windows all looked to be broken, giving some credence to the story about the patient being vacuumed out, and there seemed to be some smoke billowing from somewhere. In general, though, the pictures just failed to capture it. From one angle, Joplin High, where I went to school, didn’t seem so bad; from another, it was rubble.

That the Weather Channel had descended spoke to the size of the story, but the real information was being disseminated on Facebook. With cell-phone reception knocked out in the immediate aftermath, Facebook was the most effective way to check on friends and family. I followed the unfolding narrative by feverishly refreshing my screen. “I’m OK but Joplin is destroyed,” read one early post from a good friend. “Just visited South Joplin,” read another. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Ex-pats like myself urged family to check in when they could. I stayed up to date through a series of exchanges with my 14-year-old niece. “Dad is OK, but not sure about PaPa,” she said before we tracked him down and learned about his house. “Attention Joplin,” announced one popular post, “Walking wounded go to Memorial Hall. Critically injured go to Freeman. Repost.” One friend admirably managed some humor from Lawrence. “Glad your cutie patootie is still, um…alrigty-rooty,” read his message to another friend. Yet another friend in nearby Carthage offered her house to people who needed a place to stay.

A kind of roll call developed where people logged on if only long enough to let others know that they were OK. I kept a mental checklist and ticked off names when they called out their virtual number. As the night wore on, I noticed that an ex-girlfriend had remained silent. I had stayed in touch with her pretty well over the years but had no idea where she lived. She had recently moved to a new house and talked a lot about her garden. I checked her profile. There were a host of messages wishing her well. Her profile picture was of her and her son. For a split second, I imagined the worst. “Please don’t be dead in a tornado,” I said to no one in particular. Minutes later, a note appeared: “We are OK.” I went to bed.

As anyone who knows me even a little bit can attest, I have a love/hate relationship with Joplin, which is to say that I love to hate it. My dad had moved us there from San Diego right before I started my freshman year of high school, so I resented it from the start and never really warmed up to it. Growing up, I had always thought of it as small, narrow-minded, and constricting, and, let’s be honest here, my feelings really haven’t changed all that much as I’ve gotten older. We all need something in our lives to push against—whether that something be a political party, a sports team, or a religion—and Joplin has served that role well for me throughout the years.

But I do know a whole lot of people who have stayed in town most of their lives and who have flourished. They are lawyers and musicians and city employees who stayed and fought to build the community rather than tearing it down from afar. For all of the times that I have wished Joplin ill—and, believe me, there have been plenty—it’s something else entirely when it actually happens. That’s where I crashed the junior prom with Tommy Walkinshaw and that’s where we met for drinks every single Friday night after work and that’s where I took my grandmother for a drive that one time. God damnit, like it or not, that’s my hometown.

When I went to bed on Sunday night, the death toll was at 34. By Monday morning, it was 89. Jonah was setting the timer so I could play with him “for just five minutes, Daddy” before going to work. He wanted me to assemble his train tracks. Leu was awake but not yet out of bed. I poked my head in. “Death count is at 89,” I said. “Jesus,” she said. “I would not want to wake up in Joplin this morning.”

I knew what she meant, yet somehow, for the first time in my adult life, Joplin was the one place that I wanted to be.  

Monday, May 16, 2011

No Success Like Failure: UNLIMITED POWER, by Anthony Robbins (Part 4)


“W.I.T. – Whatever It Takes.”

*****

Growing up and well into (what passes as) my adult life, unemployment insurance fell in with things like Stepping on a Jellyfish and Abandoning Your Car by the Side of the Road under the general heading of “Things that I Will Never, Ever Have to Worry About,” aka, “Shit that Happens to Other People.” These weren’t even people that I knew. They were friends of friends. Or friends of friends of friends, or, even more removed, just things that I knew happened because I saw the proof, even if I was a long, long way from the actual event. A story about a girl who was at the ocean in Virginia, took an innocent enough step in knee-deep water, and the next thing she knows she’s on the beach with her foot the size of an eggplant. A car in the ditch on the way to Kansas City, a piece of cardboard in the back window: “Pink Floyd or bust!” Apparently they busted. This was unemployment to me.

Disconcerting, how quickly we are all on the verge of becoming “other people.”

Though I absolutely believe that the government has the responsibility to help its citizens when they can’t take care of themselves, I have always prided myself on being one of those people who can take care of himself. Leu and I have never borrowed money from our parents, though we certainly don’t decline it when they offer of their own accord (we’re proud, not stupid). We’ve bought (and sold) two houses, on the strength of our own savings and credit. We paid/are paying for our own education.

Point is, when my wife was laid off after taking her maternity leave, part of me hesitated to collect the unemployment that was available to her. Why do you need it, I thought though was smart enough not to say. You’ll have another job soon enough. Three years later, “soon enough” has yet to arrive, and who knows what kind of financial weight we would be under now if she had been unable to collect unemployment for the majority of that time.

But even so, part of me justified it as a supplement. We weren’t really living off of it. We were living off of my modest paycheck by living even more modestly. I’ve long held that stay-at-home moms should receive some kind of payment for the mostly unacknowledged work that they do, so there it was, unemployment as a stipend for stay-at-home moms. Even the sum that she collected fit this idealistic view: $405 a week could hardly be expected to sustain you in Manhattan. It was walking-around money. Buy the kid something nice, and with what’s leftover, get a little something something for yourself, complete with a condescending nudge to the jaw.

Then suddenly the jaw was mine, and it wasn’t a nudge but a full on punch.

If I didn’t have a pregnant wife and a son, I doubt I would have collected. I would have been too prideful, too stubborn. But I do, so I did. And to my surprise, I learned that many of my friends did as well. Friends who I just assumed were independently wealthy or amassing huge amounts of debt had really been living off the state all this time. This realization made me wonder if I had been missing something all along. Here I had been the one pitying them and their unsuccessful search for work when really I was the one who deserved the pity.

“Did you hear about Kirby?”

“No, what?”

“He’s got a job.”

“Oh, man.”

“Nine to six, everyday.”

“Everyday?”

“That’s what I hear.”

“How awful.”

“I know.”

