Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Simple Respect

Respect is an interesting thing, especially in a society where so many people expect it without earning it.

When you think of respect, what comes to mind? On a societal level, things like money, power, accomplishments, certain jobs/professions and even the kinds of shoes someone wears can determine how much respect they receive.

In particular, I think one of the biggest areas that we give and expect respect for the wrong reasons is the job market. We give respect to people for certain jobs that they do instead of for the kind of people they are and we disrespect people for jobs they work that might not be up to societal standards.

One of the best examples that I can think of right now is my current work situation. Right now, I work at a grocery store stocking shelves and doing other tasks as needed. I don't make a lot of money and I'm not doing any advanced work.

There are people who would look at me as I stock the yogurt section and see my wedding ring and think "this guy must be lazy or something to think he can support a family at a grocery store." I know there are people that think this because I've spoken to people who think this way, and to be completely honest, I find it appalling.

I guarantee you, if you were to take me and put me in a $500 suit, they would look at me - without even talking to me - and think how successful I must be. By ignoring me and looking directly at my situation, they are obviously assigning their respect level to what I do/how I look instead of who I am/what I have to say. And so goes the perpetuation of our value system in this country.

As far as working at a store goes, I have no problem with this in the least and don't see why working at a store should be disrespected compared to higher income jobs.

Just because we work in a grocery store doesn't mean we don't have responsibilities or work hard or have to master certain skill sets. Nor does it mean that we have no other talents that we couldn't apply to other professions.

If you were to line me up with several of the other stockers that I work with and go down the line, the amount of talent you would find would be outrageous. But you would have to engage and find out instead of jumping to the easier, safer conclusion that stocking shelves is the only thing we're capable of.

One might look at one of my coworkers and see a stocker where I see a student looking to get a business degree or a student preparing to complete his college career with a degree in sports management. Some people might come into the back of our store and see us loading carts and see just another kid where I see an accomplished guitar player.

Someone might even see me and see someone not worthy of their time instead of an award-winning journalist with a great deal of experience on a professional level.

One of my professors once told me that "you are not your job and your job is not you," meaning that more often than not, a job is simply a means to an end or a career is a profession that you are good at but do not use as a means of conveyance about the kind of person you are.

However, most of us have trouble understanding this, which leads to misconceptions about the people who do the jobs that most of us would find below us. Instead of seeing a person, they see someone below them and act as such towards that person if they feel the need.

In the first month that I have been working for the grocery store, I've experienced customers who have talked to me in a condescending manner simply because they didn't believe I was on their level. I've greeted people who have first looked at me and then given only a forced smile and walked away. I don't get mad at them for this, though. I feel bad for them that they would be so narrow-minded and shallow.

The truth of the matter is, we should be respecting the people we interact with while they are working until they give us a reason not to. If you want the best experience you can get from whatever business you're utilizing, you need to respect what the people who run the business are doing - from the managers to the guy who cleans the floor so you don't have to walk through aisles that are covered with dirt and grime.

I can say with confidence that I respect the individuals who keep up a store just as much as I respect the CEO who runs a company, just as much as I respect the man who works for minimum wage doing what he must to make a living.

Our society is full of individuals who work hard for their money and do so with simple goals and not-so-simple dreams in mind for themselves and their families. As people, we are all the same to this degree. However, if we ignore that truth of our own humanity and place ourselves above anything but what we consider "appropriate work," we are not only skewing how we perceive respect, we are destroying any reason for others to respect us.

The next time you're out shopping or at a restaurant or even getting an oil change, take a second to thank the person who is taking the time to make your experience better. Believe it or not, we DO care that you have come to our establishments and if you show us respect, we will show you respect.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

We, as a society, cannot read signs.

Just as the title suggests, I've come to the conclusion that the vast majority of us cannot read signs most of the time.

And this doesn't just mean street signs and store signs, but also some of the less obvious signs conveyed to us by our friends, family members and even strangers on the street.

Now, I know some of you are sitting there thinking "I don't understand what he's talking about - signs are pretty obvious and you'd have to be an idiot to miss most of them."

Well, my friends, we are indeed a society of idiots. For example, just today I saw a woman back out of her parking spot and proceed to exit the parking lot through the entrance, which was marked by a large sign in red lettering that read "NOT AN EXIT."

As soon as I exited the parking lot the correct way, I witnessed someone run a stoplight, followed by a college student riding her bike in front of me while I turned because she didn't read the bright orange "don't walk" sign on the street light.

I really think drivers/pedestrians are the biggest violators of what you could call "sign law." I've seen more people ignore signs while driving than anything else.

