How to survive in the neighborhood.
Congratulations. You’ve made it this far. Growing up in a rough neighborhood and being the new kid on the block was difficult, no doubt. Think of it as the growing pains of a young republic. As a sign of my appreciation for your perseverance, resilience, and unwavering optimism (sometimes dangerously unwavering), please receive this guide as my gift to you.
Just because you are now old enough to go out into the neighborhood on your own, it doesn’t mean you can just do anything you want. You also need to take more responsibilities, and I’m talking about stuff beyond just cleaning your room, throwing out the garbage, or mowing the lawn. Remember, the neighborhood is a dangerous place for a 9-year-old, but it’s also lots of fun. This guide will hopefully teach you helpful tips and tricks for your new quests and adventures.
Play well with others
Do you remember those early years, when you were just a toddler? Wasn’t it amazing how you could make so many new friends in such a short time? What happened to that charismatic little cutie who won people’s hearts with just a smile and an innocent look into their eyes? Oh, how many friends you made. What glorious momentum you had. More than 110 is quite a number for someone so young. But what happened? Why did you slow down? I know, I know, the older you get, the more difficult it becomes to form friendships. But, you know, you should just see it as a fun challenge to overcome.
Whatever happened to that nice little international club you were gonna join? You know, that UNESCO thing, with all those artists and scientists? I thought all those kids wanted you to join them. What happened, why didn’t you?
Oh, come on! You can’t always blame the neighborhood bully for everything. You have to take some responsibilities for your actions. Yes, sure, he is undermining you at every turn, but guess what? That’s life. You will always have someone trying to pull the rug from under your feet. You just gotta grow a thick skin and avoid any provocations. You’ll have to remain cool, just like when he was taunting you with that toy train. Or whenever he decides to build walls between you, make sure you don’t overreact. Bullies feed on that kind of stuff.
Of course, I’m not saying you should never defend yourself. Yes, sometimes you will have to lay down the law. Although, it generally doesn’t end up well for either party. Back in the day, I too was harassed by my neighborhood bully. I sought revenge. I thought the use of force would be the answer. I gathered all my friends and we made nunchucks from scratch.
Our ‘weapons’ were but pieces of a hose filled with sand and wires, tied together with twine. You should’ve seen us train, shirtless, trying to imitate Bruce Lee’s moves, except we kept accidentally hitting ourselves in the head and arms. And, when the big showdown came, I didn’t even need the nunchucks. I punched the bully in the jaw with my fist, and he gave me a black eye that I carried for a month. So, you know, think twice before you decide to try a karate chop. In my experience, everyone gets hurt, and there are no true winners.
The thing is, he was not a bad kid, you know… nowadays I remember and think “poor kid, must’ve had some big troubles at home.” I heard his parents were as harsh as true tyrants. What’s more, I hear he really wanted to play in the big leagues, but was constantly ostracized and shunned by the older kids and that’s why he turned out the way he did. Maybe all he wanted to do was to be included in their games. In the end, maybe the whole thing could’ve been avoided if we all just talked. But then again, I remember I had tried to reason with him for a decade during the ’90s, and every time I got my ass kicked.
I’m not saying you should give your lunch money to every bully that asks for it, but you know, try and befriend the kid. Maybe invite him to play games with you. Maybe even share some of your toys with him.
I know what is brewing inside that head of yours. You are thinking hard about how to best increase your pocket money. Obviously you want to start your own little business, so let me give you a piece of advice: The streets are flooded with 9-year-old kids selling cigarettes, bubblegum, and polaroid photos. The market is oversaturated, competition is too high, and you won’t make any money by copying those exhausted business models. I want you to think about the symbol of American free enterprise, the endeavor that is essential for the upbringing of American children — I am talking, of course, about the lemonade stand.
Yes, it’s cool if you open a lemonade stand on your own street, but you should think even bigger. How much more money could you make if, instead of being stuck in one street corner waiting for customers to come to you, you went after your customers? What if you expanded your operation and sold your lemonade in other neighborhoods?
Ah, right, I forgot about your travel restrictions. It’s such a shame, because as a lemonade connoisseur I think you’ve got some prime product. Saying that your lemonade is the tastiest of them all doesn’t even cover it. It’s like the sting of cold water splashed on your face after you’ve run through a long field. It’s like the smell of grandma’s orchard in the late summer afternoon. It’s like the sight of your secret childhood love and her hair blowing in the wind. It’s like the melancholy of so many lost opportunities.
