Category Archives: Accidental Philosophy

COVID Kroger Karen


Okay, so the title only works when spoken aloud. The alliteration is lost in print.

Wife and I went to get vaccinated last week. I had some guilt about it, because we’ve actually had COVID already, and shouldn’t that make us immune at least for a while, and wouldn’t other people therefore need it more than us? But after being reassured that if you’re eligible, the thing to do is to get vaccinated no matter what, we went ahead and signed up.

And at a Kroger pharmacy, no less.

I do not love Kroger, but I shop there nine times out of ten because they generally have the best prices of grocery stores in my area. Plus I know their layout and I’m a creature of habit, blah blah blah… but I have never used their pharmacy, because I have seen how the store as a whole works, which is not inspiring for me when I consider who I want processing our pharmaceutical needs. (They are not super-efficient, is what I’m saying.)

Nonetheless, they were the closest and quickest appointment, so off to the Kenny Rogers we went.

And …. there was a line. Like a long line. But we were instructed to fill out paperwork and wait. Our wait would ultimately only be about 20 minutes, and we’d be out of there in under 45, so not bad on the whole. But that’s not what this story is about.

This story is about the COVID Kroger Karen, who enters the story just before we received our jabs.

We are sitting in the waiting area when she walks up, and delivers the line that I know is gonna lead to a good time: “Is there a manager I can speak to?”

And she says it, you know, louder than she needs to, because she’s getting ready to put on a show, and she wants her audience.

Well, the manager is giving vaccinations right now, so she’s going to have to wait, and to my surprise, she does. She begins doing what she’ll do for the next fifteen minutes, which is linger near the pharmacy, talk too loudly on her phone about how she has to wait, and sigh in exasperation as she fires off text messages and, presumably, disgruntled Facebook posts.

We get jabbed. We come out. CKK is still waiting, to my surprise, not making a scene. Our vaccinator wants us to linger for about 15 minutes to make sure we don’t have any adverse reaction. This is not a problem for me, because I want to see what CKK is gonna do, but nothing is happening, so I wander the aisles with my wife for a few.

By the time we’re back, she’s in full Karen meltdown. She’s standing at the counter, jabbing her finger angrily at the plastic divider between herself and the manager (who just a few minutes ago was pumping vaccine into my arm). Raising her voice to ludicrous levels.

“I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU CAN’T JUST FILL IT.”

The pharmacy is backlogged on all orders right now because we are prioritizing the COVID vaccination effort.

“I JUST CAME FROM MY DOCTOR AND HE ASSURED ME IT WOULD BE READY.”

There is always a delay, and if you had called ahead, we could have told you there would be more of a delay.

“THIS IS JUST RIDICULOUS.”

Apologies.

“WELL HOW LONG IS IT GONNA TAKE.”

All orders are delayed by at least 24 hours right now because of the COVID vaccination effort, as I told you before.

And on and on, and around and around. There’s more. Lots more. The same basket of phrases gets passed back and forth between them like cards in a game of Go Fish.

In defense of CKK, I’d feel some kind of way if I were in her situation, too. Coming out to pick up a prescription only to find it’s not ready is one of the more frustrating things on the 1st-World-Problems Bingo Card, so on the one hand, I get it.

On the other hand? *Waves hands vaguely around* We are in a pandemic, after all, and y’know, if the vaccination effort is taking precedence over your monthly refill? I think we have to have some understanding, here.

But not CKK. Having made no headway with the manager (as she was never going to), she throws her hands up in exasperation. Whirls around, not to leave, but to continue her performance. I have been studiously staring at my phone while this has been going on, pretending to text so I can giggle under my breath as she loses her mind. She doesn’t catch me laughing, but I do make the mistake of glancing up —

And we lock eyes.

Oh, no.

I immediately avert right back to my phone, but it’s too late. She saw me. She walks toward me. Performatively announces, “I have never been treated like this. I just can’t believe it.”

I am studiously staring at a text message from my wife from over a week ago. This is a very important message, I hope my posture communicates. I haven’t been paying attention to you at all. In fact, I didn’t even hear you. In furtherance of fact, I don’t hear you now. All I know and all I see is this message from my wife. From over a week ago.

It’s not working. She comes right up to me. “Can you believe this? I can’t believe they’re doing this to me.”

She’s loud. She’s angry. She wants sympathy, and she has come to the driest of wells for a drink. I have no sympathy for this woman. She represents everything I hate in entitled, angry Older White People.