However, what bothers me the most is that when these people disregard what the signs indicate the people who have the right of way are still the ones who end up suffering.

Case in point: A couple of years ago, a student on the University of Illinois campus was killed when she walked right out into a crosswalk and WALKED INTO A BUS. Yup. Walked right into the side of a bus and was killed.

First of all, how do you miss a bus? I mean, really? It's big, makes noise and is pretty visible unless you're Helen Keller or Stevie Wonder.

The bus driver not only couldn't continue her job and was forced to leave, but she has had psychological problems ever since. Yes, it's sad that someone lost her life, but given how stupid you have to be to walk into and be run over by a bus, she wasn't exactly trying hard too hard at self-preservation.

Now, what if that girl had lived? I guarantee she and her family would have sued the University and the Mass Transit District and won, even though she's the one who used the crosswalk improperly (note to all you pedestrians, just because motorists have to yield at crosswalks doesn't mean if a car is about to cross through it, you have the right to run out in front of them. If you do this to me, I will hit you and proceed to ask you what the hell you were thinking while you writhe in pain as I dial 9-1-1).

Just think, all this could have been prevented by paying attention to signs. The sign of bus conveyed by the sounds it makes and its large presence. The "don't walk" sign that was likely blinking. Be smart, people - put your phone down for a second and realize where you are.

Similarly, my very own brother fell victim to someone who couldn't read a stop sign on his recumbent bicycle (those bikes where you sit back like a chair and pedal). My brother was preparing to turn right onto another street when out of the corner of his eye, he saw this cyclist run the stop sign and run right into the side of his truck.

The oblivious cyclist proceeded to berate my brother for being in HIS way even though my brother had the right of way. Luckily for my brother, a police officer witnessed the entire thing. He stopped and approached the cyclist and informed him he would be ticketed for running a stop sign and, if he didn't stop, thrown into the squad car for verbally assaulting my brother (note to cyclists, if you don't know already, you have to follow the exact same rules of the road as automobile drivers, so if you pull out in front of me on your bicycle and I don't see you and I hit you, it's your fault - not mine. Please, pay attention).

However, I digress; the point is, I really wish people would consider for a moment that there are other people around them and signs directing them where to go/what to do when they think "I'm going to run that red light," or "I'm going to cross the street without looking." All it takes is paying attention to ones surroundings and being aware of things like flashing lights and florescent signs.

Anyway, switching gears a little bit, sometimes the signs we miss aren't as subtle as a blinking light or a brightly-painted surface. In fact, sometimes the signs we miss are in the way things are said or displayed in the body language of our friends/family/those around us.

What's more, many times these signs are often indicative of wants or wishes could help a situation one might be experiencing.

My marriage, for example, is full of those times when what is being or has been said isn't always exactly what's being said.

Some easy ones are when I'm on my computer or on the Xbox and she says to me "you should put that away," is usually another way of saying "lets watch some TV together on the couch."

However, there also some not-so-easy to understand signs I've received, whether they have come in the form of a tone of voice suggesting frustration (with me, or otherwise) or a specific body language that hints of anxiousness.

To be honest, discerning these not-so-simple signs has been a growing experience for me. As I come upon my second year of marriage, I've been lucky enough to learn from the instances in which I was unable to read the signs, if only to be able to read them clearly the next time.

Each time I have to endure the failures in my recognition of these signs, I am offered a way to see it more clearly the next time it shows its face, even if it is slightly different than the last time.

The caveat to this is, I have to be willing to see these signs when there is a next time, for the purpose of there being a next time. Because if I ignore the signs after I've seen the consequences of doing so, there will come a time when I will pay with more than just an upset wife.

On a similar level, our friends and family and even the strangers we interact with on a daily basis, have subtle ways of exhibiting outward signs.

Take a day to yourself and spend some time people watching at the mall or in a very public place and just try and determine what the body language or facial features of the people passing by may indicate.

You may see some people who are having the best days of their lives by all accounts. In the same regard, you may see some people who are struggling to put on the faces they are showing.

What you do with those signs is up to you. Perhaps you know someone who is showing signs that are a cry for help, and all you need to do is offer yourself as a shoulder or an ear. Maybe a frustrating situation for a friend while offer a sign to you that you can lend a hand to solve the problem.

Whatever the case, the more we notice the signs around us, the better equipped we will be to address them.

I'm not saying we're always going to see the signs we are meant to see - whether they are obvious or not. We are, after all, only human and flawed ones at that.

However, if we make an effort to be more attentive in our daily routines and thorough in our personal lives as we work on our relationships, the signs we notice will increase over time.

