Sunday, January 26, 2014

To Know The Joke

To Know The Joke or Inside/Outside

To defeat the cold, go cold, go without heat.
To go cold, be outside. 
Outside, it is cold. 
And find that cold is defeated, 
therefore it's no longer cold. QED?

I don't get your Facebook status
It confuses me



The joke is bad logic
that I could end the cold
with axioms
An ontological joke
But also it's cold

I have no idea what you just said...


I am so confused right now.
I feel really dumb.
I don't know what ontological means,
nor do I understand
the stopping the cold 
with axioms thing.

You're not dumb.
But I am a philosophy major
with a strange sense of humor

Your humor isn't strange
I just don't understand philosophy jokes 
at all
I avoided philosophy classes like the plague

Well the joke was a mix of popular cliches
and a parody of the ontological 
it just is

I still don't know what ontological means

Ehh, never should have said anything
the logic of the joke 
was the joke
or rather, the lack of logic was the joke

this is going to sound horrible
but you're one of the few people
who can make me feel stupid in conversations
and it's something I often enjoy
because it almost always leads 
to me
learning new things
and it's the best

Ehh, I make people 
of many intelligence levels
and a lot of that 
is on me

I like it, though
Many people think
I'm a walking encyclopedia
and treat me as such
and it's nice
that you, well,

Monday, September 16, 2013

Healing Together, Walking Together

[Ed. note: After I wrote the essay Falling Down, I authored the update below. Please read Falling Down first, if you have time. Thanks!:]

While my wound is healing, it still hurts when I walk or put pressure on my left leg. I did see a doctor, even though it cost me a $25 copay, and I had to pay $15 for the supplies to treat my wounds. That's okay - I know that I have to stay in good health, and can't get an infection.

Speaking of old wounds, I have been feeling some anxiety about my social situation lately, although I suspect my fears are overblown. It's just difficult for me to avoid my apprehensions even when I have good reasons to suspect they're ill-advised.

I can recognize that many of my friends and the groups where I associate are trending in different directions than I am. Once again, tonight I am going on a date instead of spending time at an outing with some of my closest friends. Almost every time, I feel stupid afterward for missing good times with my friends in exchange for an at-best-mediocre date.

So why do I keep making this trade? There are a few reasons: I do feel lonely sometimes, and I very much want a relationship. Also, while I know my friends are close to me now and I cherish them, I feel vulnerable relying so much on the same people for so long. I want to expand the circle of people I know, especially people that I can keep close to me.

Sometimes I worry that my interactions with my friends and people I meet are two one-sided, too focused on myself and my needs. I want to be a better listener, a more generous and more supportive person. I feel inadequate in that effort in part because I realize that I'm not inclined to take initiative. I'm not always a demonstrative person, and I don't tend to go out of my way to connect with people. I have an inkling that I may want to change this feature, but I'm not sold yet, let alone wise enough to decide how to change.

I just feel like I don't know enough about myself, or about other people yet. This sense of ignorance feeds my insecurities, too...and already, we've returned to a focus on *my* issues - when I'm trying to think about others.

Cutting myself some slack, though, part of the reason I have focused more on my own reactions than those of other people, lies in good intentions. There have been times in the past when I've tried to connect with people in counter-productive ways and seen my outreach backfire badly. That is a major influence on my current instincts of deferring to other people or focusing primarily on my own perspective.

Focusing on myself has long felt like the safer and more courteous option. I am tortured by worst-case scenarios; I can't escape the fears I have of repeating the debilitating mistakes I have made in the past.

As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, every day you can ask yourself two things to become a better person: 1) what have I learned today? 2) what have I done to help other people? Considered through this prism, I feel positively overall about the strides I have made to be a better person towards my fellow human beings.

I want to focus on the positive lessons I have learned, not on the dread or shame of past mistakes. I want to have the comfort level to take risks, and the discretion to take smart risks. That goes back to why I am going on a date tonight instead of spending all my time with the friends I already have: I know I could take the safer option, but how is my life going to improve if I always fall back on what feels safe?

