Arrived safely back in NYC from Chicago – apparently, just in time with major snowfall expected tomorrow and Tuesday. Either my second or third winter in Chicago (so early 2010 or 2011), something similar happened and Lakeshore Drive was so covered that cars were abandoned all along its stretch to the east of the Loop. I don’t have any photos or videos of it, though, not having had a smartphone or camera at that time since I was still in a post-college funk. It’s like a missing photo chapter in my life.
On the subject of cameras, a much bigger event, the first Obama electoral victory, took place a few months after I moved to Chicago in 2008. Grant Park was full of people holding point-and-shoot digital cameras. I never had one of my own, but I suppose I didn’t need it: that moment was probably the peak of the standalone casual camera era, since the iPhone 3GS – with dramatically improved camera and performance over 2008 – was on the horizon that summer.
I arrived in Chicago in 2008 with a Motorola RAZR and departed (sort of; I’ll probably be back, and I visit often) with an iPhone 6 Plus. There was a gap from September 2008 to July 2011 when I didn’t have a smartphone or a camera because I couldn’t afford either, and in retrospect it’s perhaps too bad that I couldn’t capture certain moments since I didn’t have a high-paying job.
Luckily, my spouse had an iPhone from 2008 onward and took plenty of good pictures. Still, I hope that someday, if humans still exist and society really has changed its attitude to care more for the non-wealthy, that one of the biggest moral blindspots that future generations will ridicule and find outrageous is the notion that humans must have occupations – determined by randomness and all sorts of inscrutable “physical world“-style behaviors – in order to simply survive. Or take a good photo, for that matter.
For the second time this month I’m back in Chicago to visit family. There’s an orderliness to Chicago that is perfect for my entire uptight/just-so outlook. The city is clean, a series of grids, and no-nonense, without the “we’re the center of the world”-ism that I associate with New York, which isn’t as well-suited to my personality.
The Bulls seem to be doing ok. I remember how good they were 4 years ago, right before I was entering the down phase I described a few entries back. It seemed like every radio station in the city, blaring from the endless cars that went by on Milwaukee Avenue that May 2011, was playing some talk radio station discussing point guard Derrick Rose’s MVP season and whether the Bulls could really beat the Heat (turns out, they couldn’t).
Bill Simmons recently put Derrick’s Rose string of injuries in context. Basically, Rose hasn’t been himself since around the time that Simmons’ site Grantland launched. Grantland now seems like an Internet institution, making Rose’s troubles seem like they’ve been going on for decades. Struggle does have a way of prolonging itself, making itself seem like it’s consuming more time than it really is, perhaps since each setback can be novel and unexpected, rather than ho-hum like the “normal” daily grind, routine, etc that all go by in a blur. Four years isn’t that long, but then again neither is seven (how long ago I first came to Chicago) and it feels like my life in Rhode Island in 2008 is basically pre-history by now.
It is a strange sensation to go through a moment that you are certain you will regret later. But lucky for me my regret detector is broken.
Last year, I decided not to attend a Web development bootcamp (it’s called Dev Bootcamp) that I had been preparing for and building up to for months. I spent at least 90 minutes writing an email at my red Ikea desk, asking to be withdrawn from the program, then felt enormous anxiety as I waited for the response and wondered if I had given in too easily to my struggles with the material and the super-extroverted structure (paired/collaborative videoconferences…yuck). I was outside my comfort zone, [string of other cliches], etc. Plus, wasn’t I leaving money on the table? If I made it through, I would probably have made much more money than at my current position.
The program admin emailed me back after three agonizing days (in which I contemplated sending a “disregard my other email” follow-up) and by the end of that week I was done with the program. Each time I struggled at something in the months following that, I remembered that withdrawal and had not only something like regret, but an even worse feeling, what many call “fear of missing out” (FOMO). The alternate world I sketched out in my head of what things would be like if I had gone to the bootcamp seemed so much better than the one I was occupying.
Now though, it’s not regret I feel, but nostalgia – for the months leading up to when the camp was supposed to start. I had been accepted in June 2013 and slated to attend in June 2014. I was excited about the prospect of going, and I fondly remember the weird looking-forward of that year, if not so much the actual moment of preparation and program initiation, when it finally came. I didn’t like the work, really, but that felt secondary – there was, I felt, certain change ahead, and that was exciting, especially considering the tumultuous professional track I had been on from 2009-2013.
After I stepped out of my office and onto Clinton St. in Chicago on the last day of April 2014, the instant regret of three days prior was gone, replaced by relief, even if what I’ve come to regard as pseudo-regret/stupid-FOMO encroached upon it for a while thereafter. This was my hint that Dev Bootcamp had really just been a vehicle for me – a thing-to-look-forward to that lived its life, got me through a hard transitional phase in life (the summer after the startup I worked for predictably hit headwinds, and the same summer in which I got married, weirdly enough) and then expired like an old, almost empty carton of milk.
