The Case of Mistaken Significance

Oh man, I’ve got problems

First off, I’m trying to realize my dream of writing for a living.  I’ve been at it for 6 months and I’m not making money.  I’m not broke as I earn money from other sources and have savings to draw off for living expenses.  I also have a supportive girlfriend, family and friends.  But I am afraid I won’t be able to realize my dream.  If I don’t, it’ll mean I’m a loser.  It’s a big, horrible problem.

Another problem is my diet.  A couple months ago I started practicing the Paleolithic diet, which suggests that humans are not genetically set up to consume domesticated foodstuffs like grains and sugar.  The diet mostly consists of eating vegetables and meat—no grains, no legumes, no processed foods.  I was doing good for a while, but my girlfriend and I started holding community brunches every Sunday.  Between 10 and 30 people show up each week, each contributing dishes.  The brunches have been great, but I’ve had trouble not consuming grain products.  It’s been tough to get back on track the next day.  My blood sugar fluctuates quite a bit and sometimes (like now) I feel a little lightheaded detoxing from the sugar.  If I don’t stick to this diet, I’ll be a flabby, energy-deprived loser, which is an awful problem.

I have communication problems.  My phone was broke last week, which was a huge clusterfuck.  I relented and got an iPhone the other day.  It works great, but I can’t seem to figure out how to sync my Google calendar with with my iCal for realtime updates.  I’m afraid I’ll put an appointment in Google and it won’t sync with iCal (or vice-versa), which might cause me to double book or something.  People will think I’m a flake.  My life will unravel around me.

I have housing problems.  My girlfriend and I are discussing moving in together.  We want a nice place in Brooklyn, preferably around Park Slope or Cobble Hill—two beautiful, tree and brownstone-lined neighborhoods.  But we also want someplace to duck out on weekends in the country—maybe something in the Catskills or in Pennsylvania.  We’re not sure where we’ll live or how we’ll make the country thing happen.  Without quiet, spacious homes, we might not achieve inner peace and enlightenment, which is a pretty significant problem.

I can’t think of any other problems at the moment, but I’ll post them in the comment section when I do.

If a problem is a flame, significance is its oxygen. No significance, no problem.

This is easy to see with problems as as shamefully bourgeois as mine—the kind of problems most of us deal with.  We have no “real” problems.  Most (if not all) of us have computers, which puts us ahead of at least 85% of the world’s population in wealth.  We are reading a blog, which suggests we’re on the younger side and are probably relatively healthy.  We probably live in America or some other first world nation and enjoy a stable, non-violent society.  The majority of problems that occupy our consciousness are probably pretty trivial, centering around ourselves and our unmet desires.

A fraction of us have problems that seem inherently significant.  Terminal illness, major health problems, death of a close friend or family member, eviction, impending or realized poverty, etc.  We believe there is no spin on them that would make them insignificant.

But what if nothing had any significance outside of the meaning we give it?  Let’s take terminal illness as an example.  It seems inherently significant, but, as Chuck Palahniuk writes in “Fight Club,” “On a long enough timeline. The survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”  We’re all going to die.  Every important figure throughout history has lost against some form of terminal illness.  Why are we or our loved ones so special?  What if death had no significance?

I’m not suggesting we deny that things have meaning to us.  For example, we might decide  ending war has meaning (surely a higher caliber issue than syncing calendars on an iPhone).  But what if we recognized that the meaning and significance we give something is ours, not the thing’s?  Believing this, we could act and whether we achieved the results we wanted or not, it would not mean anything about ourselves or the world.

The worst part of giving significance is that it often compels us to not act at all.  The results have such grave implications, so we just avoid the issue altogether.  For example, we won’t submit that manuscript or ask that girl out because if we don’t receive the result we seek, it’s significant.  It might confirm that we are the losers we think we are.  Better to do nothing instead and not receive confirmation.

What if we could just act without making the problem or the results significant?

With these these thoughts in mind, consider the following:

  1. List the big problems in your life?
  2. What meaning do you give them? For example, not getting a raise means you aren’t valued or important, or not getting a return call from a girl you like means you’re unattractive.
  3. What if these problems had no intrinsic significance? What if not getting a raise or not getting a return call meant nothing?  They lacked significance.
  4. In what ways would you act if the results of your actions lost their significance? What if getting rejected was not significant?  What if dying was not significant?  How might you act if these were the case?
  5. Choose one action you’ve been avoiding because of its significance and take it now.