But I digress. I know, it sucks to not be allowed to move freely. How are you supposed to conduct your free trade if you need a visa for every little excursion outside your neighborhood? Not to mention those kids from the neighboring block, who can move freely and come to your ‘hood and sell their cheaper lemonade to your customers. Technically, shouldn’t you be allowed to do the same? But it’s always something: you are asked to clean up your room, get the garbage out, improve your grades in school; you are given all kinds of conditions… it’s not fair, I know.
But let’s say you do clean up your room (yes, you silly, of course I mean corruption), and you are allowed to travel to other neighborhoods to sell your lemonade. I’m sad to say, but you will soon find out that Life has given more lemons to some than others. There will always be some big neighborhood full of lemon trees, which makes their lemonade juicier, cheaper to produce, and with a lower selling price. You realize that you will never be able to compete with the ‘People’s Lemonade Capitalist Collective’ and perhaps you should instead invest your money and energies into whatever will be the lemonade of the future.
The future of lemonade (or, how to prepare for the robot apocalypse)
Then you realize something else: Pretty soon, the world will be run by robots and lemonade production will be entirely automated. So, your lemonade business model would be doomed in the long term, anyway.
Soon, the machines will be able to create any kind of physical object better, faster, and cheaper than humans. But there will still be things in which robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will be inferior to humans: creative tasks, such as the creation of content and ideas. Be it short stories, poetry in the form of computer code, design for a new dress, or a blueprint for a new gadget or a building, humans will always have the upper hand in this.
In this new kind of economy, the role of humans will be to create, and that of machines to produce.
And what, you may ask, would be the best way to prepare for this impending robot takeover? My best advice would be to play more. Yes, you heard me right: embrace your inner kid. No matter what the grown-ups tell you, just continue to be weird, eccentric, immature, and childish because your future may literally depend on it.
And while you play, don’t be afraid to make errors. In fact, you will learn best if you experiment and try out weird and unusual things which will lead to mistakes. In fact, don’t be surprised when I tell you that mistakes are an essential characteristic of Life. I’m for real, it would be impossible to exist if the world was the tiniest bit more perfect. We humans exist because of mistakes that have been accumulating for over 3.8 billion years in the form of mutations in our genetic code. Even the Universe itself exists because of an architectural mistake which causes antimatter to decay faster, allowing matter (which is what we are all made out of) to accumulate and exist (rather than be annihilated as energy upon collision with antimatter).
So it is safe to say that our future economy will be based on us making an incredibly large number of mistakes. Most of these mistakes will be useless and often detrimental, but every once in a while there will come a mistake which will be revolutionary, and make the whole process worth it. That is, until one day some robot’s artificial intelligence will by chance experience a break down and accidentally achieve consciousness. When that time comes, let’s hope there won’t be a robot uprising.
Brainwashing, brain-bashing, and the science of misinformation
Yes, the best way to exercise your creative muscles is through play. But you shouldn’t mistake play for laziness, or even worse, mistake it for a replacement for school. No matter how smart and creative you are, you must study and work hard. For this method to work, you shouldn’t just memorize things, but learn how to critically distinguish between different types of information, run it through the balancing scales in your head to figure out how it all fits into the big puzzle of everything. You should be able to recognize information that is obsolete, wrong, or false. That’s why, you should “be cool, stay in school!” and, remember to always question everything.
The knowledge and skills you should be learning in school will be imperative just to navigate the neighborhood, and to prevent you from going insane. I know kids in the neighborhood can be very mean sometimes and that it hurts when they say cruel and untrue things about you. But by now you hopefully understand that not everything people say is true. While some gossip may be fun and games, there is a lot of malicious slander that really hurts people. So in this informational superhighway of your neighborhood, you should beware, and be aware more than ever of things like click-bait, fake news, and alternative facts.
What this means is that you should always be skeptical of the stuff you read online — you can’t assume any of it is true. You should always take everything with a grain of salt. Back in the day it was easy, there was one official TV station or newspaper that lied to you. And whatever they said, you more or less knew which parts of it to trust, and which were just state-sponsored propaganda. But nowadays, everyone tries to lie to you for different reasons, and it’s up to you to play detective and figure out what is true. I understand, it might be tough, knowing that even ancient philosophers were having trouble figuring out questions of Truth. Nowadays — alongside our daily jobs as bakers, doctors, shopkeepers, artists — we should all be our own little personal Platos and Socrates’.
It is not as complicated as it sounds. If something is not true, it means it is false. These are called lies. We all use them, but some people use them more often than others. Nowadays, the grownups in your neighborhood are the ones that increasingly do so.
