How to Adult: Holidays

Los Angeles has, at most, two seasons. There’s a sunny and hot one, and a sunny and slightly cooler one. There are very few days with rain. Few days that are even overcast from morning to night. On most days out of the year, it could be any month if you weren’t looking at the calendar.

This was quite an adjustment for me. I spent nearly 25 years growing up in Wisconsin where there are four clearly defined seasons. You can watch and feel the transitions from one to the next. The summer thunderstorms. The colorful fall leaves. The first flakes of snow. The plants climbing out of the spring dirt.

These natural beats mark time throughout the year. They give you a sense of the change as time passes. Yet also a sense of rhythm and familiarity as many of the same beats happen from one year to the next. The more true seasons and seasonal signifiers, the more connected to time we feel.

We, humans, have added to nature our own markers through the year: holidays. In the United States as recently as the 1830s, there were only Independence Day, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and Christmas. Since then, we’ve expanded to days like Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Labor Day. And there are several more informal holidays like Super Bowl Sunday, Black Friday, and national food days for everything from Baked Alaska to leg of lamb.

Holidays give us more beats to mark time through the year. And unlike seasons, we control what holidays are and what they entail because we constructed them. Being relatively older, Thanksgiving and Christmas have particularly deep roots. If you celebrate one or both of them in your family, you’re likely to have a whole host of traditions, favorite things, and memories associated.

The foods you eat, the decorations you put up, the things you watch together, the gifts you give and how you give them, the religious rites you partake in, and more. It can go from the super specific to the broad and ineffable: from the dish that grandma works all day to make and serves at 4pm to an intangible feeling of love and warmth.

Holidays give us rhythm like seasons. You might not circle National Leg of Lamb Day on the calendar, but you undoubtedly look forward to holidays with more depth and memory–Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s. They are moments and spaces in time we come back to year after year so that we can remind ourselves of who we are and what we care about. In places like the endless sunshine of Southern California, or in the distracting bustle of work, school, errands, and bills we can lose track of the passage of time, and with it our self-identity.

Holidays are pockets throughout the year that, no matter what is happening or will happen, we stop and come together with the people we care about. For at least that day, we’re making life happen instead of life happening to us. We have ways of honoring and relishing that day with others.

So as we move into Thanksgiving week and the rest of the major holiday season, spend some time reflecting on and enjoying the traditions, the favorite things, and the memories. And make some new ones!

The heaviness of the election still weighs on many. Amongst family and friends, there are starkly different political views. It happens. We should absolutely talk about those things together when it’s the right time–openly, patiently, respectfully, constructively. But before you go on a rant about who won and why the world is either saved or ending, reach out for a hug, tell them you’re thankful they’re there, and peel some vegetables for the casserole. Put on the movie or the game you all snuggle up and watch together. Reminisce about the travel obstacles you overcame in years past to be together. Grieve the emptiness left by family and friends who are no longer around to celebrate.

Time passes unceasingly. Seasons, holidays, freezing and thawing, growth and death. We never know how much time we have, but at least we have today. And once in awhile today has added layers because we’ve designated it a holiday.

Stop and take notice. Give thanks for the people around you. Embrace. Remember. Make life happen.

May you find rhythm, togetherness, and identity through the march of time.

Wherever You Start, It Ends Up in the Same Place

I had a little free time the other day, and I happened upon a very interesting interview with Andrew Zimmern. He’s perhaps best known for his show Bizarre Foods and some of the seemingly strange things he’s eaten on camera for it. The whole conversation is well worth a listen.

It was especially intriguing and thought-provoking because, ostensibly, this is an interview for a food website, with a former chef and current food television host, containing his thoughts on this or that bit of the current state of food. And yet, as the interview goes along, the conversation becomes about much more than just the latest ingredient fad or buzziest restaurant. It goes deeper into economics, creativity, globalization, class, history, relationships, politics, and more.

