Draft Four: You were once the future
Stories of self-doubt and distress.
A sponsored post showed up in my Instagram feed the other day. It was a bit from a stand-up comedian I’ve never come across. He’s on a stage, pen and paper in hand, and he asks the audience: “Make some noise if you’re in your thirties”. Clapping, cheering, wooing ensues – plenty of people matching the description. He scribbles something, then looks around the room:
“Remember when you were the future?”
I laughed hard. This was bittersweet, because I haven’t been feeling like the future of anything these past few days. I’m not even in my thirties anymore – I look at my 20-year-old students and think “I’m from two futures ago!”. I learned I’m actually younger than some of their parents, which is tough to wrap my head around.
This is a difficult letter to write because I consider myself an optimist. A hopeful one. Sharing stories of doubt or distress is harder – not because I feel exposed, but because I don’t want to fuel our already suffocating rhetoric of anguish, despondency, and fuck-it-all-ness.
It’s what I have been noticing lately – a craving for confirmation that it’s all bad, that we’re doomed, WWIII is coming, the planet is melting, so we should just revel in our stuckness and anger, the ideal confirmation cocktail of how intractable our modern predicament is.
It’s no surprise that I sometimes fall prey to it – maybe you do to.
I’ve moved into my renovated apartment a little less than a month now, and I still feel like I’m living in a rental, but with my suitcase out of sight. I am very careful with the new furniture, as if it’s not mine, and I constantly move things around because I can’t figure out where they should be.
The first week, I didn’t have any curtains, so in the morning I threaded carefully so the finance inspectors from the building next door wouldn’t panic if their morning coffee came with a sighting of a confused middle aged dude trying to decide which of his new four drawers would host socks. When you move clothes into a new dresser, something interesting happens. They suddenly show their age – the T-shirts all seem a little stretched out, the jeans are tattered, and many of the shirts decide to open up tiny tears at the back of the neck, a first sign of old age.
Old(er) age is also what I saw in the mirror a few nights back after showering. Checking myself out is not something I’m fond of, but this time I lingered because my brain was on a mission of self-criticism. It started with the two sores that split open my lips, probably to accompany the cold I carried around these days. Great, I told myself. I’m like a teenager who drank from everyone’s beer bottles at the end of the party, and now I got the herpes to prove it.
I also didn’t like my haircut. More precisely, I disliked having paid the new price of 140 lei (+20 lei in tips) for it. I’ve been thinking my hair was thinning out for the last few months, so I checked on that, too. I guess it might be? My stylist had definitely ignored my beard – it was sticking out in all directions, like I had slept in hay.
This is the least I’ve liked my body in a long time. I don’t have a scale anymore, but I’d hate the news – it’s enough that what I see in the mirror is an amorphous pale and puffy shape that also seems a little crooked, probably years of bad posture. Like a dusting wand before retirement.
I was telling a dear friend who mistakenly remembers me as funny, that I’m not like that around others anymore. It’s a trait years in the losing, and I believe it started once I began teaching, understood I was seen as “a boss”, and soon felt the need to be a little more careful.
I remember one conversation in a car with two of the friends I’ve worked with the longest. This was almost ten years ago, and we were talking about how DoR was growing to include many more people outside our group of friends and acquaintances. You’ll have to tone down your stupid jokes now, one said. She was right. It just seems like my body didn’t get the memo.
In class, I try to be careful. Both with the jokes, and with what else I say or do. There is this moment from last year that still makes me wince. We were still in our first month of the semester, and by then I had learned something about at least 25-30 of the students, which was a third of the class. I also followed them back on Instagram, and enjoyed seeing their exploits. I admired the work one of them was doing; a really bright young man that could shoot video, edit, and put together smart and witty reels.
One day in class he said something about a topic he’d covered, and I said I knew he did, because I had seen his reel on Insta. He was surprised.
“How do you know?”.
I made a “I’m watching you sign”, two fingers poking at my eyes, then at him.
Imagine you are in class, and you have this professor who obviously still thinks he’s 27 (even though he’s over 40), who asks you to call him by his first name, and who just showed you he’s been watching you online, and will continue to do so, like an office building security guard drunk on power. WTF.