Surrendering is Not Giving Up

I’ve been sick for the last week, which is tough for someone who identifies with being a hot and healthy dude.  No, I don’t make a lot of money (or almost any).  I live in a dump.  I lack accomplishments, awards, degrees beyond a bachelor’s (and it took me a while to get that), but gosh-darnit, I’m healthy.  I get sick maybe once every 3 years (and it’s usually mild).  My bowels move freely.  My nasal passages blow like wind over a Himalayan ridge.  My skin is clear.  My midsection is taut.  My limbs are long and strong.  My fingernails are hard and free from bites or dents.  Random people frequently tell me things like, “You look like you take good care of your body.”  So when that body shuts down—even partially—it fucks with my identity.

The first thing I do is go into diagnostic mode.  What caused this?  Was it hanging out with all those kids?  Was it mold in my apartment?  Was it my recent penchant for eating loaves of white bread (this is my #1 theory)?  Was it negative thoughts and fear?

While I don’t think it’s a bad idea to examine why I got sick (especially when it happens so rarely, making it easier to discern the cause), once sick, the cause becomes less urgent than recourse.  With sickness, as in all things, there are 2 ways of dealing:

  1. Resist it. I can get pissed off at all the things I can’t do.  Maybe I try to labor through these things, pretending as if everything is cool, meanwhile protracting my recovery.
  2. Surrender to it. I can accept that my body is still vulnerable to sickness.  I can accept that all of my plans and designs for taking over the world are subject to the vagaries of nature.

While I don’t want to overstate the significance of my sniffles, my health can be likened a bit to the Japanese tsunami.  Both illustrate how the best plans and precautions can be unexpectedly and completely undermined by forces of nature.  After all, I’m not some sedentary layabout.  I ride my bike everywhere.  I do pilates.  I make sure to eat raw vegetables every day.  I get adequate sleep.  I freaking meditate.  And I still got sick.

Japan wasn’t Haiti.  It had a modern infrastructure.  I’m sure it was as prepared as any highly-populated, seismically-active, island nation could be in dealing with an 8.9 submarine earthquake.  And it still got its shit rocked.

I believe that what is good for now is good for later.  This principle holds true for every system.  Taking care of my body has immediate and longterm benefits.  Cleaning my house provides a nice place to live now and keeps it from deteriorating later.  But at some point and time even the best systems fail, whether that system is respiratory or solar.  It’s what the Buddhists call impermanence.  All phenomena arises and disappears (and I dare any reader to provide an exception).  Rather than trying to ensure that our various systems never fail and getting pissed off when they do (i.e. resisting), wouldn’t it make more sense to learn how to handle this essential failure?  This is not giving up, it’s surrendering.

Giving up is when you stop washing the dishes in your sink because you think, “Why bother?  Everything is going to shit anyway.”  Surrendering to their impermanence is happily washing those dishes, knowing they will one day break, but content with the brief satisfaction they bring you now (and you’d just assume have a clean eating surface).

All in All I’m Probably Just Another Brick in The Wall

I'm the brick on the 3rd from top row, right where the K intersects.

In 1994, I was 18 and really into Pink Floyd.  Meddle, Animals, Wish You Were Here, The Wall—I loved them all.  Their songs were elegant, harmonic distillations of my disgust with the world.

Everyone was wrong.  Everyone was a brick in the wall.  No one knew why they were living.  They went to work, ate, drank, married, reproduced because they had been told to do so by the machine.  I had integrity (or at least as much integrity as someone can have while his parents pay rent and stock the refrigerator).  I would never be another brick in the wall.  No one would welcome me into any machine.

When I heard about their concert at Mile High Stadium in June, I made sure I had a ticket.  It would be the summer’s climax.

The day of the concert was a typically beautiful Colorado summer day—dry heat, sun with a little cloud-cover, a late afternoon sprinkle to cool things off.  Before heading down from Boulder, my friends and I ate some mushrooms.  To ensure the full experience of Pink Floyd’s insouciance, I ate a quarter ounce.

I had never been to a stadium show.  It didn’t seem like the best place to experience a concert, but I had faith in the Floyd to maintain their integrity.  Tickets were $80 after all.  How could an $80 show be bad?

My friends and I tailgated before the show, bringing a keg of beer to ease us into our mushroom trips.  Everything was going great until I entered the stadium.  The large spaces, the massive crowds of very brick-like characters, the hawking of t-shirts, the concession stands selling overpriced Coors and cheese-whizzed nachos.  I became immediately disturbed.  Then I found my seat.  It was on the first level, in the last row next to the exit.  Because the seat was deep under the first balcony, I had only a partial view of stage (apparently a large inflated pig came out of the top of the stage, but I didn’t see anything).  Florescent lights flickered overhead.  I couldn’t smoke weed because cops stood next to me throughout the show. Continue reading “All in All I’m Probably Just Another Brick in The Wall”

Who or What Owns You?