Understand that you live in a free speech neighborhood and are free to make any claim. For example no one can prevent you from saying “gravity does not exist and it’s all in your head.” If your neighborhood goes through the trouble of being committed to freedom of expression, then it should be your responsibility to prove those facts are true. The best way to demonstrate that “gravity does not exist” would be if you jumped from the fifth floor. If your statement is right, you should float. If you end up with your brains splattered all over the pavement, it means your theory didn’t withstand the experimental inquiry and may need some revisions.
The good thing is that your scientist friends will gather around and, as a peer group, evaluate and revise your claims. They will look at your blood and brain splattered against the dark asphalt background and analyze the Jackson Pollock-like patterns, concluding that you might’ve been partially right. While you were wrong about the gravity, you were actually right about something not being quite right with your head. Until further notice the current gravitational theory will still stand.
Honor in a neighborhood of thieves
But who cares about gravity when you live in a neighborhood of thieves? All you probably care about is if your lemonade business will be able to launch properly and turn a profit, especially when you consider that one kid in your neighborhood who always comes around and demands you pay her for protection against bullies.
“Think of it as an insurance policy,” she says. “It would be just terrible if something were to accidentally happen to you or your lemonade stand,” and so you pay up, because it seems like you don’t have a choice. What makes matters worse, the racketeering queen is your cousin, so you can’t just rat her out to the grownups. “It’s a matter of honor,” she says. “You wouldn’t betray family, would you?”
So what do you do? How do you deal with your corrupt cousin? Ah, there she is again, coaching your little brother to pickpocket people on the street. Did you know she is in charge of that brainy kid’s homework racket? Ever since she took over, the demand for test questions and term papers tripled.
Last week, she convinced, or should I say, made, everyone play hide and seek when no one felt like it. And what’s worse, everyone had to play by her rules. One thing though, even though she’s your cousin, never ever ask to borrow any money from her. She’s like a financial wizard, everything from pyramid schemes to plain old usury and broken kneecaps.
In a way, it’s a free country, right? And she should be able to do whatever crazy thing she’s into. No problem, she should go ahead, as long as she doesn’t force others to do the same. Just because one might’ve let her do whatever she wanted that one time (out of respect, mind you), she shouldn’t misuse their good will and hijack the very concept of freedom. But one time is often all it takes for the trojan horse of corruption to take over and begin to impose its values on others.
I know this is difficult to hear, especially since you are bound by an honor code to never betray family. But she is just getting too strong. Half the kids in the neighborhood are under her influence. Pretty soon, there will be no one left to oppose her. She will become a de facto queen of the ‘hood. Or even worse, she will make it possible for some power-hungry kid to rise to power and become the playground dictator.
What is the solution, then? This is a tough one. How do you betray family? Where’s the honor in that? But then, what’s honorable in your brother stealing, your cousin bribing the neighborhood kids, that brainy kid selling test questions, or that poor kid being beaten up because he couldn’t scrape up the 250 percent interest he owes?
I know, I never said it would be easy to live in freedom. Now that you’ve grown up, you can’t have others make decisions for you. It’s your responsibility to make the right choice. These tough questions of honor ultimately come down to what you value more: family or freedom.
Ironically, you have the thieves and corrupt kids in your neighborhood to thank for introducing you to ethics. As romantic as they might sound, this queen of crooks and her band of thieves, are actually more dangerous for the neighborhood than any of the other risks combined. Above all, you should think about what kind of a neighborhood you want to live in. Is it a place where everyone is equal and free? Or is it a place where everyone is being told what to do by some tyrant?
Don’t become a jerk, just because you can!
I understand it’s difficult to resist peer pressure. Remember, all drugs are bad. Even though all the cool kids are flirting with it, that doesn’t mean you should be tempted too. From the ancient times until now, all the tyrants and dictators have been addicts. And power is the oldest and the most powerful drug of all.
I saw you looking at the older kids with admiration. It’s understandable, you want to be like them. Who wouldn’t want to be like Vladimir, riding his horse shirtless while all the schoolgirls salivate at the glow of his sweaty biceps as he aims his bow and shoots arrows at his closest friends. How you adore that Recep kid when he walks the streets like an almighty sultan, slapping not only anyone who disagrees with him, but six degrees of their extended family too. Or even Donald, your newest best friend, tweeting like there’s no tomorrow — and who knows, maybe there won’t be a tomorrow if he accidentally tweets the nuclear launch codes.
