Immeasurable Life Goals

One night a few weeks ago, I came home from work and had a few things I wanted to do.  I’d promised my parents I would call them, I had to make dinner, I wanted to email my building management about a potential mold situation, there were clothes in the dryer that needed to be taken out, I needed to put in a food order for the upcoming week, the garbage needed to be taken out, the mail needed to be sorted out, there was a dispute in my life I wanted to call and check with the local police about, and I was low on certain groceries.

Nothing in this list had to get done that night.  My parents would understand if I told them I couldn’t talk, so I could totally have ordered in, and just sat in front of my couch and watched TV.  I could have spent the night pretending none of those chores existed.

Of course, I have a long history of procrastination and I knew where that road lead.  So instead, I would try and get a lot of these done that night, and when I felt low on energy or the night was coming to a close, I would decide the rest was better off done later.  I knew what the rational response to this situation was and wanted to execute on it.

The way my body responded, you would think I had decided to fight a bear.  A type of panic set in, my stress levels rose, and I became anxious about finishing this list I totally knew I didn’t actually have to finish.

None of this was helpful.  But it did make me consider something.

In life, we have external measures of success: how much money do we make, how many friends do we have, how attractive are our partners?  The fact that these are externally measurable makes everyone strive at least a little for these – and for some, that’s all they strive for.  Most reasonable people realize that internal measures of success are often more important: how much do we like our jobs, how strong are our friendships and relationships, how satisfied are we with life?

But there’s even subtler internal measures that are easy to overlook.  What I realized about that night was that I was striving towards the external measure of getting my chores done and keeping my life in order.  This is undoubtedly a good goal.  But what I wasn’t taking into account was the internal measure of doing it without going into fight-or-flight mode.  And this was an important and worthy goal in and of itself.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a new year’s resolution that was about an internally measurable aspect like “Get as much done as I did last year but with less stress”.  Or “Find more ways to increase the enjoyment of time I spend by myself”.  I’d guess that is partly because it’s hard to measure these achievements, and partly because these aren’t achievements we can ever show off or be proud of.  But they’re arguably some of the most important goals we will ever achieve.

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Two kinds of selfishness

There’s two ways you can be selfish.  The first is the obvious kind: everything you do is self-serving and self-interested.  The well-being of those around you doesn’t matter, whether they be family, friends, or strangers.  Since it’s the obvious kind, this is also the kind that gets called out most often and is near universally condemned.

The second way is a more subtle kind of selfishness.  This is when you do things for the benefit of those you feel close to, while being indifferent to or ruining the lives of those you don’t feel close to.  Think Walter White in Breaking Bad who sells drugs to ensure his family’s financial future; think Michael Schofield in Prison Break who helps dangerous convicts escape to save his brother’s life; think Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars who turns to the dark side to try to save his lover’s life.

Or if you want real life examples, think of everyone who will do much for their family and friends, but won’t lift a finger to help the less fortunate and even work for industries that actively ruin economies, environments, or lives.

The second way of being selfish is arguably better than the first, but it’s also more rampant.  There’s something of a fake moral complexity in there that gives people a pass, a question along the lines of “How can someone be selfish if they’re doing things for the benefit of people other than themselves?”

To answer that, let’s go through a couple of hypotheticals.  Supposes you’re faced with two options: 1) Lose a leg and save a child’s life; or 2) Save 1000 children’s lives.  It’s a sad scenario because either way at least one child will die, and for the decision maker, saving more lives means losing a leg.  But it is clear that Option 2 is the selfless option to take and Option 1 is clearly selfish.

Now suppose you’re faced with these options instead: 1) Save your child’s life; or 2) Save 1000 children’s lives.  This is almost identical to the first hypothetical: either way at least one child will die; the only difference is that this time, for the decision maker, saving more lives means losing a child instead of a leg.  Again, Option 2 is the selfless option to take and Option 1 is selfish – but it’s less obvious now because you can say “It’s for my child!”

There are many who would proudly grandstand about taking the first option: they would say it’s what makes them a great parent and that those who wouldn’t are bad parents.  They would say that it’s love that forces them to go with the first option – and this may even be true!  But it’s the selfish option either way.

 

Free speech sucks (and yet we need it)

Everyone who considers themselves to be a sincere defender of free speech needs to admit one thing: free speech sucks.  It’s necessary, it’s important, it’s vital for healthy political discourse, but it sucks.

Free speech includes hate speech: in a society with free speech, every terrible organization from the KKK to Westboro Baptist Church get to spread their hatred.  Free speech includes offensive speech: things will be said that will hurt and offend individuals, as well as entire communities.  And free speech includes falsehoods: when you let everyone talk, expect to hear a ton of lies as well.

Well, what’s the alternative?

The alternative is that those in power get to dictate what it is okay to say and what is not.  That should scare you.  Taking away free speech doesn’t mean shutting up people who you don’t think should be allowed to talk – it means whoever’s in power gets to shut up people they don’t think should be allowed to talk.  Maybe today you’re okay with that – but what about tomorrow?  What if the pendulum of power swings as it always does, or the people you allied with on one issue are your enemies on another?

The alternative involves society being stagnant.  Advocates of social justice have been doing a lot of denouncing of free speech, but it’s through dissent that the world we live in today is far more equal than the world we lived in 50 years ago.  And we’re nowhere near done – how do we make progress if we choose to not tolerate dissent?

