Thursday, October 30, 2014

The cure for high blood pressure

I hear a lot about entitlements these days. It may be because I'm (by some definitions) a millennial. It may be because I have friends on both extremes of the political spectrum – one side generally uses the word to describe things as what people are owed and the other uses the word to accuse people of being spoiled.

Politics aside, I think that the idea of a sense of entitlement is very interesting. When I say that a person has a sense of entitlement, I mean that that person feels that he or she is owed something. The obligation may be a societal one; that is, it may be that society owes a person something. It may be religious or cosmic: a person can believe that the universe or God may owe him or her. It can be personal, as well.

What interests me particularly is that these beliefs seem to have become expectations. We're genuinely upset when someone treats us unfairly. We may not be surprised but we are indignant about it. We've gone beyond thinking that there's an ideal that describes how we hope things would be to thinking that things will actually conform to our expectations.

This kind of thinking is evident in the way that people drive. We all have slightly different understandings of the rules of the road. Most of us drive in a way that's consistent with our rules. Some of us drive defensively; that is, we refrain from assuming that other drivers will operate in a way that makes sense to us. But many of us don't: we assume that other drivers will operate based on our rules. When another driver fails to do so, it startles us. We realize that we and others around us are in danger of injury and death. And because we expect that others will drive according to our conception of what's reasonable, we blame our fear on the other driver.

This line of thought is evident throughout life and not just on the road. We expect that people will live according to laws, even when they disagree with them and even when they're poorly enforced. We expect society to enable us to live a good life. We expect God to heal us or our loved ones. If we stop to think for a moment, we'll realize that we expect quite a bit.

The clearest demonstration of the flaws in this line of thinking is the fact that it boils down to metaphysical solipsism, or the belief that only the self exists and that all other people are figments of the imagination. Believing that outcomes depend only on our behaviors is believing that only we can make decisions of import. It denies the humanity of every person who has ever lived.

The alternative, harsh as it may seem, is that we can do good things and still suffer. Other people can choose to mistreat us or others. They can be irresponsible – and, as far as we can observe, they may never have to deal with the repercussions of their actions. Hoping is harder than expecting; it allows us to feel disappointed instead of angry. And since disappointment is painful, we naturally (if unwisely) prefer the euphorically terrible emotion of anger.

Life isn't fair. You can hope for fairness, but stop expecting it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Petey's dating manual: Why men hide in basements

Just yesterday, I was told that if I (and others like me) would just put a little effort into dating, I'd find someone. Earlier today, a friend asked me if I had any ideas that might help her son to go on dates. After all, he's not going to find a wife playing video games in the basement. These conversations are depressingly frequent, and for good reason; lots of guys do just that. It's unfortunate, of course, that video games are so stigmatized when other, equally innocuous, pursuits are ignored or praised.

The rarity of dates, the prevalence of casual relationships, and the increasing number of older singles are often blamed on young men. They're the ones playing video games (or playing sports or focusing on school or any number of other things). Older people and younger women ask why dates aren't occurring in tones of concern and exasperation – but, in every case, the question is not, "What is causing this societal phenomenon?" but, "What will make men ask women on dates?"

It's certain that men bear some of the blame for these phenomena. It's just as clear to me (but apparently not to others) that there is plenty of blame to spread around. I write this not with a desire to point fingers at people but to point out toxic patterns of behavior that permeate our society completely enough that although many individuals think and act differently, the trends still affect us all.

There are some women today who are perfectly comfortable asking men out. Many other women, however, seem to have moved in the other direction. They've taken the idea that it's a man's prerogative to express interest and abstracted the idea. In their minds, it's the man's job to take every step along the way. In these extreme cases, gender roles appear to be a shield behind which women can hide: if they never cross the line of plausible deniability, they don't have to be emotionally vulnerable. Some of the women I know have said that it's their role to drop hints. Hints are, of course, fine – but it's never appropriate to expect that the other party will understand them. This is especially true today; our culture is far more diverse than it was and what used to be clear throughout society is no longer obvious. The only way to be clear is to be vulnerable.

In this climate, asking a woman out is already an uphill battle. But it gets worse. It gets much, much worse.

It's time for an Alice and Bob scenario. Bob asks Alice on a date. Up to this point, Alice has done nothing that is clearly expressive of interest or clearly expressive of a lack of interest. Several things she's said might indicate interest; on the other hand, just as many things might have meant that she wasn't interested. As such, he has no way of knowing that she's not interested; she didn't know herself until recently. Surprised, Alice is somewhat unsettled at the unrequited interest. She says something noncommittal and leaves.