I know, the neighborhood is turning into one tough and dangerous place. For a young and aspiring new kid on the block, it is very easy to get sucked into the whole strongman game, because, let’s face it, it’s so much fun to have your every command blindly obeyed.
But remember this, kid, it never turns out well in the end. Never.
Remember that Caesar fellow from some time ago? Used to live couple of streets over, by the seven hills. You know how he ended up after being a major bully and thinking he could do whatever he liked with no consequences? It’s not like he wasn’t warned. All the neighborhood kids got together and said “Julius, buddy, we love you, but this constant bullying is not cool, and you have to please stop.”
That’s when he went mad with rage, slapped a couple of them into submission, and all high on this power-drug yelled: “You ungrateful little pussies!” Yes, he did use dirty words to intimidate and appear strong and manly. “I’m trying to help you all,” he said. “Don’t you see? I want to make our neighborhood the best in the world.” And maybe that was his intention, which would’ve been fine if the kid didn’t go about it in all the wrong ways.
So one day, with no sign of him intending to stop, the others got together again and sent for him to come join them play. They surrounded him in a circle, and taught him a new game. “We call this one ‘stab the tyrant,’ so just stay still and it won’t hurt a bit.” Then they all took their turns. Even that kid Brutus, who was supposed to be his best friend.
So, there you have it. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” Don’t ever do drugs, and beware the greatest drug of them all — power. You live in a free neighborhood now. But even when you were oppressed and under chains, the struggle was about one thing — the overthrow of a tyrant. Your siblings, parents, cousins, ancestors, they all rose up and fought for freedom. So you could be born a free and independent individual. So I ask you, did they go through all that, get rid of that last dictator, only to have him replaced with another?
The (eternal) story of you
Speaking of ancestors, you realize that you are not the alpha and omega of everything, right? Sorry if I accidentally burst the bubble of your ego with the truth, but everything didn’t start with, and won’t end with, you. There was a struggle for freedom well before you, and it will continue long after you are gone. The neighborhood is a lot older than your nine years of life.
I told you that the best way to learn is by making mistakes. (Yeah, yeah, the future of lemonade, and all that jazz, whatever.) Now listen, I assume you’d like to avoid any unnecessary pain that comes from making mistakes. You’d be stupid if someone already went through a whole bunch of mistakes and recorded them for your convenience, so instead of having to make them yourself all you gotta do is study them.
Yes, dummy, I’m talking about history. The best way to know thyself is to know your past.
I mean, this is not something crazy I am proposing here. Ever since the beginning of human species, we gathered around the fire and listened to our elders tell us how they hunted that giant mammoth, how they fell in love, how they escaped from that tiger, how the seasons work, how some plants shouldn’t be eaten because they make you sick, and how each star in the sky has its own story.
In fact, the very thing that makes us human, is our propensity for stories. Everything — from myths and legends, to Herodotus’ first records, the loss of ancient wisdoms, accounts of the Great Wars (as well as the smaller seemingly insignificant ones), attempts to write and rewrite the passage of time all the way up to our current obsession with documenting every insignificant detail of our lives by posting photos of every meal we ate, or every party we went to — it all comes from our basic storytelling instinct, in hopes that these tales may one day prove useful to our descendants.
But of course, I forget that you respect your elders enough to know that not everything started with your independence. And pretty much every piece of advice I described in this modest guide, you would’ve figured out on your own just by reviewing and remembering the past. If that’s the case, then please forgive my long rants and anecdotes. I forget that you are not like any regular human kid, and that your memory spans beyond the embryogenesis of your independence nine years ago.
This is the story of you. And there are so many things to remember. How we went to the streets to protest for our freedoms. How, even when oppressed, we worked hard for gender equality. How we made friends, foreign and domestic, by gifting little rocks. How we were expelled from our jobs. How we each started our own little business endeavors. How we were forbidden knowledge, but still turned people’s living rooms into classrooms. How in those conditions we conducted research, published papers, and fought plagiarism. How we cared for the sick when hospitals shut their doors, medical supplies were low, and the simplest of surgeries seemed impossible. How we rose up against a tyrant. How we got our guns and fought for liberty. How we had to leave our homes, the exodus, and how we journeyed thinking we would never see our homes again. How our greatest wish for you was that you would not be born a slave. How euphoric we were at your conception. How ecstatic we were at your birth.
Anyways, I just wanted to say happy birthday kid. Don’t fuck it up.
Illustrations by Tadi.