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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Absentminded Whatever It Is

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At college one day, I went to class after putting a meal in the oven and completely forgetting about it just a few minutes later. Never mind that I was a) making a meal, and never mind that I was b) hungry enough to make the meal, and c) I devoted several brain cells to getting it out of the freezer, taking it out of the packaging (I hope), and then sticking it in the oven. It's the thought that counts, right? If you simply plan for food, your stomach will give you points for good intentions. It didn't even occur to me at any point that I had forgotten about what I put in the oven until I came back to my apartment a couple hours later and my roommates told me they had semi-rescued it, meaning that it didn't set the building on fire.

I'd like to think that it was because I was such a dedicated student that I was excited about going to class and couldn't think of anything else. But alas, sometimes being focused is no more than a cover-up for totally spacing it.

Or I've had times where I've been more dedicated, but it still didn't help. How many of us have put something in the oven, and then realized 45 minutes later that it doesn't cook nearly as well with the oven off?

I know there must be a place in the deep recesses of my mind which will someday bring a sudden realization eight years after the fact that I forgot to do something important. Like maybe a video I rented is 7000 days overdue. Oh yeah, I'm supposed to return Ishtar — that's it. No wonder they garnished my wages back then... Maybe I ought to watch it again before I return it, though.

Whenever I go on a trip, as the time to leave approaches, I know there’s something I’m forgetting. It's not a question of whether I forgot something or not, but just a matter of identifying exactly which things it was that I did in fact forget. In response to that, I've now started overpacking with things I don't think I'll need, so that it will reduce the odds that whatever it was I forgot may accidentally get packed.

Packing to go somewhere is bad enough, but at least they're isolated blips in life's journey. General everyday living, on the other hand, can put you in a nondescript tizzy. I know there's something I'm forgetting, but what is it? Did I forget to pay for the Tic Tac's I bought at the 7-11 in Barstow, California three years ago, and policemen have been on my tail because of it ever since? Or maybe I forgot to fill in the amount on a check I mailed to the Republican party back in 1992, and they've been living off it ever since. That could explain all the random withdrawals from my checking account. No, that doesn't make sense. How would they do that? Or maybe I forgot that I was supposed to loan my rake to the Torkelsons in Utah back in 1996, and they're still waiting for it. That would be a little awkward now.

Was there a job I was late for and never made it back to? Did I leave all my clothes at the laundromat circa 1985? You know what... I think I did. That must've been why I started seeing people wearing pants and shirts just like mine. And all this time I thought it was because they had good taste.

Did you ever forget to turn a car off? If you're wearing headphones, it may not occur to you that the engine is still running. At least I didn't run the tank down to empty. Unless there's some other car somewhere at another time that I haven't accounted for...

This condition vacillates between paranoia and anxiety for me, so that neither of the two feel left out. Some paranoia could be justified though. I'm almost certain that eventually a medieval character is going to walk up to me and tell me what the string around my finger is for, because it wasn't me who put it there.

Oh, and here's another one... What if I forgot to do something as simple as brushing my teeth one day a few years ago? Obviously I would have brushed the following day, but that's not the point. Just the thought of having gone a whole day not having brushed teeth is a little unnerving. And now that I realize the odds of this having happened are quite good, I need to figure out when it happened. Is that why I didn't get the scholarship to Yale, possibly? Did the review board think I wasn't minty enough for them?

I've had recurring dreams where I forget until the last day of college class to show up, and I'm so far behind that I'm trying to write Ivanhoe before the bell rings just to appease the teacher, but it's still a hopeless case and I'm lucky if I can scrape out an F+. I always thought there should have been F+'s, because all the other letter grades have plusses. Wouldn't that be like failing with style? And there could be F–'s too, to send a message that not only did you fail, but you were so awful that you even gave F's a bad name.

All right, there was something I was going to do today, and I can't quite put my finger on it. It was either picking up my brother at the airport, returning the call from Obama's press secretary, or blogging. Dang, I hate when something like that slips my mind...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Slow and Steady, With a Kick

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Here's my favorite sports video, from the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. It's the 800 meter finals, twice around the track. I like to watch this when I think that there's no use trying even when it's a lost cause. But there is still triumph in doing your best, as displayed here.

Pay attention to the goofy guy wearing the golf cap, who is clearly overmatched, yet he still gives it his all despite being blown away by the rest of the pack. It's inspirational to watch how hard he tries in the face of adversity. Go ahead and watch it now...

If you haven't watched it yet, you won't appreciate the rest. You almost have to watch this two times to fully digest it. The second time you watch it, notice how far the winner had to come from behind.

It was so close, many of the announcers didn't know who won at first with the naked eye. Arzhanov from the Ukraine — who had refused to lose an 800m final anywhere for four years — made his move on the backstretch, jumping right from sixth to first. He waited back, and then he came on strong as the favorite. And yet that wasn't the end of the story. Someone else had other ideas.

This fable about slow and steady winning the race really does happen. You don't need to be on top of things right away. Just pace yourself and keep plugging away. If it looks like you can't do it and you're overwhelmed, remember Dave Wottle — mythic yet real-life figure. If you have a firm game plan in place, just stick to it and trust that it will work out.

I like how Wottle was still in last place over halfway through the race. In the first lap, all the other runners were panicking to stay up with the pack, but he didn't bite. Just because everyone else felt the need to jump out to a quick start didn't mean he had to. He was playing ultimate non-conformist, and it paid off. He knew his own abilities, stayed within them, and then turned it on at the right moments. Each of his four 200m splits were timed at 26 seconds. He ran his race.

The first time he stepped it up was in the second lap at the end of the first turn, where he passes two runners and positions himself on the outside. Then he stays back through the last turn, and as soon as they hit the straightaway, he puts on the turbo chargers.

Wottle was in last place for the first 1:07 (63%) of the race. Then he was in sixth place until the 1:28 mark. Let's repeat this: With only 17 seconds left in the race, he was still in 6th place! There were five runners still ahead of him.

Then, with 7 seconds left in the race, he was still in 4th place... No problem, right?

It's also interesting to note that Wottle had suffered tendinitis in his knees earlier that year, and had missed training time as a result.

