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Thursday, February 23, 2012

3 Freed Limits

It’s easy for us to get caught up in freedom.  After all, we are the land of the free and the  home of the brave, and no refrain about this great nation is heard more often, even petulantly, than the declaration that it is, in fact, a free country.  We tout our freedoms with more pride than any other hallmark of our democracy, and as well we should - we enjoy them in greater measure than any other place on the planet.  But as often happens when we enjoy things in great quantities, we tend to get a little carried away.  We tend to forget that not all of our freedoms are of the unlimited variety - in fact, despite what most people think, most of them are more limited than we might recall.  Whether by statute, practice, or just plain common usage, the unchecked freedoms imagined by our forefathers have been whittled down - and usually for our own good, as they could scarcely imagine the nation of idiots, morons and fools that we’ve become.  But there are some that still commonly misunderstood and overestimated.  And so, with my legal education securely in hand, and for purely educational purposes, here are 3 freedoms that aren’t as free as you think:  

1. Arms Wrestling.  We have a special relationship with the Bill of Rights in this country.  For the millions of pages of laws that we have written in our centuries of existence, we know none of them as well and hold none of them as dear as these precious ten amendments to our Constitution.  And perhaps none of them is more contentious than the second, our right to bear arms.  Back when it was drafted, the “rugged frontier” was not an allegory it was a reality.  The need for protection was not augmented by modern day urban living, police forces or personal security options.  If you wanted any measure of security back then, you had to carry it.  But despite what the fearmongers on the evening news will have you believe, we live in vastly safer times.  Outside of Detroit or San Francisco, there are no longer roving gangs of thugs  who can mug you without fear of reprisal.  Police forces and emergency dispatching services place armed response within minutes of just about all of us.  And while this doesn’t obviate the need to carry your own weapon, it turns it from a necessity to a measure of over-security for those who need it.  But even for those few, the freedom to have one’s personal security should not include to need to arm themselves for a small-scale invasion of a neighboring country.  If you can make a case for why letting private citizens, who can’t reliably wield gardening implements and household tools without causing serious injury to themselves, legally possess grenades, assault weapons or anything rightfully classified as a “rocket”, I’d love to hear it.  The fact that we can package massive amounts of destructive power into personally carry-able devices is a wonder that our founding fathers never could have imagined, but it’s also an excellent reason to reconsider what we let private citizens carry around.  The freedom to bear arms isn’t the freedom to bear arsenals.  

2. Hard of Rearing.  Because we lead the world in freedoms, we necessarily lead the world in the abuse of those freedoms.  But even with the many great examples of this that I’m certain immediately come to mind, I’m hard pressed to think of one we currently abuse more egregiously than our freedom to raise children.  It has often been lamented that while you need a license to own a dog, any idiot/asshole/etc. can bring a child into the world.  And while there’s not a great deal I can add to that sentiment, I also know there’s not much we can do about it.   Can you just imagine if the government made you get licensed to have kids?  Because they make you take both a written and a practical exam to drive a car, and that’s proven about as effective as fishing with your bare hands.  Any government restriction would be so basic that it would offer little more confidence that the current requirement to have children (i.e. a pulse & functioning genitals).  The problem is not the qualifications of parents, plenty of intelligent and well-heeled procreators are fucking up kids left and right.  It is, rather, the misguided notion that the freedom to rear children is also the freedom to raise them as whatever kind of assholes you’d like.  Children are now fashioned as a measure of revenge and rebellion, the modern day equivalent of dying your hair a primary color, piercing your nose and dating someone who wears too much leather.  Don’t like minorities? Raise a bigot.  Don’t like being told what to do?  Raise a petulant rebel.  Don’t like idealized media images?  Raise a fat kid.  My generation made a bad habit of blaming our parents for all our small problems.  I guess it serves us right that once we finally stopped doing it, that we’d end up dealing with kids with real problems and parents who were actually to blame.    