“How’s Leu holding up?”

“She’s coping.”

You rarely see sushi lines for the unemployed, but that's because nowadays we just order in.

When I started collecting, I felt like I had joined a secret club. My friends and I would eat sushi and discuss whether we qualified for Tier 1, Tier 2, or Tier 3. Until then, I never realized that the unemployed even ate sushi. I thought their diet was restricted to the odd tire or shoe.

Claiming your weekly benefits is hardly the bureaucratic hell that I envisioned it to be. You can do so online, which, I’m sure, goes a long way toward erasing the stigma. You just have to answer a few questions, though some of them do get surprisingly personal.

The questions for the great state of New York are as follows:

During the week ending XX/XX/XXXX, did you refuse any job offer or referral?

How many days did you work, including self-employment, during the week ending XX/XX/XXXX?

Excluding earnings from self-employment, did you earn more than $405?

How many days were you NOT ready, willing, and able to work?

How many days were you owed vacation pay or did you receive vacation pay?

How many days were you owed holiday pay or did you receive holiday pay?

Have you returned to work full time?

At what point did you know it was just a matter of time?

How long did you feel like you were faking it?

How many of your friends have consoled you with the “things happen for a reason” defense?

Of these friends, how many did you want to hit right in the fucking face, hard, like with a tire iron?

(circle one) This really was/was not the job for me.

(circle one) Your résumé is over/under five years old?

Are you getting too old for this kind of shit?

Do you ever expect to actually retire?

Really? I mean, come on….

Those commercials with the talking heads that are all animated like from Waking Life, how much of those commercials do you actually understand?

How much do you believe those commercials apply to you and yours?

Do you have any idea what COBRA costs for a family of four?

What is a 401K?

What is a Roth IRA?

Oh my god. You really are pathetic, aren’t you?

How seriously are you considering leaving the city?

How far would you have to fall to move back in with your parents?

How much farther, I mean?

Which is more important: making money or knowing that your children respect what you do?

(fill in the blank) My dream job is _______________.

(circle one) I do/do not expect to realize this dream.

(circle one) I’m giving myself more/less than five years before I chuck it all and settle for a life that I really don’t want.

(circle one) More/less than three?

Yes or no: I’m ready to chuck it all right now.

On the night that you were let go, how long did you stand outside the door of your apartment and gather yourself before facing your wife and son?

Do you prefer lying on your back with your pillow over your head or on your side with your legs curled in the fetal position when you lock yourself in the bedroom and stifle sobs?

Is it true that your wife said Don’t jump off the bridge when you told her you were going for a walk?

What’s your porn-to-job-hunting ratio? Two to one? Three? Don’t tell me it’s four! (For research purposes only, which site do you prefer? The place I usually go is getting a little stale.)

Do your parents know?

If yes, at what point during the ensuing lecture did you put the phone down and just walk away, man, just walk away?

If no, what’s the matter with you, you ungrateful son?

Are you finally willing to admit that your dad was right all along?

When you tell people that you are no longer working, do you say that you were let go, laid off, or fired? Were you axed, canned, or given the ol’ heave ho?

And, finally, please feel free to use the back of this sheet, if necessary: Do you have any plans for the future? Any plans at all?

My friend Jim says it used to be a lot worse. He says you used to have answer in person.

Ba-dum-pa!

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would sit here for as long as I wanted.
 
*****

“[u]ncanny ability to focus on what is useful in a situation”

*****

A day in the life of an unemployed man:

On Tuesday and Thursdays I drop the boy off at day care while Leuinda substitute teaches, which means I wake up at 7:00, hit “snooze” until 7:15, then drag myself to the coffee. I open the door to Jonah’s room while I pat about the apartment in the hopes that the creaking floors will wake him up without me having to do so. I get as much done as possible before he awakes: dress, teeth, bag for Nana G’s, unfold the stroller. Eventually he calls “D-a-a-a-d-d-d-e-e-e-e,” and I go in. What’s up, buddy? Where’s Mommy? She’s at work. He doesn’t know what to do with this information. He’s not a bad riser, but he doesn’t really wake up until he’s been out of bed for 15 minutes. I carry him, blanket and all, to the couch where he rests against my chest and watches Sesame Street. When he says, “I want juice, Daddy,” I know he’s ready to go.

I sit him at his little table in the chair that Nana got him (“Nana” my mom, not “Nana G” of the day care). I bring him a banana. We peel it together. Look, Daddy, there’s stripes on it. Do you want Cheerios or Rice Krispies? I want Puffins. We don’t have Puffins. Cheerios or Rice Krispies? Rice Krispies. I sit next to him on the floor and spoon cereal into his mouth while he watches Curious George. We’ve started buying the generic brand, but they still snap, crackle, and pop, if not quite as vigorously.

We hurry and get dressed between ten-minute episodes of George, so when 8:26 hits we can get right in the stroller. Day care is new enough that he still fights it, so much of the bundled trip on cold mornings consists of preemptively massaging the day. Are you going to see Gage and Oliva at Nana G’s? Do you think you’ll go to the park today? One way we’ve softened the experience is by bringing him treats when we pick him up, so we talk about whether he wants a red apple, a green apple, or an orange. I confirm the choice no fewer than five times.

He’s OK until we get there, but when we knock on the door he clings to me like a vine to a tree. I have to pry him off, gently, telling myself that it’s the right thing to do and then confirming by peeking through the window on my way out. He’s showing a car to a little friend. He’s fine. Better than me, actually.

I walk to the deli across the street and buy a cup of coffee. They fill my travel mug for a dollar. It’s a good deal, much better than at the Starbuck’s across the street, where they don’t even give you a discount. It’s cold outside. Frigid. But still, I walk up Cabrini to Fort Tryon Park. It’s always pretty up there, but especially so when it snows. The wind bites my cheeks, but I kind of like it in the way that I would like the burn of aftershave lotion if I wore aftershave lotion. I sit on a bench and listen to a podcast. I watch the tugboats push the barges up the Hudson. This is the new image I go to when I can’t fall asleep: a tugboat pushing a barge up the Hudson. It used to be a pitcher warming up in the bullpen. I worry that with my headphones on I am vulnerable to attackers, but then I realize that I would see his shadow creeping up on me, and I feel better.