Five different runners were in the lead during that race, and Wottle was in front for only about the last two feet, which is the only part that matters. He won the race by .03 of a second.

The U.S. announcers, Jim McKay and Marty Liquori, gave a rather optimistic account, and made it sound during the race like it was going to be somewhat easier than it was for Wottle. They were giving periodic updates of his status to put the race from his perspective, all the while the other runners were running their own races, and some of them were looking good as well. Even though McKay was playing up Wottle, Wottle wasn't the favorite, and had no Olympic experience. And note that McKay was still surprised when Wottle came on to pass the last two runners.

Now let's imagine ourselves in the race as Dave Wottle, and the announcers are our conscience, or spiritual self, encouraging us and reminding us of our capabilities ("if Dave could just pull up here and get on the outside..."). As we're running our lives, those voices are guiding us to continue to strive, to not give up, to stay within ourselves, whispering in our ear, motivating us ("I think Dave's in great position at this point..."), prodding us, and then even announcing to the world what we just might have inside us ("stand by for the kick of Dave Wottle..."). They're essentially saying, "Keep an eye on this one... he's going places."

If you watch the version (at bottom) with a British announcer, you'll hear a more even-handed account: "and right in the back is Dave Wottle, who got left way, way behind..." (0:37) Wottle isn't even mentioned again until the 1:18 mark, entering the final turn.

There are many voices we can listen to, representing our hopes all the way to our doubts. It's just a matter of who we believe, regardless of which is more realistic.

The other moral of the story is that it pays to wear a cap if you're going to be in a photo-finish race, because that bill gives you an extra four inches, which could come in quite handy in such situations.

Alternate British version, with the audio better and the video worse:
(if you can sync the two videos and turn the audio down on the other, you'll have the best of both worlds)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Shortcuts to Achievement

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Not long ago, I monitored cars making right turns at a stop sign in Albany, to see just how well they stopped. It seems like 'stop' has become a euphemism these days for "do what you can get away with." The angle of the turn-off to the street is somewhat less than 90°, meaning it would be inviting to drivers to get through it quickly and continue on their way. From the train station across the street, I watched for about 45 minutes, counting 66 cars in the categories I used, while throwing out any other instances where another car was coming and they were compelled to stop.

I hearkened back to when I had a driving test for my license renewal when I was 27, failing the test because I didn’t come to an actual and bona fide complete stop that wouldn't offend the ants crossing in front of me. By the criteria I was graded on in my driving test, about 98% of the drivers I saw on this day would have failed the test and had to come back a month later to retake it. So, I believe there are extremes both ways. I'm not one to say that a person should be absolutely mannequin in order to qualify as a stop.

I put the cars I was monitoring into three categories, with the following results:

A. Stopping/quick halt — 44%
B. Rolling with a pause — 26%
C. Rolling with no pause — 30%

Among group A, this consisted of people who were making a serious effort to stop, even if they might not have been at a standstill. Less than half of the people did even this.

Group B is those who were in a hurry, but still made a token gesture with a little curtsy, though at closer inspection it was nowhere near a stop. This made up one-fourth of the people.

Group C didn’t even bother. They just rolled right on through the stop sign like it was a matador. Apparently to them, stopping is an inconvenience that they’re too good for. This comprised one-third of the people.

Group A was a combination of letter of the law and spirit of the law obeyers. They adhered to the basic principle of stopping. Group B was those who were trying to make it appear to others like they were following the rules, but they really weren’t. And Group C was those who basically didn’t give a flying fajita, completely thumbing their noses at the system. If we were to hand out constellation prizes to all of these people based on their attitudes, we might assign to the first group the sun, the second group the moon, and the third group the stars. This survey was only 84% scientific, with a margin of error of 37%. If it had been conducted under laboratory conditions, the drivers might have figured it out.

When you try to cut corners, you think you’re getting away with something and saving time. But instead, you’re validating a fallacy for yourself that circumventing is a solution, fostering future behavior through habit-making. What happens when people start cutting corners is that they often keep chipping away more to see whatever they can get away with. They gradually peel more and more off until the original path is indiscernable, the initial purpose thus being marginalized. Their idea may become: If I don’t have to generate a full arc when making a left turn, might as well milk it for all it’s worth and just cut through the middle lane.

Drivers look for shortcuts in other ways as well. In city driving, at speeds of around 35 mph, they believe that they will arrive at their destination quicker if they stay about 10-20 feet behind the car in front of them. In reality, even if you’re planning on passing the car in front of you, being 10-20 feet behind vs. behing 40 feet behind provides no advantage. What driving 10-20 feet behind a car does is create a dangerous situation to the car that’s being tailgated because it leaves almost no room for error. If you’re driving behind me that close, I’m going to gradually decrease my speed by a few miles per hour so that your reaction time is increased in case I have to stop suddenly. I was already going a few miles an hour over the speed limit, so there's no justifiable reason that I should go faster or pull off the road to cater to your haste unless you have a siren on top. Get in line, wait your turn, or just get up a half hour earlier in the morning. Sheesh...

What tailgating also creates is more traffic jams, and thus more stoppages. If cars would distance themselves a little more, there would be fewer stoppages. Traffic jams are typically bottlenecks, when too much is condensed in one area, thus becoming counterproductive to the original intent. In trying to save a few extra seconds, we produce delays that can be much longer. It's just like how pouring liquid from a full bottle works better if you tilt it somewhat sideways rather than straight downward. As much as it seems like a psychological benefit to go as far forward as you can when the roads are congested, there’s really no way to play leapfrog with yourself, as much as we try to. Buffers actually do serve a purpose. Likewise, constantly changing lanes in dense traffic only gives you temporary respite until the other lanes catch up again. The grass always looks greener in the other lane, but it generally isn't the case.

How can we apply all this to life? What shortcuts do you attempt? Do we skip exercising because it represents an extra 20 minutes in our day that we can't seem to devote? Do we get an hour less sleep than we need each night so that we can squeeze more into our waking hours? Do we frequent Jack in the Box or Burger King because of their convenience? I did that once upon a time, but then my gallbladder filed a protest which was eventually upheld by the medical profession. I lost the case in a bitter dispute, finally relinquishing said gallbladder to science. My liver had appealed, citing potential emotional trauma if it were to take place, but alas, the court was unsympathetic.

