A chance meeting in a restaurant.

Dear You,

Today, I’d like to briefly tell you about somebody I met yesterday.

I was eating lunch at a restaurant and a fly kept buzzing around my head. It was the most frustrating experience and I thought to myself, this is exactly what always happens. I can’t ever have anything nice. As I swatted at the fly my eyes fell on a man at the next table in a dark jacket with a hat pulled down low over his eyes. He looked away but we made eye contact for a second and I realised immediately that I knew him but I didn’t know how.
So I went over and sat with him and said, “I know you.”
“Yes.” He said.
“From where?” I asked and he sighed.
“I am your pain.” He said, and I believed him.
“I see.” I said and I felt the urge to get up and walk away and to go and do something, anything else but I decided to ignore it.
“Aren’t you going to run away? Or yell at me? Or scream at me and say that you knew I’d show up sooner or later?” He asked.
“Is that what I usually do?” I replied.
“Yes. And then you always forget about me.” He said. He spotted the waiter out of the corner of his eye and said, “Would you like a drink?”
“No, I’m fine thank you. Why are you here?” I asked and his eyes grew wide.
“Do you know, in all the times we’ve met, you’ve never asked that?” He said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes.” He said. I looked away for a moment before replying.
“When my head hurts, sometimes it means I’ve not drunk enough water and I should drink more. When my stomach hurts, sometimes it means I’ve eaten the wrong thing and I should avoid it in future. When my legs hurt, it often means I’ve run too much and I need to give myself a break. So I imagine you must have a reason for being here.” I said.
“I do. Would you like to hear it?” He said.
“I would.” I replied.

And he whispered in my ear. And I listened. I did not think about what I wanted to say next or what I had to do later, I just listened to my pain and what it had to say.

When he was done, I hugged him and I thanked him for telling me what he had to tell me. And then he left.

It was one of the strangest meetings of my life.

The Rise Of Exclusionary Nerd Culture

I don’t really talk about video games or comic books or any of the other flotsam and jetsam of nerd culture I’ve been into over the years and I feel like maybe it’s because it feels like nerd culture, if such a thing still exists, left me behind and I’m just an old man yelling at the kids to get off my lawn, or despite the fact that I still play video games and read comic books, I just don’t feel like I’m part of it anymore, or maybe to be completely honest, it’s that I don’t really want to be a part of it anymore. I feel like over the last ten, maybe fifteen years or so, it’s become more and more exclusionary, and less and less open, which was its defining quality when I was growing up.

carl-raw-8Gdayy2Lhi0-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Carl Raw on Unsplash

In the beginning, there just weren’t enough of us to be exclusionary – I’m talking specifically about my small town experience – there simply weren’t enough nerds to be exclusionary, no matter how weird you were, no matter the colour of your skin (and this is Apartheid South Africa I’m talking about here), if you liked the same video games as me or played Dungeons and Dragons or knew about some obscure fantasy novel I was reading, we were friends for life. I’m glad to say that, as I approach my forties, for the most part, this seems to have held true for a lot of those friends I made along the way.

But now nerd culture is popular culture. I remember sitting around the one comic book shop in our city that only lasted about two years before it shut down, talking about what an X-Men movie might be like and who we would cast (Sylvester Stallone as Wolverine and Arnold as Colossus) very aware that we were day dreaming. Remember, everyone else thought the same thing which is why Marvel sold off all their film rights in the nineties. And even though it’s obvious in retrospect that nerds all over the world would grow up and have disposable income and technology would advance to a point where it could create the kind of visual magic needed to bring these things to life, it wasn’t obvious then. There aren’t nerds anymore because everyone’s a nerd. And the bigger a group is, the easier it is to divide it.

The problem with Ready Player One:

I always had a soft spot for Ernest Cline, or Ernie Cline as he was known when he was known more for his nerd-centric slam poetry (Look up Ultraman is Airwolf or Dance Monkey Dance) than as the writer of Ready Player One. But I don’t like Ready Player One. I know I’m one of many and I don’t think I’m taking a fringe position here but I do feel like it’s only recently that I’ve been able to put it into words. I don’t like it because it is the epitome of exclusionary nerd culture. The functional benefit of watching the movie to many is being able to nod and wink at how many catchphrases, how many more nerd properties you can identify than “Normies” would be able to. The first season of Stranger Things has elements of this too. It’s about belonging to an exclusive club, it’s about creating an “us” and a “them.” To many I’m sure it’s nostalgic but that nostalgia hides something that I feel, however unintentional, is insidious and divisive.

I feel like there is a connection, however tenuous, to phenomena like the dark side of 4chan and gamergate and if you look at a Venn diagram of that, and things like the incel movement, I honestly believe you’ll see some overlap. It all starts with taking something you enjoy, and turning it into an “us” club, that “they” don’t have access to.

I just don’t believe the things we like make us special, and they certainly don’t make us more special than other people.

Back in that small comic book shop on the tip of Africa, the idea of excluding anyone, the idea of telling anyone that they weren’t cool enough (who were we to be the arbiters of cool?) or weren’t welcome at our game of Dungeons and Dragons, or to pick up a second controller was crazy.

Maybe some part of us knew back then, that was the way of fear.