When Bob calls a couple of days later, Alice knows she needs to do something but doesn't want to hurt Bob; he's a nice enough guy and Alice is a kind person. She doesn't answer because she doesn't want to have to answer a direct question. She thinks occasionally about calling him back but doesn't know what to say and procrastinates. She's already feeling quite uncomfortable and that discomfort is compounded when she gets a text message from Bob. Her roommate Carol notices the look on Alice's face and asks what the matter is. "Oh, it's Bob," Alice replies. "He called me again this week and I didn't answer. I wish he'd take the hint!"

Bob does take the hint, sort of. He doesn't call or text again. But he sees Alice once in a while, always harboring a hope that something besides the obvious explanation has gone on. Or that she'll change her mind. He takes the opportunities he sees to talk with her and she's always a little uncomfortable. After all, his brother Dave got Erin's attention that way – and they're now happily married. In fact, he never would have dated his last girlfriend if he hadn't shown similar persistence; she was curious but juggling some complications from a previous relationship. In fact, she'd expressed her gratitude to him several times for not giving up.

Every time Alice and Bob talk, she gets a little more uncomfortable. Eventually, she comes to associate her feelings of discomfort with Bob. Since his presence leads her to feel that way, she comes to think of the two as associated. Eventually, she says something to Carol about how creepy Bob is. What she really means is that she's been dropping hints but he doesn't seem to catch them. She's tired of it but feels like she can't do anything more. Carol doesn't know Bob but trusts Alice. So when Carol's friend Francesca asks about him, she says that he seems nice at first but that he's a little creepy.

Bob has done nothing wrong. He's making the best of a confusing situation. What's more, he's shown unusual courage for asking Alice out without specific encouragement – and since most men don't get any encouragement most of the time, this is a prerequisite for almost any date.

It's impossible to know whether or not Alice is interested in him except by expressing some interest of his own. But by expressing interest that Alice doesn't want, he's done something that led her to feel badly. Such feelings are to be expected in romantic pursuits. But because all initiative is placed on men and because Alice gossiped to her friends to dissipate her feelings instead of treating Bob with the respect he deserves, she has not only hurt his feelings but made dating harder for him. Were this an isolated series of events, it wouldn't be a big deal. The fact of the matter is that this is totally normal. It's reasonable for a man to expect this sort of thing every time he asks a woman on a date.

Is it any wonder that some men choose the minefields in Call of Duty over the minefield of dating?

It's long past time that we stop blaming only men for our disappointments regarding dating. Far too many of us are contributing to the problem – and far too few of us realize it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The rock in the darkness

My brother and I went rock climbing a few days ago. I enjoy rock climbing and he's an avid climber. I brought my harness and climbing shoes; he brought his cams and nuts and rope and everything else.

It was fun to just spend time with him and fun to challenge myself. Climbing real rock is much harder than climbing in a gym. The discrete (and few) possibilities in a gym make it easy to decide how to climb. But on a rock, anything is possible. I found myself smearing but hadn't yet learned to trust my feet. There were several positive holds but they were hardly everywhere. I think most disconcerting to me was the fact that I rarely had a spot to rest where I truly felt that I had secure footing.

It turns out that we started at not quite the right place. My brother lead but was out of sight and more than halfway through the rope when he reached the chains at the top (it was only later we found out that he'd reached the chains for the second throw). More crucially, it got dark much faster than we anticipated. We found ourselves on an unfamiliar rock, wondering how we'd get down safely in the dark without leaving any equipment behind.

The scariest moment for me whenever I climb is at the beginning of a descent. I put my feet against the rock and lean back, trusting in the equipment and in my belayer. Leaning back like that without equipment would result in a free fall and a sudden stop at the bottom. It was much worse when I could only see the bits of the rock that my little head lamp illuminated.

At several points during the climb, I started to feel fear. But I reminded myself that my brother is very competent and that I trust him completely. As soon as I thought about my brother, the fear abated. It didn't fade entirely, but I had the courage to face it. And I did. We arrived safely at home not long afterwards.