Stephen R. Covey said this in reference to non-physical conditions: "[People ask] 'How do you do it? Teach me the techniques.' What they're really saying is, 'Give me some quick fix advice or solution that will relieve the pain in my own situation.' The more people are into quick fix and focus on the acute problems and pain, the more that very approach contributes to the underlying chronic condition."

People steal things, for one, because they think they’re coming out ahead in the deal, getting away with something supposedly gratis. It's a self-created lottery scheme. But if you’ve stolen something, is it really worth degrading yourself into believing that a short-term fix pays off in the long run? That only reinforces in you that being parasitic is a legitimate enterprise, and falsely says that taking away from the greater good affects only other people. And while we're spinning cliches, remember that what goes around comes back around and doesn't play favorites.

Cutting corners gives you the impression that you can procrastinate, not plan ahead, wait till the last minute, do what’s easy, put out very little effort, mail it all in, get something for nothing, and then just make up for whatever’s lacking later by fudging, rushing and improvising. It tells you that you can goof off for two weeks and then cram for a test and still get as much out of it. It tells you that sweeping dirt under the rug doesn’t hurt anything. It tells you that a continually lackluster effort is admirable. It tells you that going through the motions is sufficient. Well, cutting corners lies! It sells you a glittering package filled with synthetic dreams.

The old adage that you get what you pay for applies here. If all you invest is a shortcut effort, you end up developing a shortcut attitude until you’ve cut so many corners you don’t even know where the corners are any more, and so what you get are shortcut results. Do you want your life to be a shortcut? Is that the goal, or is it something else?

Ultimately, we get whatever we’re willing to be satisfied with. Society wants band-aid remedies, and so look what it gets. A heavy dose of transience, unfulfillment, heartache, disappointment... much of it the product of empty promises from the grandiose expectations of a flimsy house of cards. After buying something made of plastic, can you really be surprised when it doesn't last that long?

We each know individually what our best effort is. An ecclesiastical leader of mine in college named Al R. Young often made the comparison that when you do less than your best, it’s like you’re trying to play chess with yourself — pretending that you can outsmart that opponent and take his pieces, then expecting him to show amazement as if it wasn't all choreographed in the first place. If we’re taking shortcuts with our efforts, then we’re shortchanging ourselves, losing out on chances to shape the maleable clay that we’ve been given. We should want our clay to have a distinctive look so that when it dries it will have something of our imprint on it and say something profound about us that others can use. We don't want it to say "I hurried and got it out of the way swiftly."

When involved in a creative project, the dilemma is that if it were easy, then anybody could do it and it wouldn't be as special or in as much demand. Sports analysts are constantly telling us that what separates the great players from the merely good players is their dedication, their work ethic, their inner drive. At the highest levels of athletics, success is not accidental. Those who succeed have been putting in countless hours in training and conditioning where most people don't see them, honing their skills and their discipline. We tend to assume that they just happened to be better than everyone else. In reality, they were willing to put more into it, and didn't search or settle for shortcuts.

If you can’t invest more than a 3-minute effort into the various aspects of your life, then you can’t realistically expect for them more than a microwave outcome. Sure, microwaving is quick, and it’s handy, but if it’s the rule instead of the exception, all you’ve got to show for it at the end of the day is a quick and handy life. On sale now for $19.99, while supplies last. Hurry, offer ends when? Oh, yeah… it ends soon. We ought to rather prefer those offers which are perpetual, taking the long way around... because unlike shortcuts, they return on their investment.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Learning About Yourself

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When I was a senior at Willits (Cal.) High School, I was recruited to the track team halfway through the season, while baseball season was still going on. My baseball coach talked to the track coach and said he should give me a tryout, and that I might be able to help them. In my first trial, I tied the fastest time in the 100 yd. that year by anyone at our school, so they put me on the team. I was still on the baseball team too, and I started going to track practice as well.

My track career was only for that month and a half, but I was able to get some good experience and fond memories out of it. I ended up having the fastest times in the 100 yd. (10.5) and 220 yd. (23.2) distances at our school that year, and I qualified for district in both events.

At district, I had made a tactical error in the 220, which cost me probably a full second, and I ended up finishing 4th and not qualifying further in that event (missing by one place), even though overall it was a better event for me than the 100. But I still had the 100, and I never thought I would get that far to begin with anyway.

At district in the 100, I came in third place, which made me eligible for region. At region, I came in third again, which qualified me for sectional. The sectional was in San Francisco, and whoever qualified there would move on to state. I came in 8th out of 8 runners, but I knew those were the elite runners, so I was just happy to be there on the same track with them. I think just being in their jet streams made me faster.

Now, to put all this in perspective, I wasn’t even the fastest runner in my district. But I’ve noticed in most years I’ve checked since then, that my time in the 220 (converted to 200m) wasn’t matched by any high school girls in the United States for that given year. There might be somewhere around 10 million high school aged females in the U.S., and in most years, I would’ve beaten all of them. I always thought that would be a fun race, with all of us lined up…

And yet 20 miles away in the next town of Fort Bragg, Chapman and Oliver could both beat me. Then I also noticed in the sports almanac something very interesting. My time in the 220 would have won the gold medal in the women’s 200m at the 1960 Olympics (two years before I was born). And we’re talking about a time I ran as a 17-year-old who hadn’t trained much at all.

In baseball that year, after playing the first few games on the bench, I ended up leading the league in stolen bases, and I became our team’s leadoff batter and regular center fielder. At the end of the season, I was selected to the all-district team, the only player from Willits to be chosen. I was elated that I was able to accomplish so much. It felt really good to see what I could do. I'm telling you all this not to relate an account of athletic events, but because there’s a story behind the story...

Let’s go back just four months earlier. It’s January 1980, and it’s about time for tryouts for the high school baseball team. I’d been involved in baseball all through Little League and Senior League, and I had played on the junior varsity team as a freshman and sophomore. But in my junior year, I decided to take a break from it and didn’t go out for the team. So, in my senior year, I was in basically the same frame of mind. I knew that the players who had played the year before me had a leg up on me, and I was psyching myself out to not play again. I wasn’t even so sure that I would be a starter, and I didn’t particularly want to sit on the bench all year. And track and field wasn’t even on the radar screen. I’d never participated in track in high school. That was for the athletes who worked out. So I was consigned to a less eventful senior year, where I wouldn’t strain myself too much, and just enjoy the ride.