The biggest regret wasn’t not attending; it’s that I had to “trick” myself into feeling good during the program run-up, by putting in place something that I didn’t even like (a software development bootcamp) rather than just being happy because I was alive, healthy, etc. It really was a case of regretting what I had done, rather than what I had not done. I’m glad I didn’t do the program, but sometimes regretful that I put myself through a sort of induced happiness coma by inventing (maybe “latching onto” is more accurate) things to look forward to. It made me realize that I could have been happy and could have survived without needing the external validation of having been admitted.
I think the old adage about “I do not regret the things I do, but those I did not do” isn’t the incredible wisdom it presents itself as. Not-doing has its place and is essential to remaining sane and not being overwhelmed by obligations. For me, regret doesn’t spring from the sense that I “missed out” on something (a completely intractable problem if one allows it, since there are just too many options out there now thanks to smartphones), but from the sense that I wasn’t allowing myself to feel genuinely happy or make others feel happy, too.
The Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, had perhaps my favorite answer ever to what he would have done differently if he could have lived his life over. He didn’t say “climb Mt. Everest,” “become more technical,” “make more money,” “bet a different lottery number,” no – he said only that he wished for an opportunity to “give more praise.” He wanted a redo on being able to make others feel good about themselves – what a quaint and rare idea!
Plus, giving praise is often its own reward – it feels so much better than giving criticism, at least once the act is complete (knocking someone down a peg always seems more thrilling in theory, but becomes less satisfying with time). Perhaps he realized that reasons to feel good are often in short supply or simply inaccessible (for reasons of disposition or background) to so many of us, and that he could help. It sure beats wanting to go back in time to do prom all over again or ensure that Ruby nd Python were learned at an early age.
Tax forms, employment applications (however protracted), standardized tests: They all ask you to make choices that aren’t really choices in most people’s minds. I’m not talking about multiple choice questions with one right answer, but fields that quiz you on your ethnicity, gender, and so on. These fields seem as straightforward as asking what the local time of day is, but they’re more nuanced: is someone “white” if some of here ancestors were Native American? What about individuals like President Obama, with parents of different races? Even gender identity is ultimately fungible.
The resistance to blurring these categories of race and gender is, I think, all about identity politics. When someone has to describe who she “is,” well, she might fall back on her nationality (which is accidental, and could be renounced), her race (invariably mixed, if traced back far enough), her gender (changeable, both literally or conceptually), or her sexuality (I’ll talk about this in a moment). All of the accompanying labels and epithets – “I’m a proud American,” “I am a white man,” etc. – are not facts; they’re stories.
Over the years, the identity balloon has inflated with more possible categories. Race has, perhaps paradoxically, become increasingly important as a differentiator in multicultural societies. And then there’s sexuality. In late spring 2011, I was on the verge of my quarter-life crisis that would crest the next month at my sister’s college graduation. As I walked downstairs to the lobby of my apartment building one day, I heard the sounds of Lady Gaga’s then recently released album, “Born this Way,” leaking from someone’s room, and asked myself: was I?
I hesitated to answer, even to myself. My identity as a white guy was about as, well, white-bread as possible, and the only category that took me out of the “easiest possible difficulty setting” (the archetypally insensitive, nerdy way that I’ve heard white maleness referred to in “politically correct” tech circles) was, well being “gay.” If I wasn’t gay, then I had essentially no out of the ordinary talking points, no identity to seize in the quest to be an outsider. But it sure felt like I hadn’t been born that way and had instead acquired the preference over many years.
This post isn’t intended as an investigation of the science around sexual orientation; that’s not my specialty. It’s only about the feelings I have had toward the subject, which have changed dramatically since I was teenager. When I was in middle school in the late 1990s, many of my classmates reserved “gay” and all of its variants as the vilest of insults for someone they didn’t like or agree with. I hated how they verbally abused others using these words, but I never felt directly threatened by these attitudes since I didn’t feel, at the time, any attraction to other men.
The climate for LGBT was more or less the same when I was in high school, perhaps a bit calmer with each passing year but hardly welcoming. All of my conscious feelings were still toward women; if I was really gay from birth, then the trait was impeccably hidden. Sure, the environment was super heteronormative, but I had the Internet and I could have explored other sexualities and it never really drew me in.
It wasn’t until college that my outlook began to change, and even then it was the result of an accidental encounter and possibly some of the medications I was taking at the time. Throughout 2005, the year when my straightness was first challenged, I still thought of myself by the strange label “bi,” which some guy who stalk-friended me on Facebook in August of that year relentlessly mocked me for. He was absolutely sure that one was either gay or straight and that the identity was immutable. “No one ‘comes out’ as being black, do they?” he quipped over AIM one night. Yet he was still interested for a while.
His attitude, I think, encapsulates a lot of the identity politics around this subject. First, there’s the almost religious certainty – with an ironic resort to science as convenient – that orientation is predetermined and unchanging. At the same time, though, there’s the ability to put such ideology aside for physical convenience – who cares if I disagree with this person, at least we’re on the same page on something?
The certainty is a red flag, as it is with almost anything from the notion that there is definitely only one God who revealed himself to ancient Semites and was limited to fluency in Iron Age human languages, to the idea that drug addiction is always immoral. It’s compensatory. But then the notion of easily available, apolitical intimacy is also important, since I think it’s part of why the identity labeled as “gay” is so appealing and problematic for so many people who identify as “straight.”