The alternative involves hollow victories in bringing about progress.  If everyone is thinking the same thing but no one is saying it, we may have what looks like progress in the short term, but it can all be undone in a heartbeat.  Real progress that involves large massive changes in society’s ideas takes time and it can’t be rushed.  The bad arguments or thoughts that people hold in their hearts need to be exorcized so they can be crushed and replaced with better ones.

The alternative involves a much dirtier war than a war of ideas.  In a divided country of two roughly equally large groups, both sides may hate listening to the ideas of the other and tolerating their existence.  But it’s better than both sides actively trying to bully the opposition into submission whenever they have the chance – whether through firing, shaming, or actual violence.

So yes, free speech sucks.  It’s not a perfect pie in the sky solution.  But it’s the one solution we can all actively work towards: a laying down of arms, an armistice where we decide to counter bad arguments with counterarguments and nothing else.

Who should be worried by Pascal’s Wager?

Pascal’s Wager states that if the slightest chance exists that there could be a God, we should become believers rather than be atheists.  His reasoning is as follows: if there is a God, you will “win infinitely big” by believing in Him (you go to heaven) but “lose infinitely big” by not believing in Him (you go to hell); if there is no God, you just win/lose some small finite amount of happiness. Since Pascal was a Christian philosopher, believing in God meant becoming a Christian.

God exists God does not exist
You believe in God +infinity happiness points Some finite amount of happiness points (X)
You do not believe in God -infinity happiness points Some finite amount of happiness points (Y)

Pascal seemed to make the case under the probability of God existing or not existing being roughly 50:50, but for the sake of making his argument even stronger, we can show using expected value calculations that even if you think there is only a 0.1% chance that God exists, you should still become a believer:

E(Believe in God) = P(God exists) * V(God exists) + P(God does not exist) * V(God does not exist)

= 0.001 * ∞ + 0.999X

= ∞

E(Don’t believe in God)      = P(God exists) * V(God exists) + P(God does not exist) * V(God does not exist)

= 0.001 * -∞ + 0.999Y

= -∞

So it doesn’t matter whether you put the chances of God’s existence at close to 100% or close to 0%.  And it doesn’t matter whether you think a religious person is happier or unhappier than an atheist if there is no God.  As long as you acknowledge that the chance of his existence is non-zero, you should be a believer.

Of course, atheists have been rolling their eyes at this wager for centuries since he first proposed this back in the 1600s.  A number of problems with the wager are discussed here.

An obvious one is that there are many religions and each require allegiance to a different God:

Jesus exists Allah exists
You worship Jesus infinite reward infinite punishment
You worship Allah infinite punishment infinite reward

And even if you decide to calculate the expected value of following each major religion and choosing the one that gets you the best odds, there’s no real reason to suppose that this has you covered.  Plenty of major religions throughout history are no longer major religions, and major religions today weren’t always major religions.  In other words, even if you could somehow suppose God that would reveal himself through a major religion at some point in time, you would have to somehow consider every major religion that’s ever arisen and every one that will ever arise.

This brings me to a more basic argument against Pascal’s Wager.  There is no reason to think that being a believer is a “safe” option.  In fact, given all the terrible things done in the name of religion, it could well be that if there is a God or Gods, it’s the agnostic/atheist who rejects religion in favor of embracing humanism that gets rewarded.

Pascal’s Wager is often seen a challenge from the religious to atheists.  But it seems to me the challenge should go both ways.

Let’s say there is a God who is concerned with how each person lives their lives and that he is good.  And he look down upon two different people living in the 21st century.

The first person follows some Abrahamic religion, say Christianity.  They pray to God and actively hope that God exists, even though it means billions of people will suffer for eternity.  Some of these non-believers may be friends or family, but they tell themselves it’s the non-believers’ own fault for not coming to the same conclusion as them.  They spend their time rationalizing their belief that good non-believing people are deserving of an infinitely worse fate than bad people who believe in their God.  They think it’s okay for people’s eternal fates to be determined by their beliefs, even though the overwhelming factors in determining a person’s religion are the religion of their parents and the society they grow up in.  They use their religion as justification for any bigotries they hold, and impede various scientific and moral progresses along the way.

Then there’s a second person who decides it’s impossible to know whether God exists and what they would want from them if they did.  So they just live their lives and try to be a decent person.

Now if a God were to bless one of these people with eternal reward and damn the other with eternal punishment, which one of these seems deserving of heaven and which one seems deserving of hell?

Self-Checks

A lot of software, like the operating system on your computer, has a concept of self-checks.  You can ask it to run a predefined set of verifications and report on them.  And if there’s any flaws, it can often even fix itself.  In other words, the software is perfectly capable of fixing itself – it just never bothered to do these basic evaluations among everything else it had to do.

Humans can do this too.  I often find that if my mind goes to a dark place, there are, fundamentally, just a few possibilities in terms of what happened.  Oftentimes it’s because I’m not able to live up to being the person I want to be and need to adjust my expectations of myself accordingly.  Sometimes it’s because I’m very close to being the person I want to be and need a new goal.  Sometimes I’m just having an upset stomach and this sours my mood – lacking sleep and/or being unable to think clearly can cause a similar effect.

I also often find that writing and breaking down and analyzing my thoughts is massively helpful in making me feel better.  And that sometimes I just need a change of pace and do something different.

But I don’t always think to do these things.  So I came up with what’s essentially a self-check algorithm for myself:

  • Is your real self too far from your ideal self?
  • Is your real self too close to your ideal self?
  • Do you not have a plan for how you will improve?
  • Have you been living in a way that you are confident you can do what it takes to improve?
  • Have you written about whatever it is that’s upsetting you?
  • Have you spent too much time alone?
  • Have you been cooped up indoors for too long?
  • Are you having stomach issues?
  • Are you sleep deprived / is there a mind fog?
  • Are you measuring yourself by one of society’s metrics instead of your own?
  • Have you tried thinking positively and arguing against whatever negative position you are holding in your mind currently?
  • Are you throwing yourself a self-pity party?

