Monday, December 27, 2010

Help Me Help You

During my senior year of high school, I got a job at the neighborhood Blockbuster Video in hopes of earning some spending cash. Considering all of the places I could’ve worked, I’m not really sure what led me there, though. The pay was minimum, the hours were not, and at least once a week, I was on the clock until 3am, cleaning up the disaster zone that was the store on a Friday or Saturday night.

Fortunately, it wasn’t all negative. I did get free rentals, and because there was a McDonald’s right across the street, I had an excuse to eat chicken nuggets for dinner far more often than my mother would’ve liked. Plus, I was also given one of those cool titles that make you sound much more important than you actually are:

Customer Service Representative.

While I’d had a couple of jobs before, this was my first experience in the “front of the house,” out amongst the people. My thought was that it would be a nice change of pace from the quiet monotony of the golf course cart barns where I’d previously worked.

Boy, was I wrong.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that dealing with customers was about as much fun as turning and coughing for my doctor. Everybody was unhappy – about everything. Late fees, lack of inventory, overpriced rentals, the annoying overhead movie clips that played repeatedly (okay, that was my complaint)…the whining never stopped. It got to the point where I couldn’t wait to do my closing duties – which included the tedious task of making sure that each and every box cover was perfectly centered in front of the tapes behind them – because it meant that all of the insanity was on the other side of the store’s locked doors.

And it was in those moments, crawling from shelf to shelf on my hands and knees, with the clock ticking towards an ungodly hour of night, when I came to the following realization:

I hated people.

Not my friends and family…I still liked them. It was the paying public I couldn’t stand – the people who yelled at me for not renting to them because they had no ID; the people who talked down to me like I was a child; the people who walked into the store three minutes before we were about to close; the people who would just drop a movie they didn’t want in any random spot, knowing that somebody else (me) would clean up after them. These people were rude and thoughtless and unreasonable, and putting up with them, even on a part-time basis, turned my view of my fellow man decidedly cynical.

That’s what can happen when you work in customer service. Built on the foundation that the “customer is always right,” the customer-employee relationship is one of the most unequal, lopsided dynamics around, right alongside wife-husband, Viagra-ED and Chris Hansen-potential pedophile. The normal laws of human interaction don’t apply. Because the customer is so valued, they have, in the words of George Costanza, “hand,” meaning they can do and say pretty much whatever they want.

When you think about it, the business world is a lot like the ocean. Both are environments that are driven, in large part, by the behavior of their dominant inhabitants. In the business world, that’s the customer. In the ocean, it’s the shark. Each sits atop their respective food chains, and where they go and what they consume sets the course for everyone and everything below them.

Which means that those of us who work in customer service are the equivalent of the seal – the helpless mammal on which the sharks feed.

I’ve never been more aware of my place in this hierarchy than when I was working for one of the largest sports marketing firms in the country. The first thing my supervisors taught me was to service the client, service the client, service the client. Like location in real estate, that was what it was all about, and it was a nonstop task. Even during the summer, when our office closed a few hours early on Friday afternoons, someone had to stick around in case some sort of “marketing emergency” popped up.

(Of course, the second thing they taught me was “CYA” – Cover You’re a$$ – so if the client was not properly serviced, I would be in a good position to blame somebody else. Gotta love Corporate America!)

As an Account Coordinator (another one of those misleading titles), I was assigned to help organize and run owner-loyalty golf tournaments for a large automotive company. Basically, our client wanted to thank their best customers for buying a bunch of cars, so they would invite them out to a high-end country club for a day of free golf, food and prizes, and it was our job to make it all happen.

And that’s exactly what we did when we were told to set up a tournament for the Washington, D.C. area. After securing one of the city’s top golf courses as the host site – it was where the local PGA Tour event was played – we lined up a great menu for lunch and dinner, along with a number of gifts to be raffled off. And before too long, we reached our full capacity of RSVPs.

But on the day of the event, we had a number of no-shows. And our client wanted to know why.

What ensued was a fast-and-furious string of emails between higher-ups, as everyone tried to figure out what had gone wrong. How could this have happened? What mistakes were made? Did everyone get the memo about the TPS reports?

Operating under the notion that no idea was too foolish, the theories and suggestions got more ridiculous with each exchange. At one point, the client wondered if it’d be worthwhile for us to analyze traffic patterns to see if that had contributed to the lack of attendance.

Reading through it all, I couldn’t believe how absurd and drawn-out the situation had become. I also didn’t appreciate the implication that we somehow hadn’t done our job properly. I knew the smart move would be to just keep my mouth shut and play along, but I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer.

So I jumped into the email chain and defended our work. I explained that we’d selected a top-notch venue, and we’d promoted the event well enough to fill all of the available slots. We’d been on top of communicating the details to the participants beforehand. We’d executed the logistics of everything effectively. And we’d given the golfers who did show up a great day. What more could we have done?

I concluded by saying that while it was worth evaluating our efforts when something wasn’t perfect, there’s not always a tangible, logical explanation for everything what happens. No matter how hard you try, there are some things you just can’t control. Maybe these no-shows got tied up at work or had to pick up their kids or had a last-minute change of plans. Sometimes people don’t show up, and you just have to chalk it up as “one of those things” and move on.

Not surprisingly, my rebuttal was not well received, and honestly, I’m lucky I didn’t get fired. Things got smoothed over with the client, but the manager of my account didn’t talk to me for about a week. I had crossed an un-crossable line, and I walked away from the experience with the understanding that when dealing with the customer, my opinion was to be kept to myself. It didn’t matter what I thought….all that mattered was what the customer thought, and it was up to me to cater to whatever that may be.

Ever since then, I’ve toed the company line for every company I’ve worked. I check my beliefs at the door and approach the job with the mindset of a second-class citizen. I’m here to serve.

It hasn’t always been easy, though, as there are all types of people out there with all types of personalities. I do my best to validate their feelings and assure them that their concern will be attended to and rectified, and then I hold on for dear life. I can typically suppress my thoughts enough to fake my way through – even if I think they’re an absolute whack job who needs to find something worthwhile to worry about.

But we all have a threshold.

When someone keeps pushing and poking, grinding away at something that’s already been beaten to death, I can only hang in there for so long. The what-else-do-you-want-me-to-say aggravation wells up inside, and I want to tell them exactly how I feel. I want to point out how irrational they’re being. I want to make it clear how little I care. I want to remind them how unbecoming it is to display the patience of a four-year-old. I want to urge them to go have an inappropriate relationship with themselves, and I want to let them know that I will forever hold a grudge for the 20 minutes and 40 blood pressure points that they cost me.

And then I remember my place on the food chain.

Look, I’m not saying people should never voice their displeasure. I know how frustrating it can be when you spend – or are trying to spend – your hard-earned money on something, and it ends up turning into a headache that you didn’t ask for.

Because, like Cy Sperling and the Hair Club for Men, I have not only worked in customer service, but I’ve also been a client.

