Category Archives: Uncategorized

Embracing change just a little bit

So here I am sitting on a wooden chair in the politics and travel aisle of Half-price Books waiting for the 20-something hipster kid with the big beard up at the front of the store to judge how much five milk crates full of my books are worth. It would have been a depressing enterprise a year or two ago because I would have been focused on giving up a long-loved collection for a fraction of what I paid for it. But instead, I feel freed from the burden of caring for these dusty old things that I haven’t looked at in years. Now, my only regret is that I didn’t do this years ago. Sure, I’m getting garage sale prices, but I’d gladly give them away for free at this point. Why was I so attached to my book collection for all these years? Did it make me feel smart? Did I feel guilty for spending money on books that I never got around to reading? I’m sure it’s at least a little bit of both of those things.

I’m looking forward to the day when I can fit all my belongings in a fraction of the space that they once occupied.

I’m not terribly self aware but perhaps one of the reasons that my relationship with Tracy didn’t work out was that I was resisting the necessity of letting go of my past. There wasn’t room in our apartment for all my things so I was going to have to let a lot of them go, and I was having a lot of trouble with that. I wanted to keep all my books, my collection of 5k race t-shirts, and even my old house. Tracy and I had some other problems as well, but my inability to address this resistance to change was certainly no help in the matter.

Seven months after our breakup, I still struggle with doubts and regrets, but I’m learning to let go of the past piece by piece, and I’m looking forward to a future full of opportunities to be embraced.

There is still a boat load of anxiety that goes with that, but I can feel it now, and I’m not in denial about it. It’s much easier to confront now that I can see it.

I suppose that I should be worried about all the other emotional time bombs I’ve got ticking in my head that I’m not aware of, but being ignorant of them makes it much easier to be sanguine.

I’ve got big plans and I look forward to seeing them come to fruition, even though I’m sure Fate is silently giggling somewhere.

Perspective

I’ve got this daily habit of printing out a form I created in Google Sheets that serves as a combination calendar, to-do list, and checklist of daily habits. And on this form, I handwrite mantras and affirmations to keep reminding me of the things that I claim to value. You would thing that if I actually valued these things then I wouldn’t need to remind myself, but I do it anyway. The current version is just one sentence: "Be grateful, be ethical, work hard, and carpe diem!". It used to be four sentences and was much wordier, but I’ve boiled it down quite a bit.

The "be grateful" part is on my mind this morning. It’s in the list because it’s supposed to be a key to happiness. That’s right, I’ve done a bunch of internet research on how to be happy and what the field of positive psychology has to say on the subject. I know what you’re thinking: how hopelessly nerdy. But I ask you, am I supposed to just hope for happiness to happen to me, or is there a way to actually go out and get it? What the scientific research shows is that practicing gratitude is one of the keys to happiness. It’s an ancient idea that features in many religious practices, and it turns out that there is actual scientific evidence supporting it. So, I added "be grateful" to my daily affirmation in the hopes that the reminder will help me be a happier, more satisfied person.

Which brings me to why the topic is on my mind: I went out for a drive last night and was listening to the Invisibilia podcast episode "Frame of Reference". I love my podcasts because I learn so much, and some of it is even of actual use in my daily life. This particular episode is one that is sticking in my head because I haven’t quite been able to figure out how to be grateful on a daily basis, and this episode showed in a very concrete way how to do it. Basically, it’s all about "relative deprivation", or the "it could be worse" school of thought. One of the hosts (Alix Spiegel) is the child of a Holocaust survivor, and she was interviewing a comedian from the Daily Show who is the child of a guy who escaped from India during the wars of partition after independence from Britain. Their parents didn’t have much patience for the trials and tribulations of their American offspring. "Are you a lamp made of skin?" is how the holocaust survivor phrased it to her daughter. "Come back and talk to me when you have real problems."

Once you adopt the frame of reference of these survivors of real hardship, then it’s so much easier to recognize how terrific your life is. And thus, happiness.

But the thing that the Alix points out in the show is that it can’t be our only frame of reference or we’ll fail to make progress. Progress requires dissatisfaction with the way things are.

