Assholes Are People Too

How I’ve learned to filter myself and not offend anyone.

Poster art in the Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles.

I sat in my car in the parking lot of the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia on a warm afternoon late in February 2011. I glanced at my watch, then at the clock on the dash, and finally, I nervously checked the time on my phone. I was here hoping to get into a landscape design class that I had seen on their event calendar. I’d been laid off in late November and had not found work yet. I had the time and desire to learn some new skills. Maybe this class would lead to new opportunities.

I wanted to arrive early enough to improve my chances of getting into the class, but not too early. If I walked up and the gate or classroom was not open yet, it could be awkward. I’d have to stand there waiting or walk back to the car, only to return a few minutes later. Should I even be here? What if I can’t even get into the class? Then I would have driven through afternoon traffic, stressed out and wasted time for nothing. Well, I was here now, so I shouldn’t wait too long and blow my chances.

Someone else pulled up, parked, got out with notebook in hand and walked past my car. I watched them in the rear view mirror as they walked through the gate. It was open.

I texted my wife to let her know I was going in, turned off the radio, pulled the key, grabbed my notebook, felt in my shirt pocket to make sure I had a couple pens, got out of the car, and glanced at my watch one more time, as I walked up the stairs towards the optimistic mid-century modern a-frame building. I paused from my obsessive internal dialog for a moment as the optimistic architecture seemed to announce, “The future is bright. Anything can happen.”

After locating the classroom, I approached the professor, Brian Scott, to explain that I was not enrolled in the class yet. He said it shouldn’t be a problem to add, so I sat down and tried to relax.

If it’s not already apparent, I am an over-thinker.

As stupid as it may sound, even though I had to enroll at Mt. SAC to take this class, it was not until Professor Scott passed out the syllabus that I understood this was an actual college course, not some passive lecture series. There would be written assignments, designs to drawn in scale and exams to take. I tried not to freak out, but I felt biological goo rushing into my guts. Maybe I don’t want to get into this class after all.

I had not been in a school setting since dropping out of Cal Poly Pomona more than 20 years earlier. I was carrying a lot of baggage from that experience, which was horrible. I did not view this class as returning to school. I was just taking a class. I knew I wanted to take some classes, but I never — NEVER — once considered actual going back to school. I did not know it at the time, but this class was the first step in shedding my anti-school emotional baggage. After a few semesters of taking classes, I eventually allowed myself to “go back to school.”

In addition to being an over-thinker, I filter. I filter most of what I say in a severely self-conscious manner. I usually do not allow the simplest of things to be simple. I turn almost everything into an elaborate internal dialog.

When I engage in a casual conversation, I continuously second guess myself while forming thoughts into words. As I say something out loud, I question the words and tone. As I hear the sounds coming from my mouth, I wonder if I sound awkward? Am I speaking too slowly: will this person think I’m damaged or stupid? Could I inadvertently be offending them?

I obsess when I write. When I wrote my first opinion piece for this journalism class a few weeks ago, I nearly broke down and quit. I became overwhelmed trying to express what began as a simple idea about Confederate monuments. I thought about giving up. After taking years to decide on journalism as my major, was it a mistake? Maybe I can’t do this. Even as I write this, I am beginning to think maybe I have taken this piece in the wrong direction. I am half way down the second page of the doc and I may not have not made it clear what I am getting at yet.

Since coming back to school, I have had a lot of time to overthink about past experiences in school, what I learned and how I arrived at this point. Much of what I have learned in English and math since coming back to Mt SAC, I have no recollection of ever learning in high school. I don’t remember learning it at any point in school for that matter. I was not an awful student, but I applied myself selectively, and I was not very self disciplined in my studies.

Most of what I remember from my K-12 studies involves people and feelings, not academics. One priceless lesson from my high school is that it is not necessary to agree with someone to be friends.

I thought about politics before high school, but rarely tested my opinions with others. In grade school and junior high, I don’t recall discussing politics. I was more interested in playing sports and listening to music.

In high school, politics and social justice became important. The specifics are foggy. I was discussing something political with friends between classes. As we talked, it became clear that no one in the conversation agreed with me.

After my opinion was dismissed, one my friends calmly pulled me aside and explained to me that most of the guys in the group came from households with a conservative point of view. My progressive outlook was the minority view in my peer group.

I hung out with these guys five to seven days a week. How is it that they all held political views opposed to my own? After the initial surprise, it never had an impact on our friendship. Even though we disagreed on politics, I was not mad at them, and they were not mad at me. We simply did not agree and moved on.

Politics were less divisive at the time, and this predated social media, but it was an incredibly valuable life lesson to learn that many of my closest friends fundamentally viewed the world differently than I, and it did not get in the way of our friendship or ability to get along.

I was as close with these people as I have been with just about anyone. We did everything together. We went to dances, double, triple and quadruple dated, went to parties, stayed out past curfew, got in trouble, under-age drank, and talked about our hopes for the future.

In high school, music was by far the most important thing in my life. Our differing political views did not get in the way of playing in bands together or going to concerts. We liked many of the same bands, The Police, Genesis and the Specials. We would argue about who was a better drummer: Manu Katche or Larry Mullen Jr. — Manu Katche is — or if we should add an English Beat song to the band setlist or one by the Violent Femmes instead. We’d argue about all kinds of things, but it was never particularly heated or hurtful in a lasting way.