But because I’m a polite southern boy, I *almost* give it to her. I *almost* make the barest of head shakes, the tiniest of shoulder shrugs, I *almost* mutter knowingly, “whattayagonnado?” But I can’t make myself do it. I can’t offer her any comfort when she’s carrying on this way. I’m a parent. We do not negotiate with terrorists.

I steadfastly ignore her, hoping she’ll walk away, but she won’t. I instead offer her my favorite mantra when somebody is complaining: “Life is pain.”

Life Is Pain Highness GIFs | Tenor

I say it without looking up. Without smiling. I don’t mean it as a joke, or to mock her. It’s all I have for her in this moment.

She steps back. Squints at me. “What?”

Maybe she didn’t hear. Maybe she doesn’t understand. Maybe I’m just a colossal a-hole, more of an a-hole than she is in this moment. I don’t know. But it’s all I have for her. I offer it again, this time looking her in the eye and shrugging. “Life is pain.”

She scowls at me but doesn’t say anything. She stalks off to go be angry somewhere else, anywhere else, away from this absolutely unhelpful bald dude in his Star Wars hoodie quoting Princess Bride philosophy at her which she probably doesn’t even get, the rube.

It’s quiet. People go about their business.

I have discovered the cure for Karens, and the cure is ruthless existential candor.


Out There, In Here


If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.

-Montesquieu

I’ve got happiness on the brain the last few days. Not because I’m particularly happy or particularly not, but because I seem to keep brushing up against it as a topic. And when you start to think about happiness, you really set yourself up for some interesting realizations; which is to say that the things we do that are *supposed* to make us happy often don’t, and the things we often neglect in favor of the things that are *supposed* to make us happy are actually, themselves, the things that make us happy.

So what does it mean to be happy? Do not google this question. The meaning is largely subjective anyway, but you may end up getting advertised to by a bunch of wellness and self-help gurus. “How to find joy in your life” is a common theme. I don’t like that. I’m not talking about those moments of extreme jubilation that come with hearing great news, like that your girlfriend who is way out of your league will in fact marry you even though her prospects are way better, or seeing your child for the first time, or even something more mundane like getting that new job or promotion. These are amazing experiences! But they aren’t sustainable. And you can’t build a life around them.

I like a definition of happiness that’s more like *contentment*, even though to be *content* is its own dirty word (more on that later). And it’s an enviable position, right? Ask most people if they’re “happy”, and there’s a lot of hemming and hawing, and your most likely answer is probably something like an uncertain “I guess?” And that’s how I’d answer the question.

But if you’re not sure you’re happy, then maybe you’re not happy. And if you’re not happy, the question must become: what are you doing about it?

And the world is very happy to offer solutions to that question. Newer, better *stuff* is always top of the list: a bigger house, a nicer car, a bigger television, a better-paying job. “Get these things,” the world seems to say to us, “and you will be happier.”

Thing is, though, that we want those things because they make what we currently have look *less-than* by comparison. My house isn’t the biggest, fanciest one on the block … surely if I had *that* one over there, I’d be better off. My car’s an old clunker… I should really get a new one. We’ve had this old television forever… let’s upgrade. But this is a never-ending cycle. Get the bigger, fancier house, and you’ll start looking in nicer neighborhoods with even nicer houses. Ditch your old car for the new model, and well, it won’t be top of the line for long. Upgrade that old television? Yeah. there’s always a bigger TV.

If you’re always chasing the new, shiny stuff, that’s a journey without an end.

And what about our interactions? We’re all on social media now, which is terrible for our happiness. Because we can’t help but compare ourselves to each other. And in that comparison, we must inevitably look at the people who *really have their lives together* or who enjoy the successful careers we wish we had. Or, worse, we begin to chase validation on social media, which is just stupid. We post pictures for the likes or the retweets or the follows because, somehow, internet popularity has become this source of validation for who we are as people, even though *who we are as people* isn’t necessarily the same as *who we are on the internet*. It’s all performative on some level.

I have a pretty tiny Twitter experience. I’ve had maybe two tweets get more than a handful of interactions outside of a tiny circle of writer-ish people I follow: one about the blizzard that didn’t happen in Atlanta a few years ago and one about Star Wars. I got maybe a hundred likes and a handful of retweets, which was a pretty big deal for me. And that felt good! But then, when things got back to normal, I found myself wondering “well, if I had that much success with those other tweets, surely I can recreate it talking about something else… and if not, maybe I’m doing something wrong.”

