Come Back Next Year

Come back next year.

Four simple words. Four simple life-changing words.

When I was in eighth grade, I told a girl that I would die for her. “Well that’s not healthy,” she responded.

In eighth grade, I was certain that my self-worth was tied to whether or not this girl could ever like me back as much as I liked her. I spent nights obsessing over it, lunches plotting about it with my friends, and many an AIM conversation trying to figure out how she really felt about me.

I think I read too many books for my own good. The large majority of young adult literature uses the romance subplot. It’s sexy. It’s interesting. It’s a lie.

Come back next year.

It’s summer. A lot of my friends from high school are getting married. Other friends are getting engaged. At least half a dozen of my Facebook friends entered into a FB official relationship in the past week.

It seems that my obsession from eighth grade has become a cultural one.

If you are semi-active on-line and you are in your twenties, chances are you will see an article or a blog post at least once a day that lets you know that it’s okay if you are single. Or maybe it helps you survive wedding season. Or maybe it tells you how to find a partner.

It’s sad that we need articles about how being single and being lonely are two different things. But we do need them. Desperately. Because everyone is telling us that being single is the worst thing that can possibly befall us. If we are religious, we are supposed to pray every night for a mate. If we aren’t, we are supposed to date as much as possible. Go get ’em tiger.

Come back next year.

The trouble with the culture of coupling is that we are complex people. I think almost everyone is single by choice. If you really didn’t want to be single, you would put everything else on hold and find someone. At least that’s what I would do. But there are other things that we devote our time to. Other important things.

For a lot of us, I think the myth that you are either a family-oriented wonderful person or a career-oriented cold-blooded bastard is completely misguided. If you do something that fulfills you and maybe makes a difference, why is that any worse than spending a life in a quaint suburb with a 2.5-kids-family?

Come back next year.

Love is not just a thing between two consenting adults. Defining it that way already limits it. Love is so much bigger than that. We should be practicing love with our coworkers, our friends, our neighbors, our parents, our children, our bosses, our teachers, and our students.

Come back next year.

Almost eight years after telling a girl that I would die for her, I taught a group of ninth graders for a summer. My conceptions of love were tested. I loved my students with a teacher-ly parental love. It was different than romantic love. I didn’t care if they loved me back. I cared if they grew. If they hated me but were learning and growing, I was happy.

And somehow, this was all-encompassing. It was fulfilling. It made me happy everyday to wake up and love something the way I loved my students. I was content with this.

Then the last day came. And it was hard. And I hated it. They passed out yearbooks of the summer. Students rushed around, getting their peers to sign; others found teachers and asked us to sign. I stood in a corner, letting the students interact with one another for the last time.

An eighth-grade girl came up to me. She politely asked if I would sign her yearbook. I hadn’t taught her. I barely knew her. We had interacted once or twice. I had told her and her friends to be quiet during assemblies and told her to walk in the hallway. But she knew I taught ninth-grade English. I asked if she would sign my yearbook as well. She did. She wrote a simple message, and it changed everything.

Come back next year.

When I was in eighth grade, no one told me that those four words would mean more to me than “I would die for you, too.”

A Letter to Sixteen-Year-Old Me

To the sixteen-year-old me:

I know you read through your journals and you don’t see progress. You feel like you are wrestling with the same things. And mostly, that’s true. But that’s okay. You’ve only been writing seriously for a couple of months. Change, maturity, resolution – those things take time.

Right now, you believe in God. That’s important. Keep doing that. But don’t think God limits. God expands. Keep your open mind. Ask the questions you don’t hear other people asking. Make your faith yours. Make it personal. But don’t give up on God. He won’t give up on you.

You think you’re in love. I can’t tell you if you are or not. It will happen a few more times. Each time it does, really think about it. Really dive into it. And if you decide that you actually are, treat the girl as if it’s true.

But, in the mean time, be in love with everyone. Respect everyone. Be selfless to everyone. And rejoice in it. Don’t walk around with a nice-guy chip on your shoulder. Good men aren’t good because they don’t curse. They are good because they always put others first.

Don’t be mad at the people who party and drive fast and sleep with each other. Be mad at the people who say “faggot” and use female genitalia as insult. Be mad at the people who are convinced that the funniest humor is the kind that is necessarily insulting. Be mad at the people whose main source of socialization is exclusionary.

Stop thinking you are smarter than the people around you. Life is much more fun when you live it outside of GPAs and SAT scores.

In a related way, stop believing that you hold objective reality. Your instincts about people are good, but they are based on your own personality. Just because you don’t get along with someone doesn’t mean they are a bad person.