We have to be able to swap out our frame of reference. We need to see things from more than one perspective. Yes, my life is great compared to a lot of other people’s lives, but there are ways that my life could be so much better. So, when I want to practice gratitude, I need to adopt the perspective that shows me how terrific my life is, and when I need a reason to work hard and improve my life, then I switch perspectives and try to see how my life looks to a person who experiences more comfort, privilege, and joy than I currently do.

The trick is to not get stuck with just one perspective. It’s going to take some practice for sure, but I have no doubt that looking at things in more than one way is a good thing.

What the future holds

So, here I sit in my basement at 10:10 in the evening. I should be in bed, but I promised myself that I would do some writing tonight. But I don’t know what to write about. I’d prefer not to write depressing shit or complain so there goes a whole bunch of topics right out the window. Perhaps I should take advantage of the Interwebs and look for suggested blog topics online.

The Internet is an amazing thing. How did we ever get along without it. It’s like having the biggest library in the world at your fingertips, but it also allows you to be an author and have the whole world available to you as audience without the trouble of proving your worth to publishing companies. And, obviously, it’s not just the written word. We’ve all got access to our own mobile movie studios and movie theaters. It’s just amazing to this boy who grew up in Bethany, Missouri, where we got just one channel on our TV back in the early 1970s. And that didn’t come in terribly well since KQTV, Channel 2, was all the way down in the big city of St. Joseph.

The pace of change is so fast that it’s becoming impossible to predict what’s going to come next. I know some of the things that I hope for from the future though. May they come soon enough to do some good! I hope for medical advances in nano-technology and pharmaceuticals and advanced artificial intelligence that can cure the diseases that would otherwise be the death of my loved ones. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could inject nanobots into the blood stream of people with Alzheimer’s disease that could clean up those nasty prions that are robbing my father of his ability to think. Perhaps, IBM’s Watson will develop a cure for the peripheral neuropathy that has been slowly crippling my mother. Maybe many more of us can avoid the ravages of old age and live for hundreds of years by reprogramming our epigenetic code to stop shedding the telomeres that act as the ticking clock counting down to our death.

While hopeful for the miracles that technology could bring, I also worry that we won’t survive as a species long enough to see these advances come to fruition. Will some idiot hack into military drones or into our nuclear missile bases and send us back to the stone age? Or will Monsanto botch their latest GMO experiment and kill us all with a super-virus? Or will our Artificial Intelligences go all Skynet on us?

I’ve developed a habit over the last few weeks of listening to Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil hold forth on the future in a number of YouTube videos so I have hope that the world is becoming a better place, that we will become a multi-planet species, and that the Singularity will arrive soon and transform the human race from it’s ape-like irrationality into super-intelligent cybernetic beings. But because of the pace of change, it’s nearly impossible to predict what even the near future holds for us. Let’s just do our best to not fuck it up, alright?

Reopening old wounds

I had a bad date last night, and I need to talk about it a little bit. I’m a single, lonely, healthy middle-aged man, which is to say that I would like to have some female companionship. So, a few months ago after I broke off my last relationship, I downloaded the Tinder app to my phone and decided to give online dating another try. I’ve wasted many hours swiping left and right and messaging women that matched with me, but last night was the first date I’ve been on since the break-up.

Let’s call this woman Nicki. That’s not her real name, but it’s the one that a friend of mine from work uses to refer to her. Nicki and I started chatting through the Tinder app a week or two ago. She’s a 42-year-old divorced soccer mom that lives on the other side of the city. We eventually exchanged phone numbers and switched to texting, and last Friday, we graduated to actual phone conversations.

We talked for almost an hour and half during the first call. She said she’d been drinking and she was very talkative. I learned all about her kids and her failed marriage, that she’s a stay at home mom, that she smokes cigarettes, etc. All the normal kind of getting-to-know-you stuff. I enjoyed the conversation, while also ignoring all the red flags that she was raising all over the place. I friended her on Facebook after we hung up so we could look at each other’s old pictures and posts.

Saturday night, we talk on the phone again. This time, I’m hanging out at a dive bar near the house with my grown offspring playing Pokemon Go and listening to the jukebox. It was a shorter conversation this time, but again, she told me that she’d been drinking. Red flag ignored again. I thought to myself, "It’s the weekend. It’s late in the evening. No big deal. Hell, I’m drinking too so it would be hypocritical to question it."