3. Sticks and Stones.  Of all our freedoms, we hold none more dear than the freedom to speak.  But there is also no freedom more universally overestimated.  The beloved First Amendment only guarantees freedom from reprisal from the government - which means that the rest of us private citizens are free to discriminate, judge and otherwise verbally abuse you however we please if you say something stupid, incorrect, incendiary, etc.  Because in addition to the traditional legal restrictions on free speech (e.g. no hate speech, no inciting panic or violence, no defamatory statements), the government isn’t obligated to protect you from the natural consequences of saying something stupid.  These may include: someone yelling something stupid back at you, someone, someone getting mad, someone doing something about getting mad.  The enduring failure of modern parenting appears to be the deficit in understanding that freedom to do as you please is not freedom from the consequences of doing those things.  Yes, you’re free to stand on a street with a hand-painted sign, lamenting about the unfairness of life, and blocking the way of someone trying to do something with their life.  But they’re also free to confront you about this - and you might be surprised to find out how interested (or not interested) law enforcement might be in allowing them to remove you forcefully.  Additionally, I’m free to assume you’re a shiftless and ignorant hippy.  The don’-judge-a-book-by-its-cover crowd should love idea that we’ll actually wait to hear what you have to say before judging you, right?  Or is that still too soon?  Outside of what someone’s wearing, I’m not sure I can even think of a better way to judge them than what they’re saying.  Because as dearly as you love your freedom to spew that verbal masturbation that you think is somehow thoughful and considered rhetoric, I love my own freedom to use it to confirm my suspicions of your produce-level IQ, even more.

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The most important thing to remember when determining the limits of our freedoms is that they stop right at the point where what you’re doing starts infringing on the freedoms of others.  It’s actually a beautifully simple rule, which makes the fact that it seems almost incomprehensible to most of us, even more maddening.  Your freedom to protect yourself ends where it starts making me feel unsafe.  Your freedom to raise kids stops where it starts making your children my problem.  Your freedom to speak ends where it keeps me from enjoying my freedom to move, work, and not listen to you.  Freedoms are the ultimate statement of trust - because in less-enlightened places, the government doesn’t trust its constituents to exercise their will without stepping on the rights of others, so they just don’t let them.  But here, in this greatest of nations, we operate under a collective trust and understanding that we can be who we want to be and let everyone else do the same.  Because if we can’t exercise these freedoms like we’re not the only person doing so - we don’t deserve them at all. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

3 Overcorrections

As human beings, we are an emotional sort and, as such, we tend to overcorrect.  We get invested far beyond what might be sensible or advisable, and soar to greater heights and fall to greater lows than can possible be excused.  Our passions are both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness.  And nothing makes the pending robot apocalypse more terrifying that the lack of emotion that it appears to imply.  The problem with this predisposition to overcompensate is that it often leaves us with a “solution” which is worse than the problem was to begin with.  Because we are creatures of limited and pointed perception, the grass always seems greener on the other side - and, to our own detriment, we long sometimes long only for change rather than change to particular thing (e.g. the current and failing Presidency).  I would never want to be a perfectly sensible people, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to be a little more sensible when we’re trying to repair things.  It doesn’t mean we can’t try to look a little down the road to make sure we’re not diving out of the frying pan and into the proverbial fire.  And so, in the interests of making sure we’re not making things worse by fixing them, here are 3 overcorrections:

1. A Matter of Faith.  If you really want to shake your faith in humanity (even more so than a late night trip to Wal-Mart or weekend trip to Costco) you need watch MSNBC’s American Greed.  Each show details how greed, fraud and corruption turn businessmen into criminals and provides an insight into just how we’ve come to thoroughly mistrust the educated class in the country.  It used to make perfect sense: we could put our faith into the educated and wealthy, by definition, they knew better than we did and they were also trained by higher institutions, steeped in traditions of honor, duty and ethical conduct.  But the scams and scandals stopped being the exclusive purview of skeezy con-men and caricatured mobsters, and found their way into far more hallowed halls.  Before long, the curtain had been lifted and no one and nothing was sacred.  Positions of trust seemed almost a prerequisite for the modern-day fleecing, and our skepticism ultimately give way to paranoia.  But in this mistrust of the moneyed, educated and powerful, we turned to an unlikely place for guidance and inspiration: the simple, the uneducated and the downright stupid.  We longed for sound-byte explanations to complex problems, for faith in higher powers over higher education, for strength in common ignorance: and we found it.  Those who peddled trust began to peddle mistrust, and we ended up with a national epidemic of trust in those least qualified to have it.  We hold “common sense” in higher regard than actual knowledge and have generated a throng of foolish prophets who abhor facts and are masters of hateful rhetoric and alliterative catch-phrases.  We have every reason to turn away from the traditionally educated - but you can’t fix bad smart with stupid.  You fix it with smarter... stupid.  

