Something to fight for

They say the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
They say keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
They say nothing unites like a common enemy.
This is a great summary of a book I read about a year ago, called On Being Certain. I am pretty sure it was in this book that I learned that not only do we decide before we even consciously realise we are deciding, but that we tend not to listen when we are presented with information contrary to our current beliefs.
Yes, it’s true. If you’re a CrossFit nerd and someone comes along to tell you why their form of exercise is superior, you’re not going to listen. It’s actually worse than that: blood flow to the relevant part of your brain actually decreases. Even if you’re arguing, you’re not taking in the information as intensely as you would if it were aligned with your current beliefs. You are thinking of what you’re going to say next.
One of my co-workers asked me for my opinion about the American election, and I said that I wasn’t informed enough to give him my opinion. I’m still not. But, a bottle of wine into the evening on Friday, I broached the subject with my friend J, and we spent the next hour (at least) talking about the Obamacare debate, but more fundamentally the polarisation of America. I had been aware of that when I lived here, of course, but maybe it’s gotten worse in the last two years. It is, nonetheless, a real problem.
You see it from both sides: there are stereotypes left and right. The liberal (usually latte drinking and arugula munching). The NRA-toting religious nut. The rich businessman. The union worker. The black. The Mexican. The NASCAR fan. Right? These might not mean much to non-Americans but if you’re American you know just what I’m talking about.
One of the other things this book argued is that there is no such thing as an autonomous rational mind. To quote the web site I linked above, because probably most of you won’t read it:
“There is a ‘hidden layer’ in our brain whose neurons are influenced by genetics, personal experience, hormones, and chemistry. These factors influence all our thought processes without our conscious knowledge. We would like to think that if everyone had the same information they would necessarily reach the same conclusion, but that just isn’t so. There is no such thing as pure reason.”
I repeat: There is no such thing as pure reason. Uh-huh. So yeah, maybe that NASCAR fan is just stupid, and wrong, and ignorant. Maybe Karl Rove is actually just evil. Maybe the Harvard liberal is out of touch with the average American. To a certain degree all of these things is true. They are also far too simple, and fail to take into account that diversity can be a good thing (think Wisdom of Crowds, not crowdsourcing, for the love of God … and if you don’t know how these things are different, read the book. It’s worth it).
I compared it to a civil war. It’s more civil than bloody, but make no mistake: there’s a war going on. And my side is losing, in some ways. But I’m not so convinced that a) they are actually my side either, or b) that they deserve to win. I said that night that the Democrats have a marketing problem, and have had for years. This is true, but good marketing and poor follow-through are not a great recipe for success either. Honestly, I want to know who specifically masterminded the Obama 2008 messaging, and where he/she/they have ended up.
One thing I do know: if this country doesn’t stop looking inward and start looking outward, it’s going to be a different place in 50 years. It’s already happening. It’s busy fighting itself, and that’s crazy. There are so many bigger battles to fight. Maybe it’s still the greatest country in the world. Maybe not.
If you don’t follow one link from my blog all year, follow this one now. It’s a video (sorry, South Africans). It literally gives me goosebumps.
I read the other day some quote from somewhere that it’s difficult to move the boat forward if you are rocking it. Well, well. I may not be a trained fighter, but give me something to fight for and I’m a warrior. I’m dangerous when I set my mind to the right goal (not the wrong one or too low of one), and when I’m fighting for something greater than myself. Aren’t we all?
But here’s the thing: I love this country and a lot of other people do too. What I felt when I was here and what I hear in a lot of people is a wish, or desire, to do something. You get the same thing in SA I do suppose, but I’m here now so I’m thinking about here. Back in the day, it somehow seems like it was more obvious. The fight for freedom. The fight for equal rights for women and slaves. Nowadays, not so much. You try and fight for gay rights and it’s like swimming upstream in a river. You don’t even know what you’re fighting any more, other than that blue/red divide. So you ignore it and go about your life.
So obviously I’m back in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Specifically, I’m in Vermont visiting my family. The flight was uneventful, almost to a fault. I happened, between naps, to watch two movies both of which featured dystopian futures where there was extreme inequality, and the unlikely heroes from the wrong side of the tracks. Hollywood and Occupy Wall Street seem to be hitting on the same themes. Or maybe I’m seeing patterns where none exist. But everyone loves an underdog, except for the fans of the favourite. I wonder why it is we root for the underdog … because we identify? And what are the implications of THAT?