The whole prospect of tryout out for baseball seemed too daunting from my perspective. It represented a lot of effort and too many unknowns, and so I decided I wasn’t going to play.

But my dad believed in me. He told me that I should try out for baseball, and that I wouldn’t regret it. I attempted to make excuses, like I didn’t have a good mitt to use, but those didn’t wash. He said he’d buy me a new mitt, and he encouraged me to give it a try. He made good sense, and I knew deep inside that it’s better to try than to wonder later.

Without my dad’s encouragement, I would have just played it safe and not tried out for baseball that year. And so I never would have been in track either. And I would have missed out on rich experiences of striving to do your best and seeing what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it. I wouldn’t have known some important things about myself at that critical stage in my life.

I learned a valuable lesson from my dad, taught to me through experience. He didn’t so much give me confidence per se, but even better, he prompted me to extend myself and provided a mechanism for me to develop my confidence and see it at work. You see, sometimes we’re our own worst doubters. I learned that you really can do things that you don’t think you can do.

I’ll be forever grateful to people in my life like this who have shown me what I can do, who have seen things that I didn’t see, and have helped me draw out the best in me. I think that’s what life is all about, helping lift each other up and rising together in the process. That's what a good parent does, and a good friend does. In helping us see our potential and striving for it, in our quest to become better people and appreciate the world around us more.

I’ve been blessed with these influences, and in turn I want to try to pass that type of influence on to others. For those that you’re close to, do whatever you can to encourage them to see who they really are, and in so doing, you can witness miracles right before your eyes. Someone who could beat all the girls in America to the mailbox just might be lazing away on the couch.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Life Sans Bills

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A few months ago I wrote about how I was going to take a sabbatical from paying bills, and it's been very liberating not having to be bothered with them. The experiment has gone surprisingly well so far, all things considered. Other than mortgage payments (which I learned are not bills but are implanted monetary viruses that cannot be surgically removed), I haven’t paid anything else.

The overall result is that things are a lot more peaceful around here. The phone doesn’t ring, there’s no noise from electrical appliances, the lights don’t keep me awake at night, the drip in the faucet is finally fixed, I don’t get calls from people I don’t want to talk to, I don’t have to waste any more money at the gas pumps, and I don’t have to watch any more pharmaceutical commercials with mid-life zombies walking through meadows in their bare feet. It’s a win-win situation all around.

Everybody’s been so understanding too. The furniture company was kind enough to come pick up the sofa ensemble we had purchased from them so that it wouldn’t be taking up all our space. Also, the tow truck came by and was more than willing to get our car out of our hair, and it’s nice that it doesn’t block the driveway any more.

So when bills come, we just use them to start fires with now. And we’ve found that the house heats up better if we have a fire in every room. All you need is an axe, and the world is your timber supplier.

It’s like Thoreau’s Walden around here, just without the pond. I’m even considering writing memoirs of the experience, in hopes that there's a transcendental market out there.

Not only have we reduced expenses by $975 a month, but I don’t have to keep track of so many things to pay for. Just send in the mortgage and all is well. I figured I was spending about 50 hours a month just on covering these pesky overhead expenses. Now I can afford to take more time off and enjoy life instead of financing it.

We’ve got all the money we need for ramen noodles, which the kids love raw, and our parkas keep us plenty warm (we don’t run the fires at night while we’re asleep because it makes me a wee bit paranoid having flames next to our sleeping bags).

We've had to make adjustments in maintaining the house. Makeshift vacuum cleaners might not have all the same suction capabilities as their modern counterpart, however using a straw does give me a good respiratory workout.

Laundry? You know, here's the thing... Do dolphins do laundry?

Incidentally, I’m sitting on the curb outside Starbucks picking up a weak signal trying to get this posted. I’m happy to take that extra time each day to hook up the extension cord to my PC and monitor, and then push it back home in a shopping cart. And with all the money I’m saving, I may be able to go to a flat screen before long.

Oh, and before I log off, I need to remember to go to the credit card web sites so I can have them send me more paper to start fires with. Bank of America usually fills theirs with a lot of documentation, so I like to give them my business. I wonder how many people they think live at this address now? Please send to: Rusty’s Convent of the Nestling Woods, 1478 Spruce Way, Tillamook, OR 97141.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Blinkages, Pt. I

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Are you ever in a phone conversation, and while you’re in the middle of talking, something in the back of your mind tells you that something’s not right? That could be your subconscious analyzing the difference of having no feedback in the middle of talking, but your conscious is not as aware of it and doesn’t pick up on the nuances as easily. So you might go on for a few sentences, and then when you get to a stopping point, or ask a question, you finally realize that the other person lost their connection and you’ve been talking to empty air for awhile.

There are many such instances in life where things just don’t seem right, but at that moment we’re not sure why. We just have a strange feeling about it without being able to identify what it is.

I recently turned the pages of a book by Malcolm Gladwell called “Blink” (pub. 2005), which is a study on instinctual impulses. Blink is Gladwell’s term for the first two seconds or so of when we analyze something. In that short time, our subconscious can observe and analyze the clues, and often provide us with all the useful information we need to know. And in many cases, additional information only serves to cloud the issue, and makes our decision making more difficult, subject to more potential error.

A review of Blink gave this synopsis:
Gladwell maintains that we "blink" when we think without thinking. We do that by "thin-slicing," using limited information to come to our conclusion. In what Gladwell contends is an age of information overload, he finds that experts often make better decisions with snap judgments than they do with volumes of analysis.

Gladwell says “There are moments, particularly in times of stress, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world.”

That’s why many times things just don’t feel “right”, even though we can’t really put our finger on what it is, and have difficulty explaining to someone else why. Gladwell also shows how people who try to assign a reason to those impulses misinterpret the source, and seem to invent reasons without realizing what they’re doing. In other words, they’re getting messages from their subconscious which they’re attributing to unrelated conscious sources.