Heck, I do the same thing with my blog here. Back in the beginning, I had lots of comments and interactions…. these days, not so much. Did I do something wrong?

MAYBE I DID.

Maybe something in the way I write, or the (in)frequency of my posts turns readers off and they don’t come back like they did when I was younger and full of authorial piss and vinegar.

Or maybe it’s just flukey, and the algorithm has forgotten me like an old Metallica t-shirt at the bottom of the drawer, and that’s that.

Some days I stress about this. Should I change the way I write? Should I tweet more, or act in a certain way?

I *could* do that, but then I think… I started this site as a sort of mental pressure-release valve, a way to write and put things out there, to talk about what’s on my mind and if it resonated with people, great, if not… no harm, no foul; the internet is a big place!

What makes me happy is the act of writing itself, of letting the words fill the page, of finding the right words to express an idea, even if most of the time I come up woefully short of the mark. I started the site because it was *fun*. And if I’m writing, or tweeting, or whatever, to chase re-tweets and likes and comments and whatever, instead of because it’s fun… well, that kind of defeats the entire purpose, doesn’t it?

I’d rather keep writing what’s fun for me to write than try to figure out what people want to see in some random internet blog and cater to that. I’d rather tweet about what I find amusing and interesting and topical than just ask a provocative question to generate a bunch of superficial interactions I don’t care about just to boost my numbers.

I think what brought this whole post on was seeing yet another “where did my followers go” tweet on the old Twitter. (It was, I’m pretty sure, unrelated to one of those periodic purges of bots and trolls, but I guess you can never tell.) People agonize on Twitter all the time about losing followers. “So-and-so followed me and then unfollowed. What’s up?” “People who don’t follow back are the worst.” “Lost thirty followers today. Did this happen to anybody else?” And I’m just like … who is out there watching their follower count closely enough to notice?

And, ok, Twitter is a hellscape, but the same thing happens on all social media. You make a post, you want the interactions. It doesn’t come, you feel bad. But why the Fargo should you feel bad? Nothing changed in your life. If a thousand people “like” something I tweet this afternoon, literally nothing in my life will change. Yet we chase those interactions anyway.

Know what really makes me happy? Going for a run in the quiet of the early morning. Watching favorite movies for the 7th or 8th or 28th time. Wrestling with my kids. Teasing my wife (and trying to find *just that point* where she’s annoyed but not actually *mad* at me). Reading good books. Complaining about bad books. Writing stories of my own. Heck, writing blog posts about happiness that, statistically, maybe 50-100 people in the world will click on and move on from without me ever knowing.

These are not things that increase my station in the world. They don’t generate likes or “engagement”.

But they do put a smile on my face. And they make life a little more worth living. They make me content.

There’s this sort of vilification of the whole idea of contentment today: that somehow to be “content” is to stop growing, stop improving. You have to always be getting better, you can’t stop, can’t rest on your laurels. (See also: Shakespeare wrote thirteen plays during the plague years, or whatever that meme was when COVID started, and all of us writer-types were just gibbering masses of anxiety and stress all the time, but YOU SHOULD BE PRODUCTIVE ANYWAY.) You have to hustle, keep grinding, no matter what.

I agree with that in general, maybe? Like, if you’re not improving, you’re stagnating. I get that.

But that brings with it the other side of the coin. That if you’re not improving, you’re worthless, you’re wasting your time. And that self-talk can put you into a spiral real quick.

We need to stop chasing what’s *out there* at all costs and start appreciating what’s *in here*.

I started off with a philosopher so I guess I’ll end with one:

It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.

-Sheryl Crow

One Little Step


2020 broke us.

2021 is following it up strong, so far.

And there’s so much stuff everywhere, all the time, clamoring for our attention. Bad news headlines. Infuriating politics. Frightening developments. And then, at the same time, we all live in our own little tornadoes of uncertainty. Whose job or daily routine hasn’t been shaken up — if not shaken to its foundations — by the events of the past year? Nothing feels certain. Nothing feels dependable.

Every day we’re asked to give more, and every day after that, we’re asked again, as if the previous day’s ask never happened. There’s always more: more to do, more to think about, more to be responsible for.