The idea is that any time I’m upset, I can just refer to this and do a self-analysis to figure out what’s going on with me and then deal with it.  I expect this list will develop and grow over time, as I figure out / remember other reasons for why I could be in a bad mood.  But so far, this seems to a quick way to get myself in a good place again.

Freed Through Pain

The man looked to be over 200 lbs of muscle.  Josh did not see a winning strategy here.  Curling his palms into fists, he raised his arms.

The man laughed.  “Lookie here, this pussy’s ready to fight.”

Josh glanced around.  Most of the others looked like they didn’t want to be around there.  A few frat boys looked eager to see a fight.  His friends were nowhere to be seen.

“Fuck him up Kevin,” shouted the drunk blonde.  Josh had nothing but hate with her.  It was a freshmen college party, there were plenty others who couldn’t hold their drinks.  Yet he had gone and spilled his on her dress.  He had apologized immediately but that didn’t seem to be enough.  Her friend had tried to slap him and Josh had reacted by raising his arm in time.  She had whined upon the forearm to forearm impact.  And before he knew it, a 200 lb white knight had come to save the day.

“Ay yo punk, leave those girls alone,” he had shouted as he walked over.  He’d shoved Josh into a crowd of others conversing.  That had caught most of the hall’s attention and the crowd now circled them.  The melee was about to begin.

Josh realized that either his body or his pride was going to get its ass kicked.  He wondered which one he should sacrifice.

“I’m going to go now,” he said as calmly as he could.  He uncurled his fists and lowered his arms slightly.  “I’m going to go.  I don’t want any trouble.”

“Punk, you don’t fuck with my friends and just walk away.”

“I didn’t do shit.”  Josh was pleading now.  He looked at the blonde.  “I spilled my drink.  I’m drunk, I’m sorry!”

“You got any idea how much this dress costs, asshole?”  The blonde did not seem like she’d gotten into a forgiving mood.

“And you hurt my arm you piece of shit.”  Her friend was rubbing her forearm as if he had seriously bruised it.

“I’ll pay for the dress,” Josh replied weakly.  His arms were out and trembling now.  He knew the decision had been made.  He looked pathetic.  And he wondered how he was going to possibly pay for the dress.

“Oh you bet your ass you’ll be paying for the dress,” said the blonde.

“Just kick his ass Kevin,” her friend cried.

“The lady’s spoken.”  Kevin moved towards him, one fist raised.

Josh looked around helplessly.  A couple was exiting through the door, clearly not wanting to see what happened next.  Two or three others murmured that someone should intervene.  Clearly none wanted to get involved themselves.  And then he spotted his friends.

Terry and Ankur were among the crowd, looking aghast at what was happening.  And yet they just stood there standing.  “Guys, guys,” he cried.  “Help!”

Kevin’s right arm stopped midway.  He had come almost face to face with Josh before he turned to look in the same direction as him.

“You guys with this pussy here?”

Terry and Ankur looked at each other helplessly.  Kevin waited.  The room was quiet.

After a few seconds, Ankur finally broke the silence.  “Yo, what happened?  Let’s just chill and figure this out.”  He brushed aside the few people standing between him and Kevin to step into the ring.

Too sober thought Josh.  Ankur had driven him and Terry over, and now he was trying to reason with a drunk brute who was maybe hoping for a threesome.  He didn’t think it would work.

“Pussy’s got some pussy friends,” mocked Kevin.

“Hi, I’m at 437 University Avenue,” Terry’s voice came in.

Josh looked over.  Terry had his phone out and was talking in it decisively.  He must have called 911!  A huge wave of relief swept over Josh.

“Yeah, there’s a fight going on here.  My friend keeps saying he doesn’t want to fight but his other big guy’s threatening him.  Kevin is what people here are calling him, his name’s Kevin.”

Kevin’s face was red.  He took two steps towards Terry before one of his friends intervened.

“Dude, cops.  And there’s cars all ‘round here.  Let’s break.”

Kevin looked back and forth between Josh and Terry angrily.  Then he cursed, and pushed his way to the stairs leading to the basement.  His friend and two others followed.  A couple moments later, they were back up, each either wearing or putting on his jackets.  They made their way to the door, Kevin in the lead.

The entire ground floor level of the party had been holding their breath and now they seemed to breathe easy.  But the party was dead.  Most of them were underage and they didn’t want to be around in case the cops still came.  The party goers grabbed whatever they had brought and made their way to the door.

The blonde flipped off Terry while her friend yelled a couple obscenities at Terry and Ankur.

Josh was shaking as he sat down on an armchair.  Terry and Ankur sat on a two-seater that was close by.

A guy dressed in a sports jacket pulled up another chair.  “You okay bro?”

“Yeah,” Josh lied instinctively.  “I’m fine.  Just glad that’s over.”  He tried to smile.  Then he looked at the guy.  “Hey, this is your place isn’t it?”

“Yeah bro,” the guy pulled out a cigarette and lit it up.  “My place.  And I totally wanted to step in and break that up, believe me I did.  But I don’t mess with dudes like that; life’s too short to be getting my ass whooped.”

A couple other girls joined them.  “Everyone’s gone B,” one of them told the host.  She looked over at Josh and his friends.  “How you guys feeling?”

They murmured that they were okay again.