Sometimes, I fall. Sometimes, I fall because I've done something rather stupid. I have wounds that have healed, and wounds that are still mending. Sometimes, old pains flare again, and it takes all my strength just to walk on my own. Yet - sometimes - putting one foot in front of the other makes me feel more powerful, wiser, and bolder with each towering step.

Watching those who are attempting the same journey, I wonder how I can do my best to help others. What does that promise mean? How do I fulfill this commitment? I have no idea. But first I'm going to get up, and I won't be going alone.

Falling Down

[Ed. note: I first wrote this essay almost two weeks ago, but waited to publish these words until now:]

Yesterday evening, I was walking home through my neighborhood, when I took a false step off of a curb and fell down. I was falling straight forward, so I involuntarily caught myself with my hands and knees. At the time, I was carrying my briefcase and a package of M&Ms, and I was thinking about something else.

I ripped holes in both legs of my dress pants, and managed to scrape my right hand plus both of my knees, which were skinned through the holes that were created in my pants when I was breaking my fall.

It was very painful to have to walk all the way back home. When I got there, my roommate gave me some bandages. I washed my wounds, and then put on band-aids.

My hand and my right knee seem to be alright, but the wound on my left knee won't quit bleeding. I had to ask my boss for a package of tissues to borrow so I can swab the blood. I already changed the bandage this morning. I wish I had a bigger bandage, but all I have are the standard-sized band-aids that are way too small for my wound, so I have to use four or five of them.

As far as I know, I wasn't having this problem last night. I'm worried. Hopefully the wound won't get infected and will quit bleeding soon. I'll change the bandages again as soon as I return home, but that won't be for several more hours.

I feel pretty silly about injuring myself from falling down in the street. I was just mundanely walking when, all of a sudden, I fell down.

When I was changing my bandages this morning, it was very painful. Ripping several bandages from my skin at once - plus the fact that the bandages stick to the hair on my leg and rip that off, too - makes the process hard to endure.

While I was writing the last paragraph, I had to pause and daub the blood off of my left knee again. Argh. I don't even want to buy bigger bandages, because I'm so low on funds before my next paycheck. I'm already trying to decide if I have enough money to pay my Internet bill during the next week, or if I can pay my portion of our apartment's lease change fee.

If the wound gets worse - showing signs of infection - I will be reticent to get that examined because, frankly, my insurance situation is terrible. While I'm fortunate that I can stay on my parents' insurance, since I live so far from them, places where I live that take our insurance are harder to find. I can pay a co-pay at the office because I have insurance, but then I get billed a ridiculous charge later just because I saw a convenient care doctor one time.

When you don't have much money, and don't have good insurance, even the smallest, most inane of events can produce anxiety - even something as silly as falling down.

Life Precedes Words

[Ed. note: I actually composed the following essay before I wrote Better Living Through References, even though I published the latter essay first on this blog. I intended the essay below to serve as my reintroduction to this blog, this time:]

I have allowed some time to elapse since the last time I updated this blog. That is true for a variety of reasons. In the past few months, I have started a paid internship which has become a temporary job. I am cautiously optimistic.

I am hoping to secure something more permanent while I continue my current work. I am heartened to have something steady while I keep searching, but anxious for the low margin of error I still have. I have faith in the skills that have gotten me to this more positive place, but still feel trepidation for the uncertainty ahead, just as I often have in the last few years.

I've also spent some much needed time relaxing with my friends. In between worrying about my work, whether I can pay my bills, or how I'm going to coordinate my living situation, staying in touch with my closest friends has been more invaluable than ever.

While I have wanted to expand my social circle, by and large, I'm spending time with the same people that I knew when I left college. Another side project, my writing, has been largely hit-or-miss. I've faced prolonged dry spells and feelings of inadequacy, laced with some intriguing experiments and inspirations. I do feel that I have progressed as a person, especially as a young adult seeking to be more independent and responsible. That quest continues to be my main objective.