I was in quite a good mood upon arrival I must say. I got my rental car, and hit the highway. The excitement lasted for the first 3 minutes of smooth sailing, until I hit traffic on the inaptly named Cross Bronx Expressway. Holy hell. That wasn’t traffic, it was more like a parking lot. The novelty of being in a new country, my country, and driving on the right, kept me in a pretty good mood for a while, and at least the car had air conditioning because it was 100 degrees. A nice change, and one my injury has been enjoying. That or the rest.
Once I finally made it out of New York, I drove north until I found first, a Starbucks, and secondly, a convenient strip mall at which to buy a SIM card so I could call my parents, get the Google maps on the phone working, etc. This was actually an amusing experience because the sales rep was absolutely convinced I was some sort of famous person. He thought pro soccer player and I laughed at him. Then he asked if I was some other sort of pro athlete. I knew I was in America when I could say no, but I do CrossFit, and he didn’t ask what CrossFit was. But then a few minutes later: ‘Man, I’m SURE I’ve seen you on TV before!’ That was a hoot. And his co-worker was possibly even more amusing because he seemed befuddled by the best t-shirt on earth.
Long drive to Vermont, dinner, and sleep. I felt so much more human the next day: slept in, drove to Burlington to join the family for lunch on Church Street then some Ben & Jerry’s (I laughed at the Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream but didn’t actually eat it!), and a drive back home. That evening I went over to J’s, and my visit was a bit longer than intended. ‘Dinner’ turned into an 8-hour marathon catch-up. No, I’m not kidding. Hey, I’d say staying up until the equivalent of 10am Cape Town time on my second day back into town is a testament to the company and the conversation. We had a lot to catch up on.
The next day I felt like death, not so much due to the hangover as to the four hours of sleep. After a quick stop at the Middlebury Farmers Market (where my mother enjoyed a chocolate croissant that, in another life, I would have been all over and I got to hug my track & cross country coach from junior high), I drove south to Manchester, Vermont, to have brunch with my friend Craig from my Exit41 days. We ate at a place which might possibly be breakfast nirvana … bottomless coffee, pancakes that looked like they were to die for, and, massive omelettes. Then we got more coffee (did I mention I was sleep deprived??), and walked around town before lounging lying on the grass in the shade, on a perfect summer’s day. Stunning.
Now I have a lot of friends (geez I realise how that sounds…. What I mean is I know a lot of people), and I’m not in town for very long, and I’m not really hitting up Boston this year, and there are way more people I want to see than I actually have time to see. But these two guys I saw this weekend … well, I love them. They’re both smart, and insightful, and sensitive, and rational, and humble, and good judges of people. I could go on. But they also are just fun to be around, and after the first 2-3 minutes which are always going to be awkward after a bloody year of separation, we fell right back into our conversation patterns. And you can tell how much you respect and trust people by how much of yourself you share how quickly.
There are some other people I love just as much who I’m not going to get to see this trip, but as I was saying in the last post how there are people in Cape Town where I would be devastated if they ever moved … well, these are examples of what I have here that I gave up. You stay friends of course, but let’s not be crazy: distance does separate. There’s a difference between a Facebook email and giving someone a hug, and sharing coffee or wine, and letting them see the look in your eye when you talk about something. Maybe, just maybe, making their lives a little bit better for the interaction.
For whatever reason in South Africa most of my deep intellectual conversations are with women. Just the luck of the draw, I guess. But it was quite cool to be talking about management challenges, and personalities, and whatever all else, with boys. It’s not all CrossFit and kung fu. But it is all sparring (…) and damn, it’s great to talk to smart people you haven’t seen in a while.
Been having a great time with my family too, catching up with both my parents and my brother, and enjoying the beauty that is Vermont in the summer time. I’ve even been enjoying the rest … maybe a bit too much. It’s easy to get out of the habit of training when you’re traveling, so it’s kind of nice to have this as an ‘excuse.’ This was actually one of my subconscious issues with resting that I have since made conscious …. I used to be such a happy couch potato that part of me is afraid I’d fall into that again. Which, of course, is silly. Except that it’s not silly at all.
It’s definitely working though; I haven’t felt this healthy in months.

  • “It says: ‘Harden the f*ck up.’ … What does that mean?” – guy at T-Mobile (He was serious. I had to explain it to him.)
  • “How is that childish?” – Cyrus
  • “I feel like there’s a little bit of a civil war going on in this country.” – Ellie
  • “You do have a knack for meeting the right people.” – J
  • “I think what this country lacks is perspective.” – J
  • “But …. Rationality wins.” – J
  • “Do you want the tequila before or after your nap?” – J (for the record, no tequila was harmed … this time)
  • “You might be able to fit a square peg into a round hole. But you’re probably going to damage the peg.” – Craig
  • “Being overly positive sometimes is a form of denial.” – Craig 

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