Monday, May 30, 2011

Dave's Guidelines for Life

The Dalai Lama recently created a list of 18 "Rules for Living", which he hopes will help people live happier, better, more productive and loving lives. And by "recently", I mean "a decade ago." (That's me: Stayin' on top of recent trends on the Information Superhighway!)

Though I don't think I'm nearly as well-qualified as His Holiness to guide others on the path to right living and happiness, I am a person, and I live on the same planet as all other people, so that's a start, right?

Anyway, I've been thinking about this, and I've come up with a little list of my own Guidelines for Life. I won't call them rules, because if life has taught me anything, it's that everything depends on context, and most rules that don't take that into account can easily be abused by those who seek to impose their own beliefs and judgments on other human beings. I don't want to do that, or have others do that in my name; hence, the important change of word.

I've only made a list of ten guidelines: partly because it's a nice round number, and partly because I simply haven't spent as much time on this Earth as His Holiness, and therefore can offer fewer perspectives on how it works.

So here you go, in no particular order:

1. It's always more complicated than you think.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything, and I do mean everything, affects everything else in creation. "You can't pick a flower without jiggling a star," as the proverb goes. The whole of the universe, particularly the universe of human interaction, is a single undifferentiated whole, and each part affects that whole. Until you know every part of that whole, you can't possibly understand any part of it. Whatever your understanding of the nature of the universe might be, it is very probably wrong, or at the very least, incomplete.

2. Nullum gratuitum prandium.
This Latin proverb means, roughly, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. People don't throw their money away; they expect to get something in return, quid pro quo. Find out why a person is doing what they're doing, before you trust them.

3. Don't let your emotions dictate how you feel.
A lot of people, when they get upset or depressed, seem to wallow in their own misery and despair. Even I do this sometimes, though less than I used to, I like to think. While these are natural reactions to the human condition, and it is important to express them, you shouldn't fixate on them to the point where they control your life and mind. It is possible to choose to be happy, to consciously decide that you're done being stressed out, and just let go. Release your anger, let go of your rage. If it's something worth feeling, then it'll come back to you, and you can deal with it then. But don't let your own little pity-party get in the way of enjoying life.

4. No one wants to hear you complain.
...and I mean nobody! Not even your close friends and family. They might listen to you more than others, because they want you to feel better, but it's possible to wear out their patience. Don't dump all your unhappiness on those closest to you.
It took me a long time to realize that complaining was not the same as commisserating, but I'm glad I figured it out.

5. Revenge will never make you feel better.
I'm sorry to admit that I have, on occasion, taken little acts of revenge on people who I felt had wronged me, or someone I cared about. And let me tell you, it has never, not even once, made me feel even the tiniest bit better. It's only made me feel worse: the damage wasn't undone, and I felt even more upset, because I'd just proved that I wasn't the better man.
...which brings me to my next guideline, which might be called a corollary to this one:

6. Always apologize. Even if you don't mean it.
This one seems a little counter-intuitive, even dishonest, but hear me out. Sometimes, apologizing is the only way to make a situation better, but your pride won't allow it. You were in the right, and you know it, and you think the other person knows it too. You have no reason to apologize. You did what was right, and damn the consequences.
Well, forget about that. It's not important. In a few years, hindsight will probably show that you acted unkindly. In the meantime, you need to prove to the other person, as well as to yourself, that you're willing to let bygones be bygones, and not reopen old wounds. Often you might find that the very act of apologizing is all it takes to break down your own mental defenses and admit wrongdoing. Hearing those words come out of your mouth frequently helps you to believe them yourself.

7. You need to make time for what's important to you.
Your life is always going to be hectic and busy. There's never going to be a quiet time for you to start painting, or take up Tai Chi, or learn how to sail, or write that screenplay you've always wanted to write. Not even when you retire.
If you want to have any hope at all of living your own dreams, then you need to start them RIGHT NOW! Don't wait for a sign, or a break, or a quiet moment. Sit right down and make concrete plans to start them up today.
In the end, we don't have any tomorrows; just a series of todays.