I have sat in restaurants wondering if a server would ever stop at my table. I have waited nine hours for a cable guy who never showed. I have repeatedly screamed “OPERATOR” into the phone until the automated answering system finally connected me with an actual human being. I have been shorted a supersized order of McDonald’s French fries.

And I love McDonald’s fries.

But I have also recognized that simply paying for something doesn’t give you the right to treat people poorly. That money in your hand isn’t a license to be a jacka$.

In most cases, the people on the other side of the counter are trying to do their best. They’re not purposely putting you off or deliberately yanking you around, so why not give them a break? Wouldn’t you want someone to do the same for you? For your friend? For your child?

Besides, it’s entirely possible that the unsuspecting person you’re complaining to didn’t even have a hand in screwing up whatever it is that got screwed up…they’re just the unlucky one who answered the phone or drew you in line. So being rude to them only puts them on the defensive, thus making them all the less likely to go out of their way to help you.

But it’s not just about getting what you want…it’s about respect, and everyone, from the grocery bagger to the waiter to the airline rep to the DMV agent – yes, even the DMV agent – deserves to be treated in a dignified manner.

While I wish everyone would take this approach, too many still don’t. They’re too hurried or too selfish or too wrapped up in their own worlds to stop and consider the feelings for anybody but themselves.

But that needs to change, because somewhere out there is an innocent, idealistic teenager wearing a blue polo shirt and a name tag, and he hasn’t yet been jaded by the world around him.

You don’t want him to end up like me, do you?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Social Network

I’ll admit it…I’m a fan of ABC’s reality franchise “The Bachelor.”

Maybe it’s because the show touches my hidden romantic side, or maybe it’s because I hope to one day replace the incomparable Chris “This is the final rose” Harrison as host, but there’s just something about it that keeps me tuning in.

So when the network rounded up some of the most memorable characters from seasons’ past, threw them in a California mansion, and let them compete, connive and cry their eyes out for $250,000 in the spinoff series “Bachelor Pad,” my Monday nights were immediately spoken for.

Like most reality TV, there wasn’t much depth to the show, with each episode consisting of little more than gratuitous skin shots and over-the-top, tear-filled outbursts. When the housemates weren’t hanging by the pool or making out in the hot tub, they were competing in challenges such as pie eating races and blindfolded kissing contests to determine who would get to go out on a romantic date and who would have to stay back, get drunk, and talk trash about whomever wasn’t there. After two hours of this nonsense, everyone would cast a vote “Survivor”-style for who they wanted to send packing. The last (wo)man standing won the cash.

Given the group setting, it wasn’t surprising that cliques quickly formed among the housemates, but it was interesting to see how the divisions were drawn and how this separation affected the dynamics of everything. There were two distinct factions, and the cast nicknamed each of them to make sure everyone knew the house’s pecking order…

On one side, you had the “insiders” – the athletic, cocky, good-looking types who were born with a popped collar, the d-bags who used to show up to college spring break already tanned. They were all coupled up, and when they weren’t mounting each other, they were looking down on everybody else.

On the other side were the “outsiders” – a melting pot of outcasts who had been deemed unworthy of being included in the cool crowd. You had the “nerd,” the “rebel,” the “whiner”…you even had the “cougar,” a woman who apparently was so much older than the rest of the contestants that the producers put up “??” on the screen in place of her age whenever they identified her.

But what the outsiders lacked in popularity points, they made up for in volume – they outnumbered the insiders. And in a game where elimination was determined by votes, the biggest alliance wielded the biggest stick. So if the outsiders could band together and vote as a unit, they could take out the insiders one by one and exact the ultimate Revenge of the Nerds.

And yet, they never did.

When it came down to the finale, and all of the cash was within arm’s length, there was nothing but insiders left fighting for it. Not because they were smarter or tougher or stronger competitors, and not because they won more challenges or had a better strategy. It was because they had something that the outsiders were desperate for:


Every week, the outsiders would consort and confer and eventually decide on an insider to send home. And every week, right before the votes were cast, one of the insiders would approach an outsider in hopes of getting that outsider to change his or her vote.

Weak-kneed and starry-eyed, the outsider would stand there in awe, gazing up at their hero, like they were offering “Mean” Joe Green a Coke. As the insider sweet-talked them, making them feel as if they could possibly be part of the inner circle if they’d just do this one favor, you could see the outsiders’ delusional thoughts dancing through their heads…

“How can someone with eyes this dreamy not be telling me the truth?”

“I know it was just a kissing contest, but this guy must have really meant it when he stuck his tongue down my throat.”

“Maybe now I’ll get to disgrace my parents by having sex on national television in the fantasy suite.”

You can guess what happened from there. The outsider would flip their vote, thus saving the targeted insider – and eliminating an unsuspecting outsider – and in the ensuing episodes, having no more use for their mark, the insiders would scheme to get rid of the very same outsider(s) who had previously helped them.

To watch this unfold over and over was maddening. It was a season-long validation of the hierarchy of high school – the cool kids bending everything their way…the losers just bending over.

But despite my urge to beat the outsiders over the head with a what-did-you-think-was-going-to-happen stick, a part of me could also identify with them.

When I was in 6th grade, I was on top of the world. I had a lunch table full of friends, I was “going with” the prettiest girl in class, and I was even voted “Best All-Around” in the yearbook.

Granted, I went to a magnet school, and my class wasn’t much bigger than the Tea Party’s Obama Fan Club, but still…that’s not something they can take away from you.

But towards the end of the spring semester, something changed. I had broken up with my girlfriend (probably because the foundation of our relationship was the occasional look from across the cafeteria and a hug at the end of the day…honestly, we never actually spoke to each other), and the rest of the girls had shifted their attention to one of the other boys. At the final dance of the year, while everyone was jamming to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” I was yesterday’s news, off in the corner, wasting away in irrelevance.

That’s when I decided a change of scenery could do me some good. Since I knew a bunch of people at my neighborhood school, I transferred there over the summer, hoping that this recent fall from grace had been a mere bump in the road – not a sign that I had peaked in life as a 12-year-old.

Seventh grade is a critical time for a Jewish teenager. Not only do you become an adult in the eyes of your religion, but because there is this never-ending string of Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations among your classmates, you quickly find out how popular you are. You see how many invitations show up in your mailbox. You see who talks to you at parties. You see who is willing to slow-dance (arms fully extended) with you. For the first time, you really start to get a view of the social landscape, and you see exactly where it is that you fit.

Unfortunately for me, I was more totally geek than totally chic.

While I was invited to a lot of these functions, I wasn’t really included in the festivities. Everyone seemed to be having the time of their lives, decked out in their Z Cavarricis, swaying arm in arm to “That’s What Friends Are For.” Me? I would just float through the banquet rooms, searching for a group of people to latch onto, hoping to promote the appearance that I wasn’t all alone. I blended in like I was wearing centerpiece camouflage, and I don’t think anyone would’ve noticed had I spent those Saturday nights at home watching the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling.