And, hopefully, our lives will be better for it.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Skewed Perspective and Clear Choice

Call me sentimental, call me soft or call me a liar (you may all be correct), but I find that more now than ever in my life, I really enjoy seeing the individuals who were written off "early in the race," so to speak, doing well in life and showing how flawed socioeconomic stereotypes are in our country.

For example, while I was growing up and even as I worked at the newspaper, the trailer park in Mahomet - Candlewood Estates - was considered to be the "bad side of town," and where "all the bad kids" came from.

Many of the families who lived there when I grew up in Mahomet and during the time I worked there (which is in the very recent past) were and are considered to be low-income families. In the same regard, their children are considered to be "high-risk" based on the environments in which they live.

I won't lie; I know Candlewood has certain aspects about it that would make some people reading this go "see - that's exactly why it's a bad place." It DOES have drugs; it DOES have abuse; it DOES have crime.

But that's not the point, because unfortunately for us (and those who are short-sighted enough to believe only "bad parts of town" have bad things happen in them) we live in a society surrounded by these things. These are not isolated incidents.

The point is, we can't see the forest for the trees. Because of the stigma we have allowed ourselves to associate with certain areas such as low-income qualified housing complexes, trailer parks and even slums, we are also allowing ourselves to be blind to potential, and this often robs those who need our caring and understanding the most of the experience and guidance we have to offer: The children.

As cliche as that may sound (lord knows I've mocked the 'will someone PLEASE think of the children' phrase), it has never been more true for our country. As much as we would like to write children from "troubled" areas off, as members of the society they live in and that we have created for the, it is our duty to do what we can IF we can.

The question then becomes, where do we start? Well, in my opinion, the best place to start such is with ourselves. How do our views affect how we see people? How do they affect how we treat people? Do we even notice?

These are questions I often ask myself when I encounter certain situations - many times in public places like stores or restaurants - in which one person obviously considers him or herself better than another (i.e. a wealthy diner acting rudely towards a waitress or a shopper showing an attitude towards the clerk at the counter or shoppers he/she feels to be of a lesser background).

Far too many of us seem to have the notion that based on our levels of education, our backgrounds, our current situations (often financial) or otherwise, we are better than others around us. Others such as the families who live in Candlewood.

We see trailers and think "they must not be smart enough to own a real house." Then we see their children and automatically assume "they're probably trouble makers," or "that kid is going nowhere fast."

We say these things not because we know, but because it's the easy thing to say based on how society has told us we should treat people: The wealthy get our respect and those who are not wealthy do not deserve it. In the same regard, the better off the family, the better off their children will be.

Well, here is a newsflash to those of you who believe this: You. Are. Naive.

I've said this before and I will say it again because I believe it so fervently: Rich does not mean smart and destined to be successful, nor does poor/middle class mean stupid and going nowhere. This is something that irritates me to no end.

I cannot tell you how many conversations I've heard or been part of in which someone says "well, those kids in the trailer park, they're just bad news." What an ignorant, self-righteous statement.

Yet people make them every day about children who can no more help their situations than we can help the growth of our own toenails. They make them with the expectations of being right and without the intention of stopping for a second and considering what they could do to help things turn out different.

In reality, all it takes for us to impact the lives of these children is to believe in them and act as the role models they may need or the ear they seek that will listen or the wisdom they seek when trying to make a decision. You could be that person. You could be the person who shows a child written off as a "never kid" - who will "never" do this or "never" do that - that he or she can do great things. You would be surprised how far that will go.

I'd like to list myself as an example. As a child, I was the son of a mechanic and a secretary in a town full of parents who were doctors, lawyers and business owners. I didn't wear a pair of Nike shoes until I was in sixth grade and even then, I shared them with my brother. I had mediocre grades due to ADHD and some of the worst acne a kid can have at that age. Needless to say, I was a target for the "socially superior" to tear me down.

I experienced first-hand what it's like to be tormented and teased because of what I didn't have and what people didn't think I was capable of. There came a point when I was in junior high that my parents received a note from the administrators stating I was "in danger of being a high school dropout."

However, I was fortunate enough, through all of this, to have wonderful people around me who believed in what I was capable of, even if they didn't know what it was yet. They lent me their ears when I had questions, offered me their wisdom when they saw I needed it and encouraged me when I didn't feel I had no potential.

Those are the kind of people we need to be, for the sake of not only their future, but our own. There is a reason our society progresses (if you ask me, anyway): Because we allow our perspectives and expectations to progress and our understanding to grow.

It's so easy to look at someone who is rich and affluent and think "they must really have it together." And that would be an appropriate thought if this were a perfect world. But it's not a perfect world and in this imperfect world, even the affluent have problems.

