This Week in Upgrades: Jan 30

OK. So that was not a good weekend for humanity. The Trump administration’s Muslim ban on Friday was already a lot to handle. The shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Center, and the six people who died there, was a terrible bookend to the unfolding drama. If you’re trying to wrap your head around the immigration ban, this is a good place to start.

These kinds of things are the reason that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about human nature and the common good. I know it’s not as fun or easy to digest as cat videos and comfort food recipes. I would love to quietly mind my own business and go about enjoying those things all day. But we’ve got some serious individual and social issues to work through, too.

Just in the last few days, we’ve clearly seen that people are a mysterious mix of altruism and fear. Humans can be the worst, and the best. Sometimes there is a unified, compassionate weAnd other times we seek to erase those who are different. Things can flow in a direction of community and hope and kindness, or toward despair, cynicism, and cruelty. We’re not anywhere close to realizing our individual and collective potential. Sometimes we take steps backward.

So keep organizing. Keep aiming for the best of who you can be, and believing that every other human being can get there, too. Keep searching for empathy and commonality. Keep donating. Keep looking for the truth behind the illusion. Keep looking for–and being–the helpers.

 

Here are some other things from the last week worth checking out:

Loneliness is terrible for your health. No one can go it alone all of the time.

Some of our best creativity happens when we’re bored, but we’re too busy on our phones trying to make boredom disappear.

Alcohol has been shaping culture for a long time.

Butter makes everything better. These guys take their butter very seriously.

Props to the restaurant, Syr, near Amsterdam, which was set-up to help Syrian refugees settle into the country.

Rachel Carson was a hero.

I like the occasional soda or box of Sour Patch Kids as much as the next person, but human beings consume way too much sugar. France’s ban on free soda refills is a step in the right direction.

Millennials are spending a lot to exercise.

Here’s a nice little side-by-side video of several references La La Land made to older musicals.

I hope your week is full of love and calm.

 

This Week in Upgrades: November 28

Are you still full from Thanksgiving? I’ve eaten Brussels sprouts every day since Thursday and I’m feeling like a champion. That balances out all of the pieces of pie, right?

I hope you had an enjoyable holiday. Here are some things you might have missed over the long weekend.

Some of the best and worst accents attempted in film.

The US Army has sent an eviction notice to the DAPL protesters.

In the US, 40% of food is wasted. Why do we throw away so much?

Here’s the best burger from each state. Is your favorite on the list?

Did you watch the Gilmore Girls revival on Netflix? What did you think?

What do you do when you can’t get along with your boss?

“If you want someone to listen to you, don’t offend them.”

People are making themselves miserable trying to feel happy. A reminder that happiness is more than a feeling.

Thanks, as always, for following along with Upgraded Humans. Have a wonderful week!

This Week in Upgrades: September 5

“So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as a useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.” Those words from an 1894 House of Representatives committee report pointed to the welcome arrival of Labor Day as a federal holiday. Whereas previously, work in America was often characterized by 12-hour or longer days, 7-day workweeks, child laborers, unregulated safety conditions, and appallingly low wages, the late 1800s saw mass unionization and strikes to improve working conditions for everyone.

There’s still a long way to go to achieving the common good–perhaps a total rethink and remaking of the American Dream, achieved through more unionizing, striking, or other collective effort. But I hope that, at least today, many of you are able to rest from your hard work and enjoy the day as you please.

Tons of interesting things in the world and on the web to delve into on this holiday…

Maybe enjoy the day with some oysters? They’re surprisingly great for the planet and for you.

Be careful out there: bad driving is the primary cause of traffic jams. Just another reminder that we all suck at driving.

Looking for something to kick back on the couch and watch? Chef’s Table: France is très bon.

As someone who doesn’t even use Snapchat, this interview with a 14-year-old on how high schoolers use photo- and video-based social media was super interesting. I feel so old.

This is not how the voter-candidate relationship is supposed to look. Money in politics is an ethics issue for both major parties and their candidates.

Life on Earth may have emerged much, much earlier than we thought. Absolutely fascinating.