“This is Nicole,” the host said pointing to the girl that had spoken.  “And that’s Elaina,” he gestured to the other girl, with the hand holding the cigarette. “My housemates; and you can call me B.  It stands for Brian but there’s way too many Brians around here if you ask me.”  He relaxed back.

“Who the fuck was that guy?” asked Elaina.  “Did any of you talk to him?”

“Nah, not really,” replied B.  “But I know who he is.  Didn’t want him at the party.  Fuck whoever invited him and his boys here.”

“What the hell actually happened?” asked Ankur.  “We came up and we see everyone just gather around you and that guy.  And your arms are up and you just looked ready to go.”

“I spilled my drink on this girl.  She got pissed and this guy came at me for that.”

“Don’t worry too much about Becky,” B said solemnly.  “Girl’s got the temper of a wildcat but no one really takes her all that seriously.”  He seemed to bite his tongue as he paused.

Looking at him, Josh had a sinking feeling.  “What?  What is it?”

“Kevin though… you gotta watch out for Kevin.  Dude’s tight with Connor Ryan.  Not trying to scare you guys but don’t expect this to be over.”

“What?” asked Josh.  “Who’s Connor Ryan and why do we need to watch out?”

“Dude’s dad is Quinn Ryan.  Doesn’t look like you guys know who that is.  Well, he runs the entire east side over here.  Been on the news a few times.  Man’s a cold motherfucker.”

“What?  Runs the east side?”  Ankur didn’t understand.  Josh’s heart was beating fast.  He’d fathomed a guess but he hoped to God he was wrong.

“Irish mafia,” replied B.  “His dad runs it.  And while I dunno much about Kevin, I’m gonna say his dad probably rolls with Quinn and his gang too.

It wasn’t so much fear that gripped Josh then so much as depression.  “Oh fuck,” he mumbled.  “Oh Jesus!  I picked a fight with a mafia guy’s son?  I’m fucked!”  He held his head in hands as he realized how heavily he was breathing.

“No, no,” Ankur was still in denial.  “He’s not gonna come after us or anything.  This is just a stupid bar fight.  Or whatever the party equivalent of that is.”

B bit his lip.  “I dunno dude.  Connor and his buddies do some hard shit ‘round here.  They ain’t here for the classes, they just play their sports and run their game.”

“Their game?” asked Ankur.

“Drugs bro.  Them narcotics to get us college kids high gotta come from somewhere.  And why do you think they left in such a hurry when the cops got called?  Their jacket pockets were lined with that stuff.  Motherfuckers were trying to sell at our party without even asking us.”

Josh looked at him helplessly.  “What if he comes after us?  I’m gonna have to be looking over my shoulder from now on?”  He hated that he sounded like he was on the verge of tears.

Nicole sat on his chair’s armrest and put her hand on his back.  He waited for her to say something comforting.  No one said a thing.


The drive back was in silence.  Josh was sitting shotgun, looking out the rolled down passenger side window.  It was fall and the breeze he felt as they drove was nice and cool.  On a different day he may have found it pleasant but this night it did little to alleviate his spirits.  He was still a little drunk and thoughts flashed in and out of his head continuously.

B had gotten Terry’s number and told him he would call him if Kevin or Connor Ryan came by looking for him.  They had looked both ways when they left to make sure no one was waiting for them, ready to jump down as they exited the house.  B had noticed their uneasiness and walked them to the car which was parked two blocks down.

“Take it easy guys,” was the last thing he’d said to them.  “And don’t do anything stupid.  Don’t get cops involved, don’t fight back.  These guys can fuck you up if they really wanted to.  If they just want to punch you in the face, let them.  You’ll look like a badass for a while, no big deal.”

Ankur had laughed nervously at this.  Terry had said thanks.  Josh had just felt the world spin.

When they pulled into the driveway of their student housing complex, they again looked out to make sure no one was waiting for them.  “I was checking my rearview mirror pretty often,” Ankur told them.  “It’s hard to tell in the dark ‘cause all the cars look the same when they’re just headlights but I’m pretty sure no one followed us.”

Terry nodded and got out.  Ankur did the same but not before unbuckling the belt he was wearing.  He held the buckle with his left hand, ready to pull it out of its loops and use it as a weapon if necessary.  Josh felt his heart pounding as he opened the car door.

They walked fast to the front door.  Ankur hastily opened it and then shut it once they were all inside.

Josh took of his shoes and plumped himself onto their couch.  He looked at their kitchen window which faced the street.  “They’re not gonna send a Molotov cocktail through there, are they?”

“Nah, that’s a serious crime and this was just some small riff raff,” said Ankur.  Yet he sounded uncertain and worried.  He even took a few more steps away from the window.  Clearly Josh had asked a question he hadn’t considered before.

“We need weapons,” said Terry.  “Let’s keep knives by our beds.  I wish we had some brass knuckles or something too.”

“We can’t fight them,” protested Ankur.   “What happens even if we win?  They’ll just come after us again.  And even if we get them jailed for a while over this, they probably got friends that can fuck us up.”

“If they come at us, I’m fighting,” Terry said solemnly.  “And I expect you both to have my back like I’d have yours.”

“No!  Remember what B said!” said Ankur.

“B’s not the one in danger.  It’s easy for him to talk about just lying back and taking it.  These guys are gangsters.  What if the guy’s crazy enough that he tries to shank us?  We gotta be ready to fight.”

“They wouldn’t –“

“I’m sorry guys,” Josh’s voice interrupted.  He was lying on the three seat couch now, staring up at the ceiling.  “I’m sorry I got you guys involved in this.”