When I feel like it, I leave. I take the long way home, back behind the Cloisters and down the hill. I skirt Broadway by staying in the park. I consider all of the people who have jobs: the bus drivers, the woman trimming the dead branches from the tree, the clerks at the bodegas. There was a terrible snowstorm recently—one of the worst on record—and there are hordes of people shoveling, like they’re on a chain gang. They all have jobs. I go to the store and pick up stuff for dinner, Jonah’s apple/apple/orange. The guy stocking the shelves, the woman at the register, the manager with the keys? Job, job, job. Suckers.

This guy has a job.
I get home around 11:00. I fire up the computer, search for job listings. There are very few and those that are there are shit. At first I was energized by all of the opportunities, but I quickly learned that the same posts are there every day. I wonder if anyone is actually manning them. I send a few follow-up emails, hope that a friend suddenly has an opening where she works so I can just slide right in and thus bypass the actual application process. Nothing yet.

I read. I watch some TV. I write. I’m thinking of starting this blog thing, so I jot down some books that might be interesting to read and write about. Tony Robbins didn’t even make the first cut. I heat up a frozen pizza, some leftovers. I’m always surprised by how fast the afternoon passes. At three o’clock I select an album from my iPod—I’m on a Smiths kick of late, because of their edge, not their mope—and leave for a short walk before picking up Jonah at 4:00. We play Pick-a-Hand for his treat.

When Mommy gets home I retire to the kitchen to give them some quality time together. She was told by her doctor to eat more red meat, so I prepare steak or my spaghetti sauce with my mom’s secret ingredient (olive juice). We have a family dinner, go through the bath/books/bed routine.

After he’s down, Leu and I watch an episode of Friday Night Lights on DVD, pass a quart of ice cream back and forth like we’re getting over a break-up. I ask how the baby is doing. She says Fine. I ask how she’s feeling. She says Ugh. I put my head in her lap, my hand on her belly, try not to worry.

Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays are actually better, because I get Jonah for the whole day. On nice days we go to Central Park; on not-so-nice days we go to an indoor playground in our neighborhood called Wiggles & Giggles, only Jonah calls it Wiggles & Giggles & Giggles. We enjoy lazy mornings. He bosses me around. We have lunch together, he inevitably preferring what is on my plate to what is on his.

The best part, though, is nap time. I had feared nap time when I first knew I would be home alone with him during the day, because historically his mother was the one who could get him down, mid-day. But after a rough afternoon or two, we settle into a routine: I read him books in the rocking chair, then position him across my lap with his cheek to my shoulder. He squirms a little, but I hold him tight. I sing him songs—“My Name Is Mikey” or “Bushel and a Peck” or “Tender,” by Blur—and 20 minutes later we are both asleep.

My nodding head wakes me. I carry him to the crib like Swamp Thing brings the woman out from the lake. I put him down gently enough to avoid waking him—a skill I thought I’d never possess—marvel at how long his legs are getting, walk lightly out of the room, take a final peek, smile, and close the door.

I feel a little guilty, Leu having to work on these days, but I won’t lie: I love it. I love being unemployed.

One way that Robbins measures success is that he asks his readers to contemplate their ideal day: “What people would be involved? What would you do? How would it begin? Where would you go? Where would you be?” The idea being that the person who controls his day controls his life. Robbins is on to something here, but I liked it better when Bob Dylan said it. “A man is a success,” he said, “if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.”

Of course, he also said that “there’s no success like failure, and that failure is no success at all.”  

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Thou poisonous slave!"

First of all, we were easily the worst group. As I recall, there was a team of at least a dozen people that spliced together all of the death scenes from the tragedies (as opposed to all of those death scenes from the comedies) and did a really slick and funny performance. My favorite was a group of guys who did a drinking scene from something--Henry IV seems right, but I really don't remember exactly--complete with those steins that you walk around with at the Renaissance Festival. One of the guys--a wildly talented artist--even created special T-shirts for the event that really stole the show.

These types of things weren't so unusual around the office, taking an hour out of the work day to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday. As one colleague put it, she knew exactly how dorky an office we worked at when there were competing Pi Day festivities. I didn't even know what Pi Day was until I started working there. (What is it, you ask?  Why, it's March 14th, of course.)

In any case, we were going to do a Beatrice and Benedict scene from Much Ado, but they were a couple so that felt wrong. When we landed on The Tempest and she saw just how mean Prospero was to Caliban, she got a little too excited, if you ask me. I reminded her that Prospero was the *king* and that there was no queen. She didn't care. All of those "props" were gathered from various desks right before we started.

I remember huddling by the copy machine and going over my lines. I was actually nervous.

Somehow we won the prize for "Best Duo," probably because we were the only duo. We were presented with paper certificates signifying our honor. It was one of the only things I kept when I left.

She's saying, "To-night thou shalt have craps, side-stitches that shall pen they breath up, [and] be pinched as thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging than the bees that made 'em." And she's loving it.

We're almost certainly arguing about capitalization.

Monday, May 9, 2011

No Success Like Failure: UNLIMITED POWER, by Anthony Robbins (Part 3)

“Hard, sharp…smooth, flexible…stiff.”

*****

The natural extension of controlling your own mind is bending the world to your will, for what is the world independent of your perception of it? If I’m sick, but I tell my mind that I am not, and my mind listens, then I am well. Mind 1, Reality 0. At least that would be the score if Robbins believed in reality. Instead, a more accurate tally might simply be Mind 1, or Mind Won.