And fear, leads to hate.

How to ask for the life you want.

The Life You Want
Illustration from my book, Every Word You Cannot Say*

This is one of the obvious things that no one ever puts into words:

To get the life you want, you have to ask for it.

You have to consciously know what you want out of life. If you don’t, then what are you doing? Where are you going? Asking, knowing what you want is a boat with a rudder and a sail, and without it, you’re just floating in a raft, waiting for a wave that’ll never come.

Who do you ask?

You ask the world. Loudly or quietly, it doesn’t matter, it just matters that you ask.

This is the really big secret that successful people instinctively know: The world wants to help you. It might not always seem like it, it might seem like there are barriers and challenges at every turn but the truth is, humans are social, pack animals and we instinctively want to help each other get where we want to go.

Your happiness matters to me and we’re in this together, even if the evening news and social media makes it look otherwise.

Ask.

When you tell the casting director down the road that you want to be a star, he won’t give you a role on the spot but he’ll think of you the next time he has an opening. When you tell your writer friend you want to start working on your own novel, they won’t write it for you but maybe they’ll give you some advice and they’ll move you one step closer. When you tell your friend that you’re looking to start a business, they might not be able to help you – at all – but they might know someone who can, and tell them about you.

No single person or act of help is going to carry you the whole way there but asking is your ticket and along the way, many people will stamp it.

Most importantly, you yourself will start looking at your own life through the lens of what you want.

Does this person help me or hinder me?

Does this habit move me closer towards the life I want, or further away?

You can’t just ask for a better life because that’s too vague and the world won’t know how to help you. Better than what? A better job? A better relationship? More work? Less work?

Your request has to be accurate.

“I want this specific kind of job and I want a relationship that gives me the safe space and the freedom to pursue my goals.”

“I want to go overseas more and spend more time in places I’ve never been.”

“I want to finish 12 paintings this year and have a group show.”

This is not magic. You still need to do the work and it might take years. But asking for the right things helps your subconscious understand -why- you have to do the work, and helps you get up every morning and do it (or after the kids have gone to bed, or in-between meetings, or in the back of an Uber).

Ask, each day, and soon your life will begin to answer.

My best,

Iain S. Thomas

Being Distracted Doesn’t Make You Happy, It Just Makes You Distracted

There is nothing easier in the world to distract than a child. A child can be distracted by a shiny object, a sweet, a puppet or more commonly, an iPad or the tablet of your choice.

This seems to be a simple formula for many parents, myself included sometimes – the child has skinned their knee and is upset, or is causing a scene in the restaurant or anything else that is, to be honest, just what children do, and we immediately try to distract them by giving them a toy, making a funny face, or turning on the iPad.

The child is now quiet.

But this is the lesson we are teaching our children when we do this: When you are faced with an uncomfortable emotion, distract yourself.

And so we have been raised, and are raising, generation upon generation of people who choose to distract themselves from their problems instead of dealing with them.

When someone breaks our heart, we have a drink or go shopping.

When we hate our job or school or college, we come home and put Netflix on and begin the endless the scroll through our phone.

When there’s something in your life that you need to fix that you’re just not fixing, you can just book a holiday or start a fight.

I am not against having fun, or relaxing or entertainment.

I am against distraction. Because our problems don’t go away.

They stay there until the day we deal with them. And to keep them at bay, we will have to keep being distracted.

When I’m a good parent, which I try to be as often as I can, and my daughter skins her knee, I sit with her and I say, “That must have really hurt.” and she nods and she cries and she hugs me. We talk about what it felt like and within a minute or two, she feels better, and she carries on running.

Entire industries and technologies are built around the idea that you would rather be distracted than actually deal with any of your problems. So this will be hard but – Look at how you’re feeling today and instead of ignoring it, acknowledge it.

Whatever we feel in our minds and in our bodies is there to tell us something.

Don’t distract yourself.

Listen.

The Gift Of Emotional Agility

If there was one thing that I could get my kids to keep for the rest of their lives, it would be their emotional agility. My daughter can be upset, bawling her eyes out and then out of the blue, suddenly start laughing and giggling at something I’ve said.

You may think she’s been distracted by something, or worse, that what she was feeling wasn’t real, wasn’t as traumatic for her as it would be for someone much older to cry that hard over something important.

(I assure you, the things we feel as children are as real as the things we feel as adults. They may not make sense to grownups, they may have absolutely no basis in reality at all. They may be silly, like a broken hot dog (a classic) or appear as petty, insignificant things.

When someone breaks your heart, where is the blood? When someone close to you dies, where is the wound in your skin?)

The things our children feel are valid and yet, their troubles seem to pass over them like the wind over a river.

This is because our children know something we don’t or rather, something we have forgotten. They know instinctively that they only need to feel what they feel, while they feel it, and then they can let it go.

The rest of us learn over time that in order to appear consistent, to have our feelings considered valid, we must hold onto them. We must go on a journey and show progress. We must hit milestones. We do not allow ourselves the luxury of emotional agility. We must suffer through, or else we would appear crazy to the outside world.

And yet, I cannot help asking myself who the crazy ones are in this situation.

Today, I hope you remember that part of you that as a child, instinctively knew what to hold onto, and what to let go of.