I have been discussing my interest in the disability community with people from several organizations. My work in health and aging advocacy provides a natural segue to the disability world. I devoured the book "No Pity" by Joseph Shapiro, which chronicles the development of the disability rights movement and describes the challenges that people with disabilities face and overcome.

In parallel to this exploration, I have spent more time reflecting upon my identity as a person with a disability. I have not reached the end of my deliberation, nor do I expect to reach an end - everything I consider is a reaction to the evolving situations in my life, and I relish the opportunity to grow as a person and immerse myself in new experiences (and as clich├ęd and stilted as that sounds, I believe that attitude and embrace it fully).

So, I am trying to manage all of these different ambitions and necessities before I feel composed enough to express myself coherently on other topics - before I have time, or before I have inclination. I realize this is all elaborate excuse-making, but I also have a cynical faith that the best inventions of human reason tend to be rationalizations. In a last-ditch effort to be somewhat genuine, I am sharing my rationalizations here.

I hope to write more often in the near future. I hope to update this space with something to pique interest. Whether that hope materializes, I cannot predict. I have often hoped on one hand, and schemed to act differently on the other hand. If I have any shot at delivering on these promises, I must scheme to reverse myself again, and return to my original intentions - which change too rapidly to measure.

Yes, those who know me and follow my vain attempts at writing have learned that uncertainty is my crucible and my companion...the catalyst that overwhelms my reluctance, feeds my devotion, and yet, undermines my ability to articulate anything close to the thrill and fervent terror my mind evokes.

My entire life is a somersault: when I dare to reach new heights, spinning in the air to keep my balance, I am stretched so far that I am unable to bring my thoughts to the surface. It is in that brief moment afterwards, when I am standing on solid ground but still remember the sensations of leaping, that I can properly share a true vision of movement.

Okay, that's the round-up of what I haven't been doing, and what I don't know. Eventually, I'll return to tell you about another time when I haven't done something else...

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Better Living Through References

A close friend of mine once told me that her brother with Asperger's has only communicated with her through shared references. Her brother has never had any other type of interaction with her - his efforts to reach out never migrate from direct experiences to reflection - never include what most people consider "real" conversation.

Many people tell me that it's hard to know that I have Asperger's. My close friend has reported that she sees vast differences between her brother and myself, yet sometimes, I feel that all of my "sophisticated, thoughtful" ideas are still loosely based on references and nothing else.

I have a phenomenal working memory for topics that interest me, and I store as much useful (or useless, depending on how you value the data) information as I can. This allows me to cheat, to make me seem like a person with "normal" reactions to life.

I feel like a human version of the "Turing test": every day, I wonder if people can distinguish what I say and how I act from the people around me. Will I pass? How long will people know me before they suspect me?

Once upon a time, Windows operating software like Windows 95 functioned on top of a pre-existing program called DOS. Windows 95 gave users the illusion of direct control, but Windows was still dependent on DOS architecture for daily operations. I like using this analogy to describe what it's like to be a person with Asperger's who has made some adjustments to cope with a neurotypical world.

While I strive to act compatibly with the majority of the people around me, I am in fact deeply dependent on a very different set of hardwiring. As much as I try to act in a synchronized way with what other people seem to expect from me, there are invariably times when I become frustrated by my limitations and the strenuous difficulty of staying on constant alert.

There are many things I do and ways I think about the world which are considered unusual. For example, I have a profoundly different sense of humor than most people I have met. A lot of things amuse me which are similar to neurotypical humor, but they tend to have their own subtle but pleasing spin for me.

Lots of people appreciate slapstick humor and the idea of the pratfall. Countless comedians - from Charlie Chaplin in the silent film era, to Chevy Chase's bumbling impression of Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live, to Ben Stiller antagonizing Robert DeNiro in the Meet the Parents movies - have made their reputations and millions of dollars from this brand of comedy.