Hooray for print books (#bibliophile)! Also, could we maybe get to 100% of Americans having read at least one book in the last year? Learning and new experiences make the world go ’round, and you’re talking about a page or less per day to read one book in a year.

Some overzealousness with Zika wiped out millions of bees. Bees can’t catch a break, and we need them to.

A National Institutes of Health review confirms that non-drug treatments like yoga and acupuncture are effective against common pain. +1 for yoga.

Fracking just caused the largest manmade earthquake in US history. I’d say we need to be asking some more questions about an energy extraction process that does this.

Speaking of energy extraction, the fast-tracked Dakota Access Pipeline construction is causing all sorts of destruction and desecration of Standing Rock Sioux land. Protesters were met with pepper spray and dogs. Complete WTF situation.

Here’s a brief history of stop-motion animation. Such a cool art form. Want to see Kubo and the Two Strings.

Hope you have the best week possible. Thanks for reading!

This Week in Upgrades: July 11

Hello, friend. You hanging in there? If I’m honest, I’ve been too stunned and saddened by recent current events to write. Alton Sterling. Filando Castile. Dallas. Why does it seem like every day lately gives us new violence and injustice?

Our hope in such seeming hopelessness is action. What that action is will take time, reflection, and intentionality. When I can gather some of my own thoughts, I’ll write more about it to create a space for dialogue.

Some other things worthy of consideration from this week, and a few lighthearted ones to help with the emotional and empathy fatigue:

This June was the hottest June the US has ever had.

Here’s a great little video on how North America got its shape.

Google’s self-driving cars can now understand hand signals. Automated vehicles require a lot of nuance (because driving is nuanced, obviously).

Likewise, the Tesla autopilot accidents are a reminder that we’re too trusting, too soon. That is not a fully automated system. Don’t be dumb.

Faced with a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, many Americans wish there was a third choice. We need more than two political parties in the United States, and this election has brought that to the fore.

This young man is bound for great musical things.

Another reminder about democracy and the middle class in an age of automation. If we don’t act now, it’s not going to turn out well.

Why are salt and pepper on every dinner table?

Have a great, safe week.

 

The Stories We Tell

For peoples, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of the present. –Thomas Berry

Human beings are a creature of stories. We spend endless hours streaming back-to-back-to-back episodes of serialized television. We hand over record box office dollars to see the latest installment in one of the many ongoing cinematic universes. We look at best of summer book lists to find out what novel we should take to the beach. We talk about our workplaces in terms of roles and performance–the language of actors and actresses. We run political campaigns on stories like retrieving a supposed golden age (make America great again), going it alone for a future of safety and self-sufficiency (Brexit), and preventing impending dystopia (Trump must be stopped).

Stories are the way that we make sense of the world, and they long have been. The Enûma Eliš, the Illiad and the Odyssey, the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Quran, evolutionary reductionism, neoliberalism, and countless other stories have shaped and given meaning to our existence.

Because we experience life as it unfolds through time, it makes sense that we often see things in terms of the narrative elements of beginning, middle, and end. We see ourselves as some kind of characters involved in an unfolding drama: whether it’s the macro level–tales about the birth of the universe and the place of humanity in it–or the micro–a local news segment on homelessness. We make sense of how all of the pieces of life fit together by organizing them into a plot with characters, direction, intentions, and resolution.

Stories are powerful and relatable because they answer some of the most profound questions we have. Why are things the way they are? How did we get to now? Where are we going? Why are we here? Stories give answers to our aspirations for prosperity and success, security and comfort, purpose and intelligibility. (These categories come from the very excellent book The Great Turning, which I’ve previously referenced here).

Some of the stories we tell are quite good. These stories are successful because they answer questions about prosperity, security, and purpose in ways that correspond closely to reality (as best as we can tell) and make us feel more alive. Think of your favorite movies. What makes them your favorite? I bet if you think about it a bit, they tell a story that answers one or more of these questions in a realistic, humane, and compelling way.