2. A Bad Fit.  No matter how practical and advanced we become, there will always be a place for artists and artisans - it is their inspiration which will always provide the motive force behind our advancements.  But the problem with these creative sorts is their utter inability to control their innovation in any substantial way.   It’s up to us to say “too much” and/or “too far.“  And such was the case with fashion models.  These lithe creatures of the European runway kept getting taller and thinner, trading in femininity for a taught androgyny - as the creative minds tasked with guiding what we wear began to stretch the limits of our own form.  And when “heroin chic” finally created a nearly global level of disgust, we realized that “healthy body images” could not include skeletal young women who looked in more desperate need of a cheeseburger than anything nice to wear.  We looked at a nation of young women obsessed with being “skinny” to the point of starvation and other eating disorders and decided that enough was enough.  But then we started celebrating overweight as the new normal.  With euphemisms that declared that the world needed people “of all shapes and sizes” - we permitted round shapes and XXL sizes as necessary components of a healthy populous.  We gather men and women at universities and preach the acceptability of a “few extra pounds” at a time in their lives when they should be enjoying their physical prime.  Even worse, we demonize idealized human forms as “unhealthy” and demand that we believe the “plus-sized” to be just as beautiful as their slim-waisted counterparts.  Nonsense.  It’s just as certain that the fashion industry got way off track in believing that the “cracked out” look was somehow beautiful, that it is that the current “big is beautiful” prophets are simply rationalizing an increasingly lazy proletariat.  There is only one kind of healthy body image - and that’s fit.  Everything else is just excuses.    

3. Sparing the Rod.  I’ve often tried to put my finger on the moment in history where it suddenly became unacceptable to spank your children, but only come with the fact that it was completely ok when I was being raised and it’s completely criminal now.    Seriously, you’ll receive less disapproving looks for urinating in public than from physically disciplining a child in the same locale.  And on some level, I get it.  We are not the best when it comes to impulse control - and today’s spanking can quickly become tomorrow’s beating.  But, of the many anachronisms in the Bible that make it a questionable choice for a document to live your life by, there is one truism that seems to ring as true now as it did a couple thousand years ago: spare the rod and spoil the child.  Or in more modern parlance, if you don’t discipline your kids, they’re going to turn out to be assholes.  We tend to, often incorrectly, to look at children as simply miniature adults (with a predisposition towards macaroni and cheese).  No matter how often this is psychologically disproven - we still do it.  But the truth is, you can’t have a discussion about acceptable behavior with a five-year old.  Because they’re five.   Besides, if corporal punishment is so bad, how did we manage to get by with it for so long?  But because we keep moving the definition of “child abuse” to include an ever-increasing percentage of things our own parents used to do to us, we have turned to no discipline at all, and allowing kids to essentially raise themselves.  As you might expect, this has produced a generation with the least promise since average global life expectancy was somewhere around forty years.  Just because something sucks doesn’t mean it’s bad.  Take, for example, cardio - which almost universally sucks, but is really good for you.  Also, in retrospect, you can probably agree that the overwhelming majority of adversity in your life actually improved you as a person.  When your parents used to tell you that spanking you was hurting them more than it hurt you - they weren’t kidding.  Corporal punishment sucked for everyone involved - but it worked, and if you think modern discipline methods are working as well or better, I would submit that you haven’t met very many kids lately. 

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In the end, I’m just happy to see that in a nation where apathy has become the new national pastime, people are still trying to fix things (and not just wait for the government to do it).  But once we’ve got a critical mass of people willing to make a change, we ought to devote at least some of our time and resources to making sure we don’t screw it up any worse.  The danger in seeing the world as black and white is that it leads to simply prescribing the opposite of something when that something isn’t working out.  In addition to not always being right, this approach is often just plain wrong.  Big problems seldom have easy answers and when you’re lost, the right answer is almost never simply turning around and heading the opposite direction.  Sure, I can appreciate that it’s better to move in the wrong direction than not to move at all - but we ought to be certain to evaluate our solutions with the same critical eye that bore out the problem in the first place.  Otherwise, we’ll end “solving” ourselves into a much deeper hole than we started in.                