For me, though, the concept of the pratfall extends from the physical to the emotional and societal. When people are hypocritical, inconsistent, passive-aggressive, dishonest, euphemistic, or otherwise find their feelings and actions at cross-purposes, I feel a great surge of schadenfreude. Those who have, as I have, spent their entire lives struggling to relate to people or to decipher the murky impressions people agonizingly leave in their wake, find it especially hysterical when neurotypical people struggle with some of the same problems.

On a related note, one of my favorite things is when neurotypical people adopt behaviors that autistic people have used to cope with a society that is inherently difficult for them. Every year, more people adopt smartphones, tablets, and other kinds of technology that occupy a person's every waking moment - insulating individuals from the burden of small talk and other social relationships. People are so cocooned in their own worlds - due to technology - that they miss out on the subtle, intimate details of daily life that people like me have struggled in vain to notice.

It amuses me to no end that so many neurotypical people are voluntarily abandoning a portal to the world that has been troublesome for me to access. When I am surrounded by a group of my friends who are all consumed in their smartphones, and I am the one person most intent on making conversation and observing the world around me...I cannot help but guffaw.

In an era of wildly proliferating Internet memes and the burgeoning celebration of pop culture references as a touchstone of daily life, I am beginning to wonder whether I am the person who truly has a problem with relying too much on abstract references and ideas.

The consumer-focused, hyper-individualized culture of America has blurred the lines (yes, that was intentional) between my struggle to anticipate how other people expect me to behave, and my longing to capture as much of the human experience as I possibly can.

I now face a society that discourages authenticity and the hard work required to immerse one's self in a diverse array of experiences. I face a society seemingly satisfied with low-hanging fruit and lowest-common-denominators. If I used to worry that I would not live up to the expectations of society, perhaps it is society that needs to worry about whether it's going to live up to my expectations.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Laughter As A Way Of Life

I used to be afraid. I felt rage and indignation, mixed with regret and despair.  I felt so out of touch, and I was worried that I would never feel at ease.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night. I feel so much useless energy coursing through me. I feel anxious, and feel so many thoughts rushing through my mind simultaneously that I hardly know which way is which.

I am constantly reminded of my insecurities. Usually, I suppress these feelings, for lack of a better way to cope. I felt like I had to choose between suppression - ignoring the feelings entirely, or depression - blaming myself, or anger - venting at situations over which I had no control.

I didn't know that there was another option.

I'm trying. Sometimes I still feel like I'm in denial. My laughter is not a way to separate myself from my feelings - it is a knowing acknowledgement of the absurdity of my life - but is not a hollow, hopeless, or self-defeating absurdity. This is an affirmation.

I have tried, hard, to find another place - a better place - to go, mentally. I end up so often in my thoughts, that I need some kind of refuge. I have tried to appreciate things in my life for the way they are.

So I laugh. And why do I laugh, and what do I find funny?

I giggle about what I don't know - what I once didn't know but have now learned - what other people deeply feel to be true but don't actually know - about patterns others miss that I understand - when I finally learn something that it seems like other people understand easily.

One of my closest friends recently told me that I am one of the most optimistic people she knows. This shocked me. I have never thought of myself as an optimistic person. Now, I am trying to be more like the version of myself that she has apparently seen.

I'm not saying that I am changing to satisfy other people. I'm doing as much as I can to be true to myself, it's just that there are things about myself that I don't like. Besides, the idea of being "true to myself" has always seemed somewhat contradictory and problematic for me, both in theory and practice.

Theoretically, how can I be true to myself when I barely know what I want? Aren't I just privileging the things I already know? What's the fun in that? I want to keep expanding my horizons - I don't know where I will be in the future, and how I can be true to what I do not yet know?