It occurred to me as I thought about trusting my brother that I'm experiencing something very similar in my life. I want nothing more than a family of my own. I don't have a family but know that it will be my responsibility to provide for one as best I can. My schooling and career, as fulfilling as they may be in other ways, are primarily a means to an end: the optimal career allows me to give my family health and a feeling of security and allows me to have the time and emotional energy to be a good husband and father. Since having a happy, healthy family is paramount, my schooling and work weigh very heavily in my sense of self-worth.

This responsibility has been on my mind for a very long time. Also on my mind has been the fact that I've tried several different fields and jobs. And I've failed every time. I tried seminary teaching and learned a lot but didn't get very far. I interned at Amazon and, despite having a really cool project, won't ever hear from the company again. I interned at Google and did poorly. In both of my corporate experiences, I've found that I'm too quixotic (but justifiably so) for them – and, probably, for any publicly traded company. Since the day I started grad school, I've struggled to really immerse myself in research.

I've tried one thing after another. I've had moments of hope but they have been brief and surrounded by long periods of despair. I frequently wonder if I'll ever finish school and if I'll ever find a career that won't drive me batty. I wonder if my continued singlehood is due in part to the fact that I'm still in school and have less to offer at the moment.

To top things off, I found out this weekend that a paper I submitted to an academic conference was rejected. It wasn't the rejection; papers get rejected all the time. It was the fact that it was my last hope of having a paper to put on my CV to apply for the job I went to grad school to get. Not having any first-author publications to my name, I can't even justify applying for the job. And I can't predict how many years it will be until the next job opening appears there. I'd held onto the hope that I'd somehow squeeze through until I got the email this weekend. That hope is now gone.

Metaphorically, I'm on a rock. It's dark. I can't see the bottom but I need to get down there. I don't know how long it will take and I know I can't make it without help. But I have a Brother whom I trust and who knows the way. He knows better than I. Trusting in Him hasn't taken the disappointment away. It hasn't dispelled my feelings of uncertainty about the future. But that confidence gives me the strength to take one step after another. It hurts, but I know I'll be okay eventually.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Petey's dating manual: Cheap imitations

I believe that [she] ... could not bear to continue enslaving him by magical means. I believe that she made the choice to stop giving him the potion.

As a teenager, I remember seeing other boys who seemed to always have girls pining over them – often, the same girls I'd hoped would be interested in me. Naturally, I tried to learn what I could from those other boys. I hoped that by becoming more like them, I'd achieve some of the success that they seemed to enjoy without effort. I'm glad, of course, that I pushed myself to improve. I'm definitely better for having tried to make myself more attractive, regardless of how ludicrous my motivations seem to me in hindsight.

As I consider my adolescent ridiculousness, one particularly dangerous assumption stands out to me: I thought that if I somehow became attractive enough, I would cause women to become interested in me. Were this just an aberration of my own, I could let it die. But this idea permeates our stories and ideas about love. Protagonists choose to do something about a romantic interest and then are met with success, usually without any reference to choices made by anyone else. I'll discuss some of the ways this idea manifests itself today and some of the flaws in it. And I'll suggest a better way to envision and act on love.

The first (and perhaps worst) flaw in my juvenile conception of love was that it completely ignored the agency of the women in question. If my actions could cause them to love me (or to not love me), they wouldn't really be people but objects. What's more, their love would be only a hollow imitation, devoid of the characteristics that most make it transcendent. Love isn't love unless it's given freely.

There is, of course, a common imitation of love that does happen to people, often without their choice. We call it infatuation and often refer to it with phrases like "falling in love". Besides not being actual love (although infatuation frequently precedes actual love), infatuation's primary flaw is that it can end as it begins: independently of and sometimes in spite of our choices. Anything based on infatuation doesn't qualify as love, no matter how intense it is in the moment.

Although we cannot force love, we can coerce its semblance from people. When we do so, we destroy relationships and delude ourselves. Manipulation is never morally acceptable. What's more, it never works, even though it can appear to deliver what we want in the short term. But what manipulation delivers is only ever a shadow of love. And since coercion is diametrically opposed to love, manipulation is also an ineffective precursor to love.

Coercion is an easy trap to fall into if we have preconceived notions of what love looks like. That is, if Alice thinks that real love is manifest when he holds a door open for her or if Bob thinks that real love is manifest when she listens to his emotional concerns, both Alice and Bob are setting themselves up for failure. After all, if they interpret the actions themselves as love, they'll focus on getting other people to perform those actions. If, instead, they understand the intent behind the actions and invite (but do not force) them in appropriate ways, they could actually find what they're looking for.