It’s not that I didn’t have any friends, because I was fortunate to have some really good ones. But I just always felt like I was on the outside looking in. In the social story that was playing out all around me, I was nothing more than a fringe character – the guy who everyone said hi to (but didn’t talk to again), the guy who nobody had a problem with, but, at the end of the day, the guy who was just…there.

And so it went for me…

In high school, where glamour sports like baseball and football were king, I played golf, which did nothing to help my cause. Nobody seemed to be impressed by our matching polo shirts or logoed golf bags – especially not the popular girl who I used to stare at in English class. When I finally got the courage to ask her out, she initially answered yes, and I spent the rest of the week with my feet 10 feet off of Beale. But on the day of our date, she didn’t respond to my calls, and when I went to her house to see what the deal was, her mother told me that she was out for the night.

It was a significant moment in my dating career: the first time a girl had given me the runaround. And it was something that, looking back, I needed to get used to.

But it wasn’t exactly the “first” I’d been hoping for.

When I got to college, I joined the fraternity that my brother had pledged. It was definitely the right place for me…I made a bunch of friends – friends I’m still close with today – and I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. But because we were viewed as the “nice guys,” and because we were at an age when girls are generally attracted to anything but, our barbecues sometimes had too many hot dogs for any of our liking.

Since graduation, I haven’t gotten any cooler, nor have I succeeded in the areas – money and power – that now determine one’s place in society. But while I’ve had the occasional date go south when it was revealed that my job description included terms like “assistant” and “entry level,” I somehow haven’t felt that many negative repercussions from my current (lack of) status. I guess I’ve just been lucky.

But I’m still scarred.

Those wounds that started accumulating way back in sixth grade haven’t just washed off like some sort of temporary tattoo. I carry all of that pain with me, and it affects how I view and interact with the world. I often feel as if I’m invisible. I lack confidence in social situations. I expect to be rejected when I put myself out there.

That’s just the way it is for me. If you get left out enough, if you get rejected enough, if you go unnoticed enough, you begin to believe that there’s something wrong with you. It gets ingrained on your DNA, and it can turn your life into an anxious and isolating existence.

Because while it’s nice to be funny or good looking or rich, few things compare to being accepted.

When you’re a part of something – a group of friends, a team, a club, the mafia – you feel validated. This person likes me, and that person likes me, so I must be okay. There’s a sense of structure, of support, like there’s a place for you.

But too often we sell out for this acceptance, doing anything and everything we can, just to try to fit in. We agree to eat at a restaurant we dislike. We let someone else pick the radio station. We don’t express an opinion. We substitute somebody else’s judgment for our own. We let our pledge masters pour Tabasco sauce down our boxer shorts.

These things may seem harmless on the surface and really, if you look at them individually, they are pretty insignificant (well, except for the last one…that one actually is harmful on the surface). But when you stack them one on top of the other, instance after instance, they take a toll, because the more you concede, and the more you conform, the more inauthentic you become.

And honestly, what good is it to be accepted for being someone you’re not?

Lord knows I fail miserably at it, but I guess the trick is to not allow your self worth to be reliant on any type of exterior approval. Like happiness, it’s an inside job, and no matter how much pressure you feel or how lonely things get, you have to figure out a way to stay true to who you really are and be okay with it – everyone else be damned.

Sure, it may cost you a rendezvous in the fantasy suite, but it might just be your best shot at $250,000.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Waiting for My Real Life to Begin

There’s an age-old belief that the truth shall set you free.

Well, I have been sitting here for over an hour, trying to figure out how to start this article, and I am failing miserably.

If this were the pre-word processor days, there would be a sea of crumpled paper all over my floor. I can’t put together a coherent thought, I’m getting taunted by the cursor and its “Any time now…” blinking, and if I engage in this staring contest with my blank screen for much longer, I might go Daniel Tosh on my monitor.

So what choice do I have but to be brutally honest, admit my struggles and pray that it gets me paroled off of Writer’s Block Row?

Needless to say, the creative process has been pretty tough on me lately. I don’t know exactly when it started, but it’s like I’m on a nauseating merry-go-round ride that won’t stop.

I’ll come up with an idea, I’ll do my brainstorming and I’ll begin to write it. Things will be going okay, and I’ll feel like I’m making some progress, but then…I hit a wall. Everything stops flowing, and the harder I try to fight through it, the faster I spin my wheels. When I step back and look at what I have done – hoping there’s something there to convince me that I’m not a completely gift-less loser – I see nothing but a rambling, disjointed mess. For sanity purposes, I put the perfectly good topic aside and start over with something else.

I understand that these uninspired spells aren’t uncommon, that everyone goes through them at one point or another. Sometimes the right side of the brain needs a vacation, and all it wants to do is sit around, eat Oreos and watch “Breakfast in Bed” on SOAPnet, and the only thing you can do is wait patiently until that last episode of Beverly Hills 90210 is over. I accept that.

What I can’t accept, though, is that this maddening, start-and-stop, getting-nowhere cycle has also become the perfect metaphor for my life in general.

It’s been 10 years since I graduated from the University of Texas, and in that time, I have lived in six different cities, held 11 different jobs, paid rent to eight different landlords, set foot in 34 states and celebrated one Longhorn football National Championship, all in hopes of making my own little place in this world. But outside of a horizontal career path and a dresser I assembled from IKEA, I’ve got little to show for my efforts.

To echo the sentiments of Elaine Benes, I never wanted to grow up to be this.

As a kid, I was always a dreamer. My parents taught my brother and me to follow our hearts, and that’s exactly what I was determined to do. I spent every waking moment thinking about and imagining and planning for all of the great adventures I wanted to experience.

Unfortunately, those fantasies had to be frozen and saved for later – not unlike Ted Williams’ head – because there were other responsibilities I was required to tend to. I had to do chores. I had to go to school. I had to do homework. I had to study for tests.

None of this stuff was fun, and at the time, I didn’t see the point of any of it. I didn’t like being told that I had to do something, and I resented being forced to dedicate so much energy to tasks for which I had no interest.

If the saying, “Everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten” were true, then why did I need to take Pre-Calculus?

Honestly, I didn’t even really care about going to college. Sure, I figured it’d be smart to get a degree, but I didn’t have this insatiable thirst for education that could only be quenched at an institution of higher learning. I wasn’t looking to immerse myself in academia or broaden my intellectual horizons.

I went because it’s what I was expected to do.

Of course, it didn’t take long for me to realize the greatness that is the college lifestyle. I lived in a beautiful city stocked full of beautiful girls, my entire group of friends was within a five block radius of me, my Saturday three-step was noon wakeup-football game-party, and a “busy” day meant that I was in class from 11am – 3:30pm.