The book itself is loaded with intriguing studies and concepts, though Gladwell doesn’t bring them together into a coherent whole. Gladwell also recognizes that heat of the moment-type reaction can produce irrational judgment, and while he accounts for this, a clear delineation as to when it’s rational and when it’s not isn’t outlined in the book. In these senses, Blink is an unfinished product, but then this might just be a reflection of this whole field of study in general. At any rate, the author introduces a lot of ideas that are worthy of further inquiry, so he does set the table for us and give us a good menu to select from.

I’ve always marvelled at how our minds can anticipate things through our subconscious without even concentrating on it consciously. One example I’ve noticed is when you’re walking on a sidewalk, and you can instinctively predict with practically flawless precision whether you’ll be stepping with your left or right foot at any point at about 20 feet away. If you pick out a line in the cement, your brain can instantly tell you which foot will step on or over that line up to about six steps in advance. I’ve been able to do seven steps on occasion, but six has been more of the norm. (Note also that it doesn’t have to do with distance so much as it has to do with deriving a pattern from your stride, so you could alter your pace from one experiment to the next and it would still work) You just do it naturally without even thinking about it, and it's instantaneous. There's no conscious analysis involved. In fact, trying to analyze it would cause you to break your stride and delay an answer. This is a good lesson for life. We try to analyze things so much that often the ambitious analysis can do more harm than good, defeating the whole purpose.

One other interesting application of this concept involves tapping into your memory without your realizing it. There have been times when I've been editing the formatting of a document written by someone else, without paying attention to the content. From out of the blue, I find myself humming a tune without even knowing why. And then a little while later, I notice some words in the document that triggered the response, which were part of the lyrics of a song. I had read it without knowing that I saw it. Not only that, but I processed it and retrieved an associated thought from my memory without knowing that this was going on. And to top it off, I started humming the tune, not knowing why I was humming it!

I don't know if this one has happened to you, but sometimes when I'm driving and the traffic gets monotonous, I might be daydreaming while watching the road at the same time. There have been times where I've realized after the fact that I had just stopped at a red stoplight and then started up again when it was green while being lost in thought regarding something else. As I come back to reality, I become aware of the passage of time from the last time I was consciously driving, which might have been two blocks earlier. Fortunately, my subconscious knows how to stop at intersections!

Often, people will come up with their best ideas when they’re doing something other than trying to focus on the task at hand. This is probably the conscious getting in the way of the subconscious. Something will occur to you instead while showering, taking a bathroom break, going for a walk, etc. If you're trying hard to remember something, often that can block it, but then later when your mind is clear and you're not even thinking about it, it will come to you freely. Thinking hard many times makes it harder to think.

So, back to Blink, here’s an excerpt with one of the studies:

Imagine that I were to ask you to play a very simple gambling game. In front of you are four decks of cards — two of them red and the other two blue. Each card in those four decks either wins you a sum of money or costs you some money, and your job is to turn over cards from any of the decks, one at a time, in such a way that maximizes your winnings. What you don’t know at the beginning, however, is that the red decks are a minefield. The rewards are high, but when you lose on the red cards, you lose a lot. Actually, you can win only by taking cards from the blue decks, which offer a nice steady diet of $50 payouts and modest penalties. The question is how long will it take you to figure this out?

A group of scientists at the University of Iowa did this experiment a few years ago, and what they found is that after we’ve turned over about fifty cards, most of us start to develop a hunch about what’s going on. We don’t know why we prefer the blue decks, but we’re pretty sure at that point that they are a better bet. After turning over about eighty cards, most of us have figured out the game and can explain exactly why the first two decks are such a bad idea. That much is straightforward. We have some experiences. We think them through. We develop a theory. And then finally we put two and two together. That’s the way learning works.

But the Iowa scientists did something else, and this is where the strange part of the
experiment begins. They hooked each gambler up to a machine that measured the
activity of the sweat glands below the skin in the palms of their hands. Like
most of our sweat glands, those in our palms respond to stress as well as
temperature — which is why we get clammy hands when we are nervous. What the
Iowa scientists found is that gamblers started generating stress responses to
the red decks by the tenth card, forty cards before they were able to say that
they had a hunch about what was wrong with those two decks. More important,
right around the time their palms started sweating, their behavior began to
change as well. They started favoring the blue cards and taking fewer and fewer
cards from the red decks [without realizing it]. They began making the necessary
adjustments long before they were consciously aware of what adjustments they
were supposed to be making.
Fascinating stuff. This suggests that we can change our behavior to something without realizing that we’re doing it, and it can be in response to our subconscious making an analysis. Blink has several such studies cited, which together form a strong case for Gladwell’s premise.

There’s too much from the book to fit into only one or two posts, so in the coming weeks I’ll post more of its findings, along with some of my own commentary.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Letterman's Letter Man

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In July of 1986 when I was at college and many of you were in diapers (I have your baby pictures), David Letterman read my letter on the air during viewer mail, and you could see it all with my handwriting and my signature, and he even said my name. (!) His lips have spoken my name. He doesn't realize it, but he's made me famous. At least somewhere. Like in my living room, or possibly in the kitchen. I also wonder if he practiced saying my name in rehearsals a few times. So, for all I know, he's said my name 36 times. It did seem to flow off his tongue when they did the show, like he and I were old buddies. He could probably imagine being buddies with someone like me.

To set this up, I'll give a little background for the Letterman-impaired. Dave used to flap those blue cards a lot that he was reading from on viewer mail, and he'd say that they were actual letters from actual viewers, otherwise would he be able to flap them like that? "Not a chance," he'd say. So I asked him in my letter what would happen if he tried to flap cards that weren't actual letters from actual viewers. It's only logical, right? And then I said, "What a guy, Rusty Southwick, Provo Utah." Well, actually he said. He said what I said.

So then Dave says, "Well, we've never tried this before... Paul... Oh, look... here are some phony letters from phony viewers..." And he picks them up and starts flapping them. As soon as he does that, an image of Elvis appears above him. And Dave says, "Elvis? Elvis, is that you? Look who's here, Paul." Paul gives his mock incredulity and musters an obligatory, smirking "Elvis is here."