Despite the ease with which a number of Robbins’ observations can be ridiculed, he does occasionally hit on a point that smacks of truth and, dare I say it, profundity. Take, for example, a line like “Nothing has any meaning except the meaning you give it,” which, if you presented to me divorced from its speaker—say, as a bumper sticker or beneath the signature on an email—I would have a hard time arguing against and might even stop a moment to consider its depth. I do believe that much of life is perception and that success and failure hinges on choices we make when opportunities emerge, opportunities that are, more often than not, of our own making. I draw a line at being able to “pop” into and out of clinical depression, and, indeed, I wonder if 25 years down the road Robbins might want to rethink that one, in the same way that he might want to rethink including the promise by a couple of overly ambitious entrepreneurs that air travel from New York to California will take 12 minutes by 1996. History has proven that goal to be preposterous, and, even with the allowance that hindsight is 20-20 and all that, I have a hard time believing that it was ever really seriously on the table. However, this represents exactly the kind of big-idea thinking that Robbins champions (or at least the kind of thinking that he wants to steal), and, in fairness, I am loathe to mock someone for having a dream, even if it is stupid.

Where Robbins loses me is in his notion that bending the world to his will means that the world exists to serve him. This isn’t making lemonade out of lemons. This is demanding that the lemonade be made for you. Oh, sure, he makes some noise about ensuring the purity of your motives—“It goes without saying you do whatever it takes to succeed without harming another person,” he says in a footnote, though, apparently given Robbins’ audience, it had to be said—and he includes someone else’s recommendation (of course) about what percentage of your earnings should be earmarked for charity, but this emphasis on good deeds appears near the end of the book, long after everyone is done reading, and, in any case, the idea is to give because it will come back to you, which is really just giving to get, which is no kind of giving at all. His argument in favor of vegetarianism fascinates because he focuses exclusively on what it can do for him and fails to mention any environmental concerns or the inhumane treatment of animals, which—I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here—tops the list of why most people who don’t eat meat don’t eat meat.

As I read, I kept wondering, “If everyone in the world adhered to this way of thinking, would the world be a better place?” The answer is that, no, it would not, because the philosophy expressed is, at its core, selfish, and, though Robbins cautions against letting your drive hurt others, I bet he allows for different gradations of “hurt.” What happens when my world bumps up against his? Since everything is created, accidents don’t exist, so any offense has a very specific agent if one requires retribution (or at least if one perceives he requires retribution, which, according to Robbins, is all that really matters).

Failures are to be celebrated, because we should reward the person who ventured to take a chance. Robbins lists Great Men (and, yes, they are all men) failing and failing and failing again, the most famous failure being Abraham Lincoln who faced defeat repeatedly before finally breaking through and ascending to the presidency (and how’d that work out, huh?).

But what if your failures belong to somebody else? What if, say—oh, hypothetically— you and a number of people that you care about deeply all lost your jobs because of the whim of others?

I know how Robbins would accommodate such an event—recast it as an opportunity, focus on what you can achieve with all of that found time, things happen for a reason and all of that fucking shit—but I find it unacceptable to advance a worldview that denies the reality of the situation and that refuses to admit that some things are beyond our control.

“If you don’t believe that you’re creating your world, whether it be your successes or your failures, then you’re at the mercy of circumstances,” Robbins writes. “Things just happen to you. You’re an object, not a subject. Let me tell you, if I had that belief, I’d check out now and look for another culture, another world, another planet. Why be here if you’re just the product of random outside forces?”

“Check out now”? You’ve got to hand it to the guy: Not many motivational speakers recommend suicide. The dead can’t attend refresher classes. The truth is that I know a whole bunch of people who would be on another plant right now, to steal Robbins’ phrase (see, I’m learning), if they actually adhered to this belief. 

Swear to god, I had no idea.
I worked for a company that was part of another company that was owned by a parent company, though the term “parent company” has never sat well with me because any parent who treats his children like most parent companies treat their offspring would expect a visit from the Department of Family Services. Come to think of it, that’s not a half-bad idea: A DFS for negligent parent companies.

Honestly, I was never sure just how far we were removed from the parent company. Mom and Dad seemed to be working through some issues, and we were caught in the middle like a summer house. Every six months or so someone would subject me to a new org chart, but it took longer than I care to admit to realize that “org” mean “organization,” which gives you an idea of what those charts meant to me. Speaking from the kids’ point of view, I rarely felt supported, let alone loved, by our alleged progenitors and instead felt akin to a foster child, a charity case that seemed like a good idea at the time but that had long ago been cropped out of the picture that graced the front of the Christmas card. This image of a modified holiday photo is actually more apropos than you might think, as, near the end that we didn’t yet recognize as the end, our little piece of the company was told to scrap our own holiday party and instead to crash the party that was being hosted by another branch of the company. I say “little,” but we’re talking 160 employees here, which made it all the more humbling when the larger group at the party that night absorbed us all and still I hardly recognized a soul. You think you matter, that you’re part of something, and then one day you realize that you don’t, you’re not. Talk about a charity case.

Not that any of the dysfunction at the top influenced our day to day. Our job was to create educational-resource books, and we did just that with passion, enthusiasm, and care. We were a young group, so details like whether page ranges should be separated with an en dash or a hyphen or whether the “f” in “F/ferris wheel” should be capitalized still mattered. Manuscripts would move from the writers to the editors to the proofreaders, and after each step of the process they would come back lousy with queries, each member of the team doing everything he or she could to make the book as sound as possible. One woman was so proud of her first project that she inscribed it with a note in her native Indian dialect and presented it to her parents.

There was some turmoil. For whatever reason the turnover rate was exceedingly high, which meant that people were forever shifting jobs to fill open roles (I didn’t once begin and end a calendar year in the same position during my five-year tenure), and one ominous December a restructuring cost a number of people their jobs. But even that was communicated as a kind of correction, a necessary cutting of dead weight in order to avoid sinking and to ensure that it would be smooth sailing from there on out. (Sorry, Dead Weight. Their line, not mine.)

The truth is that the only money we had in the first place was because of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Policy, which flooded the states with money to spend on test-prep materials. When the president left office, so did our livelihood. At meeting after meeting, we would ask, What does the new administration mean for us? What are we making now? Who’s going to buy it? With what money? Everyday the news reported more jobs lost, more cities struggling. So? we said. We’re still trying to parse that out, they replied. Well, consider it parsed.