But don’t take any of this criticism too personally. You are already perfect. after all. Not because of anything you have done, but because God is pulling you into His Kingdom. And I know that feels weird. I know that feels like a free pass. But really, all it is is freeing. If you don’t turn that assignment in on time, you won’t be any less great. If a girl breaks your heart, your soul will still be whole. If things don’t go your way, you are still on the right path. And that’s freeing.

With love,

Your 21-year-old self who is still a lot like you.

Why My Creative Nonfiction Professor Thinks I Am A Mess With The Ladies

If things had gone differently, I have full faith that I would still be with a girl named Lauren N. Lauren was the cutest girl in my second grade class. Our relationship developed, as most second grade relationships do, on the playground. The playground is essentially the bar of elementary school. You go there to do other things (drink, talk, dance in the bar; chase, swing, slide in the playground), but everyone knows if you are spending time on the playground, you are single.  All the boys with girlfriends play kickball.

I was a committed bachelor. Whereas other boys were self-conscious on the playground, chasing girls so that they could ultimately land spots on the kickball court, I reveled in the chase. I had no interest in kickball. I had chase strategies: Foster a friendship with the girl. Converse with her on the swings. Jump up suddenly. Chase her. Direct the chase to the Hill. Outlast the girl on the Hill.

If I managed to outlast the girl on the Hill before the end of recess, in my head, I had two options. I could choose to be the girls’ boyfriends or start again next recess. Before Lauren, I always chose to start over. But Lauren was special.

Chasing Lauren started off like chasing any other girl. I got her to the Hill by the end of recess without any problem. Then something interesting happened – Lauren began to talk.

“Oh, I am just so glad you are my boyfriend.”

Emergency lights began flashing in my head. I hadn’t committed to anything, had I? This wasn’t part of the plan. Identify, chase, reset. That’s what I was used to.

***

  • Chelsea B., if I hadn’t been too afraid to talk to an older girl.
  • Libby H., if I hadn’t written that short story where the love interest was named “Libby” and then published it in the school newspaper that her mom was the faculty adviser for.
  • Ruth Z., if I hadn’t believed that her parents didn’t want her dating.
  • Elizabeth G., if I hadn’t told her that when I hugged her it felt like I was hugging my sister. I don’t have a sister.
  • Mary T., if I would have let her drunkenly make out with me.
  • Lindsey J., if she knew that one of our professional dinners was actually a date.
  • Jess R., if I had never asked her on a date.

***

I gulped as Lauren took my hand and led me back down the Hill to stand in line for the end of recess. My days of recess bachelorhood were over. I didn’t even know how to play kickball.

I didn’t take well to a relationship. I disliked being around Lauren, but she insisted that we spend all of our free time with each other. It became quite clear that puberty had not yet hit me. I knew girls were different, but I was not yet attracted to them for that difference. I was more attracted to the fact that they would run when I chased them. If a boy had done that, I would have chased boys. (And would have probably faced ridicule from the kickball courts.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when Lauren began whispering about a secret plan. A secret sleepover plan. Lauren, being the worldly woman she was, knew that couples sometimes spent the night together and so she began talking of me coming over to her house when her parents were asleep. I was petrified. Never mind that we were eight years old, had no sense of direction, no transportation, and no way of getting past locked doors. I thought this plan was a very real possibility. It literally kept me up at night.

I spent hours wide awake, trying to devise an excuse. But I knew I couldn’t come up with an excuse for every night. I was only a second grader, after all. My schedule wasn’t exactly brimming with other engagements.

One night, as I was lying awake in my bed, quivering fearfully from the thought of spending an entire night with Lauren N., my father came in my room to check on me. He noticed I was awake.

“Is there something the matter, son?” he asked.

“Lauren N. wants me to have a sleepover with her!” I said tearfully.

My father waited patiently as I explained the situation to him, and then he introduced the greatest childhood excuse ever devised. “Just tell her that your mother and I aren’t comfortable with it.”

***

  • Staci B., if she hadn’t gone to an all-girls school after kindergarten probably because her father was frightened by the fact that I was her only friend.
  • Liz A., if her parents hadn’t forbidden her reading Harry Potter.

***

After my parent-developed excuse, the issue, for me, was resolved. I told Lauren the next day that my parents would never go for it, and in a weird not-yet-rebellious second grade world, that seemed to work. I was free to chase again! Life regained its sweetness.

But I soon realized my mistake. Lauren, after all, was the cutest girl in my second grade class. I had ruined my chance with her. The first reason, then, that Lauren and I are not still together is because I, in my second-grade ignorance fearfully told my parents about what would have been the first of what I can only guess would have been hundreds of romantic trysts.