And it’s easy — amidst all that “more” — to get overwhelmed. To see all that clutter and pressure and stuff and think I’ll never get through it. To fall into that dread: that the tasks are too big, the obstacles too impassable. Dread turns to despair. Despair turns into inaction. And inaction makes everything that was merely bad before become catastrophic.

How do we get past these things?

Take one step. Just one. A tiny step forward, whether that’s a step toward a goal or a step around an obstacle or just a step away from the dread and despair. And you don’t let inaction overtake you, don’t let despair define you. You take a step, even if it feels tiny and insignificant, because nothing else happens without that first step. One step follows the next. Once you’ve taken that step, you take another. And then another. And then you look behind you and you realize that you have made progress, you did accomplish something, even if the steps themselves felt like nothing.

There’s this story I saw a few years ago about the world’s largest beach cleanup. Mumbai had one of the dirtiest, most litter-stricken beaches in the world. Plastic and garbage and junk as far as the eye could see, and nothing to be done about it. Cleaning it up was unheard of: an impossible task. Until one person decided to get out there and start cleaning it up.

And when that person stepped up, so did others. And others. A little bit at a time. One person providing inspiration to another. The efforts cascaded. And within a year, the place had been transformed.

On the left, a photograph of part of Versova beach taken on August 6, 2016. On the right is an image of the beach tweeted on May 20, 2017.
On the left, a photograph of part of Versova beach taken on August 6, 2016. On the right is an image of the beach tweeted on May 20, 2017. (via CNN)

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Step forward. Do something. Do anything.


In Times of Crisis, Set the Standard


We got a gut punch in my state last night. Teachers, students and parents got the unbelievable news that schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year. For those keeping track at home, that’s the two weeks we’ve already missed, plus this week, plus six more weeks (and our “Spring Break” week is there too, which is just hilarious to me because it just means we’re home like we’ve been for the past several weeks already but nobody can go anywhere). Nine weeks of class time, of face-to-face interaction, gone.

I’m shell-shocked right now.

I have feelings about the closure. I’m sure you do, too. But they’re irrelevant. The die is cast.

All I can think about is everything that’s broken, now.

I think about the musical we were in rehearsals for, which will now not be happening. Six weeks of rehearsal and months of building and planning, for a show that, at least the way we envisioned it, will not happen.

I think about my seniors, who will now miss out on their senior prom and their senior graduation and their final performances and bows on our stage.

I think about all of my students who are suddenly, shockingly, with no forewarning or preparation, deprived of their daily interactions with friends and teachers and coaches.

I think about our parents, likewise deprived of graduations and shows and sports; and oh yeah, they suddenly have to figure out how to continue their kids’ education at home while also struggling to keep making money in our trainwreck of an economy at the moment.

And I think about my fellow teachers, whose plans for the end of the year are shattered, who now have to figure out how the heck to teach their courses at a distance (and a bang-up job they’re doing, despite everything).

I look at all that, and it’s easy to feel hopeless. It’s overwhelming. It’s too much to process at one whack; there’s too much pain and sadness and loss. We’re all sucker-punched, laid out on the mat, staring dazedly at the ceiling.

Good news is, everybody is laid out. Everybody is reeling. It’s okay to be messed up, blurry-eyed, exhausted, uncertain.

But we can’t stay there. We have to pick ourselves up off the mat, lace ourselves back up, and start swinging again. Even though it feels hopeless. Even though it feels like it doesn’t matter. Even if we’re just “going through the motions.”

At times like these, the motions matter. It matters that we get up at a decent hour. That we put some real clothes on. That we get a little bit of exercise, brush our teeth, shave, and put some work in. It matters that we set the standards for our students — for our children — not just in the form of expectations, that they still have work to do, but also that we set the standards in terms of how to act when things get rough.

Because, spoiler alert: we’re setting those standards anyway. When the kids see what we’re doing, we are setting the standard. When they see how we continue to put in work, continue to attack the day with energy, how we relate to each other with resolve and determination and hope (or how we don’t) — we are setting the standard.

We can’t forget that.

It’s okay to feel scared, to feel uncertain. It’s okay to take a moment while we’re down here on the mat to catch your breath, to reorient, to recalibrate. But even if we’re terrified, even if we give in to thinking that none of this matters, even if the best we can offer is to go through the motions, we have to go through the motions.

We have to get up off the mat. We have to keep punching. Even if we get knocked down again and again.