Think of your own worldview. What makes sense about the story you tell yourself about why the world is the way it is and why you’re here? It’s likely because it incorporates everything you’ve experienced, everything you’ve seen, everything you believe about human nature, and everything you hope for in a way that feels real, deep, and full of potential and purpose.

Other stories are unconvincing or wrong. The world is the way it is because of that group of people, and we should do away with them. A free market is the only way to prosperity for all. The universe was created in six literal days by a bearded grandfather in the clouds. Men are superior to women. Whites are superior to other races.

Many of these bad stories fail to perceive the interconnectedness and value of all things. They tell their story by excluding or belittling a whole chunk of reality. These stories cannot properly narrate why things are the way they are and where they’re going, because they have an incomplete or warped view of reality as we know it.

Think of some of the worst movies you’ve seen. What makes them so terrible? Is the acting bad? That touches on an inability to represent the reality of how emotionally and socially complex human beings actually are. The very best actors usually have extremely high empathy–they’re able to emote on screen in ways that feel as genuine as real life–and, in turn, we as the audience resonate with their performance. Is the plot boring, corny, or absurd? It’s likely because it fails to tell in an interesting and satisfying way why things are the way they are, how they got there, where they’re going, and the meaning of it all.

Whether it’s the stories we’re watching on TVs, devices, and movie theater screens, or our own real-world stories about our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and current events, stories are everywhere. It’s up to us to winnow out the good from the bad, and elevate the stories that speak to the reality of the world we find ourselves in and how we can best find prosperity, security, and meaning in it.

 

People Change

When my wife and I got married, she and I decided we would both have her last name as our shared surname. I’ve written more about that elsewhere, and you’re welcome to read some of that here if you’d like. When people found out, the reactions were many and varied. You’re joking, right? You’re upending tradition! That’s odd. That’s so cool! I’ve never heard of that before, but now that I think about it I wonder why more people don’t talk about that when they get married.

I can’t recall a single person who was totally neutral or disinterested–everyone had an opinion of some sort. Though some of the opinions were shocking to us, it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s a very rare human being that goes through life without ever judging, critiquing, or stereotyping everyone else around them. As soon as you meet someone new, you begin to form an opinion and an impression of them. That impression doesn’t change much after the first few encounters.

Because most people want the impression to stick. When you can put other human beings in neat little boxes that you made, you feel a sense of control and understanding. The world is complex, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes confusing. If you can condense the people in your life into impressions that fit in manageable little boxes, then they will be one less thing that can change and surprise you in ways that make you feel uncomfortable.

But the reality is that people will always change. Change is one of the most constant, real features of the universe we live in. It’s the reason we all need to find our lifeline: the thing or things that give us grounding and perspective no matter what’s going on or how chaotic it feels. Permanently packaging other people into oversimplified boxes should never be one of the ways you try to handle and minimize the ever-present change you’ll encounter.

People will change names. Change hairstyles. Change hometowns. Change career aspirations. Change hobbies. Change worldviews. Change their attitude and emotional style. Change their fashion. And a million other things. Other people’s change will constantly blow up your boxes. If you don’t acknowledge and accept it, you’ll be working with a stale and distorted version of them. That’s not healthy for you or them.

Sometimes people change for the worse; sometimes for the better. That’s not really for you to judge. If you’re close to them, and they’ve told you they trust your perspective and input, maybe the time will come when you two dialogue about how life is going and what you think about how it might go differently. Even then, it’s ultimately their life to live as they see fit, and you have to be OK with that.

More often than not, it won’t be your place to give any commentary at all. You should simply affirm their exploration of who they are in whatever way they are trying to realize their potential and happiness. We all should be exploring, trying, failing, learning. It’s deeply hypocritical if you allow yourself to do so but come down hard on others for changing and growing.

Celebrate your friend’s new hairstyle. What is it to you if it’s a color or cut you feel uncomfortable with? Celebrate your relative’s decision to strive for a career as an artist instead of a career as a scientist. Celebrate your neighbor feeling more confident as they exercise more, eat better, and improve their health.