To be sure, the interview is not a one-hour retelling of all of human history through the lens of food. And it’s certainly not the first or even the best example of going beyond its immediate subject matter in a profound way. But I find it immensely fascinating and illuminating that an interview that starts out about one thing–food–quickly and regularly goes deep into many other things.

We live in a world that is incredibly specialized–perhaps even too specialized. We don’t just have athletes, doctors, and professors. We have wide receivers and punters; brain surgeons and orthopedic surgeons; professors of Western religions and professors of metaethics. Our entry points into the world–our personal areas of interest and expertise–are almost as numerous and unique as the number of people on this planet.

We each step out into the world and view it predominantly through the shaping and interpretive framework of those interests or fields of expertise. Andrew Zimmern’s entry point is food, and he can say and explain things about food and food culture that few others can. That alone makes for a compelling conversation. Food is awesome. Who doesn’t love finding out interesting things about it?

But as his Eater interview shows, you can’t really talk about food without talking about money and the exchange of value, globalization, human creativity, relationships, social structure, and the rest. Wherever we start, things eventually end up in the same place.

Where they end up is the core, essential humanity that exists behind every profession and area of interest. They end up at the heart of every person’s intentions, understanding, and experience.

You can start talking to an athlete about their career, their take on their sport, the business dealings of whatever league they’re in, their fan base, and the like. And sooner or later, things will either briefly or extensively broaden to dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled; the power of mentorship, teamwork, and dedicated effort; the strength and fragility of the human body, and dealing with the inevitability of physical decline and retirement.

You can start talking to a physician about the curiosities and intricacies of their medical expertise. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the struggles of their work-life balance; the power and pride of healing; the agony and frustration of failed treatments and incurability; the daily encounters with patients at different stages of birth, life, and death, and supporting each person’s health to maximize their enjoyable time on earth.

You can start talking to a professor about the social construction of religion or morality in modern society. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the nature of belief and one’s own worldview; what’s right and wrong in the world–and what to do about it; the finitude of life and how to live it; and if there’s more to all of this than what we can observe.

Wherever you start, it eventually ends up in the same place.

Not in every single interaction. And not always for an extended period or in great depth. But if there is enough time and openness, things will eventually arrive at the universally human that undergirds everything else.

So the next time you listen to a podcast, or watch a news segment or sports match, or read a book, or talk with a doctor, co-worker, lawyer, or anyone else–watch and listen for the way things start to veer toward the universally human. And think about how that humanity is acknowledged, or supported, or suppressed, or thwarted, or celebrated by the entry point you started from (food, sports, medicine, philosophy, etc.).

To ask just a few:

How should we feel about a fish that’s essentially commonplace bait in Namibia but an expensive seafood plate in fancy urban restaurants? 

What should be done about the head trauma NFL players experience and what that entails for their well-being later in life? 

Why are issues of religion so often plagued by othering and scapegoating, anti-intellectualism, and hypocrisy?

Everything is connected to everything else. Food to politics. Sports to relationships. Academia to meaning. Our conversations begin with each person seeing the world from a slightly different angle. We’ve separated things out in thorough specialization, but really it’s all meant to fit together. As we take time with others, with various interests and expertise, we see more clearly the breadth and depth of our shared humanity. And the better we see our universality, the better we can pursue the common good together from the entry point that intrigues each of us most.

 

Humans and Nature: Safety Not Guaranteed

Marathon runner attacked by bear. Colorado woman rescues son from jaws of mountain lion. Alligator drowns child at Disney World.

These are just the most notable animal-human encounter headlines from the last few weeks. Google “hiker dies,” and you’ll find several more stories from recent days of people who tragically lost their lives in wild terrain.

Each of these stories is surprising and dismaying–difficult to comprehend. Things seem to be going just fine, and then suddenly nature strikes and someone’s life is in the balance. Social media and mainstream news bring these encounters front-and-center, and we collectively wonder how such a thing is possible in modern society.

Disney should have been patrolling the local waterways, relocating dangerous wildlife, monitoring children at the shore, and putting up signs everywhere warning guests about natural threats.