Ankur and Terry looked at each other.  They knew they were both thinking the same thing.  They wished Josh hadn’t gotten so drunk at the party but they knew he wasn’t really to blame for the events either.

“All you did was spill your drink,” said Ankur.  “We’ve all done that a million times.  Just try not to spill it on a crazy bitch with Mafia connections next time.”

Josh cracked a faint smile.  “Yeah, I’ll try.  What’d B say her name was?  Becky?  Fucking Becky!  And her other bitch of a friend.”

“Knives and brass knuckles,” Terry repeated.  “And let’s ask Nithan to hang out here more often.”

Ankur and Josh both gave small chuckles.  Nithan was a friend of theirs – although friend wasn’t exactly the right word since none of them really enjoyed his company.  He was, however, one of the strongest and most muscular guys they knew, and a blackbelt in Aikido.

When they went to bed they made sure the doors and windows were all locked.  They each took a kitchen knife and laid it by their bedside.  None of them slept easily that night.


Months passed and the memory of that night began to fade from their minds.  They had placed three orders of brass knuckles and three orders of switchblades online the next morning, requesting express delivery.  For some time, they’d carried these in their pockets wherever they went.  All three of them were single and mostly in the same classes, which allowed them to stick together for almost all of the time.  They’d also begun to hang out with Nithan a lot more.

After a couple weeks, Terry felt brave enough to go to one of his electives by himself.  He texted the two of them as soon as he reached his class and then again as he was leaving.

As the weeks progressed, Ankur and Josh also mustered the courage to go to their electives by themselves.  And as the weeks passed, they began to occasionally forget to take their knuckles and blades with them.  By the time the holidays rolled around, they were out and about their business as usual again.  Fear would grip them if they ever had to walk home alone at night but this fear would be forgotten and dismissed once they reached home.  Nithan was also no longer invited over to their place.

It was mid-January when it finally happened.  Josh had always been a fan of studying in public places and on this day he was at the campus’ recreational centre.  This recreation centre was a medium sized building in the middle of campus.  It contained a few fast food stands, a small restaurant, a small pub that turned into a dance floor on Wednesday nights, and a number of rooms for different student groups to gather in.  On the second floor there were also a number of tables and chairs like a library would, except that it was not a noise-free zone.

The background noise rarely bothered Josh.  He could get zone it all out with some help from his earphones and music playlist.  He had these earphones on and was reading through one of his textbooks when a shadow fell upon the page. He looked up and fear gripped him.

Malice was visible in the faces of all five guys that were looking down at him.  Josh recognized Kevin who looked like a cat having found his favorite mouse.  The man in the middle, the one who cast the shadow, Josh hadn’t seen before.  Yet his features strongly resembled those of an Irish mobster he and his friends had looked up a few months ago.  He was facing Connor Ryan.  And that meant he was facing the sons of the Irish mafia.  Josh’s stomach churned.

“So,” said Connor.  “You’re the guy Kev was all in a fury about after that party.  The one who fucked up Becky’s dress and hurt Cynthia.  And then your friend called the cops on them.”

Josh’s hands trembled as he raised them.  “I didn’t mean to do anything,” he managed to say in a throaty whisper.  “I was just drunk, I couldn’t hold my drink properly.”

“Told you he was a pussy, Conn,” Kevin interjected.  “Look at him right now.  Motherfucker looks like he’s seen a ghost.”

“I didn’t want to fight.  I said I’d pay for her dress.  I’ll still do it if you guys want.”

Connor laughed.  “We don’t really give a damn about her dress truth be told.  Becky’s a spoiled bitch and she’s got enough other dresses anyway.  But Cynthia, you hurt her hand.  She’s family and we can’t let that pass.”

Josh decided not to ask what he meant by that.  “You can hurt my hand then,” he said.  “All I did was defend her blow, I didn’t meant to hurt her.  But you can punch me there.  Or my face.  Whatever it takes for us to be cool.”

The guys laughed.  They were clearly enjoying his helplessness.

“But it’s not just you bro,” said Connor.  “There’s also your friend who’s a real rat.  Called the cops like a little bitch?  That shit wasn’t cool.  Kev here was supposed to sell an entire ounce of coke at that party and your bud ended it before he could even sell an 8-ball.”

“He was just looking out for me.”

“Yeah?”  Connor sneered.  “Looking out for you, huh?”  He leaned closer to Josh.  “You guys fags?”

Josh instinctively gave him a dirty look before realizing that wasn’t a smart thing to do with someone like Connor Ryan.

“Answer the question, punk.  Are you and that cop-calling little bitch fagging together?”

“No,” said Josh.  The forced defense of his friendship was humiliating.

“But he’s a little bitch, isn’t he?

Josh considered trying to get some help from the people around him and dismissed it.  Every mafia movie he’d seen involved gangsters doing their thing and bystanders just watching, either enthralled or horrified.  He did not put it past the son of Quinn Ryan and his gang to kick his ass in broad daylight and in public.

He wondered what he’d been doing with his life the past few months.  He’d had fantasies about taking martial arts classes and overpowering Kevin or Connor or whoever came up after him.  Yet he hadn’t taken a single class.  He hadn’t even kept up with his gym routine.  Any of these guys would be able to best him physically, beat the living shit out of him if they’d wanted.

It had been the depression initially.  To start taking lessons or working out would be to focus on the fact that he was training for a fight that may come up any time soon with barely any time to practice.  And then as time went on, he had felt safe enough that he didn’t think it necessary anymore.

