Banter: A Love Letter
It’s been so long since we last connected that I just felt compelled to sit down and write you. It’s so uncharacteristic of our relationship, I know, so formal, and yet it’s all I have. I wanted and needed to assure you that while we’ve been apart for most of 2020, I still need you. I didn’t mean to demean or belittle or hurt you by trying to translate our relationship to text message. It was an honest effort, but I know you must have felt used and cheapened and I’m sorry.
I wrestled in writing this as I am not even sure who left whom this year. I feel like I’m still the same guy, still need you like I always have. But, I do recognize I’ve not exactly been able to give you what you need this year either - to invest in our relationship fully. There’s a lot of heavy stuff to unpack there, but I know that’s really not your style.
Again, I don’t know if I am asking for your commitment or mine at this point, but I need a few things in 2021 if we are going to make this work. While I know I’m just another of your many grown-men-turned-instant-juvenile-delinquent-in-your-company, you mean a lot to me. So, I guess maybe this is a plea for commitment, for patience, for help.
I desperately need to be stupid. Banter stupid - and only you know exactly what I mean. More on the ridiculous side of stupid where you aren’t sure if you accidentally ended up saying something profoundly smart. And yet, with your gift and permission, riffing in presumed brilliance.
I desperately need to talk about nothing. I need to leave a conversation after coffee or after a beer or a bourbon with a smile plastered all over my face and joy in my body. And when someone asks me what I talked about, I am either too embarrassed to say (it wouldn’t make any sense out of context anyway) or I genuinely don’t remember because it was all complete nonsense.
And finally, I desperately need to laugh like a 13 year old boy about stuff a 13 year old boy would laugh about. I’ll spare the common details here assuming you are clear. Message me if more color is needed. But, I think you get the idea. I need to stir the pot of the youthfully absurd, to cringe a little at someone going too far, to inevitably end up talking about farts.
Banter, my dear friend, I will clearly need some time to get settled back in, to get reacquainted, to re-awaken my sensibilities and re-sharpen my tools for your beautiful art. But, I know I can do it. I just need the time.
I will commit right now in this letter and on paper to doing my part in 2021 to bring us back together, but you’ve got to do yours. I need to see old friends in person. I need the time with them to digress - and to digress on that digression.
2020 has been a long and lonely and brutal year in your absence.
Let’s let 2021 be the year we brought Banter back!
Sincerely and always,
I always hesitate to write about things I know everyone else is writing about - unless I feel I have something unique to say. I wasn’t sure what I could write that would add anything to 2020 and figured I’d just let the year end without commentary. There’s been a lot of commentary.
And then, as I sat with my family in my living room, my precious children unpacking their Christmas stockings, the warmth of love and a fireplace washing over us, accented by the early morning light - we were all assaulted by the shockwave energy of a car bomb - slowly, methodically rumbling to a horrifying crescendo - passing through our house and our bodies and our beings in just a few seconds. The energy was palpable; the source then unknown. We all leapt to figure out what the hell had just happened.
Moments fearing mass casualty. Moments of terror. Protecting Christmas morning for my kids. Early pictures coming in. A bomb in an RV. Processing. The energy of the bomb still echoing and bouncing around within me. Gifts to be opened. Fire still burning. Merry Christmas.
The slow, unfurling of trauma - the new climax of what actually started in March.
And still, I have felt the need to apologize or add a disclaimer for my commentary on 2020.
After all, I didn’t lose my business or my home in the 2020 Nashville tornado or the massive wind shear just a few weeks later. I lived it, but only lost a chimney. I know people who lost everything.
I didn’t lose my job in a collapsing economy - and yet tens of millions have.
I didn’t lose the end of my kindergarten year and all of my first grade year. I didn’t lose 2nd and 3rd grade. My daughters did.
I didn’t lose my home to foreclosure.
I didn’t lose a child or a brother or a friend to police brutality or racial violence.
I have not even lost a close friend or family member yet to Covid.
Neither my house nor my business was bombed on Christmas Day.
I’ve seemingly been on the edge of it all. Indirect hit after indirect hit. Yet, I have felt it. I’m wearing it. I see it in my own face.
For months, I have been “white knuckling it.” Gripping the fucking wheel and focusing on the road right in front of me. Control what I can control. Stay present. Manage.
And, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is probably most of us.
I have been traumatized by 2020. We have been traumatized. Regardless of my or your lack of personal tragedy in the year, or direct hit from the year - if you too have been so lucky - our basic empathy seeds our trauma. Practically demands it.
So, “moving on” from 2020 is going to take a lot more than a shot in the arm. There is no inoculation from trauma, and we have more grueling months of the pandemic ahead of us and more to endure.
The work of moving past 2020 will require each of us to do deep work on ourselves and with others to understand how 2020 has changed us. Surely, we have all learned something about ourselves and the world and our values and our politics this year. But, what is less clear is the emotional toll the year has taken on us. We must be aware how we have changed emotionally to ensure growth and avoid emotional stunting or regression. We must grow.
We must cultivate our hobbies and our physical, mental, and intellectual health with deliberate investment and intentionality that has never previously been required.
We must recognize that the energy and spark that our passions once brought may be only sufficient to keep us afloat rather than making us soar. We must stay afloat. But, we also must find new ways to stay afloat, so that we again may soar.
We must find reasons to smile in isolation and seemingly without reason to replace the happenstance smile and joy of an interaction with a stranger on the street or with a server at a restaurant or running into an old friend out of the blue.
