The Good Citizen

I whisper-yelled at some kid to kill his iPhone so I could indulge the finer points of Fast Five. I’ve shot glares at compulsive throat clearers, high-volume headphone users, and pencil-drumming Ringos at the library. I once flipped a pair of birds at a Civic who (I found out immediately upon glancing over my righteous middle fingers) honked on accident whilst waiting for me to cross the street. I nearly ended a 10th grader at a Ratatat show because his girlfriend punched me in the face after my girlfriend requested she stop shouting the melodies. I’m over 30.

Hi. I’m Cody. And I’m a recovering jerk.

Or maybe “grouch” is better. The distinction is important because the two look a lot like twins but are, in the end, just cousins. A jerk doesn’t really become one until a grouch comes along and bestows the title. The jerk’s is a lavish un-understanding, a cartoon fog of blindness to the irritation caused by his actions, which makes said irritation kind of a lone tree falling with no one around. A fart reporting forgettably into the wind.

Grouches are the farters. The ones who get it, who suffer the burden of knowing, impossibly observant, terminally offended. Grouches get to rage and define, define and recall, recall and obsess. Kanye says this kind of thing gives him a Tylenol. To me it feels like something less emotional, more like a Stupendous Waste of Limited Time on Earth.

Outrage brought to you by That Tailgating Tool is great fun to indulge. Righteous feelings about those who done wrong are satisfying. They’re just so boring. And they’re boring to hear about. A last resort in the list of things I want to sense at any given moment.

What’s more interesting to me is good behavior.

Go ahead, chew on everything connoted by “good behavior:”

  • Principal Rooney
  • Nurse Ratched
  • Hey Ya!
  • Bart Simpson in a shorts suit at church
  • Calvin’s combed hair

All chewed? Great, now swallow because conformity for its own sake isn’t where we’re headed today. Acknowledging the human condition and pitching in to make it better (especially in face-to-face micro-ways) is. There’s “Tuck in your shirt because that’s what nice boys do” and there’s “Look the homeless guy in the eye when you give him a dollar because that’s what nice humans do.” I’m interested in the latter. “Good citizenship” is a better name for it than “good behavior.” Could be they’re related like jerks and grouches, but I don’t think so.

I made a list about this once. It was part of a high school graduation gift for my little brother. A few of the men in Aaron’s life compiled a book of things they wished they’d known at 18, then gave it to him. Bullet points and procrastination are like religion to me, so I decided on a contribution 18 blurbs in length. Aaron was getting a handle on his ADD at the time; I reckon the short format was best for us both.

Looking back, the list feels like a confirmation of my own beliefs as much as it does a prescription for a little brother. There are holes in both the list and my ability to follow it at all times. But the notion of uncomplicated respect toward others is there. Whatever larger belief system you’ve carved into the sky above your life, I find little notions to be helpful on the ground, in those mundane specks of interaction with other people.

You could sum it up like, “Be a net positive in the universe today,” or “Make others feel good.” Both great things to make posters of, but hard not to see as fluff when going through the day-to-day. So I made a list of specifics:

1) Recognize your achievements, accept compliments, celebrate with adult substances, pass out on the beach. But do wake up, do drink your coffee, stretch out the hangover and use the momentum to snap into your next thing. Rewards for a job well done are nice. Sustained progression over time is better.

2) Love hard. One of the best achievements in life is the capacity to give and receive love. Think about that. Not as easy as it sounds, especially for men. This doesn’t mean being reckless with your feelings, though your heart will take a beating now and again. Go out of your way to tell the people you care about how you feel. That goes for friends, family, lovers. I’m sorry for putting those three in the same sentence.

3) Quotes are annoying on refrigerator magnets and hand-distressed wooden signs. But don’t count them out. Take this one to heart — it’s Mark Twain:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

4) Don’t pick your nose in the car. Everyone can see you.

5) Do your best at whatever you do. What this doesn’t mean: avoid devouring eclectic little pursuits and hobbies (You should totally do that, especially at the outset of your 20s.). It does mean that once you commit to something important, follow through. Talent exists, but exceptional people didn’t get that way by just having it. You hear a lot about hard work, grit, paying your dues, etc. Tired old-guy-talking-to-young-guy phrases, yes, but there’s a reason they exist. Multiply your natural strengths with these things and you’ll be unstoppable.

6) Be good to your body. Eat well. Don’t tattoo areas you wouldn’t tan. Legs are OK.

7) Have a group of close dude friends. There are truths you’ll never learn about yourself until you hear them from someone who doesn’t want to see you naked.

8) Listen. Listening isn’t sitting there looking like you’re interested. So many people do this because looking someone in the eye without saying anything is hard. Stop waiting for your turn to talk, start hearing what the other person is saying, how it makes them feel, what it says about them and how they approach the world. Want to learn, even if you don’t feel like it. Don’t worry, you’ll have your chance on the mic, but give people the courtesy of your for real attention first. Do that and they’ll repay you with the gift of open ears (if not minds and hearts) when it’s your turn.

9) Be good at communicating. That can mean a lot of things: persuading, comforting, clarifying, supporting, etc. Whatever it is, say what you mean. It’s hard to do that if you don’t have a point. Some people are good at doing this with a lot of syllables, some get the job done with less. Either is fine, so long as there’s intention. Otherwise, you’re left with chatter, which is boring at best, narcissistic at worst, annoying chronically. Talk when you know what you’re talking about. Shut up and observe when you don’t.

10) Make mischief.

11) Extremity and moderation — there’s room in your life for both. When gauging things like other people’s opinions, be moderate. Strike a balance between informed judgmentalism and blind belief. Take pride in being you, but don’t walk around seeking to embarrass those who see things differently. At that point, you’ve stopped learning, which is tantamount to… I don’t know, something really shitty. Lessons you’ll remember for the rest of your life can come from deep left field. Don’t be afraid to mix it up. Go to the ballet, talk to your cab driver, go to Afro Punk, watch the “other side’s” news channel (you know the one), be in a Pride parade, have rich friends, have struggling friends, learn about Chicago, volunteer, work out in the park. When you do these things, know your audiences and weigh the wisdom they have to offer against your knowledge of who they are.

12) When in doubt, keep your cool.

13) Know a lot. Don’t pretend to know it all. Don’t ever actually think you know it all.

14) Be respectful of the women in your life, no matter what the nature or outcome of the relationship.

15) A mustache is off limits before 35, unless it’s part of a beard. Or a dare.

16) Sometimes you must fake it ’til you make it, but don’t let it become a way of life. If you must explain your work instead of letting it speak for itself, be a competent and honest explainer. Nobody likes a poser.

17) Be kind to people in the service industry, a.k.a. anyone whose job it is to make your life easier. Rude people look incredibly insecure to those they’re trying to impress.

18) Call your brother frequently. He loves you and needs someone to boss around.

Good citizenry is work, and I think it takes shape from an accumulation of things like tiny good deeds, off-handed kindnesses, subtle encouragement. My hope for Aaron is that this stuff becomes reflexive.

Even if it doesn’t, and he has to work as hard as I have to mellow out, I’ve done my part to keep him from nose picking on the road. Be still my grouchy heart — that is something.