8. The personal is political.
Many people think that what they do in their spare time, or in the privacy of their own homes, is apolitical, because politics involves public attention. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but that simply isn't true. No man is an island, and so each person's actions affect other people. A senator who works to pass legislation that will defend the rights of domestic abuse survivors, but beats his own wife at home, is not only a hypocrite, but actually undoing all the good he's done in office. Even if she never tells another soul, the damage done to her will inevitably come out in other ways: her work, her friendships, her art, even her relationships with her children. We pass along our scars and injuries to those around us in subtle ways, often unintentionally.
Your personal views reflect, more than anything else, your views of how the world ought to run, and the changes you want to see in it. Make sure you're sending the message you want to send.

9. Suffering builds character.
Once again, Bill Watterson (the celebrated creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes) was right. I think he meant this maxim (which was a favorite of Calvin's dad), to be sort of a joke about his own father. But over the years, I've seen it proven true again and again. To suffer is to understand the human condition. Each of us puts on an emotional suit of armor, each day when we go out the door. It protects us from the daily disappointments, the "thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to," but it also keeps us from empathizing with our fellow human beings, keeps us from understanding the depth of their suffering. It's what makes us change the channel whenever a Feed the Children ad shows up on TV, or makes us navigate away from a page that includes a link to the Smile Train, accompanied by an image of a weeping, harelipped child.
Suffering creates cracks in this armor, and allows us to become a little closer to our fellow human beings.

10. Everything that's important is difficult. No exceptions.
Ask your parents what it was like, raising you as a child. Was it easy? Of course not. Ask a director if making blockbusters was something that came naturally to him from a young age. Do you think that your favorite musician makes albums because it was the easiest way to make money that she could think of? No, no, and no.
They don't do these things because they're easy, or because they're good at them. They do it because they're addicted to challenge, because they can't help but push themselves, because doing anything else would mean to "go tumbling down into that satisfying darkness, the darkness of ease, the darkness of acquiescence, the milk-livered niddering darkness of sweet sweet cowardice."
If it was easy, then everyone else would have already done it by now. Don't despair: the difficulties you're having only prove that you're doing the right thing.


So, there you go. There they are. Take the ones you like, leave the ones you don't, and try to leave the world a better place than it was when you found it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Everything Must Go

This August, I'll be moving in with my fabulous and amazing girlfriend Brianna. In preparation for this momentous occasion, I have been rooting through my boxes and bookcases, trying to trim the unnecessaries out of my personal library. Some items I won't need because Brianna's already got a copy. Others simply don't interest me anymore.

Whatever the cause, I feel like it's always a good idea to get rid of things you don't plan on using. Better to give them to a friend, who might gain a little more enjoyment out of them. This maxim is especially true, I find, when applied to books and movies.

So, without further ado, I present a complete list of items up-for-grabs from my personal library. More may be added as the Big Day approaches, but for now, there are simply too many to be contained by a simple Facebook post.

Let me know if you want any of them, and I'll do my best to get them to you. Keep in mind that the list may not yet be complete, depending on how merciless I decide to be.

[An asterisk next to a title means that it has already been claimed.]

*The Odyssey, Homer (trans. W.H.D. Rouse)
The Arabian Nights (trans. Richard F. Burton)
Collier's Junior Classics: Myths and Legends
Random House English-Spanish Dictionary
Piers the Plowman, by William Langland
*The Bhagavad-Gita (a central holy text of Hinduism)
Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing (mostly poetry)
Lyra's Oxford, by Phillip Pullman (short sequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy)
The Idea of the Canterbury Tales
Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?
Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, by Neil Shubin
Associated Press Stylebook 2007
The Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Dublin, Ireland

Graphic Novels
You Don't Look 35, Charlie Brown!, by Charles Schulz
*Blankets, by Craig Thompson
*The Best of "The Spirit", by Will Eisner

*Finding Nemo
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
The Fellowship of the Ring (fullscreen edition)
The Two Towers (widescreen edition)
The Return of the King (widescreen edition)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (original 1992 movie)
Spider Man
Spider Man 2

*Grave of the Fireflies
The Simpsons: Season 1
Ghost in the Shell
The Animatrix

Friday, May 6, 2011

Gratuity Not Included

It has lately been brought to my attention that a great many people, when they patronize dining establishments (any dining establishment; I'm not talking about any specific restaurants here), make a point of patronizing the staff as well. They speak down to their waitress, flood her with special requests, and after making her work so hard for them, either leave no tip, or an insultingly small one.