Another reason we believe this narrative is our need for control. Some of us feel the need to be in control of every aspect of our lives. Others believe that something must be wrong, so they want to step in, take control, and fix it. It doesn't work but that doesn't stop us from convincing ourselves. Love is about trust and never about control, so anything that comes to us through controlling means isn't love.

Since love is a choice, it is up to us. Never try to force love from someone else; instead, choose to find the things you can do that will best contribute to your partner's happiness. Use your knowledge of what your partner wants to express how you feel. Invite your partner to do the same for you. Preserve your own autonomy and fight for your partner's. And then let go and allow love to come to you of its own accord.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Petey's dating manual: On the other side

Never criticize a man woman until you've walked a mile in his her moccasins.

When Becky sent me a text asking me if I'd be around on a particular day, I knew I'd be around. I also knew that she wasn't asking out of mere curiosity. Had I been disinclined to go on a date, I might have felt uncomfortable. But as I'd been thinking about asking her on a date, I was happy to say yes.

I made a point to tell Becky that I was happy to take care of the logistics or leave them up to her. She said she'd plan it since she asked me. As I don't enjoy planning dates, I was perfectly content with the arrangement. The result was that basically the whole date happened with a reversal of the gender roles typical in dating (in the Mormon world). I'd never been on a date so fully planned by my date before, so I see things differently now. Accordingly, I've written this article about it and Becky has written a post of her own.

I'm very used to planning my dates. I know what to expect because I'm the one who arranges things. I know what to wear, how active we'll be, when to eat, and so on. With Becky planning it, I only knew what she told me. Since it was days after we set the date that we decided on a time and a place to meet, I didn't even know what time to put it in my calendar. I settled on just blocking out the whole evening.

On the evening of our date, I discovered the joy of waiting for a date to come. I didn't know if she'd be early or late, but I wanted to be ready on time. I also wanted to find something to do that I could interrupt at a moment's notice. There was also the fact that my roommate and his girlfriend were over. Naturally, they were curious about my date. I'm open but was already feeling some nerves about all of the possibilities I couldn't account for and a part of me didn't want to deal with all of the variables that a four-way conversation between people, many of whom had never seen each other, might go. It turned out fine; I ended up hearing about their crazy day and they left a few minutes before Becky arrived.

Before she came to pick me up, Becky suggested a couple of places to eat. As long as there's food, I really don't care. I told her I was fine with either and offered a tiebreaker in the event that she didn't care, either. But by the time she'd picked me up, she had thought of another option. I had a mild preference but, as before, I didn't care enough to just make the decision for both of us. It was clear that she was interested in it being a good experience for me. I wanted the same for her; I don't know about her food preferences, financial situation or anything else and so didn't want to make a decision that would make her uncomfortable.

I recognize that this reticence was a little unreasonable; after all, she'd suggested the restaurants in question. Ultimately, all I wanted was for us to get food. But irrationality has never nullified feelings and that's what I felt. Eventually, we decided on one of the options. When we got there, the wait was long enough that we wouldn't have had time to eat before the concert. So we went to the other restaurant, which also had a long wait.

I'd been trying to not take charge, partially to not step on her toes and partially so that we'd both have the full experience of being on the other side. At this point, though, she was out of ideas. We happened to be very close to a restaurant tucked away inside of the upper floor of a department store and I suggested that we give it a try. Given how hard it is to find, I wasn't surprised to find that there wasn't a wait at all.

As we sat down, Becky made a point to tell me I could order anything I wanted. Not being in the habit of having my dates pay for me, I was grateful that she said something.

Everything was fine; dinner was good, we arrived in plenty of time, found a great parking spot, and even bumped into some mutual friends as we walked to the restaurant. The concert itself was enjoyable, if a little different from what I'd anticipated. I enjoyed seeing veterans and their families standing during the medley of songs from the armed forces; we were surrounded. And I was amused that someone asked Becky during the intermission if the gentleman she was with was in the military. It wasn't the first time my straight back and lack of hair had led someone to that conclusion. There were even a couple of songs we got to sing as part of the audience.

This one date completely changed how I think about date planning. I'd always thought it was a little bit silly that we worry so much about the details. In all of my dating experience, I've put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to take care of the details. The hope has always been that if I take care of the details well enough, my date won't have to worry about anything and we'll be able to just relax and be ourselves. In other words, I've always felt that well-planned dates were a prerequisite to any success in dating.