Practically, I've always felt insecure about some of the ways I act. I feel very uncomfortable in many different situations, and yet I can be extremely engaging and gregarious with very close friends and when I'm talking about my passions. Still, I'm clumsy about how I express myself - I interrupt other people too much, and too often find myself waiting to speak again instead of listening to what people are saying. I'm genuinely trying not to be inconsiderate - I really am - I just find it so difficult to relate to people sometimes, that when I feel like I have something valuable to contribute, it's hard for me to hold this is a way that insecurity feeds upon itself.

I'm constantly struggling to live up to my own expectations of who I can be, of what I can do, and what I can accomplish. I put a lot of pressure on myself. All this laughter is a way for me to deflate the tension.

Sometimes, I just look in the mirror, and I start laughing. Then, like the world's unsexiest vampire, I disappear for a little while.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why Damon Linker Is Wrong On Atheism

In the online edition of The Week magazine, Damon Linker of the University of Pennsylvania and The New Republic published a rant inspired by the recent release of philosopher A.C. Grayling's book promoting atheism. Linker writes in his column, Where are the honest atheists?, to bemoan the idea that godlessness is good for human beings.

While Linker doesn't mind the attacks on religion in "new atheist" books (although he implies that these attacks are over hashed and repetitive), he declares that the "style of atheism rehearsed in these books has reached a dead end" because it "quite obviously is not" true that atheism is good news.

Right away, Linker kneecaps his own analysis of atheism through his failure to properly and thoroughly understand its ideas. I don't know whether Linker is an atheist, but if he is, he needs to pay more attention to his subject matter -- and if he isn't, this is only one example of the dozens of times a non-atheist has written something about atheism that is full of misrepresentations and inaccuracies which the author uses to falsely attack atheist ideas.

Many atheists agree with Linker (!) that the new atheist books have reached a dead end; but this does not mean that atheism is not good news. Moving beyond ideas from The God Delusion and God Is Not Great, a large number of atheists have realized that it is not sufficient to tear down religion to improve the world, but rather, non-religious people must promote forward-looking alternatives to religion.

Linker has missed many developments toward this end. The Atheism Plus movement, which implores atheists to focus on social justice issues - which asks atheists to overcome racism, misogyny, and other unjust forms of privilege beyond religious privilege - is a worthy example of how atheists use their lack of faith as a foundation to inspire larger activism. Atheists have established charities such as the Foundation Beyond Belief, to organize atheist charitable giving and more effectively create positive change in the world.

When Joe Klein of TIME Magazine falsely libeled atheist groups for their lack of an organized response to the Moore, Oklahoma tornado -- several organized atheist groups (including the Foundation Beyond Belief) have, in fact, contributed money and organized volunteers and the distribution of goods for victims of the tornado -- Klein refused to apologize and TIME Magazine refused to issue a correction. Where is the honest atheist?, asks Damon Linker. Where is the person who is honest about atheism?, is a much better and more relevant question.

Atheists are being more open today. Why? Perhaps it is because most non-atheists particularly enjoy depicting atheists as: loners, joyless nihilists; vitriolic and snide; people without morality; people who are not essentially American; people who have no community and are not truly involved in their communities. These stereotypes are false and empty, yet it still remains popular to perpetuate these mindless exaggerations.

"If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we're alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic."

This is what Damon Linker has to say about atheism. Linker describes atheism as a tragedy, only because that is how he chooses to see atheism. I see the same set of circumstances as Linker, yet I ask him:

If atheism is true, why isn't it good news? Learning that our fate is in our own hands, that we have the freedom to solve our problems for ourselves, that humanity is not intentionally designed to suffer, that we are not falsely separated from the natural world, that we need not fear punishment after death, that our sufferings and our joys matter more than we could ever imagine because they belong to us and us alone, that our lives and loves are the ultimate point of our present existence, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment are not rewarded with eternal bliss and that those who lead kind, decent lives do not suffer eternal torture for believing in the wrong religion -- all of this (and much more) is utterly joyous.