The irony was rich: Not only did we not support the Bush administration, but we were outright hostile toward it. The greatest day any of us had ever had at work was when we circulated a clip from The Daily Show the day after Vice President Cheney shot that guy in the face. We openly howled. Just goes to show what an idiot he is. What idiots they all are. Oh my god. Can you believe it? Actually, I kind of can. Our only regret was that the guy didn’t die. That would have really put Cheney in a bind. Not a single one of us would have walked across the street to shake President Bush’s hand let alone vote for the man, yet the policies of his bumbling administration were inextricably linked to our lives. We never would have admitted it, but he was good for us.

Like him or not--and none of us did--his fate was entwined with ours.



A year after we cut all of that dead weight in a last-ditch effort to stay afloat, the whole outfit sank all the way to the bottom. They called a special meeting on the first Tuesday in January, herded us all into a single room so they only had to bloody one blade, and then some man none of us had ever seen before told us we no longer had jobs. There were few questions. A packet we were supposed to receive later in the week promised all of the answers anyway. As the guy was still talking, I remember thinking, What am I supposed to do tomorrow? And then immediately after, When did I forget how to spend a free day?

A friend was on vacation at the time. His wife saw my Facebook status when they landed nearly a week after her husband had been let go. They had been incommunicado in the interim. “A stiff drink at the end of a bad week,” the status said. “Uh-oh,” she thought. Another friend was due to deliver her first baby at the end of February, right when her company-supplemented insurance would have been discontinued. She ended up having the baby the day before she lost her coverage. My wife and I had been trying to have a second kid at the time. I acted cool when I got home from work that day, let her attend her yoga class in peace while I watched the boy. After she got home, I said, Honey, we should talk. We decided to stop trying until things got more stable.

The strangest part of the whole ordeal was that we were told in January that we were being terminated, but our last day wasn’t until mid-February. The house was shuttered, in effect, though we continued living there. This made for a strange five weeks, in which we put a bow on projects we were looking to sell and attended company-sponsored resume-building seminars that more often than not deteriorated into group-wide bitch sessions, our growing disdain for the leadership—who had abandoned their offices with suspicious haste, by the way: just how long had they known?—was scarcely defused by discussions about how to stick a 30-second interview, just in case you’re asked to interview between floors on an elevator.

For my part, I used these five weeks to explore other options in the company. I know, I know. To return to the sinking-ship metaphor: I decided to move to a spot that was dry for now, which didn’t mean that I wouldn’t eventually be scooping out water by the bucketful again. (To our references to Never Been Kissed, Office Space, Seinfeld, and Friends let’s go ahead and add “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” shall we?) As much as I like to think of myself as an adaptive, freewheeling spirit, I am really a creature of habit, so much so that I find great comfort in taking the same train to the same part of town and buying grapes from the same street vendor each and every business day. Plus, I have this naïve idea that as much as an employer invests in an employee, the employee also invests in the employer. A symbiotic relationship exists between the two: you give me wages, benefits, and the security that enables me to build a life, and I’ll give you my best for a full third of my life as we work together to realize our shared goals. Does that sound so ridiculous? (Don’t answer that.) I won’t go so far as to say that I owed the company anything, but I will say that building on the foundation of four years seemed like a smarter move than starting over from day one.

The rodent in the hat? That was me.


So, much to my muted glee, I landed another job within the company. Five times more responsibility at the same wage. Didn’t matter. I bought a good bottle of whiskey on the way home that night. Let’s celebrate. Vacation days and insurance for everyone! Best of all, we can start thinking again about expanding our family again. I had survived. My belief that pleasant, respectful, hard-working employees would be rewarded in the end had been tested, and it had passed. No matter what happened, I would always have a place.

Back at the office, however, I stayed quiet about my good fortune until the last week when I started slowly disseminating the information like I was a politician sending up test balloons. I was one of the few people company-wide who was staying. None of the people with whom I had worked on a daily basis for half a decade had found anything, either within the company or elsewhere. This was the height of the recession. There wasn’t anything out there. I mean, like, nothing. They had wives and kids too, ideas about how their lives were supposed to proceed. Nonetheless, they greeted my news with enthusiasm. Hey man, that’s great. Congratulations. Right on. Things were so bad that good news for one meant good news for all. At least one of us is going to be OK. Take solace in that, anyway. Despite their kind words, I had a hard time seeing it that way. In my mind, they seethed at me. Motherfucking traitor. Of course he’s staying. Brownnoser like that, what else is he going to do? I hope he’s damned to middle management for all time.

We were supposed to get drinks on the last day, but everyone was too depressed to do anything other than go home and be by themselves. By this point, mine was the only desk that wasn’t cleared off, the one house on the block that hadn’t been leveled by the tornado. People brought me offerings: a pig fashioned out of a corkscrew and pushpins; a handwritten note that said “a shy, stuttering man playing Bingo”; a pencil drawing of an executive meeting in which one of the participants had pulled a gun, another of the men sitting at the table saying, “What the shit, Dave?” I thanked them, shook hands, offered and received hugs. One by one, they would say their goodbyes and then disappear down the hall, a third crying, a third cursing, and a third clicking their heels.

Eventually, just I and the woman who had inscribed the book for her parents remained. We had built something like an actual friendship over the years. Ours was a relationship that was based on antagonizing one another. We teased and mocked and when one of us made the rare error or misjudgment the other would make sure it became part of the permanent record, which is why once a day I would ask her why, six months earlier, she had told a member of my staff to transcribe Genesis word for word. Do you know how many rules you’re violating, I would say. Kirby! She would respond, and she’d tighten her fists and jut out her chin and bug out her eyes in faux hatred. When she played Prospero to my Caliban during some festivities celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday, everyone screamed with laughter. “Abhored slave!” she bellowed. I cowered. “Oh my god,” everyone said. “That’s how you two treat each other in real life.” Deep down, of course, we respected the hell out of each other. We once argued fiercely about the correct capitalization of “double Dutch.” She claimed that only the “d” in “Dutch” should be capitalized, but I told her that the dictionary had “double” up as well. “In all of my books at home, I’ve never seen ‘double’ capitalized,” she raged. “Just how many books do you have on the subject?” I asked. I would attend her wedding later that spring.

In the end, it was jut the two of us on our last day. On her last day, I should say. “Well,” she said, and gave me a hug. I watched the last of my colleagues walk out the door.