This experience taught me that, no matter how well planned a date is, it's still easy for the party who isn't planning things to worry about eventualities. More importantly, I realized that although it's nice to have things go smoothly, it really isn't crucial. If both parties want to be there, they'll enjoy themselves. If one party is uninterested, it really doesn't matter how well planned it is.

I'm still going to plan my dates and I'm still going to make sure that my dates are aware of at least the relevant details ahead of time. That said, I'm going to worry about it a whole lot less.

Thanks, Becky.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Language and loneliness

I grew up speaking English and, once I started school, Spanish. I thought I knew what bilingualism was. I later studied Latin and German and thought that I was quite the polyglot. It wasn't until I served a mission in Brazil and found myself entirely surrounded by Portuguese that I began to understand what fluency really is.

I was in Curitibanos, a city of about 35,000 people in central Santa Catarina. My companion was Brazilian and had an accent that was a crazy mixture of Rio (which is a sufficiently crazy accent on its own), Paraíba, and Santa Catarina. Most of the other people I'd met had been born and grown up in Curitibanos and had been there their whole lives. Some few were from other parts of Brazil. I'd learned to speak and understand reasonably well in Florianópolis, where the accent was much more mild. Curitibanos, being a small and fairly isolated community, had an accent that completely bewildered me.

As time went by, I felt increasingly alone. It took some time to figure out exactly what was causing my isolation. It wasn't the people; Brazilians, as a rule, are open and friendly. My companion at the time is a good man. The people I saw as I walked around the city and as I taught the gospel were kind and genuine. And it wasn't that I wasn't trying, either.

I think I blamed it on the structure of the mission for some time. I thought that the missionary rules were preventing me from forming real friendships. Then, I thought it had less to do with the rules generally and more to do with our busy schedules; we never had enough time with any one person (companions excluded) to connect.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion – and I think this one is actually correct – that connection requires language. There are, of course, transcendent exceptions to this rule. But most connection requires people to really understand each other through some sort of language. It requires people to be able to speak and understand naturally enough that they can focus on the meaning instead of the words. I was good at Portuguese, but I wasn't good enough to really connect with people. I could get basic ideas across but struggled with nuance. I couldn't play or paint with the language. There were moments of brilliance, of course, that I believe were blessings from God. But without divine intervention, I was adrift in a sea of people and unable to drink.

We sometimes fail to see that language barriers exist not just between languages but between dialects and even between registers. For those unfamiliar with the term and who are disinclined to follow the link, registers are like dialects but most of us speak several. We speak in one register when spending casual time with our friends and another when writing formally. We use different words, inflections, idioms, and cultural references in different registers.

Usually, fluent speakers of a language can understand each other, even if they're unfamiliar with the register being used. In some cases, however, it can be difficult. I observe this frequently with people who find themselves thrust into a world of Standard Written English (SWE). It's clearly unnatural for some people to speak in a formal register, just as it's clear when a man is wearing a suit for the first time. And a formal register tends to use language that can be difficult for people to understand.

I struggle with this because, for all practical purposes, SWE is my native language. I grew up in a household with a large, frequently-used dictionary. We used the word "whom" correctly. We paid attention to detail. And we read a lot. As a result, I know a lot of words. I find that the words that come most readily to my mind are often not words that others find easy to understand. In fact, I find that I use larger and more obscure words when I'm sleep-deprived; most likely, because those words are most natural for me.

I remember being in a Sunday School class (in my denomination, there are Sunday School classes for all ages) one day while I was at BYU. I described temples as beautiful but not ostentatious. One of my fellow classmates responded by saying, more or less, "Ostentatious? I feel smarter just for being here!" The subtext was clear: "No one really uses that word, but I've heard it before. And I feel smart because we're using big words and I got this one." I remember feeling awkward because I thought that ostentatious was a perfectly ordinary word and that it ought to belong in the vocabulary of a college student.

Another time, I was chatting with my roommates and used the word "onerous". I didn't think it was a particularly obscure word, but it seems that it was, as my roommate asked me about it. It was eerily similar to this conversation from I, Robot. In moments like these, I realize that the people around me often don't speak my native language. As a result, I return to the isolation I felt in Curitibanos.

Now that I think about it, it makes sense that I'd experience the same sort of isolation. For one thing, some words have more panache than others and having to communicate without them is emotionally dissatisfying in the same way that my underdeveloped Portuguese lexicon caused dissatisfaction in Brazil. Much more importantly, obscure words often express my intention much more precisely than do better-known words. In many cases, the use of simple language strips my ability to express important nuances. It leaves me feeling full of light but unable to share it for lack of an appropriate medium – just the way I felt in Brazil.