Still, I never fully stopped feeling stuck and restrained, like I was just mindlessly following the crowd, carrying out someone else’s wishes. The lectures were boring, the assignments were tedious, and besides learning that Acapulco was a more desirable spring break destination than Cancun – through field research, of course – I wasn’t really expanding my knowledge base.

So as great as my setup was, and as much as I enjoyed the Austin way of life, there was a part of me that longed for the day when I would get to devote my time to things that I wanted to do, to things that were important to me.

But as the second semester of my senior year was winding down, and I began to look towards the next step in my life, it suddenly hit me: for the first time in my 22 years, my path was not predetermined.

This was frightening new territory. Outside of which girl to ask out or which beer to drink, I hadn’t ever made a big decision…everything had always been decided for me. I never had to think about anything. I never had to worry about anything. I just had to do what I was told, and if things didn’t work out, I could deflect the blame towards anybody but me.

Now, that wasn't going to be the case anymore. While I had always dreamed of this autonomy, the reality of it was terrifying, and trying to convince myself otherwise was futile. The panic came at me in waves.

Did I take the right job? Was it truly what I wanted to do? Was I going to be happy? What if I screw up? Will I like living in that part of the country? Why was I dumb enough to graduate in four years?

Not surprisingly, the moment that tassel switched from the right side of my graduation cap to the left, my struggles began, and I haven’t gotten untangled yet. Walking the wire without a net, I have been a basket case of nerves, hesitation and self-doubt, and the state of my union unfortunately reflects that. I’ve tried everything and achieved nothing.

It’s easy to play the comparison game, and I indulge as much as anyone. I see my friends who have found success. I see those who are on the right path and climbing towards their goals. I see people my age on TV who are living out their dreams.

And I see that I don’t measure up.

But more importantly, independent of what anyone else is doing, I see myself going nowhere quickly. I’m past the point of daydreaming, of waiting for “someday”…this is the time when I’m supposed to be writing my story, when I’m supposed to be making everything happen.

What do I want to be when I grow up? Well, I am grown up. My life is right now, and I am tired of it looking like this.

Whenever I sit down to write, and the ideas are incoherently swirling through my head, I am inevitably overwhelmed by the fact that there are a million different ways to say what I want to say. How to frame it, how to word it, how to make it all flow together…the possibilities are endless, and I’m constantly fearful of not picking the “best” option. For me, it is the scariest thing about writing.

But it’s also the greatest.

Because as intimidating as that blank page can be, it is also full of hope. It’s the canvas for you to create whatever you choose. Like a little boy’s imagination, there are no limits, and there are no restrictions, and the path you take is solely up to you.

Life works in the same manner. Each day is a clean slate, with no memory of what’s happened in the past. No matter where you’ve been, no matter what you’ve done, and no matter how many times you’ve gone around in circles, it’s never too late to turn it all around.

And luckily, for a lost soul like me, recognizing that simple truth could be all it takes to finally set me free.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Serenity Now!

I have never been much of a sightseer. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the great wonders of the world…it’s that just staring at something can only keep my interest level for so long. I take a few pictures. I skim over any plaques or dedications. I pretend to be amazed.

And after about 10 seconds, I say to myself, “Okay…now what?”

So when I moved to Washington, D.C. a year-a-and-a-half ago, I was hoping to find a way to combat this. I knew this was a special place, filled with historic landmarks and American lore, and I wanted to try to take advantage of having such easy access to it all.

With a full-time job and an unquenchable thirst to do nothing, though, I quickly realized I often had little desire to play tourist. Just going outside was a significant Sunday accomplishment. The weekends began to pile up, and I still hadn’t laid eyes on a monument.

And then I discovered the George Washington Memorial Parkway, a scenic highway in Northern Virginia that traces along the Potomac River. Not only does the drive give you a sense of the natural beauty of the region, with its rolling hills and wooded terrain, but there’s one stretch where you can take in the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Capital building, the Jefferson Memorial and the Pentagon, all from the comfort of your car. It was the perfect one-stop-shop solution for someone who once slept through an entire bus tour of downtown London.

But on a recent Saturday evening, not even this Cliff’s Notes summary of the city could hold my attention.

I had just exited I-495 onto a mostly-empty Parkway when I came up behind a slow-moving sedan in the left lane. Complicating matters, there was a car to my right going approximately the same speed, leaving me boxed in with no place to go.

Doing my best to stay calm, I shuffled through my iPod and tried to think happy thoughts. But ten minutes and five ignored “Slower Traffic Keep Right” signs later, the guy still hadn’t gotten over, and there was now a string of taillights in my rearview mirror reminiscent of the closing shot in Field of Dreams.

With my blood at a full boil, I threw my hands up in a fit of what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-this-dude disbelief. I started banging the steering wheel and shouting every cuss word I could think of. I strained against the back of my seat like I was trying to break free of a straight jacket.

And it was in that moment, as I irrationally berated this faceless human being, wishing that he would crash through the guardrail and plummet to an unfortunate fate, when it finally hit me:

My name is Brent Stoller, and I have road rage.

I know I’m not the only person who suffers from this affliction, but that didn’t make accepting it any easier. I have always prided myself on being calm and even-tempered, and in every other area of my life, I like to think that I do a good job of not letting the unimportant stuff get to me.

But for whatever reason, when I get behind the wheel of a car, something changes. Constantly on edge, my patience is shorter than Mini-Me, and the second I see a person with a phone to their ear instead of their eyes on the road, or I nearly die merging onto the freeway because somebody is going too slowly on the entrance ramp, my laidback nature dissolves into a cauldron of impatience, rage and downright hatred.

The funny thing is that I am not an aggressive driver. From the day I got my license, my parents have stressed to me that a car is a deadly weapon, and that I should always assume that every other person on the road is drunk.

The only concession they ever made was that it was okay to go up to five miles per hour over the speed limit, reasoning that this allowed you some cushion to accelerate if you needed to get around someone or find a bathroom if your bladder were about to burst.

So I’ve never been one of those nut jobs who weave in and out of traffic like they’re driving a go-kart. But few things set me off quicker than when – under benign road conditions, in a normal flow of traffic – people drive slower than the speed limit.

I know, I know…this doesn’t seem fair at first blush. After all, the word “limit” implies that this should be the fastest you should drive, that it should be the ceiling, and you should be free to go whatever speed up to that mark that makes you comfortable.

But I believe it should be the floor.

Theoretically, the speed limit is the speed that all cars can drive on a particular road while still ensuring a safe ride for everyone. So outside of balancing something strapped to your roof or keeping a low profile because of the dead body in your trunk, why drive slower than that?

And government officials didn’t just pull this figure out of thin air, right? Surely they did some research. Surely they studied traffic patterns and analyzed street conditions and evaluated the surrounding neighborhoods to come up with it.

But what they definitely didn’t do was factor in the chaos, last-minute lane changing and middle finger flipping that is caused by somebody treating a 40MPH stretch as their own personal school zone.