Lost in nearly all of the conversation about that particular incident is the fact that Disney has built a massive resort in the midst of a complex ecosystem that’s been present and evolving for countless years before humans artificially built their vacation village on top. Is it reasonable to think that with over a million alligators in Florida any human planning is going to be able to ensure a gator won’t be in a given area? When a business has already put up signage saying not to enter the water at the boundary of the resort, should they further have to explain that it’s because a predatory native species everyone should know about may be lurking there in the habitat it’s reigned in long before humans showed up?

Much of the world is now an artificial expanse of human civilization that blankets the existing wild environment. No one expects in suburban Colorado to find a mountain lion in their yard. No one expects to come across a bear and cub while running a marathon. No one expects a child wading into the resort lagoon to be pulled underwater by a gator.

No one expects these things because we believe that our modern society is one of total human domination, ingenuity, and control. We are the top predator, the hunter, the inventor, the architect. Wild predators and wild terrain are dangerous nuisances that should already be engineered out of our experience of the world.

There’s no question we are a dominant, controlling species today. We now alter the climate of the whole planet. We’ve caused many of the Earth’s animals to go extinct or become severely underpopulated. We explore high and low (and leave our mark with trash)–in the near space of our solar system and in the deepest depths of the ocean. No other animal on the planet has done or is doing this.

At the same time, things were not always this way for us. Before they went extinct, there were a number of animals that we were prey to–giant hyenas, cave bears and cave lions, snakes, saber-toothed cats, and others. We were not always at the top of everything, and no matter what we want to believe, we’re still not in control of everything. There remain predators and wild environmental features that can threaten, wound, and kill us.

So, yes, it is absolutely shocking and saddening when someone is severely hurt or even killed by the tooth and claw of nature. My heart breaks for anyone who’s lost a loved one to a violent storm, jagged terrain, or a deadly creature.

But the reason these stories are breaking news is the veil of civilization makes them less common and existential than they were for hundreds of thousands of years. Our faith in utter domination and control may one day be an all-encompassing reality as we continue to alter the planet: no more animal attacks, threatening storms, or fatal terrain. But for now, our existence is one of fragility and unpredictability. Our reality is that safety is not guaranteed. We are always wrestling with the elements and need to be vigilant–whether it’s at a resort or deep in the woods.

 

The Common Good: Imagination

If someone had asked you what you think about “Harry Potter” in 1996, the year before the first of the seven celebrated novels was published, you probably would have stared at them in confusion. Before any of us knew what someone was talking about when they said muggle, Quidditch, or Dumbledore, the entire universe of Harry Potter existed only in the mind of author J.K. Rowling. Fast-forward to the present week, and the third Wizarding World of Harry Potter is set to open in Universal Studios Hollywood, allowing people to smell, taste, touch, and hear the world of the story in physical form. You can kick back with friends over butterbeers in Hogsmeade or take a picture in front of Hogwarts.

The power of imagination is astonishing. What once exists in only one person’s brain can go on to sweep through the rest of the world, causing new structures and ways of life to emerge. Words and images, on a page or in a speech or on a screen, can create dramatic social change. Imagination has shaped the world we live in now, and it can shape the world we live in tomorrow.

Before there were cities, cars, computers, the 40-hour workweek, hospitals, political parties, recycling, and countless other things we take for granted as normal now, certain people thought them up, shared their ideas with others, and constructed them as real, concrete things in the world.

We used to have great imagination about what society could be like. When no other country had set aside expanses of nature to preserve for the enjoyment of the public for generations, America created a National Parks system. When the United States was rife with some of the worst racism and structural inequality in its history, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famously profound speech about having a dream of a different kind of humanity. When for centuries people had looked up at the moon and wondered what it was like over there, John F. Kennedy proclaimed in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.

Where are we at now?

Is the United States a country that treasures nature even more than when the first Parks were formed? A good chunk of Americans won’t even acknowledge the science of climate change and the painful consequences to come in our lifetime.