My situation, of course, is not exactly analogous to the one I experienced while immersed in Portuguese. In fact, I think it's more difficult. Learning Portuguese meant that I was acquiring new words; speaking in an informal register means filtering out words. But it isn't clear which words to filter and which words to keep – and guesswork is very tiring for me. What's more, that tiring guesswork is duplicated for all of the synonyms that come to mind as I search.

Another difference between my immersion in Portuguese and my attempts to converse with people in English is that people react very differently. When I was in Brazil, people knew that I wouldn't be able to speak fluently all of the time. In contrast, using formal or complicated language with native English speakers can lead them to feel shame. This shame isn't something I'm imposing on them, but they feel it as an indirect response to my actions. So instead of being seen as an understandable failure to communicate effectively, as it was in Brazil, my language barrier in English is seen as a moral failure.

Of course, I believe in speaking to people in their own language. I'll continue to make a reasonable effort to speak intelligibly. But I no longer believe that being easily understood is a moral imperative. In other words, I'm done trying to Up Goer Five everything.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Petey's dating manual: It takes two to tango

I need someone older and wiser telling me what to do

Whenever I get the chance, I go dancing. I love the challenge of it, the beauty of it, and the opportunity to interact deeply with music. Social and ballroom dance add an additional aspect: the interactivity of leading and following.

In traditional ballroom and social dance, the man leads and the woman follows; that is, the man moves and the woman moves with him. This may be because the man is typically moving forwards and the woman backwards, especially in social dance – although either of these conventions might have caused the other. The man is responsible for floor etiquette; for example, ensuring that his partner, who is traveling backwards, doesn't step on anyone. The woman, on the other hand, usually does more intricate and technically challenging movements.

These conventions work just fine for dancing, although they're not the only conventions that could work. Men and women could switch roles and it would be just fine; in fact, some do (which is why many people refer to the dancers as leads and follows instead of men and women). I'm sometimes surprised, though, that some people adhere strictly to these traditional roles in all aspects of their lives. Some men expect to make all of the decisions. Some women expect the same. Some people expect that when a couple kisses, the man will lead and the woman will follow.

I don't know what works for everyone; after all, no two people are the same. I do know that a male-dominated relationship doesn't feel like a relationship to me; if I'm domineering, I'm not treating my partner as an equal. Of course, the same is true if my partner is domineering.

For a relationship to work, both people must be true – that is, full and equal – partners. This doesn't mean that they are the same in every way but that they have equal value and contribute equally to the relationship. If one takes the lead in yard work or home decorations, that's fine – but both should be on board with their decision and both should be trying to contribute from the heart. They should not assume or hope for roles because of prominence or control; such an approach treats a person not as a partner but as an object. And however we decide to do things, we should be sure that we decide intentionally and not by default.

It's also crucial that both members of a relationship actively and mindfully express affection. This doesn't mean that they both do exactly the same things to express affection, but it does mean that they're both fully involved. I won't speak for others – some couples may genuinely prefer to have the man lead all the time – but I prefer to have my partner express herself however she likes. Anything else is an attempt to remove some part of her from the relationship and I'm much more interested in my partner than I am in cultural norms.

So find a way to be active in your relationship. Ask questions about your roles and why you do what you do. Don't assume which roles you will take and which your partner will take; instead, work it out between yourselves. Expect yourself to be a full participant in your relationship, using your autonomy to contribute to your partner's happiness – and expect the same of your partner.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Who am I?

Growing up, everyone called me Peter. I don't think anyone even called me Pete until college. And then, by accident, I got the nickname Petey. I liked it and it's how I've introduced myself for years. But I've been thinking about returning to my roots.

I've talked with several people about this. Some people have strong opinions. My mother, for example, strongly favors Peter while several others can only think of me as Petey. Those who don't have strong opinions wanted to know more. Almost all of them asked me one question:

Which name best represents me?

I don't know the answer to that question. I thought of my friend Launa Marie Lewis (currently serving a mission in Portland). She has two names, both of them given to her by her parents. To her, one of them represents her spunky, fun side. The other represents a more grounded self. Both of these names fit her; they just fit different aspects of her.

