“…ain’t no such things as halfway crooks” – Mobb Deep
I’ve long lived in a world of extremes. The only kid of an absentee father, who couldn’t spell my name correctly if you spotted him seven letters, and an uber present mother who, to this day, grabs my hand if we’re crossing a street together. The only girl in the GI Joe/handball world of boys. The only black student in advanced college prep courses.
Right/wrong. Good/Bad. True/False. Black/White. All/Nothing. Winners/Losers. Mets/Yankees.
I’m comfortable here.
My first year of law school, I was exposed to a concept of “contributory negligence.” To wit: given a set of facts, you can portion out blame among parties. For example, a pedestrian may be paralyzed after being hit by a speeding car, but she was drunk and jay walking, so she’s 40% responsible for her plight; the speeding driver bears 60% of the blame for breaking the traffic law.
I hate contributory negligence.
Drunken jay walkers get what they get. Keep your drunk self on a sidewalk. Or reckless speeding car drivers are a menace and need to be punished. Get a couple of lawyers, collect some evidence, duke it out and get a judge or jury to decide who’s right…est.
Occasionally, I’ll wonder if this is a childishly simplistic worldview, a hold over of some lesson overlearned in kindergarten. But making firm decisions is hard. It takes patience and education and, most importantly, a conviction that can only come with age and experience.
Not everyone wins. There is evil in the world and bad people who should not be appeased.
There is a controversial black and white photo of me from my halcyon Yale days. I don’t remember who or when it was taken, but I am wearing a placard with a pro union slogan and my arm is raised in the black power fist, I’m smiling and staring straight into the camera. The “controversial” part is, at the time, I was editorials editor for the campus daily newspaper and the editor-in-chief had forbade me from attending any protests with the striking maintenance and dining hall workers. Something about neutrality of the press, he said. But I grew up in a union household, I was working as a dining hall worker AND I was EDITORIALS editor for a, God’s sake. I have opinions and a moral compass that pointed straight to the front of the picket lines.
“Fire me if you want, I’m going.”
He didn’t, but for years afterwards he blamed me for two of his ulcers.
Right. Wrong. Eff your neutrality. (True story: My high school mentor tried explaining an “independent” to me. I was in twelfth grade and working on the Bill Clinton campaign and I could not wrap my mind around this push for “the independents.” After he explained about the “independents,” I sat in his office and laughed for twenty minutes straight. “Why should we care what they think? They don’t even know what they think!” And don’t get me started on agnostics and vegetarians who eat chicken and fish.)
Alas, I’m fully aware that not everyone sees the world in such stark contrast. I always think about two of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten…well, that’s probably not accurate, I’m sure I’ve gotten better advice…but these, well, they made me laugh AND they’ve stuck with me because they resonate with who I am on a fundamental level.
Years ago, I had just resumed talking to a friend of mine after a giant falling out. Concerned, another friend, Kearns cautioned me about the path I was on. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” I replied, “My eyes are open and I’m keeping an arm’s length.”
Without missing a beat, Kearns replies “you have very short arms.”
I laughed and laughed and laughed.
But he was right.
I couldn’t sustain a “fake friendship.” I’m either in or out. If caution was really necessary, then I needed to be out.
Similarly, earlier this year, I had been stewing for a few days, when my friend Dave happened to text me. I decided to ask his opinion.
So, if someone, who has known me for a long time, promises me something and then renegs, without valid explanation, they clearly no longer wish to be friends with me, right?
There is a loooooonnggg pause after which, he finally replies:
To me, that seems to be an extreme interpretation.
HAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAH The pause is probably my favorite part of the exchange. Followed by the “to me.” Why is Dave always trying to avoid getting stabbed to death by Stephane Clare?
It was a well timed reminder that, while I am compelled to make sense of things with my neat compartments, the world outside can be a messy place, no harm in giving it a week before I make any super final judgments.
But in the end, extreme or not, I will choose.