Luckily for me, the route between my home and office is infested with more of these drivers per capita than any other place in the country. Even the cab drivers are guilty. I swear, I have never blown by so many people doing the posted number in my life. By the time my commute is over, with my voice practically hoarse from repeatedly screaming “GOOOOO!!!” and “THE GAS IS ON THE RIGHT!!!”, I have to take a few deep breaths to keep from opening the house door by ramming my head through it.

It’s just so frustrating when getting somewhere takes longer than it has to. And it is not only these sub-speed limit snails who are the problem. I can’t count how many times I’ve gotten stuck at an intersection because the person in front of me doesn’t move when the signal turns green. They just sit there, sending a text message or fixing their makeup, oblivious to the fact that they’re up to bat. All the while the sand is pouring through the hourglass, and I have to decide how long I have to wait before I can honk without being a jack#$*.

Inevitably, the clock runs out, they sneak through on a yellow, and I’m left to fume while enduring another light cycle.

And dealing with the evil twin of these drivers isn’t any better. They’re the ones who overanxiously enter the intersection before they can get all the way through it. So what happens? They end up in No Man’s Land, blocking traffic, creating gridlock in every direction.

But hey, at least they weren’t inconvenienced.

I just can’t comprehend how people can have such a blatant disregard for others. My only guess is that when we’re in our cars, we feel like we’re in some sort of protective bubble that shields us from the normal rules of society. Plus, not having to deal with anyone face to face makes it that much easier to screw somebody.

I mean, if you were going to the movies, and the line was wrapped around the building, would you walk past everyone and jump in at the ticket counter?

Of course you wouldn’t. The thought of doing so has probably never crossed your mind. Yet you see drivers all the time cruise by backed-up exit traffic and merge in front of everybody else.

Yeah…because I WANTED to wait 20 minutes to get off the freeway.

(And while we’re here, why does anyone let these people in? I’ve never understood that. You are not being polite…you’re validating their selfish behavior, like if Elin Nordegren had seduced Tiger instead of chasing him down the street with a 9 iron.)

And as much as I want everyone on the road to just get out of my way and not bother me, it is this inconsideration that lies at the heart of all of my frustrations. People are lost in their own little worlds, with their own needs and their own personal agendas, and that is the only thing they care about. Most are too busy or too self-indulgent to simply raise their hand and wave “thank you” after you let them in.

So in a way, maybe my road rage is a blessing in disguise. Maybe it serves as a constant reminder to be mindful of others, to be courteous and to always be aware that everything I do can have an effect on those around me. Because no matter how busy I get, or no matter how important I may think I become, I hope to never lose sight of that fact.

I just need to figure out a better way to handle all of this anger. With so many unstable drivers out there, I rarely express my displeasure with anything more than a “turn and look,” because I don’t want to end up on the strangled side of a chokehold. So the tension keeps building up inside of me, and if I don’t come up with a new coping mechanism soon, I’m going to be forced to get off my couch and do something radical:

Head downtown with the rest of the tourists.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

All Eyes On Me

When I was in fifth grade, I was chosen to participate in a debate that was going to be conducted in front of all of the fifth and sixth graders in the school. I was excited to get selected, and I spent hours studying the material, determined to have a good showing. And a couple of hours before game time, I felt fully prepared to do just that. I was comfortable with my position, I had an organized list of talking points, and I was already anticipating any counter-arguments I might need to make.

But as I took my seat alongside the rest of the panel, and I looked out across the room and saw all of my peers staring back at me, my confidence began to waver. For the first time, I realized that I was going to be right at the center of everyone’s attention. They were going to be listening to me and judging me and critiquing me and talking about me. And once that reality fully set in, I did what any kid who wants to get noticed by the pretty older girls would do:

I threw up.

All over my team’s table.

With the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’d had for lunch suddenly on display, I sat frozen in horror. My nerves-induced nausea had struck many times before, but it had always had the courtesy to hold off until I could get some privacy.

After a few paralyzing seconds, I snapped out of my shock and scrambled to contain the mess, and my teacher jumped in to help me. Once everything was sufficiently cleaned, I was sent to the restroom to wash up. Amid a chorus of disgusted gasps and mocking whispers, I slunk out of the classroom and down the hall to safety.

As I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror, I knew that the vomit on my new collared shirt was the least of my worries. I mean, I had just thrown up in front of half the school. I was completely and utterly humiliated. How could this have happened? What did people think of me now? Was I still going to have friends? Would a girl ever want to “go with me”? Had I set off a chain reaction of puking? I wondered how I could ever show my face again.

And now, as Tiger Woods returns to the spotlight this week at The Masters, I wonder how he’s dealing with this same challenge.

It’s been a long, strange trip for Woods since that fateful Thanksgiving night. With the revelation of his infidelity and fondness for Perkins' hostesses, his deepest, darkest secrets have been paraded in front of the entire world, and his effort to reemerge into the public eye from the status of “punch line” has come at a glacial pace. After sticking in stealth mode for over two months, he softened the ground a bit by giving a prepared statement in February, followed by a couple of restrictive five minute interviews with Golf Channel and ESPN. On Monday, he met the press for the first time, fielding a wide variety of questions, while only sidestepping a couple.

But now it’s time to go play.

And while the physical demands of golf will never be confused with those of any other sport, the mental and emotional discipline that is required to be successful is unparalleled. Where other games are reactionary – hitting a pitch, defending your man, catching a pass – golf is the complete opposite. You’re the one who puts the wheels in motion…the ball will just sit and stare back at you until you choose to actually hit it.

Because of that, your inner demons have ample opportunity to wreak havoc on your mind, to bring to the forefront all of your fears and anxieties. As you prepare to play a shot, they’ll whisper sweet nothings in your ear about how you better not dunk it in the water or that you’re not good enough or that you’re about to make a fool of yourself. It’s a constant battle to get out of your own way and let your natural talent shine through. And even if you can quiet those voices for the second-and-a-half that the golf swing lasts, the rest of your time is spent walking and waiting, where it’s just you and your thoughts.

While Woods is arguably mentally stronger than any athlete in history, this week he will be battling these head games in the cauldron of major championship golf under the shameful shadow of a scarlet letter. Every tee he steps off of, every green he steps onto, every club selection he makes, every putt he lines up, every swing he makes, he will do so burdened by the fact that everyone watching – the gallery, his fellow players, the millions watching on TV, the azalea bushes – knows what he did.

They know he cheated on his wife. They know he’s been in rehab. They know about the never-ending string of mistresses. They know about the seedy text messages he sent. They know what he likes to do in the bedroom. They know about his "take your name off your phone" voice mail. They know about his crumbling marriage. They know he’s the reason I was forced to discuss the term “golden shower” with my mother (No, I will never forgive you, Tiger).

So how can that not be in the back of his mind? How can that not detract from his focus? How can he possibly go out and play at his customary out-of-this-universe level with all of that on his shoulders? I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know how you look anyone in the eye, much less compete with a rusty game on a treacherous golf course under this type of pressure while being saddled with such embarrassment and disgrace.