Perhaps sometimes you feel unsettled by others’ change because it reminds you of the change you haven’t made. Instead of trying to cram people back into the box you made for them, welcome their change and use it as inspiration to finally do what you keep telling yourself you’ll do. Change is not a zero-sum game with all the other human beings on this planet. You don’t need to criticize or undercut someone else so that you can get a leg up.

No matter what, people change. Maybe you need to change how you handle that reality.

How to Adult: Your Parents Are Human Beings

I can vividly recall a Sunday school class when I was quite small about keeping promises. The heart of the lesson challenged all the kids in the room to think about how they’d respond if their parents said they would do something and then later came back and said they couldn’t. That happens? I thought to myself. My young, naive mind found it illogical that a parent would not be able to do something. Parents are parents: the only way they’d make a mistake is if they got hurt or tied up–incapacitated like Superman by kryptonite.

One of the most essential parts of growing up is understanding that your parents are not perfect. When you’re small, they can sure seem like superheroes. You’re wholly dependent on them for survival and growth. They’re doing a poor job of parenting if they don’t closely nurture and protect you. For those who parent well, imagining them with a cape is only a small step.

But sooner or later their flaws will show. They drink too much. They have a short fuse. They’re a workaholic. They make terrible decisions with money. It’s hard for them to love. The magical consciousness of early childhood can only cloud deeper realities for so long.

My own parents separated when I was just starting to settle into my teens. Their marital struggles and eventual divorce taught me a lot about how relationships can break down, and how the dark side of human nature can emerge even in your own home. I learned a lot about what not to do as a human being, and specifically what not to do as a significant other and spouse.

That’s not meant to be an indictment of them. Every parent is imperfect because human beings are imperfect. It’s just that our relationship to our parents is so uniquely based on trust and care that, as children, we often don’t figure that out about them until we’re more grown up. They teach, guide, and nurture us, and we take their view of the world and their role in it as complete, flawless, and true.

When we become adults ourselves, it’s entirely possible to remain in a relationship of trust and care with our parents. It’s a different kind of trust and closeness. They may want to continue to give you guidance and support, but you see more clearly now that what they have in mind won’t work for you, is misguided, or that they’re not a trustworthy authority on that. You have the autonomy to listen or not listen. Follow it or reject it.

And, interestingly, if you do have an honest and open relationship with your parents as an adult, you may be able to help them become better versions of themselves. Maybe they have trauma from their own childhood that they’ve never worked through. Maybe they’ve become stagnant in their career and they need a loving push to start a new chapter in life. Maybe they have an addiction that they’ve yet to overcome. Adult-to-adult, you may be able to keep growing in your humanity together: careers, travel, worldview, wholeness, and more.

We will all come to discover that our parents are not superheroes–they’re human beings. That realism is a good thing. The sooner we perceive their humanity–seeing their imperfections and struggles–the sooner we begin to build empathy for them. We are all at the whims of human nature. Parents are just a little further down the path. Learn from their journey, and if you’re lucky, you can journey with them well into your own adulthood.

 

How to Adult: Be Yourself

Being human is a funny thing. We are all full of both the incredible and the peculiar. For all the great qualities you were born with and have developed, there seems to be just as many you’re not altogether comfortable with.

If you haven’t figured it out already, most people you encounter have an opinion of you, and they’re not often the most generous editorials. Sometimes it seems the closer someone is to you the deeper the wounds are that they can cut.

But, of course, you probably don’t need other people’s critiques to feel unsure of yourself. Sometimes the look in the mirror after you wake up can leave you with a feeling of really? before you even encounter another person. At 31, I know I’m not exactly glowing with youth anymore, but does my day really have to start at the disadvantage of dark bags under my eyes and the constant reappearance of boogers? Be honest, when you see someone with gold in the mine, your impression of their IQ drops by about 50%. I think that about myself when I see it in the mirror.

It can be hard and weird and uncomfortable to be you–whether other people are making you unsure of yourself or you are. The thing is, though, we’re all in the same position. Any person who looks like they have it all together has something different or strange or displeasing if you go below the surface. Maybe they smell funny if you get close enough. Maybe they like ketchup on macaroni and cheese (seriously, that’s disgusting). Maybe they struggle through some kind of speech or learning impediment.