The second reason that Lauren and I are not still together happened a week later. Right before lunch, we were pulled down to the guidance office. The guidance counselor, a small, kind, middle-aged woman named Mrs. R, ushered us into her office.

“I hear that you two have been thinking about… dating,” she started. I rolled my eyes. Back at this. I had been chasing new girls on the playground for a whole week. Lauren had tears in her eyes.

“I think we can all agree that the two of you are a little young to date.”

I was nodding profusely.

“So I thought we would come up with some appropriate ages for dating.”

Mrs. R pulled out some hokey picture book that she had bought with school funds for occasions like this one, and read us a story about Jack and Jill who dated in high school and then got married and lived happily ever after.

“See,” said Mrs. R. “Dating in high school doesn’t put you behind. So, what do you think would be an appropriate time to start dating?”

Lauren answered first, sniffling as she did. “High school?”

“That’s great, Lauren. That’s really great! Now what about you, Spencer? When do you think is a good time to start dating?”

We had just read a story about people dating in high school and getting married. Lauren had just answered high school. The answer should have been obvious. But I crossed my arms and answered: “College.”

***

  • Bethany M., if I hadn’t smeared dandelion on her Abercrombie cardigan at recess.
  • Lauren P., if I hadn’t gone to the Spring Fling with Amy V.
  • Amy V., if I hadn’t almost elementary-school cheated on her with Lauren P.

3 Things I Have Learned From My Brother

1. Surround yourself with people whom you love and who love you unconditionally. I was on my brother’s computer this weekend, configuring our iTunes libraries. My brother has had his computer for a couple of weeks, but already it is full of pictures of people who are important to him. The screen saver, the wallpaper, any picture icon – it’s all of people whom he cares about. I have had my computer for over three years, and I have never personalized anything with my friends and family.

I think that’s why if I don’t see my family for a while, I get really tired and start avoiding people. I don’t constantly recharge my battery by reminding myself that there are people in the world who will care about me even if I decide to start living in a sewer. My brother is good about that.

2. The only people’s opinions who are important are the those that you decide are important. My brother does not care if you dislike him. Because he doesn’t know you. It’s so incredibly simple and relieves so much stress.

I am constantly trying to maximize who likes me. I don’t post anything on this blog that’s too controversial because I want people to think I’m an alright guy. I have full faith that if my brother was of the blogging variety, his blog would be one of the most conversation-generating on the internet. Because he wouldn’t be afraid to post something that was unpopular.

3. Never like anything you don’t like. A lot of my friends at school are horrible about this. They have things they actually like and things they ironically like. This concept is foreign to my brother. If he likes something, he likes it. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t.

My brother also refuses to “like” things he’s “supposed” to. I am constantly trying to make myself like classics, whether in literature, film, or music. And this is just so that I can seem cultured. How self-serving. My brother is better than that.

I promise that I will stop with the mushy brother posts for a while.

The Kid Coming Through Technique

First, let me apologize for my unexplained absence. My life got away from me for a little bit, and then I went to NYC with Students for Education Reform . So life was a little hectic. But I am back now and with a vengeance!

So like I said, I spent my weekend in NYC, which was pretty cool. I had never been before. And the best part was that being in the city wasn’t even the cool part. The people were. But we will save them for another blog post.

On Saturday night, a friend of mine graciously took me to Times Square. She had already been. If you have ever been to Times Square, then you know it’s kind of a one-time thing. You don’t really need to do it more than once unless you have a lot of money that you are just dying to spend on outrageously priced M&M trinkets.

As with most highly-populated places, there are about a billion street vendors milling about (that’s an estimate; there were probably more). They are trying to sell you all kinds of things – paintings, photographs, tickets, bags. But as I listened to them yell at the passers-by I realized that I was getting a great lesson in sales and marketing.

There was one interaction that was especially informative. I call it the “Kid Coming Through” technique – the KCTT. One vendor was selling pictures or something, and he wasn’t having much luck. Everyone was basically ignoring him, and he didn’t have a real good location on the street. He was up against a wall, both metaphorically and literally.

But he saw an opportunity. There was a young dad pushing his child through the crowd, and the vendor started yelling, “Hey, kid coming through” in order to clear the crowd for him. That is the KCTT. It’s that simple. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

1. It draws attention to yourself. You have an excuse to yell louder than everyone else. And you can use it all you want. No one is going to reprimand you when you are yelling for the less fortunate.

2. You come out looking like a philanthropist. Even if you are doing it for purely self-motivated reasons, the objective reality is that you are actually doing something for someone else. And people respect that.

3. Friends are more likely to buy from you than strangers. The dad with the stroller is now your friend. It’s going to be harder for him to say no to you now.