At this point we agree to meet in person on Monday evening after I get off work and after she takes the kids over to their dad for his turn in the custody cycle. At several points along the way here, she has asked if she has scared me off yet. Why does she keep asking me that? She’s not unattractive and she lives in a decent neighborhood. What’s to be scared of?

So, Monday/yesterday rolls around, and she turns her kids over to their father in the late morning and goes out to lunch at a bar with a friend of hers. I think to myself, why is she having lunch at a bar instead of a restaurant? But again, red flag ignored.

Later in the afternoon, she suggests that rather than meeting me somewhere in her neighborhood, that I just come to her house instead. This seems really strange for a first date, but I did meet her on Tinder. She calls me again just as I’m getting off work and getting ready to head over to her house. She’s been drinking since lunch which is why we’re meeting at her house, and she was calling to warn me about that. Red flag noted finally, but it would be rude to cancel at this point.

I show up at her front door at 6:00, and I can tell immediately that not only has she been drinking, but that she is, in fact, quite drunk. It’s hard to tell from her Facebook pictures, but in person, you can tell just from looking at her that she’s an alcoholic. She gets me a beer out of the fridge, and we go sit on the patio and talk so she can have a cigarette. We talk religion and politics for awhile. She’s got some half-baked ideas on both topics but nothing to pick a fight over.

Meanwhile, she’s reminding me more and more of my late wife Michelle. Her actual name is quite similar. Like Chelle, she smokes. Like Chelle, she talks a lot. Like Chelle, she clearly spends a lot of time tanning and looks several years older than she is because of it and the smoking.

She decides that we need to go for a drive so that she can show me where her kids go to school, where her best friend lives, and where her old house is. She’s got a quart-size insulated cup filled to the top with beer with some ice cubes in it. She keeps refilling it to the very top so that she has to drink some before she can put the lid back on. She asks if I’d like a cup so that I can take my beer with me while we go for the drive. I’m not keen on the idea of having open containers of alcohol in my car, so I decline the offer of a cup for me, but I acquiesce and let her bring her beer with her on the ride as I’m not particularly worried about getting pulled over in a good neighborhood while the sun is still up.

On the drive, she starts to ask me about Michelle, but she gets distracted. I know what she’s going to ask. It’s the first question everyone has when they find out that I’m widowed.

After we get back to the house, she gets me a second beer. She confesses that she drinks too much, as if I had somehow missed that fact. In fact, she drinks every day. She tells me about her childhood as she overfills her insulated cup again, and tries to get me to finish that second beer because she wants me to keep up with her. I told her that I have to be at work at 7:00 in the morning, and she offers to let me spend the night so that I can drink too. I take the third beer, but I know at this point that I’m not going to be spending the night, so I open it but I only take a sip.

I remind her that she was going to ask me about Michelle because at this point the resemblance is impossible to deny. Her house is a mess because she’s too messed up to clean up after herself. She sounds exactly like Michelle used to sound when she was whacked out on Ambien and Xanax. She’s got problems with depression and she blames problems of her own making on other people. So, before she can even ask, I tell her: "She OD’d on prescription pills. That’s how she died." I give her the synopsis from the botched weight-loss surgery in 2001 that started the addiction all the way up to the point where we turned off the life support after the OD in 2011.

Nicki tells me that in addition to the alcohol, she also takes Xanax and Adderall, but that she never takes the full amount prescribed by her doctor, so she’s in no danger of overdose. I have to explain that Michelle and I had problems way before she accidentally killed herself. I tell her how she was high every night, and how I tried to take her Ambien away from her, and how I was on the verge of asking for a divorce.

Nicki tells me that her situation will all be better when she gets a job, because then she won’t be drinking all day. I have to be a dick and point out that there’s no way she’s going to get a job unless she stops drinking first. "The drinking is a problem." I’m not the first guy that she’s met on Tinder, and not the first one that’s had a problem with the drinking. So, I apologize to her, but this isn’t going to work out. I just can’t put myself back in that same situation again. She’s very understanding.