Further, Linker completely whiffs by casting Nietzsche's description of the death of God as an "awe-inspiring catastrophe" for humanity as a bad thing for atheism. There is another level of nuance in Nietzsche's thought beyond labeling the death of God as a catastrophe, otherwise how is it an "awe-inspiring catastrophe"? On the contrary, the death of God is an excellent opportunity to avoid a descent into nihilism and create a more meaningful life. If there are no gods controlling the destiny of our lives, then each of us is ultimately responsible for imbuing meaning, creativity, and love into our lives and the lives of our fellow human beings. How can people descend into nihilism when they have such a terrific responsibility before them? There is too much left to do to become a nihilist.

Likewise, when Linker cites Camus stating that the lack of a satisfying answer to the question "why" demands that the goodness of human life must be reconstructed from the ground up, this is not a bad thing. The goodness of human life should originate from the ground up - it shouldn't originate from unverifiable, untraceable divine notions accepted with blind faith. If you must reason from the ground up, suddenly you are exposed to entire new and liberating vistas of compassion. Seeing the tangible reality of how people act, rather than adhering to unimpeachable dogma, it's harder to believe that gay people are less human, that people of other faiths are less moral, and that our individual fates are not inextricably bound to each other and to the health of our environment. Linker asks, in so many words, why do you want to be free? Wouldn't you rather hold on to the shackles of religion?

Linker cites the writing of Philip Larkin, claiming that a world without religion leaves "no solace or reassurance" and "the horrifying prospect of a lonely plunge into infinite nothingness." In later paragraphs, Linker adds that the "whole point of the liturgy performed on the church altar, Larkin implies, is to seduce us with the beautiful and supremely fulfilling illusion that our worldly compulsions have cosmological meaning and significance." No. Without religion, our solace and reassurance is in the present moment. With religion, the meaningfulness of our present lives plunges into infinite nothingness. With atheism, that meaningfulness is paramount and sacrosanct, because it is all we have. Religion does seduce us: encouraging us to trade the life-affirming view that the meaning and significance of our lives derives from our own actions, for the paralyzing idea that our lives are only meaningful in a context outside of our ourselves. Religion poisons and disparages the grandeur of the moment to sell us a fragmentary and unattainable future.

Perhaps my statement attacking Linker for preferring the shackles of religion seems extreme. Here is what Linker says about "the deepest sources of humanity's religious impulses", a statement that deeply disappoints me and neatly illustrates the injustices of too much religious thought:

"The compassionate generosity and honesty of Larkin's atheism also infuse a poem titled "Faith Healing," which reflects on the deepest sources of humanity's religious impulses. Larkin suggests that human beings are creatures governed by the longing to love — and even more so, by the longing to be loved. It is a need, a hunger that never can be permanently satiated. But religion tries, understanding and responding to this crucially important aspect of humanity perhaps more fully than any other institution or practice. When a preacher looks into the eyes of a suffering parishioner, cradles her head in his hands, and utters "Dear child, what's wrong?", Larkin writes, "an immense slackening ache / ... Spreads slowly through" her, "As when, thawing, the rigid landscape weeps." The preacher's love may be a charade, the loving God that appears to act through him may be a fantasy conjured out of a combination of imagination and spiritual yearning, but in that moment faith has demonstrated its unique capacity to heal the human heart."

It is the highest shame of religion that it unjustly redirects the vital human impulse to love and to be loved from its best and most honest source - between actual human beings - to the abstract, rationalizing, sophistical idea of gods. Religion abuses normal human love - the love that we have for each other, from person to person - and arrogantly declares this love to be insufficient, creating a false hunger through its own practices.

When a preacher loves a parishioner, when a father loves a daughter, when a sister loves her brother, when firefighters sacrifice their lives for their communities, the healing of the human heart was there all along - in the love the people gave each other, from each other. It is religion that has the unique capacity to trivialize the human heart, whereas atheism sets the heart free to love on its own terms.