Never what you want to see.


My wife says that I have a kind of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from the events that started on the first Tuesday of the New Year and ended shortly after President’s Day. I don’t want to overstate the situation, but I have a hard time denying something close to survivor’s guilt anyway, if not exactly PTSD. I’m hardly Oskar Schindler saying This watch, this watch, but there was a sense that I should have gone with them, if only out of a solidarity. “Family” is a little strong, but “team” captures it well, and teams win or lose together. I was winning, though it somehow felt like a loss. And, besides, the person who stayed behind was a husk of his former self. I needed a new ID, but I got it into my head that if I asked for one they were going to let me go. I kept quiet in meetings, when I knew I should have spoken up, made promises that were impossible to keep. I thought, If I keep my head down, say yes when asked, they won’t know enough to let me go. It was a classic case of an athlete playing not to lose rather than playing to win. We were moving from our downtown office to an office in Soho. I had started at the company before we moved to the downtown locale. I was one of the few who had been there the entire time. Despite all that had happened, I felt secure there. The impending move worried me.

I was convinced that that they weren’t going to move anyone just to let them go. Surely they wouldn’t make the financial and logistical investment just to cut ties at the new digs. Surely they wouldn’t lead you on like that. I would surreptitiously ask where I was going to sit at the new place. Before a seating chart became available, I was just sure I wasn’t going to be on there. Kirby, we’ve got some bad news. I was going to swipe my badge and be denied. Please see the building manager. My wife was pregnant. She liked her doctor. The doctor had delivered our first baby, which had been a challenging birth. I felt comfortable calling in when the boy was sick. I had accrued 20 days off. Twenty. One morning, the seating chart appeared on the wall. There I was, right with the rest of the team. Proof. Hard evidence that they were counting on me at the new place. I was a member of the team. A new team, yes, but a team, regardless. Everything checked out, but, still, something felt wrong. My grandfather lived all 82 years of his life in West Virginia. After he moved to Missouri, he was dead in two weeks.

I lasted three in Soho.

I know what Robbins would say about all of this. “You created this show you call unemployment.” Really, you can just plug in one perceived weakness for another: You created this show you call depression, unemployment, addiction, stagnation, your life. “If you believe that you’re the ball on the tether, waiting for someone to hit it, that’s how you’ll behave,” he writes. “If you believe that you’re in control, that you can change your patterns, you’ll be able to.”

It’s as simple as that. Only it’s not.

Alone on the 22nd floor, after my sparring partner had left, I surveyed the ruins. Another branch of the company would move in soon. I would move to another side of the building and never pass that cluster of desks without a wave of nostalgia overtaking me on good days, a wave of sorrow on bad. Weeks before the axe fell, a woman from HR called and said, Hey, how many desks you all have down there? A project we had been developing all year was put on indefinite hold. They took an inventory of every computer in the building. Rumors swirled that our budget hadn’t been approved for the following year. Omar coming, Omar coming. A friend and I requested a meeting with our supervisor. No one said “boss” anymore. It was “supervisor” now. What’s going on, we asked. What do you mean, she said. We told her what we knew, pieced the puzzle together. The imagination you have, she said. You should really write a book.

Monday, May 2, 2011

No Success Like Failure: UNLIMITED POWER, by Anthony Robbins (Part 2)

“You are not your behavior.”

*****

The first term that swept across the 22nd floor like a bad cold was “efficient.” Granted, “efficient” is a common enough word, especially in a corporate environment, but one day it started cropping up as if it had been planted in everyone’s dreams the night before. It was like that scene in Never Been Kissed in which the cool kid decides that “rufus” is the new hip term and then later a group of students bounce down the steps and one says to the other, “It’s going to be so rufus.” It was exactly like that. “We need to start brainstorming ways that our department can be more efficient,” my manager said one morning, innocently enough. Then, various people in meetings throughout the week: “Does anyone have a more efficient solution?” or “I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’m just trying to take care of the situation as efficiently as possible” or “It’s not a question of resources; it’s a question of efficiency.” I swear that someone on high decided that bonuses would be tied to the number of times management could use the word “efficient” throughout the day. “Efficient”’s crowning achievement occurred when an “efficiency expert” was summoned to analyze all of our processes. This was more Office Space than Never Been Kissed, only without the laughs. Ten months later, a whole bunch of people lost their jobs in what would become known as the First Wave of Layoffs. Efficiency, 1; employees, 0.

The next word that suddenly found itself en vogue was “robust.” This was a significantly more jarring term to encounter in meetings because I had previously only heard it used to refer to wines, and, despite the excellent wine shop only a block away, we rarely discussed bouquets. Instead, our use of “robust” preceded “programs,” “instruction,” or “training.” We had “robust books,” “robust supplements.” We were running a “robust organization.” A friend and I made a game of it. “That’s a pretty robust sandwich you got there.” “I got it across the street, that guy with the robust cart.” The funny thing is that we all used the word correctly—everything from a lesson plan to a ham-n-cheese could be sturdily constructed—so it wasn’t a question of us trying to appear smarter than we actually were. We were as smart as we thought we were, which was pretty smart. The problem was that “robust” just looked so out of place next to the more standard modifiers like “leveled” or “grade-appropriate.” It just felt wrong, even if it was technically right. My job at the time included editing copy that regularly made the case for our robust-ness. I would always leave a note next to “robust” that said, “Are you sure this is the term you want to use?” My queries were never answered.

The final term that the Corporate Gods anointed was “execute against,” as in “If we staff up, we could execute against the first 30 items by the end of the week.” The first time I heard this phrase I thought I had blacked out and woke up in a conversation about death metal. “Live Tonight, One Nite Only: Cannibal Corpse, Septic Flesh, and Execute Against.” I was diligently taking notes, and this combination of words caught me so off guard that I didn’t even know what to write.

“Excuse me,” I said to my manger, this manager three removed from the one who took the efficiency memo to heart. “What did you say?”

“I said if we staff up we could execute against the first 30—.”

“What does that mean?”

“What does what mean?”

“‘Execute against.’”

“It means ‘complete.’”