So after two hours, and two and a third beers, I give her a hug and tell her that I enjoyed meeting her, and then I fled, leaving her home alone with her beer. Poor Nicki needs some help, but it’s not going to be me that gives it to her. I just can’t do it again.

On the 40 minute drive back home, I turn on a podcast and try to distract myself from the disaster that had just happened. About half-way home, I realize that my eyes are watering. I’m so out of touch with my emotions, I’m still not sure whether I was crying or if they were watering for some other reason.

When I got home, I unfriended her on Facebook, and I deleted my Tinder account. I think I’m done dating for a little while.

Really short book review: “Seveneves: A Novel”

“Seveneves” is the latest epic novel from the master of the form, Neal Stephenson. It’s set in the present, and the end of the world has arrived. The moon shatters into pieces and mankind has to get off the Earth before the chunks of moon rock start crashing into the planet and wiping out all life. The first part of the book covers the period from the breakup of the moon until the apocalypse. The second part covers the escape of the survivors, and the third part jumps ahead 5000 years to the point when mankind returns to it’s home.

Absolutely fascinating stuff. Scary too. Elon Musk and his minions at SpaceX better get a move on so we can colonize Mars sooner rather than later. It’s an 800+ page book in hardback and I had trouble putting it down. Stayed up late several nights engrossed in the story. I didn’t want it to end. But I say that about all of Stephenson’s books. Solid nerdcore narrative with an epic vision.

Go buy it. Read it.

An ode to the Facebook “Hide” button

Oh, how I love thee, my Facebook “Hide” button. For how else could I avoid seeing updates from people who are only friends because I needed a bigger mafia for Mafia Wars?

How else could I passively/aggressively pseudo-punish people that I think are too religious? (Seriously, all the fucking Bible quotes really just rubs me the wrong way.)

Oh, great “Hide” button, who but you has the great power? Without you, I might have to continue to see the Spanish-language status updates from distant Argentinian cousins who I only friended because we have the same last name? (Hell, there are Americans and Australians who fall into that category.) (It doesn’t hurt to know people in foreign lands. You never know when you might have to flee the country. (Like when the rifle-totin’ teabagger retards take over the American government.))

Which is another thing I must praise the great “Hide” button for. Without the great Facebook “Hide” button, I might have to listen to you goats bleat about the political situation. Seriously, how did I get to be friends with some of you Republican douchetards?

And here’s another thing for which to praise the great “Hide” button. If it weren’t for you, great “Hide” button, I might have to be involved in all your petty dramas. I know breakups/divorces are hard, and that there are disagreements between the unfortunate couple. Sometimes it is quite amusing to see some bickering back and forth between friends, and even some really bitter abusive nasty shit-talking can be really laugh-out-loud amusing. Having said that, sometimes you’re petty bullshit breakup/divorce just gets on my nerves, and I have to use the “Hide” button.

Oh and my cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, 2nd cousins-in-law twice removed. Some of you have the most boring, mundane lives that I can’t believe the stories that I’ve heard of your wild, youthful years. So, I thank you, oh “hide” button, for the opportunity to occasionally checkout of the status updates about your latest trip to the store to buy cookies and diapers(adult or otherwise).

And the praise seems never-ending, oh “Hide” button, because you allow me to ignore people that I’m only friends with because we went to the same high school 25-29 years ago. Yes, I recognized your name on the Facebook suggestion box too. OK, so we’re friends now on Facebook. I won’t say who friended who, but I’m partly to blame here. I’m not sure that we’re actual real-life friends just because we’re friends on Facebook. You’re just somebody that I knew briefly decades ago. We wouldn’t actually hang-out or have dinner together in real life. For one thing, I’m married and don’t drink anymore, so to me, your bar scene is just a loud place to watch strangers get shit-faced or desperately seek sexual congress with other strangers. And you probably wouldn’t want to go the Secular Humanist’s meeting with me, so you can’t say that you’d really want to hang out with me either. I’m boring. So, I thank you, oh great Facebook “Hide” button, for the ability to check out of the drunken/fishing/hunting/soccer mom revelries of my old classmates.