Is America a country that’s realized Dr. King’s dream–respecting the life and worth of every human being no matter their race, gender, age, or other uniqueness? We have a contending presidential candidate succeeding largely because of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric.

Is the United States spearheading greater space exploration, pushing the limits of what we know, where we can travel, and who can go there? NASA is so strapped for cash that any real space endeavors are being contracted out to private companies like SpaceX. Though space is the necessary frontier for the future of humanity, things are hardly different–if not worse–than the days when we enthusiastically launched astronauts to the moon decades ago.

Our collective imagination has disintegrated and died out. Our visions of what this country could be are uninspired or nonexistent. We’re stuck in the status quo, occasionally fighting over relatively negligible changes.

When we should be coming up with a compelling, comprehensive vision of what work in the 21st century should be like so that every person has the resources they need to live well, it’s “pie in the sky” to even move for something as meager as a $15 federal minimum wage. To be sure, $15 would be an appreciated improvement for many people, but it’s an amount that’s still almost $4 per hour shy of where it should be if minimum wage had increased at the same rate as overall productivity. We should already have a $19 minimum wage nationally; instead, we’re bickering about maybe going to $15 sometime in the next decade. We’ve hardly begun to think about how we’ll deal with rampant unemployment as more and more jobs are taken over by automated technology.

We have to get back to dreaming big, together, and transforming society into the better world it can be. Take what we know about what’s good for people, look at where we’re at today, and invent a future that brings everyone closer to the common good.

If we can turn Hogwarts and butterbeer into real things for millions of people to see and taste as if they were actually wizards, we can surely imagine and construct a better world in the theme park of our nonfiction world.

 

The Life You Choose for Yourself

Human beings are motivated by many things. When we’re young, we do our best to avoid the punishment and disappointment of our parents. As we grow up a bit and move through young adolescence, we do what we can to fit in with our peers–to prevent being thought of as uncool and ending up an outsider. Moving into high school and academics beyond, the unwanted wrath of teachers and professors, and the negative consequences of a transcript with letters that come after A and B, keep us on a steady track to completing assignments and scrambling to produce desirable test grades.

Mysteriously absent much of the time is the motivation we inspire in ourselves–intrinsic or self motivation. Parents, peers, professors, embarrassment, advertisements for things you don’t have, your public image, and many more extrinsic forces are powerful and effective at shaping the kinds of things that we do and the people that we are.

Some of these forces pull us forward by their attraction like a carrot on a stick: the allure of a high salary or possessions, prestige and popularity among friends and co-workers, the raw pleasure of sex or a drug. These things aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re quite dangerous when they become the primary or sole motivators of our behavior and decision-making.

Similarly dangerous is the other side of things–the external forces that function like an actual fire under your ass whereby you have no choice but to get up and move. They push, and often without your consent for them to do so. Finding a mediocre job just to pay the bills or cramming for a test just so you can pass and not get kicked out of school would fall into this category. Trying not to disappoint others is the absolute worst push motivation possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s the intimate relationship of a parent or the mostly superficial one of a co-worker: you’ve prioritized someone else’s hopes and expectations without a healthy consideration of your own, and bend over backwards just to keep them seemingly happy. It’s probably not even successful much of the time.

A healthy consideration of yourself should really be the center of whatever you feel compelled to do. Not because of some socially constructed reward like money or popularity, or primal pleasure like a hook-up or something only enjoyable once you’re inebriated. And not because this or that pushes you into making a decision that wasn’t good for your wellbeing. You should move into the next decision or chapter of your life because the center of your being drives you in that direction–you feel the contentment, progress, significance, and jouissance that comes with becoming who you yourself are choosing to be.

To be sure, there is definitely a growing process to this. Early on, we are motivated by trying not to disappoint or put off others, and by the potential of acquiring wealth to have money available for whatever. But over time we need to come to understand that we are most capable of living a flourishing, enjoyable life when we stop being tossed to and fro by the waves of forces outside, and instead live with the overflowing, delighted intentionality from within. What is the next Act you’re going to write in The Play of Your Life?