“Oh.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“What?”

I appreciate the need for idiosyncrasies of language for given populations. Baseball wouldn’t quite be baseball without the fifty different ways to say “homerun,” each more colorful than the one before. I appreciate too that disciplines require you to demonstrate mastery of their vocabulary before they truly welcome you among their ranks. In such instances, the language functions as a kind of verbal uniform, the words serving in the same way that a tie or a paper hat serves, which is to say as a reminder of who and where you are. I suspect I would have a difficult time keeping up with the lingo if I were to sit in on a meeting of stone masons or air-traffic controllers. And there is an undeniable charm in one who is able to drop “We’re here to drill down to a granular level, but first let me tee it up for you” with the deftness of one plucking a tune on a 12-string guitar.

But too often I find that the language is used in such a way that saps it of its would-be charm. Not that it’s called the “Wharton School of Charm,” I realize, but still. In The Big Short, Michael Lewis notes that Wall Street calls overpriced bonds “rich” rather than “expensive,” and that the bottom floor (or “tranche”) of the riskiest bonds are called “mezzanines” rather than something that doesn’t sound like a desirable section at a sporting event. The idea, obviously, is that “Bond market terminology was designed less to convey meaning than to bewilder outsiders.” Something close to this was going on in the office. Language as a game, only the game felt an awful lot like Keep Away for those of us who resisted playing by rules that we found silly. 

One problem was that the game itself trumped the quality of the player. What matters was not that you were able (or even competent). What matters is that you sounded like you were. The other problem: Did I really want to play in the first place?

“What does that mean?”

“What does what mean?”

“‘Execute against?’”

“It means ‘complete.’”

“Then why don’t you just fucking say so?”

How corporate speak makes us feel.
 
*****

“Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

*****

Robbins’ key to world domination can be summed up in one word: “Steal.” Find someone whose life you admire—popular choices in 1986 included Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Steven Spielberg—and steal everything you possible can about them: their drive, their vision, their posture, the way they think, the way they speak, walk, breathe (yes, breathe: every gazillionaire knows that your breathing ratio should be “inhale one count, hold four counts, exhale two counts,” else he wouldn’t be a gazillionaire). In the creepiest section of the book—and, believe me, to be the creepiest section of a book like this is to be really, really creepy—Robbins mimics the physical attributes of a complete stranger sitting across from him at the park so convincingly that he becomes a kind of mirror image of the man. This is less about being the man and more about getting from the man, as Robbins operates under the principle that people really like themselves, and the closer you are to being them the more likely they are to give you what you want. Robbins prefers the term “model” to “steal,” but don’t let the positive connotation fool you. He’s really advocating for the grandest kind of larceny of all: the hijacking of a life.

What’s more, he’s pretty open about his lack of originality. “Excellence can be duplicated,” he writes. “If other people can do something, all you need to do is model them with precision and you can do exactly the same thing, whether it’s walking on fire, making a million dollars, or developing a perfect relationship.” That last line provides a glimpse of Robbins’ assumed audience, which could cast him as a predator if it weren’t so accurate: salesmen, single women, and, uh, firewalkers.

As Robbins repeatedly points out, the firewalk is the culminating event of his seminars (and, who are we kidding, the book is really just a long advertisement for the seminar). I’ve heard of speakers who submerge their heads under water for seemingly impossible lengths of time, and I’ve actually attended a presentation in which participants were invited to break boards with their bare hands, a la Daniel-san and the ice in The Karate Kid II, but I suspect that Robbins prefers the firewalk on account of its primal implications, to say nothing of the fact that “I walked through fire” serves much better on a metaphorical level and sounds significantly more awesome than “I broke four boards,” though, in fairness, one should never underestimate the cool factor of “with my bare hands.” In any case, they’re all pretty much different versions of the same emotional tenet of motivational speakers: the firewalk, the broken boards, the self-waterboarding—they all illustrate the degree to which you create your own reality. Mind over matter, to resort to a cliché (and why not, since they so often do).

“Remember that we control our brain,” Robbins asserts. “It doesn’t have to control us.” When bald-pated Karl Pilkington suggests the same thing, Ricky Gervais berates him ruthlessly and calls him an idiot, yet somehow when the speaker has a full head of hair he’s heralded as a messiah (raise your hand if you’d like to see Gervais and Robbins go at it Lincoln-Douglas style about a topic of Robbins’ choosing). According to Robbins, everything from a headache to clinical depression can be treated if you follow the Ultimate Success Formula ™ (tell me you’re surprised that it’s trademarked). “If you are depressed, you created and produced that show you call depression,” he writes. “It isn’t a permanent state like losing a leg. It’s a state that people can pop into and out of.” Apparently the chapter on sympathy failed to make the final cut.

Robbins’ approach to controlling your brain relies on a heavily visual component. The headache, for example, he balls up and ushers out the door. But Robbins’ greatest accomplishments are less banishment and more replacement. Robbins knows something that the priest who performs an exorcism doesn’t: The priest focuses only on extracting the devil and doesn’t bother to insert God, which, come to think of it, could be a flaw with most exorcisms. Robbins does not want to leave that empty space. He wants to remove the bad and replace it with the good. Out with Satan and in with God, only in his situation Satan is cheesecake and God is broccoli.

His method for setting someone on the path of a healthier lifestyle involves invoking the mental image of the negative influence, harnessing all of the joy and satisfaction that accompanies that image, and then transferring these feelings to the positive image, which injects the positive with power of the negative and smashes the negative like so many pieces of shattered glass.

He calls the technique for this process the Swish Technique, and an important component is that the person initiating the transfer lets loose with an audible “Whoosh!” when the positive dethrones the negative. So, picture a piece of cheesecake—bright and tempting—at the fore of your mind. Then, in the distance, as if being pulled back by a slingshot, the broccoli—dull and undesirable. Then let the slingshot fly, the broccoli breaking through, assuming all of those positive feelings you had for the cheesecake. When the broccoli scatters the cheesecake, let loose with your accompanying “Whoosh!” Now the cheesecake will be splattered across the floor of your mind and the broccoli will take its place as a shining beacon of desirableness. The swap may not take at first, but after repeating the steps a few times—voila!—you’ll be craving greens for dessert.