Who buys and sells you? Image via Steamboat Pilot

Which of the following people or things dictates your actions and choices.  Check all that apply.  Answer honestly.

  1. Your mother
  2. Your father
  3. Your step-mother
  4. Your step-father
  5. Your sibling(s)
  6. Your extended family
  7. Your girlfriend or boyfriend
  8. Your husband or wife
  9. Your ex-girlfriend(s) or ex-boyfriend(s)
  10. Your ex-husband(s) or ex-wife/wives
  11. Your job
  12. Your boss
  13. Your coworkers
  14. Your unemployment Continue reading “Who or What Owns You?”

11 Ways to Make Your Bed in Time for Cartoons

Remember when waking up was fun? Image via crystalcomments.com

You wake up.  You peel yourself from bed.  You pee.  You make coffee.  You think about the day ahead.  You wonder how you will face the challenges in front of you.  You eat breakfast.  You check email, Facebook, glance at the news.

You get in the shower.  You let the warm water soothe you.  You are aware of the concerns and responsibilities that await you on the other side of the shower-curtain.  The relaxing shower makes them seem manageable.  You get the thought that today will be your day.  You will do something different today.  You will work out today.  You will eat only raw vegetables.  You will ask your boss for a raise.  You will ask that cute girl out.  You will flirt with that cute boy.  You will tell your girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife how much he/she means to you.  You will break up with your girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife.  You will read for an hour instead of watching TV tonight.  You will handwrite your grandma a card.  You will go dancing.  You will work on that novel.  You will do things differently.  You will do all the things you know you are meant to do because life is precious and short.  Carpe-fucking-diem.

You get out of the shower.  You get dressed.  You leave the house.  You get on the subway or into your car.  You pull out a magazine or your ipod or turn on the radio.  The enthusiasm you felt in the shower begins to be displaced by the thoughts that hit you when you woke up.  You get to work.  You check email again, start work, deal with whatever needs to be dealt with.  You become too absorbed in your work to ask boss for that raise.  You’ll do it tomorrow.  You go to lunch.  Raw veggies don’t sound filling enough so you get a Turkey sandwich and a cookie.  You see that girl or guy, but are too preoccupied by work and other concerns to talk to him/her.  You want to shoot your girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife a loving note, but think it’ll seem weird.  You return to work a bit sleepy.  The day drags.  You don’t feel productive.  You wonder what you’re doing with your life.  You get off work.  You’re too tired to work out or go dancing.  You’re not feeling inspired so the novel will have to wait.  After looking at a computer monitor all day, reading seems like a chore, so you order Thai takeout and turn on the TV.  You watch TV until 11 or so.  You go to bed, a bit disheartened but confident tomorrow will be different.  You do this for forty or so more years and die.

Give up hope of things ever getting better materially or spiritually.  They won’t.  Give up hope that there’s a good time to act.  There isn’t.  We can do something right this moment, and I don’t mean buying or eating something (for some reason, these 2 things represent a lot of people’s ideas of seizing a moment).  We can express our love, write a letter, go to the gym, meditate—whatever your truth dictates.  What matters is that it’s done now.

Stop reading and do something you’ve been waiting for a good time to do.  Do it now.

The 168 Hour Work Week and the Case for Irony

You too can flex in the mirror. Image via NY Times.

Here is a passage from the NY Times book review of Timothy Ferriss’s new book “The 4 Hour Body”:

He can use without irony…lines like: “I was enjoying French food and a bottle of Bordeaux with a 25-year-old female yoga instructor new to San Francisco, fresh from the Midwest.” This poor woman lets slip that she’s unable to have an orgasm. Mr. Ferriss, as any humanitarian would, makes it a point to fix this problem for her. “I was able to facilitate orgasms,” he writes, “in every woman who acted as a test subject.”

I started writing a diatribe about Ferris’s passage, but I stopped myself.  After all, I haven’t read the book.  Despite what I might think about this passage, I wish him and his readers the hardest bodies.  May his words heal the masses.

But I think the Times reviewer nails it.  It wasn’t so much what Ferriss wrote, but the way he wrote it, i.e. “without irony.”  As Oscar Wilde put it, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

The world is bloated with sincerity.  Look through most newspapers and all you see is sincerity and its evil cousin, seriousness.  We read headlines about Wikileaks and oil-spills and crazed gunmen and we absolutely know the world is screwed.