Damn, there’s nothing left in my feed? Tell me again, Why am I on Facebook? Just kidding. Love you all.

Really short book review: “What the Dog Saw”

“What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures” is a collection of Malcolm Gladwell’s “New Yorker” articles. The book came out last year to capitalize on Gladwell’s increasingly high profile after hitting the best-seller lists in recent years with “Outliers”, “Blink”, and “The Tipping Point”. Although the book is new, the articles are from throughout the last 10 years. I think I would liken it to a pop music star’s Greatest Hits CD that you would buy from the electronics department at Walmart.

This books suffers from the usual maladies of that genre. There isn’t any coherent theme, and some of the pieces aren’t quite as fresh as they were when they first came out. But most of the articles are quite enjoyable. Having said that, there are one or two articles that quite possible only made the cut due to either one editor’s idiosyncracies or because the publisher wasn’t going to meet some sort of page quota without it.

I suppose I could have found the individual parts of the collection online, just like you could create a greatest hits CD if you spent enough time with Frostwire, but for $20 (with my Barnes & Noble discount) it was certainly worth the price to let someone else put the finished product together. I like Gladwell’s deft hand with an anecdote, and thus I enjoyed this book a great deal. I would highly recommend it if you’re a fan.

Really short book review: “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is the Pulitzer Prizing winning novel by Junot Díaz. I loved this book, but it’s kind of like reading Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. You need to have a web browser open in front of you to look up the references that you don’t understand. I saw a video of Díaz doing a reading and talking about the book. He said that the obscure references were intentional, but that you should be able to enjoy the book without understanding all of it. I know that’s true. There are plenty of books, movies, and TV shows where I don’t understand all the references and allusions, but I enjoy them nonetheless. But I’m a curious geek and sometimes I just have got to know what people are talking about.

This book is the story of a fat Dominican-American nerd named Oscar from New Jersey. He’s a sci-fi geek who loves to write and who is a hopeless romantic. It’s also the story of his mother and of the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo. Apparently, Oscar’s family is cursed, and the curse originates with Christopher Columbus. The narrator is Oscar’s friend Yunior who dates Oscar’s sister off and on. The whole family is unlucky in love for the most part. And Oscar is both the luckiest in one sense and the unluckiest in another. I’m still trying to figure out whether the ending was unhappy, and whether Oscar was able to break the curse.

Really short book review: “Nothing to Lose”

“Nothing to Lose: A Reacher Novel” is Lee Child’s 12th book in the Reacher series. It came out in hardback in 2008, and paperback in 2009. In this latest story, Reacher is hitch-hiking across the country from Calais, Maine to San Diego, California minding his own business and living the drifter lifestyle (except that he has no money worries now thanks to some profitable adventures in his previous stories). He stops in a diner in Despair, Colorado, where he is promptly arrested and then given a ride to the city limits of Hope, Colorado. He befriends the female cop from Hope who picks him up where the Despair cops drop him off.

The story goes on as Reacher latches on to the powers-that-be in Despair to figure out why they are so rude to strangers. Reacher hooks up with the cop, and beats the baddies from Despair into the ground. It was another good page-turned from Child. I highly recommend it, but of course, I think that you ought to start with the first book and work your way up to this one.

Really short book review: “Blink”

“Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” is by Malcolm Gladwell from 2005. Like all the other Gladwell books I really enjoyed it. He’s a great non-fiction writer. I think it is his mastery of the anecdote that makes reading his work so enjoyable. Some critics give him a lot of grief trying to claim that he makes simplistic arguments, but I have to wonder if they’ve actually read this book.

His main thesis is that people can make instant judgments that turn out to be spot on, and that the value of those judgments is often underrated. He provides plenty of caveats about where these snap judgments can go wrong and how important it is to be careful with them, and I think his critics failed to read those parts of the book.

I definitely agree with his thesis. I like to think that I am one of those people who can make instant evaluations that work out quite well. In my case, it’s with technical problems at work. After 9 years debugging and troubleshooting the same application, I can usually diagnose a problem very rapidly. Sometimes I’m wrong, but all-in-all, I try to listen to the instincts born from years of experience.

Anyway, it was a good book, and I highly recommend it.