Monday, March 9, 2009

Set the Stage

So there I was, sitting at the bar, enjoying what has been a far too rare experience for me: a good blind date.

The girl was cute, the conversation was interesting and she always said “thank you” when the server brought her something. There was definitely potential here.

But just as I began to feel comfortable, out of nowhere, like an annoying SPAM message about “debt consolidation,” the strangest thought popped into head:

“What would happen if I threw my drink in her face?”

What? Where did that come from?

It was as if I was channeling my inner J.D. (Scrubs) with this crazy, random daydream. Luckily, I hadn’t tilted my head and turned my eyes up to the left, so it wasn’t obvious that something outrageous was going through my head.

But as I pulled my hand away from my drink – you know, just to be safe – I gave the question a little more thought. If I were to do it, what would really happen? Would I get slapped? Would I feel bad or laugh hysterically? Could I end up on Youtube?

More importantly, would there be farther-reaching consequences than giving this girl a date story for the ages? I mean, what if she was supposed to be the “one,” and we’d been set up so we could live happily ever after? Would this idiotic, out-of-the-blue decision completely alter my life? Would I be shifting the very course of destiny with a single flick of the wrist?

I realized there was a much bigger issue here, a chicken-or-the-egg question that scholars and theologians have been debating for centuries:

When it comes down to it, how much control do we really have over our lives?

On one hand, we were blessed with free will. Day to day, minute to minute, we are presented with options – Double Cheeseburger, Chicken McNuggets or both – and with each decision we make, we incrementally build our own path.

I know my life is the way it is right now largely due to the choices I’ve made. Nobody forced me to take that job or move to that city…it was all my doing. I sometimes look back and wonder how things might’ve been had I chosen differently. But as hard as it can be to swallow regret, I accept full responsibility for the state of my union.

On the other hand, there’s the idea of destiny: that our lives are pre-determined, and we are essentially living out a completed novel. Guided by a higher power, all we have to do is keep breathing in and out, and everything will unfold the way it’s supposed to.

A few years ago, I was driving through the rain, when suddenly, my car began to hydroplane. Completely out of control, skidding across three lanes of freeway traffic, I waited to either get hit by another car or to slam into the wall. But after the longest five seconds of my life, I found myself positioned perfectly on the shoulder, facing in the opposite direction. A stuntman couldn’t have executed a better parking job.

It was like I’d been encapsulated by a protective bubble, ensuring that not only was there no traffic around me when I began to swerve, but that my car could get to safety. The only way I can explain what happened is that someone was watching over me, and I – nor anyone else – was meant to get hurt.

So where does all of this leave us? Who is really in charge here? Do we decide our fate, or has our story already been written?

Like most things in life, I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

When I was younger, there was a series of books called “Choose Your Own Adventure,” in which you, the reader, assumed the role of the main character. Every so often, you had to decide what you wanted to do next, i.e.: “If you want to go inside the cave, turn to page 10; If you want to head back home, turn to page 13.” The plot then continued for a few pages, where you’d be faced with another choice, and then another, until you’d ultimately reach one of several possible endings.

Well, I think that’s a decent parallel for life. We have the freedom to go where we want to go, to do what we want to do (assuming you’re single), and the decisions we make shape the path our lives take.

But they don’t determine it.

On the 72nd green of the 2008 U.S. Open golf tournament, Tiger Woods faced a 12-foot birdie putt to get into a playoff. He’d ignored his doctor’s orders to not play on the torn ACL and double stress fracture in his left leg – just for the shot at a moment like this.

As he stood over the ball, he could’ve thought about everything that he’d risked by playing – and how senseless that risk would be were he to come up short – or he could’ve tried to force the golf ball into the hole.

Instead, he took a more fatalist approach. He picked his line, he determined how hard he wanted to hit it, and he encouraged himself to make a good stroke. He knew that once he struck the putt – no matter how perfectly executed it was – the outcome was out of his hands.

“Just control what you can control,” he said.

And really, that’s all we can expect of ourselves. We have to do our part – by getting in the game, by doing the work. But once we’ve set the stage, whatever happens next is up to the universe.

I believe we were put on earth to learn certain lessons, and that G-d – or whoever you believe in – molds our experiences, giving us the opportunity to become “educated.” Success…failure…disappointment…every outcome happens for a reason, allowing us to grow on a deeper level, and it’s our job to find the message in each. And if you find yourself getting the same type of results over and over, like you’re endlessly driving around in circles, then maybe that’s your higher power’s way of banging you over the head with a particular lesson until you finally get it.

So why did Tiger’s putt catch the top-edge of the hole and fall in?

Well…it was just meant to be.

As for my date, it ended rather innocently. We finished our drinks, I paid the tab, and we went our separate ways. But had I given into my temporary insanity, I trust that things would have still worked out for the best. If we were meant to be together, then she would’ve found someway to deal with it.

After all, sometimes all it takes to get the girl is some alcohol and a little luck.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Teach Your Children Well

My father is the most well-read person I know. Stacked on his nightstand is reading material ranging from books on business and politics to the latest issue of Golf Digest. The man can hold an intelligent conversation on just about anything.