3 Past-Due Punching Bags

If you haven’t figured it out after nearly two years of ranting, I’m a pretty angry guy.  Don’t worry, I’ve heard it all before: “You’ll give yourself an ulcer”; “Don’t take things so personally”; “Just chill, man”; and more.  Fact of the matter is, rather than let it consume me, I’ve turned my anger into something constructive - the best example of which is what you’re reading here.  Additionally, it’s always been a great motivational tool, both physically and mentally.  Without it, I’m not sure I would have gotten as far as I have.  And so, with these constructive outlets, I’ve mostly managed to keep the beast at bay.  But, there are some things that bring it busting out of me like a gamma-ray induced green rage; some people who are in so desperate need of an ass-whupping that my military training can barely allow me to sit idly by, and I am worked into a lather so severe that it often takes me the whole day to come off of it.  But at the very least, I’ve got this bully pulpit from which to put these people on blast; a public peak from which to shout out my righteous indignation; a forum for my paralyzing frustration - and a place where I can always find people to have a good laugh while society drives me ever closer to writing a manifesto, arming myself heavily and moving into a cabin in Maine.  So, in the interests of identifying my high value targets, here are 3 crimes I’d like to see added to the death penalty list:

1. Lunatic Fringes.  Somewhere along the line, we lost track of the political extremists in this country, and left to run wild, they’ve gotten completely out of control.  It has often been the hallmark of Third World nations to allow their fringe elements to control the majority of the population - and here, in the seat of the modern First World, our recent politics look more like a banana republic than the great republic once imagined for us.  Nowhere is this more obvious than the popularity and growth of the Tea Party and the Occupy movements.  One extreme right and one extreme left, and both completely insane and out of touch.  Armed with the First Amendment and an aggressive disregard for truth and/or reality, these half-wits stand around with hand-painted signs to chant at the rest of us as if (a) that will change anything, or (b) it will make us want to join them.  These masters of mania really only traffic in one thing: annoying everyone.  But heaven help you if you threaten to physically move of them out of your way - because then you’re just a part of the “man” trying to keep them down.  The fact that we’ve allowed our hate-groups into the open is disgusting enough, the fact that we acknowledge them with 24-hour news coverage is tragic.  Listening to the extraordinarily small percentage of people who actually have time to stand around and chant in the middle of the day seems like a recipe for being out of touch.  I can accept the fact that just as we are nation of good neighbors, patriots and dreamers - we are also a nation of bigots, idiots and lazy hippies.  But please don’t confuse my acceptance with acknowledgement, legitimizing or wanting to listen to endless stream of ignorant profundity that streams from your mouth.  Trust me, it's all I can do to keep from rake-slapping those signs out of your hands.      

2. Behind-the-Wheel Bad Asses.  Driving has become so inimical to American life (well, everywhere outside of NYC) that as a skill, it is nearly ubiquitous.  However, this only applies to the most basic levels of the practic, as the overwhelming majority of drivers seem to drive their cars like pre-programmed obstacles in a defensive driving simulation.  Of course, as a nation of the overly-self-esteemed, it should come as no surprise that a full two-thirds of us believe we are “excellent” or “very good” drivers.  This belief leads to a startling phenomenon: the belief by drivers that no harm can come to them, and that while surrounded by a ton or so of steel and plastic designed to travel comfortably at seventy plus miles per hour, they can act with the same authority of an actual person with that same size and power.  Of course, the blatant disregard for angering anyone else is perhaps the kind of behavior you would expect from a person that weighs a couple thousand pounds and can blow throw brick walls.  Unfortunately, too often these people are approximately as physically intimidating as your average jar of mayonnaise.  But armed with the ability to speed away safely, they’ll honk their horns, scream out their windows and make obscene gestures as though they’re driving around with Randy Couture in the passenger seat.  In reality, they want no part of any actual confrontation, and a solid  argument to reenact late19th century dueling laws - to handle these disputes.  I have a strong suspicion that would calm everyone down quite a bit (or at least give us something to do at intersections besides texting).   