As I have continued through life, I have always had people in my life that I love but opposing views on politics and social issues. These differences have not prevented or damaged our relationships.

Through playing in bands, I learned to appreciate and get along with people who have strong, occasionally off-putting personalities. Like any long-term relationship, playing music with people can be frustrating, even maddening at times. Most of the talented people I have known, are not afraid to push boundaries as well as push buttons.

I’ve always appreciated people who embrace their inner asshole from time to time. Assholes are people too. I doesn’t usually bother me when inappropriate humor is deployed out of defensiveness, or sarcasm serves as insecurity armor when things get too heated.

He said that he may be an “a-hole”. But he’s not, and I quote, “100% a dick.”

Do you believe him?

Well, I don’t know if I believe anyone is 100% a dick… — Guardians of the Galaxy

On occasion, I’ve been behaved like an ass. When I’ve been called an asshole, people have usually said it with a smile on their face, but even as much as I filter what I say, I have said things in anger that have hurt people.

I have allowed my desire to be right to get the better of me and pride and ego to lead me into places I should not have gone. I have sped up when I could have slowed down to yield. I’ve unleashed daggered language to drive home a point when it would have been better to let things go. I have made failed attempts at humor. I have inadvertently stuck my foot in my mouth. I have said things I regret and wished that I could turn back time for a dover. I have wanted to disappear.

I had jobs that required me to enforce unpopular rules or policies that were out of my control. I’ve had people direct their anger and and displeasure toward me in extremely expressive ways. I’ve been called every name you can think of.

To cope with the stress I experienced at work, I started to study Danzan Ryu Jujitsu with Professor Robert Hudson.

In our dojo, we were always taught that the best physical confrontations were the ones you avoided. However, if you did have to use jujitsu for self-defense, the goal was to avoid injuring your opponent if possible. We also learned healing arts and first aid, so that if we did hurt someone in the act of self-defense, we could also provide assistance.

I’m not delusional. After about 10 years of practice, in the larger context of martial arts, I was essentially an advanced beginner. I know I’m no samurai. I would’ve been easy pickins’ on the battlefield, and I haven’t been in a fight since grade school, but have spent considerable time considering the warrior’s code. As I learned it, even in a life and death self-defense situation, one should not feel anger nor direct hatred toward an opponent even on a battlefield. In fact, anger, fear and hate would only get in the way of effective technique. Your own anger puts you at risk. It hurts you.

If someone did me harm or hurt someone I love, I know I would be angry. Maybe I would feel hatred or revenge, but I know this would not help me or anyone else.

If you’ve ever watched “Star Wars,” then you know the dangers of giving in to hate and anger. It leads to the “Dark Side,” and turning to the dark side causes just as much injury to the self as it does to any opponent.

As life has migrated online onto digital platforms, the tone of discourse has degenerated. Things that were previously kept private are now broadcast in a very public, often expressed in a very strident way. People unfriend, unfollow and block friends, and even family members, over political posts. People end real-world friendships over the political divide.

I have many friends with whom I never discussed politics face to face, but I have learned their views through social media. I often feel angry or frustrated after reading political posts, but I have resisted the urge to eliminate them from my feed. I also resist the temptation to engage in disagreements, and I am careful about what I post. I have chosen to keep my social media feeds pretty politically neutral.

I once saw a post from a friend I’d made through work that said, “I hate Obama. I hate him.” I thought, no you don’t, you don’t know him. You don’t hate me, and we obviously do not agree on politics. It’s a stretch I know, but If Obama had worked at the same place that we had, I bet we all would have gotten along famously. We might have played on the same softball team, shared pitchers of beer and chips and salsa after work, or gone out for pizza. Politics may never even have come up.

I do not condone or excuse President Trump’s conduct, which I believe is causing longterm damage to our country and culture, and I am not suggesting that he should not be held accountable for inappropriate or illegal actions. Furthermore, I cannot imagine circumstances that would bring me and Trump together in a social setting, but I am confident that given the opportunity, I could get along with him in a social setting.

Getting back to that landscape design class I hoped to add. I did, and for the first design assignment, the entire class visited the same to site to take measurements, meet the homeowner to create a design. When it came time to present our designs to the client and class, no two designs were even remotely alike. Maybe a couple people had a design element in common, but everyone’s design was essentially unique. Even though we had all seen the same site, and worked within the same dimensions, no two people came up with the same solutions. Even so, nobody was angry over the fact that we all saw the situation differently and proposed different solutions.

Nobody stood up and threatened to quit the class unless everybody else agreed to use the same design. Of course, design is not the same as politics. What other people believe can affect us in a representative democracy, but disagreement does not have to lead to hatred.

We all view the world from our own perspective. When people see the things differently, we don’t have to hate or reject them. Nobody’s perfect. We all have ideological blind spots that prevent us from recognizing evidence that may contradict our opinions.

The ability to show respect and talk with people we disagree with is one of the most important challenges in life. Sometimes that means gentle language needs to be used even though it does not feel like the best option.

Right or wrong, I filter.