People Who Do Stuff are the Peoplest People (A Reunion-Inspired Ramble on Self-Betterment)

College reunion! That magical moment when those battered and bruised by real life can crawl briefly back to the sheltered academe, where the most stressful decision is whether to go to the 2:30 lecture or just lie on the grass in the sun and make out with someone cute for the next hour.


A time for seeing old friends and meeting new ones, drinking like you’re 18 and getting hangovers like you’re not, testing whether the dorm beds can still hold an intensely active two or even three or more (they can), and finding out whether you can ride a mattress down a flight of stairs standing up without hurting yourself (you can’t).

The re-creation of our college days was pretty faithful, I guess is what I’m trying to say here.

Reunion is also a time for everyone to polish their “what I’m doing now” speech until it gleams. You spend a lot of time repeating the basic catch-up schtick, in greater or lesser circles of people who thank god they’re wearing those dorky nametags because you remember them as “dude who was super quiet and dorky in class but then always ended up right at the center of the loudest and craziest dance parties” or “girl who was always crossing the train tracks heading west when I was coming back east from my history seminar that one semester,” and what the hell were their real names again?

So having heard an awful lot of those thirty second life-summaries and the conversations that followed them, I have come to a fairly obvious conclusion, no less true for its simplicity: if you do stuff, you are a better person to be around.

grinnell-college-honor-gBy “do stuff” I mean get out in the world and interact. With the world, with people; whatever. Having things that take up your time and that aren’t specifically designed as entertainment (TV shows, games, whatever) is really fucking good for you.

This was observable from the conversations. It wasn’t just an issue of having more things to say words about; it was that the people who spent a lot of time on the road or engaged in their community or whatever were better at saying words. There was more give and take. Conversation flowed more naturally.

Grinnellians being, by and large, a go-out-and-do-stuff bunch (I felt woefully under-travelled by the end of Reunion), that meant that nearly all of the catching-up conversation circles were great. They were lively, fun, and very equitable, with lots of genuine interest in what people were doing, mostly because what people were doing was awesome.

I have had other conversations with other social circles that make a noticeable contrast. People who do not go out and do things, and who mostly interact via products designed specifically for entertainment, are much more prone to lapsing into silence or forgetting to offer the basic conversational prompts that keep things moving along.

Go out and do something.

Seriously. Whatever you want, but make it a thing, for its own sake, and get into it.

Hike a bigass trail somewhere. Go to Burning Man, or a foreign country, or a meditative retreat, or anything/where that’s not a business trip. Volunteer with a non-profit. Work a political campaign (no, just kidding; that was an utterly shitty experience in my brief brush with it, but at least it was a thing!). Join an improv group. Play rec-league sports. Whatever.

Because the corollary to my observations this last weekend is that it doesn’t seem to matter too much what you do. If you’re out doing a thing, you’ll come back from it ready and able to engage with other human beings.

And if you’re not out doing thing, you’re kind of not ready. So maybe work on that.

Housekeeping: MA101 on the Road

MA101 is on the road!

Mostly US-151, as it happens. I’m headed down to Iowa for my college reunion.

There will be posts while I’m down there, potentially even about classes, since the college is good enough to run cute little “Alumni College” seminars for those of us that haven’t held a spiral notebook in far too long.

The most visible effect for readers will be a delay in comments appearing. (I’m back to approving them individually for the time being, since we talked about violence against women this week and any post with the “misogyny” tag automatically gets you an influx of dudebros screaming about whores, cunts, and fags, which I’ve been efficiently filing in the “Trash” section as fast as they come.) I’ll try to go through and approve everyone’s at least once a day, but no promises.

Other than that, content will limp along at its usual semi-regular pace, possibly punctuated with endearingly Iowan sights.


“Not an Enemy” Isn’t the Same Thing as “an Ally”

It’s amazing just how much friendly advice social justice advocates can get about keeping the people unaffected by a given injustice happy.

Mention any sort of structural inequality in the status quo on your social network of choice, and you’ll see more than you ever asked for:

“Don’t offend your potential allies.”

“Just because people have privilege doesn’t mean their needs aren’t important too.”

“It’s hard to be part of a movement that insults you just for existing.”

We’ve all heard ‘em. (Well, I use the term “we” loosely. Some of you have said them, rather than hearing them.)

Here’s the thing about “allies,” though: Allies are part of a fight.

They’re involved. They’re active. They’re potentially at risk themselves. That’s why we use a word with some weighty, military associations. (Which I’m unfond of, peacenik pacifist that I am these days, but there you are.)

If you are a straight person who is cool with gay relationships, that’s great! If you are white and don’t consciously think that non-whites are inferior, good job! If you’re a male who’s never threatened a woman with sexual violence, keep up the good work! You are all successfully maintaining a minimum level of “Decent Human Being.”


Here, have a cookie.

But you know what?

That’s all those things get you. They get you “not deliberately causing new problems.” They get you “not an enemy.”

They don’t get you “ally.”

And that’s fine. It’s a free country. No one is obligated to speak out, to organize, to vote, to volunteer, or to do anything else for the benefit of people that aren’t them.

You can walk past the collapsed building. You can drive by the wreck. You can hear screams and not look out window. People make those choices every day, and you know what? They’ve got their own shit going on. Maybe there are good reasons they didn’t get involved. Maybe there aren’t, and that’s still their choice.

But don’t expect anyone to think you’re a hero just because you heard the screams, or saw the wreck, or walked by the building, and didn’t do anything to make it worse.

You are not an “ally” if your main contribution is doing no conscious evil.

And again, that’s fine. You don’t have to be an ally. But don’t get huffy when it seems like a movement you’re not involved in doesn’t take your needs and feelings into account.