Raising two sons, he exposed them to all of it, hoping they would be similarly well-rounded. Instead, each was drawn exclusively to one area of his interests, and there was virtually no overlap.

While the apples didn’t fall far from the tree, they did fall on opposite sides of it.

My brother was fascinated with finance and government, graduating with a degree in business and working his way up to the post of Press Secretary for a U.S. Senator.

(Of course, he’s a rabbi now, and we don’t know where he got that from.)

I, on the other hand, got my dad’s love of sports, living and dying with how well grown men play a variety of children’s games.

When I was 12, my father took us to Washington, D.C., so we could get an up-close look at how our nation operates. While my brother scoped out his future office on Capitol Hill, I could not have been less interested, spending the whole trip devising strategies – hypothetical strategies, of course – to take out the president.

“I could knock down that Secret Service agent and go right into the Oval Office.”

But over the last little while – with any notion of being an assassin behind me – I’ve tried to get educated about this other, more important side of my dad’s interests. Maybe it was because there was an historical presidential race and colossal economic crisis, or maybe it was because it cost me $66 to fill up my gas tank, but I figured it was time to get my news from someplace other than Sportscenter.

So I began flipping off ESPN and turning on CNN. I watched the presidential debates. I listened to the financial experts forecast the market. I even occasionally set my sleep timer to Anderson Cooper.

A lot of the time, I was completely lost. It all sounded like English, and I recognized the words, but I had no clue what any of it meant. I longed for subtitles that would translate the content to a 4th grade level.

And while the technical jargon went over my head, what my uneducated eyes and ears could make out was cause for concern. There were adults behaving like children, pointing their fingers at one another, blaming each other for this and that. There was nice-sounding rhetoric without any action to back it up. And there was an overall lack of honesty.

These were our leaders, the supposed cream of our crop. Maybe I was completely missing something, but I couldn’t help but ask myself:

Is this really how it works?

Because this was the first political race I’d followed, I was not jaded by party affiliation, and I honestly believed that both McCain and Obama could potentially do a good job. Of course, it was hard to argue with Chris Rock’s logic: if you want the president who will identify the most with the everyday American, pick the guy who only has one house.

When Obama won, I felt a renewed sense of hope. If a Black man could be elected leader of the free world, who knew what else was possible?

But the first month or so of this new era has been less than confidence-inspiring. We were told that lobbyists would have no place in this White House, but one of the first presidential nominees, Tom Daschle, was one of the biggest lobbyists in the country (he ended up withdrawing his name from consideration). A stimulus package was passed by Congress, despite the fact that many of them hadn’t even read the whole thing. And the man confirmed to oversee the IRS hadn’t paid his taxes.

Talk about the mother of all employee discounts.

Is this really how it works?

The financial fiasco has been even more maddening, especially when you realize that no one involved – from the irresponsible homebuyers to the mortgage brokers to the top-floor executives – had regard for anyone or anything but themselves and the almighty dollar. Yet, when the bottom fell out, they had no problem being cleaned up after by those who had done everything right.

While I see the unfairness in the hardworking taxpayer being saddled with this burden, I do believe a society should rally together in times of trouble. Lending a helping hand…sacrificing for the greater good – this is the definition of community.

If everyone had taken this attitude all along, we probably wouldn’t be in this situation.

So I have no problem with the government bailing out the financial institutions…it sounds like it’s best for all of us in the long-term. What I do have a problem with is writing multi-billion dollar checks to corporations without any instructions or restrictions as to how it’s to be spent. Like a beggar with a cell phone, these banks have proven they don’t know or care about the efficient use of money. They’ve toppled the entire economy by running their companies into the ground, and yet they’re rewarded with a no-strings-attached $20 billion?

Is this really how it works?

When the first thing the rescued CEOs did with this bailout money was dole out their “well-earned” bonuses and hop a private jet to Vegas, it was just one more fully-extended middle finger at the American people. That’s the way these last few months have gone. I tend to be an optimist – even a little Pollyanna – and I expect things to get better. But I wonder if it’ll happen in spite of the work done by anyone in power.

I’ve always believed in the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt’s “To the Man in the Arena” speech; that you don’t sit on the sidelines and point out what others are doing wrong – the living’s easy in the cheap seats. Lord knows I’m not smart enough to figure out the answers, and I respect anyone who has the courage to stand in there and play the game.

But if you are going to take on that responsibility, there is a simple, basic standard you should be expected to meet: work from a place of good intentions…try your best to do what is fair and what is right…and tell the truth all the time, not just when it’s convenient.

You don’t have to be perfect…just don’t make a fool out of the people who have given you their trust.

They say you learn everything you need to know in kindergarten, but it seems our society has forgotten some of these elementary lessons. Driven by greed, power and self-gratification, we have not only dug ourselves a hole, we’ve set a poor example for the next generation – a consequence that could be far more destructive than any housing bust or stock market meltdown.

Our country is at a crossroads now…not just politically and financially, but morally, and the way we choose to go forward will have a long-lasting impact. So I think it’s the perfect time to step back, re-evaluate what we stand for and ask ourselves:

Is this really how we want it to work?

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?