For example, Mahomet is considered to be a very wealthy area, full of professionals who have their act together and lead normal lives. For many people in Mahomet, Candlewood is the sore spot on an otherwise perfect apple.

However, despite this belief, members of the "affluent" part of the Mahomet community (i.e. everything that isn't the trailer park or the Lake of the Woods apartments) experience the same things as the people they judge without knowing.

Here are things that happen outside of Candlewood Estates that I know of for a FACT: Drug sales and use; infidelity; abuse; theft; cheating; alcoholism; underage drinking; vandalism; pornography; - the list could go on.

I'll admit it, for a long time, I believed I was better than the people of Candlewood because I didn't live there and they did. That's it. I believed this because it seemed to me - at the time anyway - as the way things were meant to go. My friends treated the kids who lived there poorly and because I didn't know any better (and never bothered to ask my parents), I followed suit. I try to regret very few things in life, but I do regret how I treated some of my fellow classmates.

Fortunately, I had the excuse of being young and dumb. As an adult, I know better. Others my age - and older - do not, and that saddens me.

It doesn't matter WHERE you live - in a million-dollar home or in a trailer - life happens and so do the bad things that come with it. Even the things we would rather deny than accept. And worst of all? The ones who suffer the most are the ones who have the most potential to change the outlook and build a stronger community.

So, the question still remains: Where do we start? Simple: You start with yourself. One person may not be able to change the entire world, but one person does have the potential to change the world for a child with the simple gift of encouragement.

I will always recall this from a conversation I had with a friend of mine, because it is so fitting for discussions like this, but we always remember two kinds of people from our past: Those who encouraged us and those who looked down on us.

Which one do you want to be remembered as? And are you willing to do what is necessary to be the right one?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Agelessness and Open Minds

Let me start out by saying that I've never really blogged just to blog, so if you're going to critique this and hound me for a lack of hyperlinks, save your breath.

To be honest, I really wish more people would exercise the scribes within themselves, venting their minds of the thoughts that often get in the way of progress. This is how I became interested in journalism in the first place - it was a way for me to express myself beyond what my voice alone could do.

When I write, it gives me the time to search for the words that fit my mood just right; like a painter searching his pallet for the perfect hue, I can't help but smile when a a sentence comes together so smoothly that God himself would agree with my statement.

In the same regard, I thoroughly enjoy taking the time to express what I am feeling through my writing. However, there have been times when the effort I have put forth to share these feelings and opinions have been met with close-mindedness in the face of youth.

For example, now more than ever, I believe the idea that age dictates understanding and insight is a complete farce.

My former boss once sat down in front of me and explained to me that my newspaper column at the time was unlikely to be taken seriously based on my age and the topics I was discussing.

Topics such as poverty, being estranged from family members, appreciating not only ourselves, but those around us, seeing the value in certain things; these topics, he said, were likely to be received as preachy and arrogant, whereas if he had written them, they were more likely to be received with open arms. Why? Because he is older than I am, and therefore more insightful.

So, for a while, I tried to dumb things down for appeasement's sake, only to find that I was not as proud of my work as I had been. It now felt contrived and "canned," if you will - as though the words I formed were being pushed through the mold he preferred.

While I eventually switched gears again and wrote according to issues and topics I felt should be addressed, the experience really got me thinking: How many writers out there don't express themselves for fear of being told their age disqualifies their opinion?

I can tell you for certain that someone 20 years older than myself (I am 24) may have more years of life, but does not necessarily have the same worldview or values or insights, which is why age - if anything - should be the exact reason to encourage someone to share their views.

As a country and a people, we pride ourselves on our intellect and our rounded views; we also pride ourselves on how accepting we are of others, but we neglect to admit how often we dismiss others because of their age.

Now, obviously there are going to be some factors that affect this, such as maturity. You can't just walk up to someone who is 14 and expect him or her to be able to engage in a thoughtful discussion without first considering the person's maturity for the subject matter through basic conversation.

However, the point is, you shouldn't simply dismiss a 14-year-old because of his or her age. Or a 20-year-old. Nor should you always give someone who is 55 the benefit of the doubt.

That being said, I would like to encourage you to try two things: First, despite what everyone has ever told you about writing and how only certain people can do it will, take some time for yourself and put some words to paper.

I will admit, not everyone is a professional-caliber writer, but that does not make their words any less heartfelt and real.

Second, instead of seeing someone as the number of years they have been alive and borrowing their credibility from that, speak to them and determine your opinion of them from the words they have to share with you. You may surprise yourself.

That being said, let me know when you want to chat and we'll grab a beer.