I guess there’s the possibility that the golf course could serve as his own personal sanctuary, the one place where he can block out those worries, where he can reconnect with a part of himself that allows him to do what he does better than anyone else. His good friend, Michael Jordan, was that way. Jordan imagined that the basketball court was surrounded by invisible walls, and when he stepped onto the floor, he was shielded from the distractions and hassles of his fame. Same thing with Kobe Bryant. When he was charged with sexual assault in 2003, flying back and forth for hearings and arriving at halftime had little to no effect on his scoring average.

Those guys may be a big reason we sometimes look at athletes as if they are machines. Buried under their uniforms and corporate logos, we see them competing and succeeding, and we forget that beneath it all, they are just people. So if they miss a shot or get beat for a touchdown or fail to perform up to our expectations, we don’t stop to consider that they have a personal life that could be affecting their performance, the same way we might be affected by ours.

And if there’s ever been an athlete who appeared to be anything but human, it’s Tiger. Still, the only other time a major was his first event back from an extended layoff was in 2006, when he played in the U.S. Open nine weeks after his father passed away - which, coincidentally, was the only time he's missed the cut as a professional in a major.

But that was a different time and a different Tiger, and I honestly don’t know what to expect from him this week. He could win, he could finish last, or he could miss his starting time because he’s watching Joslyn James strip at the Pink Pony. Like with anything involving Woods these days, nothing would surprise me.

He’s already made it through what had to be the toughest test of this whole ordeal – giving full disclosure of his infidelities to his wife (who's handy with a 9-iron) and disciplinarian mother – but when he steps onto the first tee on Thursday, he will do so for the first time as a stripped-down, tarnished man without an air of invincibility, and with all of his flaws exposed for everyone to see.

For the sake of keeping the hallowed grounds of Augusta National vomit-free, let’s hope he lays off the peanut butter and jelly.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Keeping Up With The Joneses

I am constantly amazed by our society’s fascination with celebrities. Everywhere you look, from newsstands to television to the internet, the gossip on these people is ever-flowing, and there are new tabloid outlets springing up every day.

And while I concede that the lifestyles of the rich and famous can be intriguing, I sometimes question the demand to know about the wardrobe of Brad Pitt’s son or that Jennifer Love-Hewitt got a haircut.

(In honor of Larry David) Having said that, I am not above getting sucked into this world from time to time. If I find myself in a doctor’s office, and there’s a People Magazine on the table, I have no problem flipping through it as I wait for my name to be called (although I will make sure no one is looking before I grab it).

Most of the “news” is as boring as I would expect – what is interesting about the sight of anyone lugging shopping bags or taking out the trash? – but like many, I’m a sucker for scandal, and the stories of divorce, infidelity, bankruptcy and catfights are entertaining.

But beyond filling my guilty-pleasure void that’s vacant whenever The Bachelor is not in-season, reading these torrid tales serves a more personal and somewhat sinister purpose:

They make me feel better about myself.

I know, I know…admitting that I take pleasure from the anguish of others isn’t exactly politically correct, but it’s the truth.

From afar, these stars appear to have the perfect life, living in a different universe from the rest of us. They’re gorgeous. They have bank accounts the size of Dolly Parton’s chest. They date people who are equally attractive and wealthy. They have entourages who attend to their every need. They’re worshipped by an adoring public.

Just typing that last paragraph made me want to call my therapist, so seeing them struggle is a nice change of pace. It gives me a slight sense of superiority, even if it’s only for a fleeting second.

And really, isn’t that one of the main attractions of gossip? Yes, everyone likes being kept in the loop, but when it comes down to it, don’t we get some payoff from hearing about who’s going to be fired or who’s getting dumped or who had to call the doctor for a four-hour problem – and knowing that it’s not us?

Of course, the gratification we experience is nothing more than malicious and shallow cattiness, the vengeance of our inner Lewis Skolnick (Revenge of the Nerds), and it’s best to just brush it off as such.

What we don’t want to do is put too much stock into it, so that it becomes a pillar of our confidence, something that we derive our identity from. Because when our self esteem is dependent on the actions and abilities of others, we’re asking for trouble.

On a recent, lazy Saturday night, I was messing around on my computer when I stumbled across a website that mentioned the rap group N.W.A., the group that featured the unknown versions of the now-famous Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E. Their album “Straight Outta Compton” was the soundtrack of my fourth grade bus rides – even though I had no idea what any of the explicit lyrics meant – so I decided to take a trip down memory lane.

I read about how they got started and watched a few videos. I enjoyed several so-that’s-what-they-were-saying epiphanies while listening to their old songs. And through a stream-of-consciousness search of the Internet Movie Database, I ended up on the biography page of John Singleton, the man who had written and directed Ice Cube’s movie debut, Boyz N The Hood.

As I scrolled down the screen, I couldn’t help being impressed by all that Singleton had done. He’d graduated from the prestigious USC School of Cinema-Television. He worked on a number of music videos, including one with the late Michael Jackson. He dated Tyra Banks. The man had really lived.

But the notation that struck me more than any was this one:

“Youngest person ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director (at the age of 24).”

24? He was nominated for an Academy Award when he was 24-years-old? Really?

When I was 24, the only way I was going to walk on a red carpet was if my parents installed one in the room of their house where I was still living. The state of my union was a mess. I spent my days working as a substitute teacher and my nights worrying that I’d eventually be that forty-something hermit who never left his mother’s basement. Every date I went on inevitably turned south when the girl realized I had no money and no prospects. I’d been out of college for two years, and the little league trophies stuffed in my closet were representative of my achievements: in the game of life, I had done nothing more than participate.

Suddenly, I felt completely inadequate.

It didn’t help that Singleton was a writer, the craft that I am currently pursuing. I mean, he had written one of the defining screenplays of his time (Boyz N The Hood) before qualifying for car insurance; and here I am, eight years older now than he was then, and the best I can do is post a blog that’s only read by people who would be invited to my birthday party.

My visit to the good ol’ days had turned into a nightmare. And the worst part of it was the glaring revelation that my self worth was on such shaky ground. Sure, I could get a confidence boost by reading through Tiger Woods’ salacious text messages, but I could just as easily get crushed by hearing about another man’s accomplishments.

As I picked up the shattered pieces of my ego, I wondered why I expended so much energy comparing myself to everyone else. It’s an easy trap to fall into for sure, especially when things aren’t going your way, or when your life doesn’t match up with your expectations, or when you see people enjoying something that you lack, but still…this was not healthy, and I knew it wasn’t getting me anywhere.

Because the fact is that we each have our own path, one that is completely independent of anyone else’s. And when we fail to honor and respect that, we allow our self esteem to fluctuate with the failures and successes of others, with the “woulda-coulda-shouldas”, with whichever way the wind blows.