No one owes you a thank-you for not exercising your “being a dick” potential to its maximum. That’s between you and your basic self-respect.

The structural injustices you’re sick and tired of hearing about will not be changed by passive not-enemies. They will be changed by active, aggressive challengers attacking the status quo in direct and meaningful ways.

If that ain’t your struggle, fine. Move aside. But don’t whine about feeling excluded, because that was your choice.

You can pick up a shovel and join the trenches any time you decide it’s worth your while.

And then you’ll be an “ally.”

Elliot Rodger’s Murderous Rage Was Based on the Idea That Women Owed Him Sex

Flowers decorate a bullet hole from Rodger's rampage. (Getty Images)

Flowers decorate a bullet hole from Rodger’s rampage. (Getty Images)

Here are some things that we know are true:

  • On the night of Friday, 23 May 2014, a man named Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista (Santa Barbara), shooting and stabbing six people to death and wounding several more before ending his own life.
  • Elliot Rodger was deeply steeped in the overlapping internet worlds of “Men’s Rights Activism” and “Pick-Up Artistry,” both of which focus heavily on women as either goals of or obstacles to sexual encounters. He was active in related forums and communities up until the day of the shooting.
  • Elliot’s rampage was preceded by numerous self-made videos and writings describing his anger at women for refusing to sleep with him. The last one he shared before beginning his attacks was a massive, 100+ page manifesto detailing his grotesquely specific plans for torture, rape, and murder. Its language is unambiguous regarding his motivations: “I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex. They have starved me of sex for my entire youth, and gave that pleasure to other men. In doing so, they took many years of my life away.”

There are no shades of gray here. If you can look at this news story and think it’s about anything other than the toxic and widely prevalent ideology of misogyny, you’re only kidding yourself.

Elliot Rodger did not happen in a vacuum. He actively sought out communities that used a language of possession, objectification, and entitlement to discuss all women, and he found those communities in abundance. He was angry because he had been promised something — women, as objects for personal pleasure — and he didn’t get it.

This was not an unreasoning act of madness. We don’t have to wonder what made a strange, troubled person snap on Friday night. There’s no need to ask “how could anyone do this?”

Rodger was explicitly clear about his motivations, and while they’re certainly evil, they’re not insane. His rage follows naturally from his ideology. He genuinely believed he was cheated, because he’d been taught he was owed women – whatever women he wanted, whenever he wanted them.

People are still teaching that, every day, on hundreds of “men’s rights” websites and in millions of social media interactions where women are told that it’s their fault for being targets of violence, or for fearing violence, and that if they’d just be reasonable and do what men want of them they’d be fine.

Elliot Rodger and his victims are dead. The ideology that drove Rodger to his final, violent conclusion is not. It exists as an everyday part of your culture, consumed and possibly even sought out by people you know personally.

What are you doing to confront it?

Learning to Love the Humblebrag

Humblebrags are growing on me.

The phenomenon is nothing new, but labeling it seems to mostly be a social media phenomenon, and so most of the examples come from social media as well: updates couched in the language of modesty that serve no function beyond highlighting the poster’s success.

“Exhausted after a measly 5k run — so out of shape” is a humblebrag. So is “Back from vacation in Europe – never had a moment to sit down – I need a vacation from my vacation!”

This is generally viewed as despicable. It combines everyone’s least favorite social media post (the kind that is all about the poster, with no room for discussion beyond “go you”) with a treacly disingenuousness guaranteed to stick in even the most forgiving craw.

humblebrag-urban-dictionaryBut like I said: growing on me.

The trick is to read them without a trace of irony. Gravely take the poster at their word; assume that they are sincere in acknowledging the limits of their achievements.

We are, after all, specks of dust hurtling through an infinite cosmos; collections of strange chemical impulses lurching about in a grotesque parody of rational action. The very peak of human ambition is ultimately meaningless. Congratulate your humblebragging friends for recognizing the impotence of their actions, and for continuing to endure the horror of life even in the face of its futility!

That 5k might not have been much, but at least they went another day without lying down to wait for sweet oblivion. That’s pretty good — if ultimately pointless.

The Ups and Downs of Being Really, Really Tall

Being tall isn’t always fun and games.

Sometimes, in fact, it is quite literally not fun and games; an absence of fun and games: on a recent trip to Six Flags Great America (frivolous summer whims wooo!), I was told I couldn’t ride their new X-Flight ride. It had a maximum height limit of 6’6″.

More like SUX-flight, amirite?

More like SUX-flight, amirite?

Obviously the designer was a small person. And based on the oversized train twisting through dark tunnels (which is presumably where the height becomes an issue), I’ll go ahead and cruelly say that he was obviously a small man, too, if you know what I mean.

You know what I mean.

So anyway, that side of thing sometimes sucks. But on the other hand, you get some awesome fun times, too.

Case in point: there I was at a local roller derby bout, using the bathroom with all the other halftime drunks. The drunk at the kids’ urinal (which in his defense was right up next to the sinks) is bitching in a very loud voice about how the worst part about getting stuck with the little urinal is having to pee right there next to everyone washing their hands, blah blah blah.

And as luck would have it the stall next to him opened up, so I got to loom on up and rumble “Yeah — and it’s really fucking small” in my deepest, most subterranean tones.

Guy was looking the other way, so we got a lovely “Yeah, man, and it’s reallllOH HOLY SHIT YOU’RE BIG” rising inflection as he pivoted to look at me and spasmed in primal fear.

So yeah. I was so big I made a guy pee on his shoes, once. No big deal. Shoulder dust, shoulder dust, wink.

You gotta take the good with the bad. And maybe watch where you pee.

From the “You’re Doing It Wrong” Files

I’m not a botanist or anything, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t need to worry, here:



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