As human beings, incredible and peculiar, we have to learn to manage the good and the undesirable. How do you do that?

First, like what you like. If your ultimate dance jam is a N’Sync song from back in the day, own it. When people ask you about your favorite music, don’t reach for something that’s popular and safe.

If you really do think ketchup is great on mac & cheese, see a doctor about your taste buds squeeze a mountain of Heinz on top of your noodles while you grin at those around you staring.

Second, and more importantly, be gracious. Be gracious to yourself. There will be days of your life–when you’re old like me, if not already–when your body does weird things. Days when you made a horrible decision, said the wrong thing, or didn’t accomplish what you thought you could. It happens to everyone. Try to learn to laugh at it as absurdity instead of allowing the feeling to overtake you that you must be the weirdest/dumbest/lamest person in the world.

As you feel more confident liking what you like, and are able to be more forgiving of yourself, it’s quite possible that you’ll feel a greater sense of liking and being gracious to who other people are too. It’s called empathy, and the world needs more of it. People are endlessly fascinating if you give them the space to be them without judgment. You may even find yourselves in a comfortable enough place to laugh at each other’s weirdness, which is fantastic.

As long as we’re around, all of us are going to have to deal with the awesome and the unwelcome that comes with being human. Like what you like, be gracious–be yourself.

 

What Does It Mean to “Be a Man”?

When I was in high school, there was a year that I needed to take a summer gym class to fulfill my physical education requirement. When I missed a couple days because of some other obligations, I had to work with school administration to figure out what could be done to finish out the requirement.

The compromise was to register in a workshop called Bigger, Faster, Stronger: a CrossFit-like boot camp for high school athletes, almost entirely male, preparing for the fall season of their sports. Even though I was a varsity soccer player, I got my butt kicked by the relentless weight training, field exercises, and agility tests. It was probably the most machismo thing I have been part of. Every guy in the room was comparing himself against the apparent strength and ability of the others. I’m sure some of the soreness I felt at home each night came from pushing myself to make sure I wasn’t too far behind other guys in weight and reps, times, and other measurables.

Using comparison to scrutinize our identity has probably been part of being human for as long as we’ve been here. We often look at others and archetypes as a way to figure out our own place in the world. But when it comes to gender, what we’re comparing ourselves against as the standard for “being a man” or “being a woman” are extreme and incomplete ideals.

As a man, I can only fully relate to the experience and norms of masculinity, which is why I was happy to discover that the makers of 2011’s Miss Representation, a documentary exploring hyperfemininity and its consequences, recently released a complementary film regarding hypermasculinity, The Mask You Live In.

Prevalent throughout much of American society (and perhaps elsewhere), what it means to “be a man” amounts to putting on a mask of athletic ability, financial success, and sexual conquest, while hiding and suppressing weakness, emotion, empathy, and intimacy. “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it…,” opens the film–a quote from George Orwell.

As boys, males are handed this mask early and encouraged to grow into it often. From parents, especially fathers. From coaches. From all kinds of media. From peer groups.

Whichever of these guiding sources it comes from, boys are too often discouraged from crying, talking about their pain and weaknesses, and cultivating open relationships. Such things are perceived to be unmanly, and, therefore, subordinate. It leads to an implicit hierarchy. At the top are men who are fast, strong, steely, powerful, and rich. Everyone and everything else fall below.

This hierarchy perpetuates sexism and homophobia. As a man of the mask, you dehumanize people who are not at the top. A male who doesn’t embody the ideal is shunned as “gay.” Women are categorically inferior and seen to exist primarily for sexual objectification. Any woman who tries to be strong or rich or powerful is breaking rank. She’s a “bitch,” an “annoyance,” or a “lesbian.”

But time after time, when men and boys are given space for self-reflection and to speak freely without potential humiliation, they talk about pain and weaknesses; about a desire for honest closeness with other men and women; and about suppressed empathy. The vulnerability and longing behind the mask are essential to being a man.