Now as he sat scared, depressed and humiliated, he wondered why he hadn’t taken an hour each day for self-defense training.

“He’s a little bitch, isn’t he?” repeated Connor.  “Say it.”

“He’s a little bitch,” Josh said quietly.

“And what are you?”

“I’m also a little bitch.”

The guys laughed.  “Yeah you are,” said Connor.  “And the two of you together?”

Josh wondered what he was supposed to say.  “We’re… two little bitches?”

“Two little faggot bitches.”

“Two little faggot bitches,” Josh repeated.  He watched as they all smirked.  One of them gave Kevin props.

“What you got on you?” asked Connor.

“What?”

“Cash, how much you got?”

Josh pulled out his wallet.  There was $40 in there.  He handed it over.

“And your phone?”

Josh stared.  “Come on man, all my contacts are in there.  And it’s got my shit on there.”

“Phone please.”

Josh pulled out his phone and handed it over.

“What’s the password?”

Josh gave it to them.  If the Irish mafia were going to spare his life for $40 and his two-year-old phone, so be it.

Connor Ryan smiled.  “There’s a good boy.”  He ruffled his hand through Josh’s hair as if he were a dog.


Josh could not stop shaking after they walked away.  The table that had been behind him had overheard the whole conversation and was now chatting about it in hushed whispers.

Still trembling, he picked up his bag and walked away.  His mind whizzed as he tried to figure out if he was safe now or not but the adrenaline was not helping his thought process.

A phone, he needed a phone.  He needed to warn Ankur and Terry about what happened.  He was in the midst of wondering whether to dig for change and try to find a payphone or ask a stranger to use their cell phone when he remembered he didn’t actually know his friends’ phone numbers.   They were stored in the phone.  Connor Ryan and his crew had access to them but he did not.

Fear gripped him and he wondered if they’d use his phone to lure them into some sort of trap.  They might not know his friends’ names but their pictures were stored on the phone along with their contact info.  He sprinted towards the door and to the bus stop.


Josh stopped dead in his tracks the instant he saw his driveway.  Every piece of glass on Ankur’s car was smashed.  The windshields, the windows, the mirrors, the lights, the moonroof – nothing had been spared.  He was about to inch closer when he realized that the front left and rear back tires had been slashed as well.  He wondered for a brief moment why they’d spared the other two when fear and another adrenaline surge hit him, and all he could do was turn and run.

How had they known where he lived?  They’d gotten to the house before him which meant they couldn’t have followed him.  Then he remembered that his home address was stored in his Google Maps.  He cursed himself for not thinking about it before.

He was many blocks away by the time he slowed down to a walk.  He didn’t even know where he was anymore; he had just let the rush carry him on his feet.  He was on a residential lane surrounded by townhouses.  Panic hit him again as he considered the minute possibility that maybe Connor Ryan or one of his gang lived in one of these houses.  Yet he was too tired and out of breath to start running again.

Josh considered his options.  He could call the police.  But these guys did not seem to take kindly to that.  They still seemed to have a vendetta against Terry for calling the cops on them months ago.  Forty dollars, a cell phone and a car – the night of the party he and his friends would gladly have sacrificed these three thing if it meant the gang would call it even after.  But he didn’t know what they thought.

If Connor Ryan considered them even now, then to call the cops would be to call the hurricane that had just passed by back.  But for all he knew, the worst was yet to come.

The only answer he could come up with was that it wasn’t his sole decision.  He, Terry and Ankur were all in this together.  He needed to get a hold of them.  He needed to figure out where exactly he was so he could find Nithan and use his cell phone.  Josh had always relied on his GPS to navigate himself around when he got lost before and now he was clueless.  He thought back to the way he had run and just headed back in the same direction.

Terry hadn’t picked up his phone.  Josh had tried him three more times from Nithan’s after telling Ankur what had happened.  Every time he heard the voicemail message, Josh could only imagine the worst.  Had Terry been shanked?  Was it possible the gangsters just murdered him in cold blood over calling the cops?  He’d seen enough mafia movies to know that snitches got offed the moment they were found out.

Ankur had rushed over to Nithan’s immediately after.  The three of them sat and talked about what to do next.  It had been two hours since the first call to Terry and he hadn’t responded.  They’d tried a couple of his other friends and they hadn’t seen him all day.

“Let’s just go back to you guys’ place,” said Nithan.  “You guys got your brass knuckles and shit right?  We can fuck ‘em up if they just come at us.”

Josh and Ankur looked at each other slightly guiltily.  Nithan was often unpleasant to be around due to his often angry and violent nature.  He was also quite an awkward character.  They had used him for the sake of feeling a sense of protection and then discarded him when they didn’t need that anymore.

Yet Nithan was always grateful for companionship and now was ready to stand by them when they needed help.  Knowing they had a tough guy friend backing them up was one of the few things alleviating their spirits at the moment.  Josh wished Nithan had connections to some local Indian mafia, if there was even one.

“Alright, thanks bro,” he said.

They were about to step out when Ankur got a call.  Josh saw his eyes widen when he answered.

“Terry’s in the hospital,” whispered Ankur fearfully.  “They got to him.”


He knew he was crazy even as he got up that morning.  He knew he was crazy as he brushed his teeth, he knew he was crazy as he put on his clothes, and he was crazy as he stepped outside his house to lock the door.  Josh knew he was crazy as he started walking to an address that B had given him, the house where Becky and Cynthia lived.