Perhaps this is because a large portion of the public are laboring under a set of delusions about waiters' and waitresses' careers. Shockingly, some people reach adulthood without ever having worked in the restaurant business. Herewith, I shall do my own small part to enlighten the general public.

Misconception #1: Servers make an hourly wage, so tipping is just icing on the cake.
While servers do make an hourly wage, it's not enough to pay the bills. Most employers only pay their servers' state and federal taxes, and nothing more. This pay, which is well below minimum wage, is withheld by the government. In effect, most servers work for tips, and tips alone.

Misconception #2: Tipping is optional; it's polite to do, but not ultimately necessary.
Pretend that you're working at your job, whatever that might be. One Friday afternoon, your boss comes to you and asks if you could put in a little extra time this weekend, to help out with a special project: a party for a retiring bigwig in your company. All your other coworkers are doing it, so you'll be the odd man (or woman) out if you don't show. You didn't really have any plans for the weekend anyway, so you say OK, figuring it's better to go and build some credit with the boss. Besides, you can tell that refusal would be unwise.

You show up at your workplace on Saturday, and you give it your all. You really go the extra mile, and do everything the boss asks, with a smile on your face to boot. You figure there's gonna be a nice, juicy bonus in your future, for all the hard work you've done.

Payday rolls around, and you find that there's no overtime pay in your check. There's not even a bonus or anything. You ask your boss what's up, and he says that because you weren't on the clock, he's not legally obliged to pay you anything. Your service was entirely voluntary (even though you knew that refusing might get you in trouble, and possibly lose you your job.)

That's what not getting a tip feels like. She's already given you a service, on the understanding that she will be paid for it. Even if the service was poor, she's still within her rights to be paid for it. If you walk out on the bill for your food because it didn't taste great, the manager is likely to inform you that the transaction doesn't work like that.

When you receive goods, you pay for them. When you receive a service, the same rule applies.

Misconception #3: A 15% tip is a generous reward for exceptional service.
Maybe this was true back in the 90's, but not today. Not in 2011. The dollar has inflated since then, and the costs of living are high. Not to mention the bad economy. People are eating out less, and tipping less, so each dollar earned is vital.

The standard tip for average service is 20%. If you feel that your waitress has gone above and beyond, then her percentage should increase accordingly.

Misconception #6: Waitresses deal with people all day long, and I'm in a hurry. She won't mind if I'm a little curt or rushed with her.
While any waitress worth her salt will maintain her professionalism in the face of fairly harsh treatment, it does tend to wear on one's nerves after a few hours. Most people who come into a restaurant are in a hurry to eat and get out. Though they never intend to be rude to their waitress, they can sometimes come across as uncaring. A simple "please" and "thank you" will work wonders on the kind of service which your waitress will give you. Just because she's working an "unskilled" job does not make her less worthy of your full attention, respect, and common courtesy.

Furthermore, it's in your own interest to treat your waitress with respect, and to tip well. A happy waitress is a productive waitress. Any decent waitress will do her best to serve all her tables equally, but human nature is still human nature. She's bound to show better service to the tables which treat her well, and make her feel good. Even if you can't afford to leave a big tip, and tell her so, she'll often be very understanding. Good manners and empathy can make even a complex order for a large table seem much less of a burden.

A few words of kindness are often all it takes to win your waitress' best service. All she asks for is a little respect; a little dignity.

Isn't that something we all want from our jobs?