They’re essential to being human.

Because, perhaps surprisingly to some, men and women are actually quite similar. As long as people are around, there will probably be endless debates about gender (as social construction) versus sex (as biology) and femininity versus masculinity. We’re good at getting caught up in differences. But women and men are far more the same–far more human–than they are different.

Emotion, empathy, and intimacy are vital whether you’re a woman or a man. These are not “inferior” traits of “inferior” people. They are crucial aspects of humanity that contribute to being a complete person, and, as The Mask You Live In concludes, “everyone deserves to feel whole.”

Men deserve to feel whole–free from the distorted view of masculinity they’re often given. Women deserve to feel whole–free from the sexism of that same skewed version of masculinity.

We are all human. Be human. Reject the mask.

 

How to Adult: Voting

If you can believe it, the actual choosing part of the presidential race is going to begin on Monday with the Iowa caucuses. If to this point you haven’t kept up with the latest Donald Trump theatrics or been watching social media overflow with #FeeltheBern it’s OK. Nothing super important has happened just yet, because no one has voted yet.

But with Iowa officially getting the ball rolling in just a few days, now is a good time to figure out who you’re going to vote for if you haven’t.

Yes, you should definitely vote. Common cynicism about how my vote doesn’t mean anything or the government is broken and isn’t going to be fixed is understandable. But how do you expect things to ever change if you don’t raise your voice? Though it’s an incredibly lofty and hackneyed-sounding ideal, the American government truly is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. Voter turnout in the 2014 midterm election was just over 1/3 of eligible voters–the lowest since World War II. How can anyone expect our government to function properly and be representative of the general population if only a handful of people are participating? How might our country’s future be impacted if 60% or even 75% of eligible voters show up? Changing the status quo begins with your vote.

So, where to start? If you already know which presidential candidate you like, then you should plan to vote for them in the primary in your state when it happens. Here’s a calendar if you don’t know when yours is. A few states have caucuses because they’re old-school. Here’s a short video explaining the difference between caucuses and primaries. Make sure you register properly ahead of time if you need to.

If you don’t know who you’re going to vote for, now’s the time to sift through everything you can get your hands on. Push beyond surface features like political party (the person you end up liking best may be in a party you’ve never voted for or don’t generally agree with), religious affiliation, gender, home state, the amount of media coverage, someone’s outraged Facebook post, and the like.

Try to watch a number of speeches and debates candidates have participated in. They’re easy to YouTube nowadays. Ask yourself:

Is a particular person consistent in their message, or do they seem to change their mind a lot about their convictions and intentions?

Are there issues they have been fighting for a long time for and made good progress on?

When they speak, does it seem like they marginalize or belittle certain people, or do they seem like a candidate who is trying to represent everyone’s best interests no matter their ethnicity, age, gender, income, etc.?  

Look into each candidate’s position on specific issues–especially ones that are most important to you. If you care a lot about climate change, who seems to have the best plan to address it in the coming years, and a history of good environmental policy? If you care a lot about healthcare, who seems to have the best ideas about ensuring affordability, access, and quality of care? If you care a lot about immigration, who seems to have the empathy and strategy to address it? If you have a lot of student debt, who has the best plan to ease that burden?

Try not to let only one issue drive your decision-making. Our president needs to be someone who can lead and make sound judgments on a number of different aspects of American society.

If you dig and research and ponder and are still not sure, talk to people you trust about who they really like. Listen for good reasons to be for a particular candidate as opposed to choosing one by default because they’re against and vilifying others who are running. I can’t stand so-and-so, so I’m voting for… is not a wise way to choose.

Take time and figure out who you think the best person is to lead America for the next four years. We need a society where more people are engaged in the democracy we have so that things genuinely function for the well-being of everyone. That engagement, and voting, specifically, is part of being an adult. If you wish things were different, you can’t just stand on the sideline and Like witty posts about the failures and absurdities. Show up to your polling place so you can post a #iVoted instead. The sticker is pretty cool too.