They lived in the same neighborhood as him; Josh had found out the night before that they were only a 20-minute walk away.  He’d had illusions of a brave conversation he was going to have with the two of them.  Now that he saw their front door he was too short of breath to even walk toward it.  He wondered what it’d be like if he had a panic attack right then and there.  Connor Ryan and the gangsters could just find him passed out by their friends’ place.

His nerves were shot.  Josh wanted nothing more than to run.  He wished he had sprinted here so that he’d be too exhausted to have this feeling of dread.  For minutes, all he could do was stare at the house as the adrenaline surged.

Josh had already gone over all the possibilities.  Connor Ryan could very well be in there.  Or perhaps Kevin.  Maybe both.  Or maybe the girls would have guns and would force him to come inside at gunpoint and then call their friends over.  Or maybe they would just kick him in the nuts and stomp him before he could do anything.  Josh had brought his switchblade and brass knuckles with him but now that he was here, he wondered if they’d do more bad than good.  The fact that he had weapons on him could anger them into beating him to death rather than just a broken nose.  Or instead of removing a toe like they had did to Terry.

The two hours he’d spent at the hospital were horrifyingly etched in his memory.  It wasn’t that he and Ankur were exposed to any sort of gruesome sight: the doctors had put a cast around his foot so you couldn’t even tell there was no little toe on his right leg.  It was that the person they were seeing was not the Terry they’d known for the past two and a half years.

Terry had always been a stoic character.  He was the calmest and most collected out of the three of them, and none of them had ever seen him lose control beyond some occasionally mild swearing when frustrated.  He was authoritative when he needed to be and was more reserved when he felt like just relaxing.

Whatever façade he’d built over the years had just fallen when they’d visited him.  Terry had been in tears, howling and cursing.  It wasn’t the pain, they knew.  It was the knowledge that he was now going to be forever disfigured, forever with one toe missing.

“The bastards,” he’d spat, eyes filled hate.  “They did it for no fucking reason.  The fuck’s wrong with them?  Oh I’d love to get a crack at each and every one of them with a baseball bat.  Every single fucking one of them!”

“And you Josh,” Terry had turned to face him then.  “I stepped in for you man.  I forgave you for bringing those Irish bastards on us and for making us live in fear for the next three months.  And what do you do?  You tell them where to find us.  You lead them right to me!”

Josh had tried to explain but Terry had not let him say a word.

“What the fuck, man?  It was your fucking shit show and you escaped without a bruise.  All I did was try to help you and you go help get my toe cut off.”

Josh had been on the verge of saying he’d lost things too but realized it had just been his phone and 40 dollars.  Terry had lost much more and it had been all been because of him.

“I’m sorry,” he’d whispered before heading to the door.

It was remembering Terry and his transformation was stoicism to an emotional mess that finally gave him the push to go up to the door and ring it.

After what seemed like an eternity, Becky answered.  Her eyes widened when she saw him and he knew she recognized him.

“The fuck do you want?” she cried.

Josh raised his hands in surrender.  “Becky, I just want to talk.  I need your help, Becky.  Please!”

His attempt at pleading at the party had not softened her heart.  Yet it seemed that the months passing had healed even Becky’s anger.  She now looked more amused than angry.

“My help?” she asked.

“Kevin, Connor and those guys.  Becky, they won’t leave us alone cause of what went down.  They hurt my friend.  He didn’t do shit besides stand up for me and now he’s gotta go the rest of his life without a toe.”

Becky smirked at that.  “Missing a toe, huh?  Yeah, I guess that’s pretty bad if you’re not used to worse things happening to your friends every now and then.  But really, what do you want me to do?”

“Talk to them!  You and Cynthia!  Tell Cynthia she can slap me or kick me in the balls or whatever.  But I’ve ended up putting my friends through enough shit now.  I need this to end.”

Becky eyed him up and down.  After a pause, she opened the door wider and stepped to the side, inviting him in.  Josh walked in silently.

“Sit down,” said Becky.  Josh sat.  She watched him for a while longer before she said anything.

“Look, you got balls coming down here.  I guess you had to grow them after dealing with Connor and Kevin like that.  Yeah, I know everything they did.  They been high fiving each other and telling us all about it.  Can’t say I approve of what they did, that friend of yours was actually a bit cute.  But honestly, I don’t give that much of a shit.  And even if I did, I don’t know what you were expecting coming here.

“Let’s pretend, just pretend that I go up to Connor Ryan tomorrow and say “Yo Conn, you know those bitches that called the cops at the party?  Why don’t you just leave ‘em alone?”  He’s gonna ask, “Why?”  And when I say, “One of them came to see me, bawling his eyes out,” he’s gonna have less respect for you than he already does.  He’s gonna think you guys talk not just to the police but to his girls too.  And then you gonna have an even bigger problem on your hands.”

“What can I do?” Josh asked as calmly as possible.  He had noted the various insults she’d thrown at him in her little speech but decided to let them slide.

“You’re fucked, bud,” she said.  “They don’t have a vendetta against you, whatever they might say.  They’re just bored and know what shit they can pull and get away with.  Connor’s dad, Quinn, he’s the real deal.  Eight years now he’s held his crew and his corners.  That number probably doesn’t mean much to you but no one else has managed to do that in this neighborhood ever.  It’s true balls and brains that got him to where he is now.  He’s real old school, knows how to keep his crew and cops happy and have business keep on running.

“Connor, he’s just a kid.  He’s got the muscle but he’s just got respect ‘cause his dad’s Quinn.  And you know how he thinks to keep his respect?  By fucking up boys like you and your friends.  Does it under the guise of business, tells people it’s a sign that anyone who messes up their business even slightly is gonna get come after.”