You can do this with any part of your life that you want to change. Your relationship, your job, your health, your fears, your frustrations. Robbins again: “See this, ‘Wooosh!’ Do this, see this, ‘Wooosh!’ Do this, see this, ‘Wooosh!’ Do this…until the old picture automatically triggers the new picture, the new states, and thus the new behavior.”

He’s serious. As serious as a flying head of broccoli can be.  

Actually, I think I'd rather break shit with my bare hands.
*****

“[P]lagued by an insistent internal dialogue?”

*****

On Seinfeld, when Jerry refuses to confront a woman’s boyfriend at her behest—a boyfriend who is, at the time, in a coma, I might add—the woman calls Jerry’s masculinity into question. “You are not a man,” she chides. “Then what are all of those ties and sports jackets doing in my closet?” he responds. The implication is that, whatever Jerry lacks, temperamentally speaking, he makes up for with his wardrobe. Apparently the clothes really do make the man, after all.

This line resonates with me because I don’t even have the sports jackets as proof. I have a number of ties, most of which were passed down from my dad when he retired, but, were it up to me, I would never even tuck in my shirt, and one thing I’ve noticed about men—about real men, that is—is that they rarely go untucked.

I keep waiting for it to happen, for me to wake up one day and feel like a man. But I’m in my late-30’s now, and it hasn’t happened yet. I’m beginning to doubt that it ever will. I’m still five foot eight; I could still shave every other day without Leuinda noticing when I kiss her; and I still lack that sexy tuft of hair jutting from the top of my undershirt. And here I always thought that puberty was just a phase. Who knew that it was binding?

They won’t like me outing them, but most of my friends aren’t men either. Not really. Oh, sure. We look like men if you see us from afar at the bar, huddled around a pitcher of light beer like it’s a campfire on a cold night. If you overhear our conversation, we might even sounds like men, as we argue about sports—real but mostly fantasy—or tell off-color jokes or, occasionally, wonder if it was us or them in a recent dust up with our spouses (it’s usually us, though we always say it’s them).

But look more carefully and you will see that we are not as we appear. Not anywhere close, actually. Our clothes don’t really match in any power-suit kind of way—the shirts and slacks go together well enough, but they were cobbled, not coordinated—and not one of us sat across from anyone today in a position of anything other than subservience. We don’t exactly fetch the coffee for the people who have offices—Who had the tall doubleshot mocha with skim?—but neither do we make decisions of any consequence. Remember Chandler’s line from the first season of Friends?  “If I don’t get those numbered entered, it really won’t matter.” That’s us. We go about our day, and in the end if we didn’t someone else would, and it really wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

The truth is, when we get together, we don’t really talk about work, in fact actively avoid the subject, as if it’s a spot on an x-ray that we’d rather not acknowledge. I’m not even sure I really know what any of my friends do for living. I know that sometimes they seem busier than others; sometimes we have to meet at seven rather than at six-thirty, but I never bother to inquire about the delay. Just means the first round is on me. I know locations, generally, commutes, generic names for companies that are more often than not just called “work,” but I have no idea about duties. Not a clue. And they know just as much about me. I’d sit in meetings—back when I used to sit in meetings—and I’d think, If one of my friends walked in here right now, he wouldn’t even recognize me. He would turn his head in embarrassment. "Oh!" It’d be like a mother walking in on her naked grown son, albeit one without any chest hair. “Uh, give me a minute,” I’d stammer, hiding my Blackberry beneath a stack of reports (not that I’ve ever had a Backberry that wasn’t edible, or a stack of reports, for that matter).

I see them sometimes, men—real men—on the elevator while I’m listening to my headphones or hailing a taxi as I descend the stairs of the subway. They get their haircut when they don’t really need it, wear tweed coats that fall all the way to their knees, elbow their way to the front of the crowd. They cheer a little too loudly at the game, take things a tad too seriously, like when they grip your hand as if there’s a prize to be won or turn their nose up while looking in the mirror.

I’ve never spent more than thirty dollars for a watch.

The other day, I was going through security at the airport. I emptied my pockets: a handkerchief, keys, a phone that does little more than place and receive calls (and doesn’t even do that very well), and a little pouch that fits my license, credit cards, and what scarce cash I carry. The only word that can adequately describe this pouch is “purse.” I carry a purse. The guy behind me empties his pockets and plunks down, among other items that prove his y-chromosome, a money clip, thick with its contents, a newly creased fifty on top. I thought to myself, Oh, shit. Now that’s a man.

The most masculine among my friends, the one who is alpha among all of the betas—or at least beta plus—the guy who talks the raunchiest, initiates the occasional fight, bets on the horses, knocks back Jack, and still watches professional wrestling—that guy…he wears ankle-high socks. Ankle-high socks. You can’t be a man in ankle-high socks. In fact, I have it on good authority that Tony Robbins wears full size, with those sock suspenders that affix just below the knee.

Just one piece of proof that I lack.
*****

All of this is to say that I was at the pizzeria with Jonah. We had just completed another in a series of great trips to Fort Tryon Park, where he scooted on his scooter from the entrance all the way to the Cloisters while I ran next time to him like I was his security detail. I’d stay three steps ahead when he’d let me, but mostly I’d just jog alongside knowing that if he did actually fall I wouldn’t be of any real use. We were skinning knees and palms no matter what. Luckily we made it to the museum without incident. I put him on my shoulders for the return trip, his scooter in my right hand, my left holding on tight to his ankles around my neck. It was one o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in March.

He was enjoying his favorite slice—tomato, onion, and broccoli—and we were talking between bites about what time Mommy would be home (she was substitute teaching) and what we were going to do when we got home (“I’m going to take a nap after I play with my cars, Daddy”) when it dawned on me that, of all of the customers there, I was the only man. There were mothers, grandmothers, and nannies—all with stroller-age children—but I was the only father. 

There were other men, yes, but they were all on the other side of the counter. Working. The delineation was impossible to ignore once I realized it:  On a Wednesday afternoon in March, women take the kids to get to pizza.

Men work.