3. No Man Is An Island.  In case you haven’t noticed, the world has gotten crowded; like New Years Eve crowded.  And not just at concerts, sporting events or holiday celebrations.  No, everyday occurrences like every Sunday at Costco, Friday night at the movie theater, on-ramps to the highway, etc.  More and more of us are being forced to share less and less space, and despite the civic efforts to keep up with it, they’re hardly making a dent.  In these ever-increasingly cramped conditions, you might think that the best way to cope would be to be ever-mindful of those around you, so as not to make it any worse than it already is.  Unfortunately, we’ve gone completely the other direction, and amongst these ever-larger masses of people most everyone is tuned out, and tuned in only to themselves.  The basic social principles of taking turns, sharing excess, etc. have been abandoned like so much day-old baked goods, and even the simplest situations ring more like a re-enactment of Lord of the Flies than suburbia.  I see people walking down hallways in a group abreast - so that one can get past or overtake them.  I watch people drive without the faintest regard for pedestrians, back-up lights, or the fact that other people are on the road.  And the worst part about it is the measure of pride that seems to accompany it - as though there is some measure of dignity in ignoring everyone else around you.  Trust me, no matter how rich, famous or important you are (or, in the more likely circumstance, you think you are) it’s not ok to act indifferent to everyone around you.  This behavior is almost understandable for the adolescent, but it’s completely untenable for adults.  Neither your age, your ethnicity or your personal hardships entitle you to this kind of behavior.  Wake up and look around already, if you don’t want to be part of the group - go ahead and move to the wilderness already, I'll be happy to help you out with directions.

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The problem of living in a world where we are expected, in ever greater share, to deal with our differences intellectually, is that we’re trying to do it with more ignorant people than we’ve ever had before.  We cannot expect to teach people who are unwilling to learn - and sometimes the only memorable stimulus for the petulantly stupid is actual stimulus.  In a world that celebrates simplicity as a virtue, I fear there always be a place for “beating” lessons into people.  When a population is utterly shameless, what other choice do we have?  The time for "hoping" it will fix itself is rapidly passing.  Besides, if you don’t know someone who is in desperate need of a good butt-whuppin, I would submit that you don’t know anyone at all.  So join me, and rise up against the ignorant - if nothing else, they surely won't be able to outsmart us.    

3 Fashion Fatalities

It feels like a long time since THREE THINGS weighed in on the fashionably hopeless.  Once a staple of this weekly rantasm, the wardrobe-impaired have been getting a free ride for the better part of a year.  Part of me wants to believe that everyone had collectively obtained some combination of self-awareness, personal shame and regular access to mirrors - but after a good look around, it turns out I just wasn’t paying attention.  There is some measure of tragedy when it comes to the poorly-dressed, only because (a) it seems so easily prevented and (b) when it goes wrong it’s just so bad.  What we wear is the most important communication tool we have aside from our voices, and there is no shortage of heady advice available.  But all of this notwithstanding, bad fashion appears to be harder to kill than zombies, cockroaches and Kim Kardashian’s career combined.  Mind you, I’m not some E! network junkie waxing on the audacity of wearing “last season’s” fall collection.  I’m talking about things that I thought were killed off years ago and were long since left for dead.  But as has often been said, only the good die young, and this badness seems all but immortal.  And so, as a hopeful epitaph for these criminally ill-advised ways to dress, here are 3 fashion trends that need to go ahead and DIE already:

1. Public Screening.  I had a long and satisfying relationship with t-shirts with cheeky sayings printed on them.  And like any relationship, it went through stages.  At first, there was a doe-eyed wonder - when I realized that t-shirts could send a message other than “My mom dressed me” or “this was expensive.”  Then my collection became expansive and more brazen.  From cute sayings, I had moved on to shirts with ever-increasing shock value, confident that my irreverence translated into pure bad-assery in the eyes of anyone passing by.  It even got to the point where I was making my own shirts - feeling that the highest form of wearing one’s sense of humor across their chest could only be realized by sporting one-of-a-kind pieces.  Then I looked around at all these assholes wearing snarky t-shirts and realized - I am one of these assholes.   Turns out that it’s hard to be ironic when you’re doing what everyone else is doing.  It’s like trying to call a genre of music “Alternative” when you’re outselling the “Mainstream.”   Guess what?  You’re the new mainstream.  I then abandoned pointed t-shirts for “retro” fair, and slowly realized that while I was trying to represent a generation, I was unwittingly allowing my generation’s coolness to be hijacked by a generation (or two) that haven’t been able to generate any of their own.  And finally, I dumped screen prints altogether - relegating them to gym wear, and opting for plain shirts that I previously considered not-fancy-enough.  It turns out that if you’ve got something to say, you’re much better off using your mouth, and not the real estate on your chest - because if you need to use your t-shirt to be funny/interesting/outspoken, you should probably keep your mouth shut anyways.