And then Elvis says to Dave, "By flapping those cards, you've bridged the gap between our two worlds." And then they somehow mess up their lines (on my skit!) while Dave and Paul are bantering, and then Elvis thanks him for being featured on letter #3, which he says is traditionally the funniest letter in viewer mail, and then Dave tells him it's not letter #3, and so Elvis gets all miffed and fades away. Dave rubs his eyes and says something about, "Feel like I's hypmotized."

Then later on when there's another skit going on that's bombing, Dave reaches for the cards to try to save the skit and says, "Elvis!! Elvis!!" So I actually produced both a skit and a follow-up reference in my entertainment debut.

The ironic thing is that my college roommates and I weren't watching David Letterman that night, because one of them had rented Amadeus! Somehow I'll never forgive Wolfgang for that (even though I've listed him as a modern hero — but he could have timed his life and subsequently his movie a little better). So anyway, I found out about it when I got a call from a BYU student who was checking to see if there really was a student enrolled there by that name. And since I was in Utah at the time, it hadn't aired yet on the west coast, so I called my aunt in California to tape it for me. A few of my relatives happened to be watching that night, and they said they got a kick out of it.

I've got it on VHS tape, so I'll need to transfer it to digital format. I looked for it on YouTube, but all I found was another skit from the same night with Flunky the Late Night Clown.

David Letterman is likewise on my list of Cool People, and to my knowledge, he never interrupted a Mozart concert. But anyway, if you were wondering, the letter got read on his show less than a week after they would have received it, so that must've meant they instantly liked it. I'd like to think that Dave personally picked it out from among the voluminous stacks of mail, and said, "Yeah, we can use this one for sure. That's comedy, boys... This kid's got a lot of promise. Plus we don't answer much mail from Utah, do we Paul? By the way, where is Utah? Is it over by Iowa?" I'd like to think they had a very in-depth discussion about the intricasies of my delivery and timing, and how I could have a future in show business.

And then Dave probably said, "I'll take this one and write it up myself. I want it to have Elvis in it. Gotta have The King for this one. This is Rusty Southwick we're talking about here, for crying out loud. He'll never invite me on his show someday if I don't really give this one the royal treatment."

I haven't forgotten you, Dave. The invite is coming.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What a Rusty-Led World Would Look Like

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My first order of business would be to change many of the illogical things in the world. I'll probably think of other things later. Since this is my world, I'd be strict in some areas. I'd compromise some freedoms just so I could get my way.

The super widescreen format for movies would not be allowed as the only available option, because it's used in order to get people to buy larger and wider screens. And have you ever wondered why an animated movie would be in widescreen in the first place? It wasn't filmed. They could have gotten the same wide angle and increased the space above and below.

TV shows wouldn't be able to have their logo in the corner of the screen for more than the first five seconds of the show. It's distracting to me, because I know that it's there. If they thought that people didn't look at it, then why would they put it there? And they wouldn't be able to block off the bottom of the screen with promotions for other shows, particularly the obnoxious moving ones. We get the idea. You REALLY REALLY want us to watch this other show you have. You're practically begging us.

Reality shows would be no more. They're the least real thing on TV.

Movies with an R rating would also be available in a PG version.

Weekends would last three days, and the work week would be four days.

Cars blasting their music as loud as a sonic boom would be legal for target practice.

College football would have a playoff system. What a concept, huh? First of all, the Bowl Championship Series is a misnomer. It's not a series. It's a few instances of individual games. If only about 40 teams each year have any shot to win the championship, then it doesn't serve all of college football. There are almost no opportunities for Cinderella stories. We need an 8-team playoff. The universe won't be in equilibrium until this happens.

Litigation would be drastically reduced. Lawyers spoil all the fun for everyone. Their overall cause, while generally noble, is all too often applied in a self-serving manner. They currently don't have to answer to anyone, and that's what's so dangerous.

Advertisers would have to back up their frivolous claims, otherwise they wouldn't be able to advertise. Imagine that...

No one should be allowed to arise in the morning before 8:00 a.m. What's the hurry?

The junk e-mail industry would be more aggressively targeted as criminal and virtually eliminated in the industrialized market. Third-world countries allowing the activity would be shut out.

Junk mail flyers in the postal mail would be eliminated. Unsolicited mail would also be eliminated.

William Shatner would not be allowed on television.

There would be more mainstream television programs showing real debates and public forums on real moral, philosophical and religious issues, by people who have actually studied in these areas, and who don't have a hidden agenda or are politically motivated.

Restaurants would not be allowed to serve unhealthy food, high in saturated fats, cholesterol, calories, or in other unhealthy formats.

Harmful substances such as cigarettes and hard liquor would not be legal. We already pay too much to fund these addictions. Also, nearly half of all traffic fatalities involve drunk driving. If the weapon were instead guns, people would be much more alarmed.

Special interest groups would not be able to get into the pockets of political groups. Policy would not be determined by loyalty to money.

Computers would make sense. Oh wait, that's another life.

Politicians would not be able to zone their voting areas to fit their desired criteria.

Baloney and hot dogs would be discontinued. Is this as far as we can progress in this area?

Everyone would go metric, including clocks. Units of time would be broken down into increments of 10's.

Flashy banner ads on the Internet would go away. What is this, Las Vegas? I'm trying to read.

John Stossel would be on TV at least three hours a day.

There would be a zero tolerance policy for felons. Depending on the degree of the felony, they would be exiled to a particular island inhabited strictly with other felons of the same ilk. There would be no return from these islands. If you don't want to exist peacefully in the mother country, you are banned from it. You decide where you want to live — but you can't change your mind after the fact. You choose your own destiny. When you abuse your rights, you lose your rights. People who take advantage of freedom but instead wish to compromise the freedom of others would not deserve the same freedoms.

And the next most important thing to consider after crime prevention is parking. When you make the layout of cities, keep buildings and landmarks spaced enough to leave room for parking. A very novel concept, I know, but historians centuries from now will look at the 20th & 21st centuries scratching their heads saying, "They thought they had technology, but they couldn't even manage where to put their vehicles. What a bunch of morons. They tried to keep everything so close together that they squeezed themselves up into the sky. And spaces in parking garages are way more costly than on flat land. Also, before you build up, or even before you build at all, build down. City planners had a gene missing or something." (No offense to any planners out there. I mean it in the nicest way possible.)