I think the same is true of me. Part of me is stable and reliable, like a stone (which is the meaning of Peter). I don't budge from my principles. And, like my namesake, my stability includes wholehearted loyalty. On the other hand, I am also Petey. I smile a lot. I'm young at heart. I don't know that either of these parts of me is truer than the other. I don't think that either is. I have no plans to abandon either aspect of myself.

I'm going to use both names. I'm making this up as I go along, so I don't know exactly how or when I'll use either. What I do know is that using both feels right to me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Identity crisis

I've written before about why I call myself Petey. For those who haven't read the post and are disinclined to do so, I'll summarize very briefly: I have little trouble getting people to take me seriously enough but sometimes people take me too seriously. Calling myself by a ridiculous diminutive seems to help.

I've been going by Petey for about seven years now. It's become habitual. In fact, many of my friends don't even connect the name Peter with me. I laugh every time someone is confused to hear me called by my legal name.

Truth be told, a part of me would rather introduce myself as Peter. It isn't that I miss being called Peter particularly and I hardly mind being called Peter; it doesn't matter much to me what people call me. That said, I do appreciate it when people feel comfortable enough to call me by a nickname purely of their own volition.

It's also occurred to me that the effect of my nickname may wear away very quickly. It helps with first impressions and first conversations, but people become accustomed to it soon afterwards. Once accustomed, it may not help them to open up at all. It's even possible that it's counterproductive.

I've been thinking about what to call myself in a professional context. Part of me loves the idea of publishing scholarly articles as Petey. This is mostly because it's a little incongruous and because it feels a little bit like I'm sticking it to the man. Another part of me wonders if I want to be stuck with that moniker for my whole professional career and if it might make publishing more difficult.

Since the primary reason I go by Petey is to help set others at ease, the recognition that it may not do as I've thought has caused me to think. I may go back to introducing myself as Peter.

Regardless of how I introduce myself, please feel free to call me what you like.

Since I don't have strong feelings about it, I'm curious to know what my friends think. So, dear reader, do you prefer Peter, Pete, or Petey – in general and for me specifically? Why? What other thoughts do you have?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Petey's dating manual: In defense of the hot girl

Oh man, look at that girl right there! Goodness gracious! That girl is fine, man! Look at her – she's too fine! She knows she's fine, too!

One of our culture's most prominent contradictions is that we obsess over physical beauty but criticize people who are particularly attractive. We could all easily point to a reason for this, but I think there are several that don't come immediately to mind. I hope that by pointing some of them out, I'll help all of us to be more understanding of people – even when their problems are very different from ours.

One reason people seem to dislike attractive people is because attractive people have turned them down; often, many more times than once. In this instance, we fail to recognize that we're unlikely to be rejected by people we don't find attractive. After all, we're rather unlikely to give people a chance to reject us if we're not attracted. This is an example of selection bias and several more follow. Also, most people turn most people down – and we should be glad they do, as a poor relationship is much worse than no relationship at all.

Some of us are not offended at rejection itself but at its mode of expression. This sort of offense usually occurs between someone who favors indirect communication, such as failure to return a phone call, and someone who prefers direct communication, such as answering the phone and declining a date. It can happen in either direction: indirect communicators are sometimes offended when others are blunt with them and direct communicators sometimes feel patronized or that their time and energies have been wasted when they don't get a straight answer.

Another cause for offense is also related to rejection: many of us are frustrated not because we were rejected but because we were rejected summarily. This is especially likely to occur with people who, on principle, always go on some number of dates when asked (usually one or two) in order to give people a chance. While this principle is reasonable, it is not binding on everyone.

In fact, rejecting people – even rejecting them before a single date – can be more considerate than going on a date. For one thing, not going on a date can save time and energy for both parties. And going on a date that's unlikely to lead to a relationship can make things worse. Two people can have totally different perceptions of how a date went; it is fairly common for the interested party to feel that the date went well and for the other party to differ. The result is that many dates where one party is interested and the other isn't lead to further emotional investment on the one hand and therefore to more pain when the rejection mercifully comes.

We may be particularly unfair as we judge our attractive friends. If they go on more dates than many people, they probably have more dating experience than many people. And if they have more experience, it's possible that they'll know more quickly, based on that experience, whether or not they want to date someone.

What's more, people who get lots of attention have probably had to turn lots of people down and are probably really tired of doing so. They don't like hurting people and they don't like the effect that rejection has on their friendships. It's understandable, and possibly even laudable, that they identify and address these issues quickly.