But what if the answer to all the world’s woes isn’t more sincerity, more seriousness, more knowledge?  Knowledge dooms.  Knowledge is a record of what has been, and what likely will be.  We know we are screwed because we have been.  Knowledge seldom permits what could be, because what could be cannot be known.  It hasn’t happened yet.

What if instead of more sincerity, seriousness and knowledge, the world needed more irony?  The Greek root of irony is “eirōneia,” meaning simulated or feigned ignorance.  What if even the small act of pretending to not know has the power to loosen our grip on the doomed nature of reality?  What if irony was the key to transformation?

Let me explain what I mean in a very sincere fashion. Continue reading “The 168 Hour Work Week and the Case for Irony”

Make 2011 The Most Processive Year Ever!

What are your resolutions? Image via The Onion.

Yiddish:  Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht.
English:  Man plans, God laughs.

On Christmas day, I left for Florida to hang out with my family for a week.  It’s something I’ve done for the past 20 years.  My dad and stepmom’s side of the family congregates at a place called Longboat Key on the mid-western gulf coast.  Days are typically spent hanging by the pool, eating, going to the beach, eating, playing with my cousins’ kids and eating some more.

The hub of activity is a couple vacation condominiums my aunt and uncle own.  My dad usually books me a condo in the same complex.  This year was no different except that my girlfriend was joining me.

The condos in the complex are all bright and sunny duplexes, filled with tacky overstuffed floral print couches.  There are vases filled with plastic flowers for ambience.  It’s upper-middle-class vacation property chic—not decor you’d live with all year, but clean and comfortable for a week.

We picked up the keys for our unit, 580CW, the night we arrived.  My aunt and uncle offered to drop us off at the unit.  We wended through the parking lots, but 580CW was nowhere to be found.  Finally, I got out a map that the management included with the keys.  Written in a Sharpie pen was the outline of 580CW.  It was not in the main complex, but on the road directly outside of it, Companion Way (CW).  Strange, but not immediately alarming.

We drove out of the complex onto Companion Way and after a couple passes found the unit.  It was a converted trailer.  Strange, but no biggie.  I’ve lived in trailer parks before.  They can be nice.  Really.

We entered the linoleum-floored trailer and were immediately assaulted by the smell of cleaning solvent and damp, cigarette-permeated upholstery.  This was disconcerting at first, but our alarm was mitigated by fatigue.  We had been traveling all day and the preceding days were spent making sure everything was cool before we left.  We were too tired to complain and after all we were there because of my father’s generosity.  I felt it a bit ungracious to refuse free accommodations.

We got into the bedroom and plopped down on the bed.  To call the bed a pillow-top mattress is like calling Mt. Everest a speed-bump.  It had a foot or so of cushion, presumably covering springs deep below the surface.  Sleeping on our sides put our bodies into a V-shape where our hips sunk into the mattress and legs and torso projected upward.  The same thing happened lying on our backs or stomachs—our pelvises sank while our heads and feet were sent vertical.  The bed’s comfort made moving to the cold linoleum floor seemed like a viable option.

These physical contortions were exacerbated by sheets that smelled like an ashtray doused with a Glade air-freshener.  Continue reading “Make 2011 The Most Processive Year Ever!”

Are You an Idea Junkie?

[Read below for my limited time offer of unaccredited idea-coaching!  Supply is limited (supply is one actually)]

Ideas I’ve bailed on:

  1. Bike racing
  2. High school debate team
  3. Biking around the world
  4. Become a chef
  5. Modeling
  6. Dramatic acting
  7. Comedic acting
  8. Stand-up comedy
  9. Personal training
  10. Starting an ecologically-minded catering company
  11. Several girlfriends
  12. Mortgage sales (this was a quick one)
  13. Blog journalism (despite the money!)

I was thinking about these ideas a few weeks ago as I watched a talk by Scott Belsky at an event I help run.  Belsky wrote a book called, “Making Ideas Happen.”  In it, he outlines the difference between ideas that come into being and those that don’t.

Belsky explained that when an idea is new, progress is swift because everything is novel, learning curves are steep and we have nothing to prove.  We are willing to work long and hard.  We are unencumbered by pride as there is no shame in screwing up.  We’re beginners and that’s what beginners do.

But then something happens?  We develop some competency and the honeymoon ends.  We are no longer just dating our ideas—we’re married to them.  That’s where the work starts and where most people bail.  Unfortunately, most of us bail before our ideas even have an opportunity to fail (or succeed of course).  Continue reading “Are You an Idea Junkie?”