2. Skinnin‘ Ain’t Winnin’.  There is perhaps no greater American fashion institution than denim.  It is, at once, our quintessential casual cool and a testament to our rugged western heritage.  And for the most part, the evolution of denim has left the very worst of it behind us.  Though they survived for a decade, bell-bottomed jeans were finally abandoned.  It took some time to realize that it was really never ok to use the fabric to make jackets - but we finally got there.  And thankfully, I haven’t had to endure excessive back pocket embroidery in quite some time.  But for some reason, the skinny jean endures.  First off, if you believe that this is acceptable clothing for men - please stop reading immediately, go to the garage and step on your rake.  I can only hope that sharp blow the head will knock the stupid off of you.  But while I previously opined that these were, under certain circumstances, acceptable for women - I’m here to say that I was wrong.  I’m not sure who invested you ladies with the idea that these are in any way flattering - but they were lying to you.  And you can’t possibly be wearing them for comfort - I’ve seen cozier police restraint systems.  The simple fact of the matter is that the basic effect of this clothing is look like your legs - just fatter (which makes the name even more baffling).  I can count on one hand the number of women I’ve seen look good in these pants - and they had the kind of "heroin-chic" legs that you’ve been campaigning against ever since Kate Moss had a modeling career.  Please ladies, please - if you take nothing else away from this, take these two words: boot cut.

3. Sweatin’ To The Oldies.  There is a great deal of women’s fashion devoted to hiding butt size.  Of course, they don’t call it this, they have plenty of glamourous euphemisms: “flattering your figure”, “accentuating your curves”, etc.  But no matter what you call it, the business of optical illusion in fashion has been around since we starting cinching our togas at the waist.  Of course, the man version of this is wearing t-shirts a size too small to make our torsos look bigger, but this couldn’t be any more transparent than if we just stenciled a notice of our own low self-esteem on our chests.  But women have turned this into fashion, and for the most part, made it look good.  Black stretchy pants, vertical stripes, A-lines and the list goes on.  But there is one that just needs go away.  Look, if you’re at the gym, there’s really no shame in not looking like you’re in tremendous shape - after all, at least you’re doing something about it, and that puts you ahead of about 95% of the rest of the fat bastards in this country.  Of course, I know that there are some physically intimidating people lurking around these sweat factories, but that’s motivation, not a reason to be the kid at summer camp that swims in his t-shirt.  So, with that said, stop it with the sweatshirt/jacket tied around your waist.  Seriously, no one harbors the illusion that you’re hiding a fantastic butt underneath that thing, and what possible reason could you have to have your jacket at the ready while you’re inside?!  You can’t hang it on the treadmill you’re running on?  Afraid that even with dozens of TV to watch, their own music to listen to, or iPhones to peruse, that everyone behind you will be looking at your backside if you don’t cover it up?  If you’re that self-conscious, wear baggier pants, work out at home, or just give up altogether - because the only person you’re fooling with that ridiculousness around your waist is you

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Sure, it’s a free country and you’re allowed to wear whatever you want - but with all that power comes some responsibility, or at least some accountability.  Because just like you’re free to express yourself however you’d like, I’m free to express how much I hate it, and how stupid you look wearing it.  There are a lot of great reasons not to judge people: their race, their class, their silly-sounding names.  But there are few better reasons to judge someone than what they’re wearing - especially when it’s something that looks expensive.  After all, we are all dressing ourselves these days, right?  I mean, we are all forgiven our fashion mistakes, provided that we recognize and learn from them - but when someone becomes petulant, stubborn or just plain ignorant about what they’ve got on, we’ve all earned the right to laugh at them.  I’m all for not following the pack when it comes to dressing yourself, but when it comes to the message you’re sending with what you’re wearing, it’s best to make sure it’s not an invitation for the pack to follow you - to someplace they can slap the stupid off of you.