But self esteem is an inside job, and the only way that it can be a true foundation for us is to feed and nurture it from within. We have to value ourselves. We have to be complimentary and encouraging. We have to be kind and gentle, while still being honest and tough when the situation calls for it. We have to have our own backs. We have to be our own best friend.

The temptation will always be there to pick ourselves up or put ourselves down because of what’s going on around us, but doing so will only make us feel worse or give us a “fool’s gold” sense of assurance.

In other words, it’s a harmful, detrimental waste of time.

Of course, looking outside ourselves doesn't have to be a bad thing…we just have to do it with a positive frame of mind. For someone who wants to be a writer, a great book can serve as inspiration or a source of motivation. For someone who wants to get married, the sight of a gushing bride can be a sign of hope. For someone who is feeling empty, the homeless man on the corner can be a reminder to live a life of gratitude.

And for someone who is interested in other people’s hygienic habits, an article about Jessica Simpson’s hairstylist’s Brazilian wax treatment can be an informative piece of journalism.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Are Friends For?

“I just want you to be happy.”

That has always been my mother’s final answer whenever I’ve gone to her for help with making a big decision. Sure, we’ll talk about the what-ifs and examine every aspect of the situation, but in the end, she will ultimately step aside and leave it up to me.

Of course, that doesn’t mean she has no opinion on the subject.

Having nurtured me since the day I was born, she knows me as well as anyone. She’s very familiar with my strengths and weaknesses, with what gives me fulfillment and what does not. And she has taken this information, mixed it with a dash of intuition, and painted her own vision of what I should be doing with my life.

This vision is ever-changing, and it took on a new look several years ago when she began her second career as a Licensed Professional Counselor. Building a successful practice from a stack of manila folders and some refrigerator magnets, she has learned what being a therapist is all about, and she’s slowly become convinced that I have what it takes.

I don’t disagree with her, either…I think I would make a good therapist. A natural observer, I feel as if I “see” the world well, like a quarterback who can cut through the chaos of a defense and determine the best place to throw the football. I try to understand the reasons behind a person’s actions before ever passing judgment on their character. And I believe in the power of therapy – that everyone could probably benefit from quality time on somebody’s couch.

Plus, considering how screwed up I am, there’s a high probability that I’ve experienced every issue that any potential patient could be suffering from.

In spite of all that, I have never had the desire to go into the profession. There are just other things I want to do with my time – and none of them require me going back to school. Having gotten through my mandated educational career largely by picking “C” on Scantron tests, I’d be terrified of pursuing a graduate degree for which I would have to actually learn the material.

So I have decided to maintain my amateur status, applying whatever skills I may have to any family and friends who turn to me as a confidant. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously, and I’m flattered when someone entrusts me with the more sensitive aspects of their life.

Most of the time, I feel like I do a good job, and it is quite a compliment whenever I get a return customer.

But there are other times when I’m about as effective as George Costanza in a job interview. No matter what I say, no matter what persona I take on – from advisor to cheerleader to drill sergeant to rabbi – I end up making things worse, giving the person a whole new set of reasons to be mad and upset.

And it is during those moments, as I’m getting yelled at for not understanding or reading an e-mail full of angry capital letters, when I can’t help asking:

When somebody turns to you in their time of need, what is your role as a friend?

It’s never fun to see someone who you care about struggling. You feel their pain, and your natural instinct is to take charge, to dive in headfirst and do whatever you can to make them feel better.

Unfortunately, that emotional connection can cloud your view of things, making it difficult to maintain any semblance of objectivity. You inject your personal opinions and beliefs into the situation, confident that you can fix the problem yourself.

But it’s not your problem to fix.

That realization can be hard to digest, but the quicker you take a step back and relinquish any ownership over what is happening, the quicker you can start having a positive impact on the matter.

Because the only way the person is going to make a lasting change or improve their circumstances is if they figure it out for themselves. It’s the same principal that applies to learning: listening to a lecture or watching someone perform a task is great, but there’s simply no replacement for doing and experiencing something yourself.

I mean, I warned people about the nightmares I suffered after watching the internet video “Two Chicks and a Cup,” but it took them clicking on the link to fully grasp the horror.

That’s why I am always hesitant to give my friends advice. Without having Quantum Leap powers that allow me to step inside their body, I have no idea what it’s like to be them. I don’t know what they’re going through. I don’t know what they’re feeling. I don’t know how what they’ve gone through in the past is affecting their outlook in the present.

All I have is a second-hand, outsider’s opinion of what is going on. So while I can tell them what I might do – or have done – in a similar situation, any solution I offer beyond that would be my own issues and biases talking.

I also respect that everyone has their own timeline for dealing with something, and it’s useless to try to disrupt it. Just look at the couples who take forever to break up. They schizophrenically ping-pong back and forth…one minute they’re together, the next they’re not. And even though those close to them can see why the relationship will never work, it can take them longer to reach that conclusion – and not just because the “backslide hookup” is wreaking havoc on their judgment.

So you can shout and lecture and preach all you want, but the person has to be ready to hear what you are saying. And until the idea of making a change or taking a step clicks in their heart, your suggestions and recommendations will most likely be translated as a high-horse scolding or dismissed with a nobody-gets-me wave.

As my mother-the-professional taught me, a good therapist doesn’t tell their clients what to do. Instead, they act as a guide, gently nudging and prodding the person in the right direction.

In that vein, I try to serve as a wide-angle lens, giving the person the panoramic view of their situation. I ask the stereotypical how-does-that-make-you-feel questions, so that they can process their emotions. I challenge them by pointing out destructive behavioral patterns. I present them with the different options they can pursue.

But above all else, I do my best to validate their feelings, to let them know that no matter what course they choose, I will be there for them.

That doesn’t mean that I always agree or take their side. Being a “Yes Man” is not being a good friend. And even though at times my difference of opinion has been interpreted as a lack of support, I will not blindly back someone’s actions or decisions simply out of friendship. They came to me because they felt they could trust me, and to automatically fall in step with them would be a betrayal of that trust.

So it is a constant battle to find the right buttons to push, and what is successful in one instance can often fail in the next. But when nothing is working, and I feel like putting my head through the nearest wall, I take a deep breath and think about what I want whenever I’m the one in pain.

I want to be heard. I want to be understood. I want to know that the person I’m talking to really gets what I’m saying. I want to be comforted and loved and supported. I want to be told that there is a way out, and that everything is going to be all right.

In other words…

I want my mom.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

It's Better to Have Played and Lost...

I have always been a loyal fan of my sports teams. From the moment I began following them as a kid, I felt this special connection, and I’ve been emotionally invested ever since. Watching games, it’s like I’m out there with them, living and dying with every play, and anyone who’s brave enough to sit next to me has to understand that it’s even money as to who will disgustedly throw something first – me or the head coach.