The Joy of Breaking Down

You don't get strong pushing a functioning motorcycle.
  1. Eighteen years-old.  I had just spent three months sitting in my folks’ basement continuously high, working out, watching TV, in near-complete isolation, interacting only with parents and pot-dealer.  Bleakness prevailed.  I thought learning how to play my dad’s old guitar might help.  I just needed $30 for a book so I could learn some chords.  I asked my dad for money.  He said no.  I broke down crying like a baby.  It had nothing to do with the guitar book.  I needed help.  I realized I had never asked for help before.  I asked for help.  I got help.
  2. Twenty-three.  I was in Munich, Germany, debauching my way through Europe after two years spent more or less continuously drunk.  All my waking hours were dominated by drinking.  My mornings—if I could get up in the morning—were pervaded by hangover-induced physical violence.  My early afternoons were spent in regret and physical recovery.  My late afternoons/early evenings were spent thinking about how getting a drink might not be a bad idea.  My nights were spent drinking, repeating cycle.  By Munich, I couldn’t handle it anymore.  My body was shutting down.  The myth of drinking to have a good time was being demythologized sip-by-sip.  I couldn’t go on.  I stopped.  I asked for help.  I went home.  I got help.  I got well.
  3. Twenty-six.  I finally broke up with my ten-year-senior, ex-stripper, adolescent-child-toting girlfriend after five unsuccessful tries.  I couldn’t seem to do anything right, even break up.  I was bouncing from job-to-job.  I had no purpose in life, no direction.  I was desperate.  I needed help.  I asked for help.  I got help.  I found direction.
  4. Thirty-two.  I was in a very unsatisfying relationship with a satisfactory woman.  She was the picture of who I thought I should be with:  pretty, successful, spiritual, worldly, etc.  And I was totally fucking miserable.  I had spent two years trying to make a connection.  I moved in with her.  She was under the impression that we were going to get married.  I knew better.  The weight of my lie was like an anvil bearing down on my chest.  I distrusted everything I said.  I went to bed early and got up late.  One night, we had a fight—the same fight we always had.  I saw the opening to get honest.  I was honest.  The relationship ended.  I moved out within an hour.  I had to rebuild my life in an instant.  I asked for help.  I got it.

At an event I host, a programmer named Amit Pitaru gave a talk about designing the best motorcycle to travel through South America.  He said that when asked, most people said they would want the most reliable motorcycle they could find.  The prospect of getting caught in the middle of Nowhere, South America is not an enticing proposition.

But he described the worst thing that can happen on a trip to see South America on motorcycle:  not breaking down.  When you break down, you have to ask for help.  You get to know the locals.  You create bonds through your interactions that would have never been possible zipping by on a problem-free bike.  You might witness a beautiful sunset fixing your clutch.  You might meet a great family or friend fixing a flat.

He went on to say that on your never-break-down-bike, you zip past little towns never interacting with anyone you don’t pay to help you (restaurant, hotel and gas station attendants mostly).  You attract thieves because your fancy bike probably makes you look like an easy target.  You move through the country efficiently, but detached.  You have no problems, but you have no meaningful experiences either.

His point:  life is not interesting without breakdowns. Continue reading “The Joy of Breaking Down”

Advanced Fonzametrics

Standard English Fonzometer. How cool are you?

Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli, was the coolest person to never live.  Nothing affected him.  He was handy.  He knew how to fight.  He rode a motorcycle.  Men wanted to be him.  Women wanted to be with him.
Most of my life, on the other hand, has been decidedly un-Fonzie-like.  I have historically been hypersensitive, copping quick resentments and easily falling into depressive states.  I have been pretty inept with tools for most of my life.  I didn’t (and don’t) know how to fight.  I owned a motorcycle, but it was crashed in a very un-Fonziesque manner.  I have had trouble earning the admiration of men. I have had greater difficulty getting the attention of women.
This lack of inherent Fonzieness didn’t extinguish my ambition to be like the Fonz.  To be cool has been a principle aim for much of my life, often at the extreme detriment to my happiness.
The trouble with being cool is it has made me inflexible.  Cool is an ideology—i.e. a way of behaving driven by an idea.  In my case, the idea that Fonzie knew the answer.  And when you’re an ideologue, you have trouble stepping out of that idea.  Acting within the ideology of cool, I couldn’t be a dork or a whiner or whatever a situation might dictate, even when to do so would save my life. Continue reading “Advanced Fonzametrics”