The KCTT is cool, but I think it’s important to remember that it’s a lot cooler when it’s motivated by love.

An Incomplete List of Things I Don’t Understand

1. The process of growing up. How do I know when I am thinking like an adult? Is the fact that I am asking that question disqualify me from adulthood?

2. The chorus of “Racks.” This is not entirely relevant but it still bothers me.

3. Athens attractive. Only in Athens, as far as I know, do women find barefoot, unbathed men with long unkempt hair and beards universally attractive. This is not to rail against those men. I love them very much. It’s just that Ryan Gosling, Usher, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas, Justin Timberlake, and George Clooney are men I can admit to be attractive. I have no problem doing it. I can’t say the same for Athens attractive.

4. Why people “like to flirt.” That’s like liking to put your keys into the ignition or liking to use a fork to pick up your food or liking to put lids on cups. These are necessary things, but they aren’t the fun part. The fun part about human interaction is not the flirting. It’s intimacy. Intimacy is also scary, I know, I know. But seriously…

5. Who invented chain e-mails? Who was the first person to be like “I’m going to make my friends forward this useless message to their friends by threatening death by maniacal clown?

6. Women.

7. House parties. I can’t hear you when you are talking. All the girls are going to be gone by midnight with the tall, unbathed, bearded guys. And everything is going to be sticky in the morning.

8. People who use texting as if they were writing long, instantaneously-received letters to each other. If my thought to you can’t fit into 160 characters, I usually feel like I’m being annoying.

9. All human relationships. Why anyone would willingly yoke themselves to me is beyond my comprehension.

10. Analytic philosophy.

11. Rape jokes. Is the idea that if you tell enough of them, they magically become funny?

12. Engagement pictures. What do they do? I mean, they are fun, but wouldn’t it be more fun to dress up and go do cute things together  and pose without a camera? Think about all the funny looks!

13. Coffee. I drink it sometimes, but aren’t coffee-drinkers a more “sophisticated” form of the kid we used to make fun of in sixth grade for drinking a Mountain Dew every morning?

14. Pinterest. It’s like a mysterious universe filled with wedding dresses.

15. How people get invited to weddings. I am now in my 20s. I should be being invited to weddings of friends. That way I can show off my dance moves and woo women by telling them my theories on why liking to flirt is silly.

Friday Favorite: Misunderstanding “I Love You”

Every Friday, I post a past post that was popular. This post was originally posted on November 20, 2011. Enjoy!

There’s a show on MTV that I catch sometimes. It’s called Friendzone. I don’t know why I watch it when it’s on. It’s half an hour of grueling emotional heartbreak and I never follow it all the way through to the conclusion.

The show follows a new couple of people every episode. These people have best friends of the opposite sex and have always felt something more for said best friends. The show is formulaic. It starts with the protagonist asking their best friend/crush to help them get ready for a “blind date.” The best friend/crush helps out. They go to the location of the “blind date” and then the protagonist reveals his or her feelings for the best friend/crush. It’s grueling.

The show bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, out of all of the contestants from this whole genre of MTV dating-type shows, I feel like I can actually identify with these people. These people are my friends, my peers. These are the people I give advice to when they tell me they have feelings for another one of our friends. I know them.

Second, it makes the assumption that we have no control over love. Love, though, is not an adjective. Sometimes, it is a noun, yes. But most of the time, it is a verb. It’s something we do, not something that does us. The hopeless, star-crossed lovers are a fiction. And that’s not upsetting or cynical. It’s just true. Sometimes you like someone more than that person likes you, and that sucks, but there is no reason to believe that because your feelings are so strong, you and that person are supposed to be together.

Third, it presupposes the only way to show love for someone is romantically. There was a 13th-century Persian mystic poet known as Rumi. He was pretty cool. He was doing things that the romantics and the transcendentalists would do almost 600 years later. One of his greatest works, Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (or The Works of Shams of Tabriz), was written for his friend and master Shams. When you read the poetry contained in the work, you feel Rumi’s love for Shams. The idea that a love for a friend can be spiritual and transcendental, mystical and inexplicable is pretty cool. We don’t have to be having sex with a person or moving toward having sex with a person to be profoundly altered by another human being. I have a couple of close friends who are girls. And we routinely tell each other that we love each other. And it doesn’t mean that we want to sleep with each other. It means that we know each other, support each other, believe in one another.

So after a thirty-minute show on MTV, I am sad. I am sad because these people don’t know that romantic relationships aren’t the end-all be-all of all human relationships and development. It is just one facet of a very complicated awesome web of people.

Have you ever crushed on your best friend?