I’ve stepped back a little from such misguided attempts at humor – not because anyone said anything, but because I’ve been reporting some stories on student safety for the past few months, and it has been weighing on me. There is a tremendous amount of harassment and bullying from teachers. Many who hurt students do so by simply not being careful enough with words.
I still try to be friendly, but not too friendly. I stopped insisting they call me by my first name (reporting has shown me that, for some, that’s a line they feel they shouldn’t cross), I don’t make jokes about what they say, I don’t call them names, and I’ve stopped following them back on Instagram, just because I know some will feel awkward seeing their prof just watched their Halloween party stories.
Something I have been struggling with this semester is telling the group to be a little quieter in class. Not for me, but for their peers. On day one, we decided on our rules – I set out my expectations (listen, be present, be honest), they set out theirs (two pages worth of bullet points), and we contracted our relationship: for the 90 minutes we’re together we’ll all be journalists (they’re the rookies, I’m the veteran), we won’t start at 14:00, but at five after (because expecting anything to start on time in Romania will make you go insane), and we’ll listen to one another because it’s the best gift journalists can give to the people they interview.
It's largely working. It’s the class most of them show up for (or so I’m told), they engage (because I’m not interested in lecturing), we laugh together, we pause when something is difficult. But we’re not fully honoring the contract yet. This Wednesday, I started at 14:05, but about 10-15 students trickled in after. Plus, I had to ask some of them to be quieter, because I couldn’t hear their colleagues speaking. I hate doing this. I don’t want to use my authority to silence class – especially since that’s the paradigm of power most of them know from years of school. I know it might be too late, but I’m trying to expose them to a different one. One that’s based on seeing one another, being with one another, and listening to one another.
Every time our little system cracks, I feel I’ve failed.
I’m old enough to know this is my brain on a spiral of self-doubt: you are old, you look like an oversized Haribo bear, you can’t run a class. By extension: you are not the future of anything, you have no new thoughts, and you certainly can’t run anything – be it your building association, a team, a project, a newsroom.
I understand how the mechanism works, and I’m familiar with the perverse joy we often feel in our own low points – the sense of confirmation that we are imposters, that we have been found out.
It’s a trap, and these words are my way out.
Writing might not be freedom itself, but sometimes it’s as close as it gets.
It’s probably serendipitous that two podcasts I’ve listened to lately try to counter our tendency for avoidance and negative self-talk.
One is an experiment a radio producer did to stretch time, and to make life last longer. There is a well-documented phenomenon that we perceive time to move faster as we age. Remember January? Feels like yesterday, doesn’t it? The simple answer is that we’re living more or less the same days, over and over again, looking forward to a trip and an escape here and there, but mostly just going through it all blindly. What the Radiolab producer did is that she went on a binge of new experiences for a week, which, subjectively, seemed to stretch time. When we do new things – sleep in different homes, eat different things, take classes, meet people – we’re aware, we’re attentive, we’re present. We’re out of our own heads and in the world and, surprise surprise, we also experience time differently, richer with meaning.
But you don’t need to go on a binge of new experiences every week – although some occasional novelty wouldn’t hurt (says I, struggling to go to concerts alone). You could also pay more attention to the routine you are already in. Look at the tree outside your window – has it shed all its leaves yet? Mine has – I can now see through the branches to the school in the distance, and even farther, to the deserted office building that in the unsure morning light looks like a zombie apocalypse observation deck.
You can also take a different route to work. You can stop looking at your phone.
Yes, the same kind of bland advice we’ve already ignored countless times because we know better.
I had my students do this as homework: go somewhere and pay attention. Look. Ask questions about what you see. Many did. They fought against the instinct to pick up their phone – their screen time averages 5-6 hours a day anyway, and some have days with 10-11 hours – and just watched and took notes. They mostly saw the people we rarely see anymore: the homeless, the bus station clerks, the flower sellers, the street sweepers, the seniors on public transport.
Why don’t we see each other anymore, some wondered afterwards. Why don’t we talk to one another?