TV cameramen would just hold the camera still so we can see what's happening.

Television would not bombard us with rapidly changing images every half-second to second. That's not motion. That's interruption.

TV commercials with adult themes would not be shown on programming before 10 p.m.

Entertainment cost has increased 4 or 5 times over in the last 30 years, even adjusting for inflation. People should be able to afford a trip to a sporting event, in a good seat not already swept up by some corporation, and not need to pay $5 for a small cup of soda (with a lemon in it — ooo, that's got to be worth about $3 right there), or $30 to put your car in a parking stall. Athletes and owners can get by earning $1 or $2 million.

No more sales. No more coupons or rebates. No more contests. I don't want to be a winner. I just want to buy a simple product at a simple price, without all the fanfare attached, which I'm paying for in the end. Sales are merely posturing and grandstanding. Give us one fair price so that we're not looking at a moving target.

No store items marked as "7 for $4.00" or "5 for $3.00". Just tell us how much one costs. That's all we need to know. It doesn't help me to know how much 7 cost if I'm planning on buying only 1.

Lotteries would be eliminated. They feed on addictions. And they do good things. Whoopee.

Shorts should not be allowed to go past the knees. I've seen them down to the ankles before.

If kids can't wear their pants up around their waists where they belong, then they can sit in some room somewhere where no one has to look at their underwear, until they've learned how to properly wear clothes.

Not wearing a seatbelt would not be illegal for adults who are driving by themselves. A single-car occupant should be treated just like a motorcycle rider. We need to make hundreds of other things illegal before this should even show up on the radar screen.

License plates should be trackable by monitoring devices on all main highways to help locate stolen vehicles.

Basketball games would not be allowed to have timeouts every 15 seconds at the end of the game. You've practiced the plays a hundred times. Just play the game.

Fouls in basketball would not be a reward for the defense. Whenever the announcer says "that's a good foul," I wince.

If a batter is hit by a pitch, only the batter and the pitcher are allowed to get in a scuffle, and everyone else would have to watch.

I'd invade Venezuela just for kicks.

I'd heavily fund the massage therapy industry.

Amateur writers would commonly receive grants to encourage them.

And then I'd bequeath the job of world ruler to someone else, because it's too much responsibility.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Sorting it All Out

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Here’s a thought experiment in random access musings, purposely chaotic as an object lesson, and because it fits my frame of mind at the moment, plus it’s fun ruling your own blog. I’m not always like this — but I play one on TV.

Have you ever wondered how much RAM you have in your brain? Well, it’s probably a good thing that we don’t have more, because that could make things rather confusing. One of the key components of computer systems is how much short-term memory they have, so they can juggle tasks and borrow resources temporarily.

Perhaps you’ve considered just how your brain decides to sort important information — such as the day and time a TV show comes on — from trivial details such as, say, your name. It’s more than repetition, because a lot of things stay with you after even one occurrence. What would it be like if your short-term memory stayed with you for several days instead of just a few seconds or minutes? First of all, it would be very difficult to relax. You’d have hundreds of different details stuck in your brain. You’re at the grocery store making a purchase, and the clerk says, “That will be $28.47.” You go to enter your PIN number, and the amount gets jumbled in your short-term memory with all the other details, and you accidentally punch in your home address, and your number gets rejected. You’re embarrassed, and everyone’s looking at you saying, “Should’ve gotten the upgrade.”

So many details flying around would be confusing as heck. Do you know how sometimes you'll ask yourself, "Have I done that yet, or was I only thinking about doing it?" Isn’t that a fun feeling? You'll try to remember if you took something out of the freezer to thaw — oh, like maybe that shoe that you wanted to wear later (it could happen). But then you get sidetracked with the little ones asking their legendary answerless questions, and so your brain takes an unexpected detour.

We're told that the brain mercifully shuts out about 98% of the input it receives (give or take 3% — I don’t recall), however this can quickly be reduced to an ability to shut out only about 10% when a 2-year-old is tugging on your sleeve, followed up quickly by whatever they can grab on your person, and then as they're pelting you with and endless barrage of inquiries that come in layers, you brain does amazing things. First, in order to avoid instant senility, it hollers out to the cerebral cortex, "Information overload! Stop transmission immediately!" You’ve processed too much at once.

You’re now watching a 2-year-old in slow motion with the sound turned off — and unfortunately no subtitles. You nod a lot to humor them, meanwhile they think you’re crazy for suddenly not being able to comprehend your shared language. You know… the one you taught them? We wonder why kids get confused at their parents, though you can’t fault the poor parent for employing basic survival techniques.

So then good luck to whatever it was you were trying to postulate prior to that. Your brain shut down the plant so that there wouldn't be a meltdown, and took all the firing synapses with it. You’ve lost your train of thought before, yes? Well, this one left the station and derailed in outer Mongolia, never to be seen again. This is why it's not ideal to try to make life-changing decisions while in the presence of toddlers. If you look closely at their clothes, you'll see the warning label.

But... at the other end of the spectrum, if you did retain your short-term memory for a few days, you'd have multitudinous thoughts competing for your attention all at once, and maybe interchangeably. That would get old pretty fast. Can you imagine trying to have a conversation with someone like that? If you’ve talked to young children before, you might have some idea of it. Teachers of youth know what I’m talking about…

Adult: “We are kind to one another because that makes everyone happy.”
(child raises hand)
Adult: “Yes, James?”
Child A: “My brother fell off his bike.”
Adult: “That’s nice. So, who can tell me what it means to be kind?”
Child B: “I just burped. It smells like lemons.”
Adult: “Thank you for that. Is ‘kind’ being nice or being mean?”
Child C: “You’ve got hair in your nose.”
Adult: “Well, that was educational for all of us, wasn’t it?”

This is the alternate reality provided to us by varying age groups within our species. They remind us that communication is not something to be taken for granted. We’re processing our own form of 0’s and 1’s between us, and it’s a miracle that it can all transfer from one person to the next without breaking down. Brains are pretty complex things, and it's fortuitous they are able to process so many things in a relatively simplified manner.