Also, most first dates aren't fun. Or interesting. Or comfortable. And our attractive friends have probably been on more than we have – so they're probably more tired of them than we are. So if we're tired of first dates (and I think most of us are), we ought to be particularly understanding of people who resist going on them because they've endured more than we have.

It may be that we dislike attractive people because they receive the attention we wish we did; jealousy is a thing. While understandable, this is hardly reasonable or excusable. Among myriad other reasons we should avoid jealousy is the fact that it's hardly a person's fault that someone else is romantically attracted to him or her.

I'm grateful for all of the times I've been rejected. I'm happier for not having ended up with many of these people – not because many of them aren't wonderful people but because we really weren't that well matched to begin with. That they saw this incompatibility and acted on it saved me considerable trouble in the long run.

And remember that people are good. They want to be kind. So the next time you're inclined to take offense at someone (attractive or not), take a moment to understand first.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Petey's dating manual: Revisiting compliments

I wrote about how to compliment people a while ago. Unsurprisingly, I didn't say everything that there is to be said on the subject. Here are a few more ideas for how to build people up.

Give compliments when they are due

Compliments come most naturally when we are impressed with someone. Generally, it is in that moment that we notice and feel that we should compliment people. Expressing ourselves while our emotions are fresh allows us to be sincerely enthusiastic about what we say and that additional energy can make a world of difference in how our compliments are received.

Often, we feel the need to give compliments when none occurs to us. There are any number of social situations where a compliment would come in handy; most particularly, when someone else has said something kind and we want to reciprocate. But this need is more like a guideline than a real rule and giving compliments that we don't really mean can backfire easily.

This problem is sometimes chronic rather than acute: it's not one kind word that causes us to feel indebted, but a pattern. If the feeling of debt induces us to kind actions, it may be healthy; if it fills us with guilt or stress, it probably isn't.

Also, it is perfectly acceptable to be flustered on occasion – especially if the reason you're flustered is because someone said something unexpectedly kind.

Give compliments at the right time

Although it's advisable to give compliments in the moment, some compliments are best saved for more appropriate moments. Usually, this refers to social context: a particularly personal comment is generally best reserved for a personal context. On the other hand, it's easy to wait indefinitely, hoping for some perfect moment. There is a happy medium to be found.

It's necessary to save compliments if they are to be given at these appropriate moments. But while it is wise to wait for the right moment, it is unwise to hoard compliments in hopes of being prepared. In my experience, helping people to see their value builds trust and friendship. People usually react by opening up further, allowing further insight into their character. This insight, in turn, shows additional characteristics that merit validation. In other words, don't worry about running out of compliments.

Give compliments about things that matter to you

Compliments are most sincere when they concern something personal and when that something matters to the validator. When talking with people, consider what characteristics you value most about them and focus on those traits when speaking about them.

Give compliments boldly

It is impossible to give an effective compliment without being a little bit vulnerable; after all, good compliments demonstrate what we value most about people. As a form of self-expression, it is inherently risky. The fear of rejection holds back far too many kind words (and corn dogs).

Don't listen to that fear. Choose to say kind things, even if there's a chance that you'll be ignored or even insulted for it. The rewards for being kind far outweigh the risks.

Thank people for their compliments

When someone validates us, our conditioned reaction is to return the compliment. While there is nothing wrong with giving a compliment back, consider simply thanking the person who said something kind. This demonstrates an appreciation that a returned compliment doesn't always show. In fact, it's really hard to go wrong with the words "thank you" in most circumstances.

Occasionally repeat compliments

We don't often repeat our compliments. Perhaps it is fear of seeming to value one thing too much or fear of appearing insincere. We should be judicious about it, but repeating things we've said – or rephrasing them – is vital for many relationships. Be careful about repetition, but don't avoid it completely out of fear.

Practice makes perfect

Don't expect yourself to have a great gift at complimenting people right from the start. As with anything, it takes practice. The great thing about complimenting people is that they care much more about your intent than they do about the things you say. In fact, bungled compliments can be pretty endearing. And it is an extremely rare person who will object to your practicing the art of validation on them, so go for broke.

Give compliments for the right reasons

Most importantly, we should ensure that our motivations are good. Complimenting someone out of social necessity is fine, but it is much better to build someone up out of a desire to help that person be happy or to build confidence. This idea generalizes as well as gratitude does: if your motivation is to make someone else happy, you'll go right most of the time.