We must hear ourselves when we talk to our kids and our spouses and those we care about most in the world and ensure we nourish our own patience and invest in our own presence such that we may also model it for them.
We must be aware when we feel the walls of our homes closing in on us - as home continues to be office (and school) and office continues to be home and find our way to more open spaces within and around us.
We must deal with our trauma.
In other words, we have to work our asses off in 2021 (and beyond). Normal will not return. The new normal - at least a healthy one - won’t just happen. We have changed, been changed.
We have been traumatized. We must now live and work to transform this reality into a healthy and necessary new foundation for any meaningful recovery.
In uncertain times, follow the animals
My kids were learning recently about natural disasters and the conversation led to the wonder of how animals often sense disaster coming before humans have a clue. It’s a fascinating demonstration of how instinctively in tune with the larger world they are - and, inversely, how out of tune we often are.
I recalled for them the horrible 2004 Indonesian tsunami and the stories of how the animals all ran to higher ground well before the waves arrived and all but wiped that part of human civilization off the map. I had never conceived of such a disaster, nor such a response. Both are still difficult to fathom.
While certainly different, 2020 has been a natural disaster of its own - both the Covid part, and the lack of early competent response from humans (the incredible feat of the vaccine is the hopeful counterpoint to the absurdity of people’s fighting over wearing a mask). This year, humans have demonstrated an entirely new capacity to be out of tune with themselves and the world around them.
I’ve been a bit lost and dismayed about this reality - how humanity has shown its ass this year and what that means for the future (again, a strong counterpoint thankfully provided by our teachers, nurses, and doctors). As I was mulling this yesterday, I just happened to be following my dog who was pulling ahead of me as I took him on a walk to the post office. He doesn’t know what the post office is.
Now, I know dogs aren’t exactly the top of the animal kingdom and that our domestication of these sweet animals has certainly made them dumber and less naturally capable, but certainly more loving and lovable. Domestication has had a similar impact on me.
Yes, he sniffs the greasy base of a fire hydrant and the still-glistening blades of monkey grass as if he were delving into the depths of quantum physics.
Yes, he’ll roll over and unabashedly lick his private parts whenever the need strikes and regardless of who else is around.
Yes, he actually stepped square into another dog’s poop as I was on my way back home to write this post.
But, this dog is in tune with something greater, I swear.
Today, as I turned left onto South 11th Street, about 30 yards down, he started pulling me out into the road, seemingly wanting to cross to the other side. Turns out, he knows where Bongo Java is and is apparently deeply in tune with my coffee needs. He was pulling me to the coffee shop.
“Not today, Fitz. We are heading to the Post Office. But, thank you for the offer.”
On our way back from the Post Office, we were walking along the South side of Woodland Street, and again, the dog starts pulling me out into the road, seemingly wanting to cross the street.
“What the hell are you doing, Fitz!? There are cars!”
And, then I realized that we were approaching Woodland Wine Merchant on the other side of the street. He was pulling me to the liquor store.
“Not, today, Fitz…well…OK…if it means that much to you.”
Returning home with a happy dog and a bottle of bourbon, I felt one with nature. It’s gonna be OK.
My dog understands 2020 and coffee and bourbon and me. It’s really pretty amazing and profound - that deep animal instinct and intuitive connectedness.
Also, both Bongo Java and Woodland Wine Merchant offer complementary dog treats when you visit, but that probably doesn’t have anything to do with it.
I wrapped up 2019 with a reflection on advice, and unwittingly found myself again reflecting on the topic as 2020 thankfully comes to a close. There must be something about this time of year!
Anyway, here are a few more thoughts on advice from 2020:
1. If a person starts with his advisement and not by listening to you, run.
Run fast. He probably believes he is a great advisor or mentor because he knows so much and has so much to say. But, the great advisors and mentors are the best listeners and thinkers and question askers. It’s not what they know so much as how well they surface knowledge with you and within you. Advice should be arrived at collaboratively.
2. Listen to all advice in the context of that person’s experience.
Advice is rarely directly transferable. You have to peel some layers back to get to the nugget unless that person has experienced the exact problem in the exact industry with the exact people and the exact business model as you. Clearly, you don’t dismiss them because of this discrepancy, otherwise you’d never find yourself a good advisor or mentor. But, you need to know where they are coming from to understand what they are saying - and, of course, understand where you are to know what to do with it. Advice is an act of translation.
3. You have no idea what you are doing, but you know what you are doing.
This is a seemingly odd contradiction, but boils down to an obvious translation: you know some things, and you don’t know some things. Good advisors or mentors will never make you feel stupid for what you don’t know, nor will they ever let you feel like you have it all figured about because of what you do know. Their advice should uncover both, and leave you encouraged and humbled, motivated and uncertain. Advice should generate a sense of creative tension.
4. Gather all of the advice you can and throw away as much as you should.
Advice is for learning and improvement along your journey. You are not, and should not be, beholden to it - although, you should be accountable nonetheless. So, if you take advice, you should know and be able to communicate exactly why you took it. If you don’t take advice, you should know and be able to communicate exactly why you didn’t. If you can explain and communicate the result in this way then you can show that you’ve listened and learned and gotten clarity out of whatever advice you have received - accepted or denied. A good advisor doesn’t expect you to take them at their word, but they should expect you to demonstrate that you listened, translated, and acted accordingly. Advice is a prompt, not a directive.