Some of the happiest times in my life have coincided with my teams’ successes. The night the Houston Rockets won the first professional championship in the city’s history, I danced through a traffic jam of fellow Houstonians, high-fiving and hugging strangers, some of whom looked like they’d just been paroled from the TV series Lockup: Raw.

Of course, the flip side is that when one of my teams loses, I’m absolutely devastated. The game replays through my mind over and over, and I think about what might have been had this play or that play gone differently. Listening to sports radio is not an option, and I quickly flip past ESPN, because any mention of the loss feels like a kick to the stomach.

I freely admit that this obsession is completely irrational, and confessing the depth of it is somewhat embarrassing. I often question why I care so much about something that I contribute nothing to, but I don’t know…it’s just part of who I am.

So on January 7, 2010, when the Texas Longhorns – my alma mater and lifelong passion – were set to play the University of Alabama for the national title, I could barely contain myself. This was going to be one of those where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-shot moments for me, a night for which I would always remember every detail and every twist of emotion.

Utterly useless at work, I got to the sports bar nearly six hours before the game, and by kickoff, my tapping foot and beating heart were going so fast I worried they might simultaneously combust.

But mere minutes into the game, on the Longhorns’ fifth offensive snap, everything changed.

Texas senior Colt McCoy – the all-time winningest quarterback in college football history and undisputed leader of the team – took a hit on his right shoulder that sent him back to the locker room.

In came Garrett Gilbert, a true freshman who had completed a total of 15 collegiate passes, all of which had come against second- and third-stringers at the end of lopsided Longhorn victories. And while he was a highly decorated prep star, he had never been in a situation like this before, facing the top-rated defense in the country on the biggest stage imaginable.

As Texas struggled to move the ball, and Alabama took control, I sat there grappling with myriad emotions. I was angry at the incredibly tough break, and I wondered why the Sports Gods were frowning on the Longhorns. I hurt for McCoy for not getting to compete in the game he’d been preparing for his whole life. I was stunned at how a season’s worth of anticipation could be deflated so quickly.

And in a strange way, I also felt relieved.

I know that sounds crazy, but once it became clear that Colt wasn’t coming back, any nerves or anxiety I had were gone. I was suddenly in a no-lose situation: if Gilbert somehow led the team to an unexpected victory, great. If not, the built-in excuse of Colt’s injury would prevent me from ever having to face the harsh reality of a Texas loss. I’d be able to tune into sports talk and log onto message boards and read every article without fear of getting upset or frustrated by any of it.

Over the next couple of days, though – after UT had fallen 37-21 – that relief slowly turned bittersweet. After all, your team only gets so many shots to play for a national championship, and this one evaporated before it ever got started. Plus, no one had believed the Longhorns could win, and I was hoping their performance would serve as a fully-extended middle finger to the entire nation. Instead, the story of this game would forever be filed in the “we’ll never know” folder.

So while I wasn’t suffering through any pain or disappointment, I had lost a real, viable chance of feeling joy and happiness.

And that was the rub.

Every so often, life presents us with the opportunity to achieve and experience greatness. And whether it’s pursuing a new career path, professing your love to an unsuspecting crush, cat-fighting for a rose on The Bachelor or anything else that our hearts may desire, it’s up to us to take advantage of these moments.

But like a poker player going “All in” to try to score a big pot, we have to accept the inherent risk that’s involved. Going after something we care deeply about demands that we expose ourselves to the possibility of rejection and failure, of being completely embarrassed or humiliated.

And the higher we reach, the further we can potentially fall.

When I was chasing my dream of playing golf competitively, I turned my life upside down to try to make it happen. I learned to wait tables, studying harder for my menu test than I ever did in college. I picked balls off the driving range at a local country club – the same job I’d had as a 16-year-old – so I could play for free. I moved back in with my parents to save money, even though I knew that having to disclose that information on first dates would lead to an endless string of cold showers.

If I wasn’t lifting weights, I was practicing in the 100 degree Texas heat, buoyed by the belief that with each putt I rolled, with each golf ball I hit, I was getting one step closer to achieving my goal.

So it became increasingly frustrating to not see improvement in my game. While my technique got better – video images of my swing were similar to that of a successful tour pro – my scores did not.

I realized that what was ultimately holding me back was not a physical problem, but an emotional one.

I couldn’t seem to get out of my own way. When I wasn’t struggling with my lack of self-confidence, I was indulging in my fear of failure or worrying about what other people thought of me. I was a walking Psychology 101 textbook, and no matter how hard I tried, nothing ever got better.

After banging my head against the wall for two years, I finally decided to put my dream aside. It wasn’t easy, because for as long as I could remember, I had wanted to be a professional golfer. It was what I’d always thought my life would be about.

Suddenly, I needed a new answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

The ensuing aftermath was tough. I didn’t touch a club for months, and I even had to stop watching tournaments on TV, because I’d end up berating myself for not being able to do what the guys on the screen were doing.

It was difficult to accept that my internal issues had railroaded me into surrendering something that was so important. I felt like I had the passion, desire and talent to succeed, but as my own worst enemy, I couldn’t stop sabotaging myself long enough to find out.

When I look back now on the experience, I feel as if I left something on the table, and I wonder if things could’ve been different had I found the mute button for my inner demons. With no sense of closure, the uncertainty still haunts me.

But it also gives me comfort.

Because while I was crippled on the golf course by a wide range of fears, the thing I feared the most was giving my dream every ounce of my heart and soul – only to have my best not be good enough.

That would’ve been an awfully tough pill to swallow, like getting your heart broken by someone you think you’re destined to be with. I don’t know how I would’ve handled it. And sometimes I question if, in some small, subconscious way, I held back – even just a little – to shield myself from the possibility of facing that realization.

If so, I executed the plan brilliantly, as my emotional shortcomings have since served as a crutch I can lean on, a rationalization as to why I came up short. So when I’m sitting in my cubicle, working a job I never thought I’d have, angered that I’m not on a golf course somewhere, I have a therapist’s pad full of excuses that I can hide behind.

Yes, it’s human nature to protect yourself. Nobody likes dealing with failure, and when something doesn’t turn out the way we want it to, our initial reaction is typically to question why we ever did it in the first place.

But the fact is that in order to experience life on its deepest and most meaningful level, we are required to take chances, to risk falling flat on our face in a heap of humility. And if we are not willing to drop our defenses and step out of our don’t-hurt-me cocoons, we will be sentenced to a guarded, flat-lining, even-Steven existence.

Like Mike McDermott said in the movie Rounders, “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle…but you can’t win much, either.”

As someone who has too often played not to lose, I can attest that it’s no way to be. Sure, it’s safer and more comfortable to “hope” than “know,” but I can’t think of anything worse than looking back on your life, knowing that it’s full of regret.

I’d rather do something about that while I’ve still got the time. So when the next opportunity presents itself, I want to approach it with an open heart, give it everything I’ve got, and accept whatever results – good or bad – may come.

After all, you only get so many chances to have fun in a traffic jam.

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?