In one of his books, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote:
“Nothing optional – from homosexuality to adultery – is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishments) have a repressed desire to participate. As Shakespeare put it in King Lear, the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash.”
That’s a powerful word – “optional” – to throw around, but it feels like he was on to something. For context, he wrote this sentence in a chapter explaining why various religions prohibit the eating of pork. He argued that this apparent hatred of swine was not due to any uncleanliness in pigs, but because pork tasted good and was uncomfortably similar to the flavor of human flesh. There was a tempting boundary to cross there, but it became repressed and turned into a prohibition.
Something had to be at stake, though, to drive the ban: people might eat pork and like it. I mean, what culture has prohibited the eating of shark flesh, cactus, or wheatgrass? Nobody secretly pines for these things or runs the risk of accidentally falling in love with the experiences of them. No one becomes a Hakarl addict beholden to the intimacy of the experience; there’s neither the human-esque flavor of pork nor the same gender closeness of homosexuality (which while totally different things, obviously, share in vicious prohibitions across multiple major religions and societies, as well as, I believe, a certain optionality).
A while back, Zach Howe really put my feelings to the page in an article for Slate about understanding homophobia:
“Clearly, men in America have grown up learning to be scared of gayness. But not only for the reasons we typically think—not only, in the end, because of religion, insecurity about their own sexuality, or a visceral aversion to other men’s penises. The truth is, they’re afraid because heterosexuality is so fragile. Heterosexuality’s power lies in perception, not physical truth—as long as people think you’re exclusively attracted to the right gender, you’re golden. But perception is a precarious thing; a “zero-tolerance” policy has taught men that the way people think of them can change permanently with one slip, one little kiss or too-intimate friendship. And once lost, it can be nearly impossible to reclaim.”
The last sentence is the key. Once the Rubicon of orientation is crossed, it is, well, crossed, making the non-straight identity seem, in retrospect, inevitable and absolute.
Not only is perception fragile, but the temptation – like that of eating pork for the ancient Semites with limited food supplies – is likely more powerful than we acknowledge. For men – I can’t speak to the female experience – homosexuality has a certain immediateness that heterosexuality often lacks. There are no “pick-up artists” among gay men, at least not in the way that there are desperate straight men trying to win over women. The creepy, imbalanced gender dynamics of heterosexual-focused dating sites doesn’t have a 1-for-1 equivalent in the apps for men looking for other men. The entire ritual is just different and more no-nonsense. Rammstein singer Till Lindemann described it as such, in a 2006 interview with Playboy:
“I envy the guys, their easy looking at each other in a pub and then pick each other up, without all the bloody nonsense with flowers and three times out for dinner together before you are allowed to do it. It’s so much easier for them.”
Homosexuality is also, in the most basic way, the most pleasurable and versatile emulation of one of the most defining interactions of our world. Here’s what I mean: Just think of how much of our world is the way it is because of men trying to show that they have more power over other men (talking about literal men here, not mankind that includes women under its banner) – how many wars and stressful board room brawls have been fueled by this urge?
But what if it could be satisfied in a much more carefree and less destructive way? What if the experience could also, depending on the person and the time and place, also replace the long-term relationship or marriage or, on the complete other end of the spectrum, be a one-off with so few strings that the parties involved could be friends after the fact, as if nothing exceptional had happened? I expect that what Hitchens called “the urge to participate” is everywhere, for these reasons and others.
It’s a powerful option, but is almost never regarded as such, despite what I expect is widespread curiosity and, more obviously, fear (“we just can’t allow gay marriage” – how much is this motivated by the rational expectiation that it could change and enrich people, rather than by any affection for an ancient Hebrew god?). Maybe it wasn’t an option for others who had a more certain outlook early on in their lives, but it was clear Rubicon for me and I didn’t have to cross it – but I’m glad I did.
Note: this post is a request from someone I know
Having lived in both Chicago and New York and having being your typical omnivore during my stints in both cities, I have eaten a lot pizza over the last seven years. My favorite places in Chicago included Gino’s East and Lou Malnati’s, both in downtown. In New York, I have mostly stuck to Dani’s House of Pizza in Kew Gardens.
Deep dish pizza is exhausting, but in a good way (more tiring than tiresome). It is filling and if ordered in medium large for a party of two or less, is guaranteed to provide at least a few more meals.
In this way, it’s a microcosm of Chicago itself – a whole lot stuffed into one compact, coherent area, a culinary Loop. Moreover, like Chicago, it’s tremendous bang for your buck, considering the leftovers angle.
Usually I eat pizza slices in New York by rolling them up. I can eat four or five easily if I’m hungry. The sauce at Dani’s is sweet, with that same addictive power of sugar that makes you want to keep eating good cookies.
Like New York though, it is expensive and short-term. A box goes by in no time and then it’s off to the next thing. Pizza as a social indicator? My title is a joke but maybe there’s more to it.