The other podcast was an interview with Jerry Colona, who has been called “the CEO whisperer”. Colona is an executive coach, meaning he works with managers and leaders to make them less unhappy. He does it, the story goes, because he was one of them. Got rich fast, money wasn’t buying the happiness he was after, he fell into a dark depression.
I’ve loved his book Reboot, which I read on a beach six-seven years ago, and it stuck. It was a book about leadership as an act of growing up, of becoming an adult. But he was kind on us, those trying to grow up as decent people – he didn’t want us to suck it up through the pain, pretend all is well and just get on with it. He wanted us to do an uncomfortable thing – think about how we are complicit in creating the situations we don’t want (at home, at work), then think about the benefits of that behavior.
So, my current diet of sour-cherry pretzels (Luca, FTW) fuels my occasional self-absorbed whining about being pudgy, which then allows for not stepping out of the safe space I created at home, mostly because I don’t feel self-confident enough to interact with the world.
Being hard on yourself at work, at home, or in class is a powerful motivator to strive to be better, and it does lead to victories. Yet what we often create this way comes from shame – or at least I feel I have often built out of shame, even though I know it’s so much better to build out of joy.
We’re almost always looking in the mirror and seeing a gap between who we are, and who we’d like to be. The real work of being an adult is less about closing that gap, and more about living with it, and striving nonetheless. Here’s Jerry on the podcast:
“There is something powerful and purpose-driven in acknowledging and living in that gap between who we are and who we’d like to be – without getting sucked into guilt, without getting sucked into shame because we’re not living amongst the stars, but I’ll be damned if I leave this earth not having tried.”
As I’ve been writing for the past 90 minutes, the weather changed. It was still dark outside when I started, and there was some light rain peppering the plastic panels that act as a cover for the enclosed terrace I’m writing from. Now, as I look out the windows I can’t afford to replace yet, the sky is a blinding blue, white clouds scattered on it like a child’s drawing. The sun has turned the gray of the tree into glistening brown. The branches are no longer dull streaks across the sky – I can see where they split, I can see where from they’ll grow next year, and I can see I overstated something just a few paragraphs above.
Now, in full light, there are still a few leaves hanging on. A light breeze shakes them, and soon it’ll shake them off for good. But for now, they’re still there.
We’re still here.
The world is dark – just read the news. (And please, even if sparsely, do read the news. Cultivating our humanity also means seeing the worst of us.) But the world is also light. At least remember that darkness and light do alternate. Tell your brain that.
I don’t want to end on a too happy / sappy note.
After all, what I read each night before bed are 10 pages out of a book about a village in which everyone is cruel, because that’s the nature of the world. For example, during terrible summer draught, the villagers eat some of their own, while the lord on the hill indulged in a lavish lifestyle, humiliating his servants by having them sniff grapes he put down his pants.
So I’ll end with a toilet bowl. My own.
One of the discoveries when I made after the renovation is that it was too high – not quite “I can dangle my feet while sitting”, but close enough. Certainly not healthy in the long run. Someone told me the Romanian president actually has someone screen hotels for the height of the toilets – he’s tall. (This is too good to fact check, so let’s run with it).
Anyway, no one screened my toiled. The workers obviously didn’t measure when they put it in (it’s one of those suspended ones), and I certainly didn’t think of testing the height. So here we are.
There’s something frustrating and funny at the same time about this. Nine months of work on a small apartment, and the toilet is too high. But that’s life, I guess. I’m not giving up though: I’m going to IKEA to buy one of those kids’ stools, so it can raise my legs. What could go wrong?
In the fog of war, be careful how you engage with the media – both journalism, and social media. One of my favorite podcasts put together this handy “breaking news consumer’s handbook”, the Israel and Gaza edition.
This is the book I mentioned above. Not the greatest, this review says, and it might lack both moral and message.
I’m a fan of behavioral economics research, so I was interested in the current debate about the ethics of the work some of its prominent figures have done – namely Dan Ariely, and Francisca Gino. To put it simply: did they make stuff up?
One last thing I recommended to my students about being present: an idea that scares the hell out of introverts – talking to strangers makes life better.