Josh stayed quiet.  Becky kept eyeing him with what seemed to be amusement, yet something about her face revealed to Josh that deep down she did feel a tinge of regret for drawing them into the mess.

“What can I do?” he asked again.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged.

“What can I do?” Josh asked for the third time.

Their eyes locked for a full minute before Becky looked away.


Josh didn’t feel crazy this time.  Arguably, what he was doing now was crazier than going to Becky and Cynthia’s house, but he didn’t feel it.  Once he’d known what to do, a lot of his depression and anxiety had worn off.  For all he knew, he was walking to his demise, yet he didn’t think so.  This was a chapter in his life that could only be closed by pain, and it needed closing.  It wasn’t just about him:  his friends had suffered for his mishap, however unintentional.  That needed remedying.  He hoped his scars would run deeper than Terry’s.  Terry deserved that.

He crossed the street to the old playground where Becky said Connor and his friends hung out.  The place was empty, but there were some folding chairs that had been set up.  According to Becky, the crew often laid back there to relax.  He decided it was a bad idea to sit on their chairs, so he sat on the ground.  He wanted to be in full sight of the gang when they approached him, so that they would know he’d come after them, willingly and unarmed.

The three hours of sitting were some of the hardest of his life.  The adrenaline wanted him to move but Josh just sat.  It wouldn’t do for the gangsters to sight him just as he was leaving.  So he kept on sitting, occasionally getting up to reposition himself.  He fidgeted a lot, and tried to think of almost anything other than what was going to happen him.

It was almost 10 pm when he saw the group approaching.  It was the five he’d seen at the library before, plus one other.  Kevin spotted him first, though he didn’t recognize him.  He began to walk ahead of the group.

“Hey yo, you guys seeing what I’m seeing?” he asked his friends loudly.  The others broke off their conversation to see what he was looking at.

“Damn,” said one.  “The pussy’s taken our spot.  Should we find another one now?”

They all laughed as they come up and half surrounded him.

Connor was looking at him curiously.

“What you doing here?” asked Kevin.

“I wanna make things right,” Josh said as calmly as possible.

“What does that mean?” asked Connor.

“I fucked with you and your crew.  I didn’t mean to but I ended up doing it.  So now I gotta get what’s coming to me.  That’s what I’m here for.”

“This is a trick,” said Kevin.  “There’s police ’round here somewhere just waiting to make a move on us.”

“No,” Josh said simply.  “There aren’t.  Nothing like that.  And I’m not wearing a wire either.”

“Check him,” Connor motioned to one of them.  The man approached Josh, lifted his shirt to see, and then gave him a pat down.

“He’s clean.”

“Little pussy ass bitch,” Connor said softly.  “Where’s your back up?  What are you doing playing with the gangsters?”

“I never wanted to get involved,” said Josh.  He looked Connor in the eye.  “You’re the boss, Connor.  You run this place, so if there’s a price to pay for fucking up your business, I’ll pay it.  I hid from you before but now I know what you can do.  And you’re a fair man.  Balls and brain, that’s what they say about you.”

He noticed that Connor seemed to be grinning in spite of himself.  The young man was finally hearing the words everyone said about his father.

“Balls and brain,” repeated Connor.  He approached Josh and stared down at him.  “Really?  You’re ready to pay the price?”

Josh had barely nodded before Connor’s fist had made its way to his solar plexus.  As he bent down to gasp for air, Connor’s elbow came down hard on his back.  Josh fell to the ground and Connor kicked him.  His face, his body, his arms, his legs – Connor spared him only his testicles.  A few kicks and a couple of stomps, and there was blood all around him.

Connor looked down at his sorry state.  “That’s the price,” he said.

Josh barely heard him.  His head was reeling and it was hard to register anything but pain.  He tried to speak but the effort just caused him to cough up blood.

He heard Kevin say something in a boisterous voice and laugh, but the others were silent.  Josh slowly raised his head to look at Connor.

“Then we’re cool?”

Connor stared at him.  Josh turned his head as much as he could to look at the others.  They were all staring at him with some level of intrigue.  In some weird form, Josh had gained their respect.

“Yeah,” said Connor.  “We’re cool.”

Promoting a gym crime: not wiping down your machine

It’s pretty well established that you’re supposed to wipe down gym equipment after using it.  From Good Life to Gold’s Gym, it’s a widely accepted etiquette rule.  No one wants to sit in another person’s sweat, it’s gross.  And the science backs it up: without diligent cleaning, gyms can become breeding grounds for bacteria, viruses and fungi that are harmful to human health.

Except, here’s my question: why’s the expectation that each person wipe their machine after use, when wiping before is clearly the better system?

In a perfect world where everyone wipes their machines, it doesn’t matter much whether a machine gets wiped before or after.  Either way, no one needs to deal with anyone’s sweat, and everyone can stay infection free.

But in the real world, a person who’s actually concerned about this kind of stuff ends up needing to wipe both before and after.  Before because they usually have no idea whether or not the person who last used the machine wiped it afterwards.  And then again after to be a good citizen.  This leads many machines to get double wiped for no reason.  Conversely, if you have some misplaced confidence in humanity that everyone else is diligently wiping down their machines after use, you expose yourself to other people’s sweat many a time.

In the system where you wipe before, this problem goes away.  Everyone who cares wipes their machines down before use and stays clean.  And for the people that don’t follow the etiquette, it’s them that end up “contaminated”, not someone else.  It’s simple incentivization: more people will follow a rule when it will benefit them than when it will benefit someone else.  Especially in a rule as unenforced as wiping down machines.