We have to set the standard.

The kids are counting on us.

Everybody in our lives is counting on us.


The Obstacle Is the Way


I got my world rocked this week, reading up on stoic philosophy.

The stoics are awesome. I don’t even know all that much about stoicism except to say that this is the philosophy of the ancient Greeks — the really smart ones, not the ones who just lounged around in togas all day slathering themselves in oil and lusting after young boys (I mean, okay, the stoic philosophers probably did that too, but they didn’t just do that) — and when you ponder on their wisdom, you figure out that they really had this life thing figured out.

They weren’t religious. They weren’t spiritual. But they also weren’t despairing or existential as you might expect from people lacking religion or spirituality. (I’m not saying lacking religion or spirituality makes you bleak or dark or depressed or depressing — that just seems to be the perception our culture has for some reason, because y’know, a life without belief in fairy-tale creatures in the sky must obviously be a life devoid of joy — but I digress.) To the contrary, the stoics held that because life is devoid of magic and higher powers and providence, it falls to each of us to create our own joy, to create meaning, and to work for the betterment not just of ourselves, but of everybody around us.

This is powerful stuff, perhaps most powerful when combined with certain doses of certain substances and prefaced by sentences like “you know, man,” or “dude, I just realized” spoken at three in the morning. But still powerful enough when consumed in bite-sized quotes from the internet or delivered daily to your face by your magical pocket-sized telecommunications device. (I have an app called “The Stoic” that serves up a quote from a stoic philosopher every day. Yes, I am a nerd. I love it. Today’s nugget, from Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts; therefore guard accordingly.”)

Anyway, all this is to return to my original point. I got my world rocked by a central tenet of stoicism: The obstacle is the way. I read that and I realized that it’s perfectly in line with my thinking of late, with my recent productive streak, with the through-line of all the nonfiction books I’ve been reading lately about the way we think, the way we connect, and the way the world affects us.

See, we think of obstacles as bad things. I want to go a certain place, do a certain thing, and this other thing is in my way. This other thing is keeping me from the thing that I want. How could that not be a bad thing?

But it’s not a bad thing. It’s just life.

Because the things we want are, by necessity, on the other side of things that are unpleasant. Put another way, if there weren’t unpleasant things in the way of the things we want … we’d just have them. We’d go over there and get them and there’d be nothing stopping us. To put it in concrete terms: I want to publish a book. (Preferably, books, plural.) But first I have to write it, edit it, make sure it’s good, get it into the hands of an agent, then to a publisher. It’s gonna take work. A LOT of work. Hours and hours at the computer, hammering the words into shape and arranging them just so. I also want to be healthy and strong for my family, so I can live a good long time and annoy them for decades to come. That, too, takes work: it takes thinking about what I eat instead of just shoveling donuts down my gullet (which I would prefer!), it takes making time to exercise (which in my case means waking up at five in the morning to get it done before anybody in the house is even awake). Not easy. And while I’m at it, I’d like to ensure my job security, which means challenging myself at work to be not just a decent teacher but a good one, which means improving myself and investing in my students and a bunch of things it would be easier not to do.

We have all these things that we want, but the path is littered with these obstacles. Big or small, minor inconveniences or major heckin’ setbacks, some struggles you can work past in a day or even an hour, others you can’t even see the end of from where you’re standing. The obstacles are out there, and they’re not going anywhere. My books aren’t going to write themselves. I’m not magically going to discover an extra hour during the day to work out on my own time. I won’t become a better teacher by doing the same things I did last year and the year before.

And that’s enough to keep some people from doing these things. It’s easier not to face those obstacles, to keep things as they are, to accept what you’ve got and be complacent. (I was going to write “content” instead of complacent, but there’s a big difference in those words. And there’s something to be said for feeling “content” with what you have, but it’s another thing entirely to be “complacent”.) I mean, I lived with my parents until I was thirty. Because it was easy. I’m not particularly proud of that, but it did lead me to the path I’m currently on, which makes me thankful for it, even though I now lament how much time I wasted.

But the path to Better is laden with obstacles. Which means that the obstacles are the way forward.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

When we can view the world in this way, the obstacles become less scary. They cease to be bad things, they cease to be things to be avoided. Viewed this way, obstacles become welcome. They become necessary.

And when you tweak your brain enough, you can even begin to view obstacles as a good thing.

The obstacle is the way.

Are you on the path?

This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


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