Didn’t this article have a point? Honestly, I don’t remember...

(Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, some of this post was written under the influence of a child talking in my left ear, and incredibly I answered most of their questions at least semi-coherently, though now I'm curious why they're taking money out of my wallet.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Things I've Learned in Life

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Life goes through seasons, and each of them are teachers of different things. Sometimes you learn through watching others, and sometimes you learn by doing things yourself. While we're given many lessons through our own experiences, if we're fortunate we learn a lot of our lessons by following the successful paths that others have set before us, without having to trudge through every experience firsthand.

Aren’t we glad, for example, that we don’t have to personally test every bottle to see if it’s poisonous, but instead that there are warning labels on them? And if you should see someone keel over from drinking one, that ought to be a clue to you as well.

There's nothing inherently wrong with being an individual; being somewhat of a non-conformist in order to think for yourself. We need much of that to be who we each are. Otherwise, we'd be automatons. There's a saying that goes: if two people agree on everything, then only one of them is doing the thinking. Yet there is still a balance that needs to be maintained. Too far one way, and you have no free will. Too far the other way, and you have no direction. At or near either extreme, there is no purpose.

If you believe in a cosmic plan, whatever it is, it probably involves the idea that we're all here on earth to help each other and learn from one another. We'd like to think that we can solve all our own problems ourselves, but it's not supposed to work that way, and it can't. We're supposed to need others. There’s no honor in going it alone.

And that's where it gets tricky. Here again, a proper balance is vital. We need others in our lives to keep us in focus, to support us when we lean too far one way, to motivate us when we lack our own motivation, to give us perspective that our own minds can't provide, and, among other things, to feel love. We're all here to potentially benefit and share with one another, and no one is exempt from needing that support to some extent, or from needing to give it.

Yet we need others in different capacities. Everyone can't be our best friend. Everyone can't be a confidant. Everyone can’t be our mentor. We've only got so much room in our inboxes. There are different levels for different functions. Likewise, everyone can't be there for us all the time when we're in need. The logistics just aren’t there. Hopefully we’re able to find that right niche for each of those important people in our lives, so that our friendship basket doesn’t crush those on the bottom. It needs to have some semblance of orderliness to it.

It's said that the foolish learn from their mistakes, while the wise learn from the mistakes of others. We think we know what's what, but if we did then we would be perfect, and not too many of us are the last time I checked. If we're smart enough to find those who are wise in the areas we may not be and gather advice from them, we can save ourselves valuable time, effort and aggravation.

If we’re all going through a maze, let’s say, and someone we trust has been a little further down a path that we’re curious about and they tell us it’s merely a dead end, it can spare us the trouble. We can all help each other this way, as we’ve all been to different places. And the path that will get us through the maze may not be clearly defined or understood, though there are clues that can help us stay close to it. We can save ourselves a lot of unnecessary backtracking. A little backtracking may provide good exercise and be unavoidable, but continuous backtracking can give you muscle cramps and get you all turned around.

Most of us do seem to have good intentions. Those good intentions, however, still won’t give you the ability to reinvent where the maze goes. Life at its core is admittedly rudimentary, though curiously in a zigzag sort of way. The shortcuts aren’t really shortcuts. They’re banner ads for causing more traffic. And then you get stuck in the maze.

Be good to your friends, and help them find their way within your ability. If you’re getting lost, stop for directions. If you’re near the main path, lots of other people will be coming through.

And this is what I’ve learned from the wise — those who simply have been further down some of the paths or know someone who has.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Simple Wisdom

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The nice thing about wisdom is that it can be shared and used by all who would partake in it. You don't have to be the one who thought of something to learn from it.

Here are some pieces of wisdom lint which have clung to me as I've walked through life...

Don’t fight forces… use them.

When your soul speaks, take great notes.

Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.

The walls we build around us to keep out the sadness also keep out the joy.

The wise also make mistakes, just not the same ones as before.

Most people would rather be certain they're miserable than risk being happy.

Don't try to leap a chasm in two jumps.

You can either shuffle the cards indefinitely, or sit down and play the hand you're holding.

If you're going through hell, keep going.

Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.

The details of our lives will be forgotten by most, but the emotion, the spirit, will linger with those who shared it, and be part of them forever.

Only someone who understands something completely can explain it so that no one else can understand it.

It's always easier to solve someone else's problems.

I have enough money to last me the rest of my life, unless I buy something.

Whenever I have half a mind to do something, I just think about it twice, and then do it.

If you want to be worshipped, go to India and moo.

You should live each day as if it's your last. And you wouldn't do laundry on your last day, would you?

An unbreakable toy is useful for breaking other toys.

Children are lucky because anytime they want to lose weight, they just take a bath.

Behind every successful man is a surprised woman.

Never underestimate the possibilities of the universe.

I could teach anybody how to get what they want out of life. The problem is that I can't find anybody who knows what they want.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Inner Drive

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When someone says “that’s a beautiful car,” I’m thinking to myself, “What are you looking at? It’s a hunk of metal.” What is it about cars that makes them supposedly attractive to people? Why are Corvettes allegedly ‘easy on the eyes’? Why are Jaguars aesthetically pleasing to the observer? Is it that those curved hunks of metal look better in the right places?

I can’t think of automobiles as works of art, I guess because I’m more utilitarian. I can’t get around the truth that the car’s principal function is to get me from Albany to Timbuktu, and then hopefully back. The degree of elegance to which it performs this task doesn’t come into play on my radar screen until I'm back home safely eating popcorn and the car's already parked. Points for style don’t work with utilitarians. It’s the cake, not the icing. Hmm. Not 21st century enough, eh?

So I suppose we’re talking about a piece of art that gets me to work in the morning. I’m artistically driving from city to city, whether I realize it or not. We’re a bunch of artisans rolling along down the highway, with one piece of art passing the other, in a kind of symbolic Byzantine nod to the superiority of one sculpted work over the less impressive contemporaries. Traffic, therefore, is a montage. And you thought it was just something that made you late for appointments.

If a car didn’t have wheels, then perhaps I could see it more aesthetically, but I’m considering too much the moving parts to put it in the same class as a Rembrandt. Cars are closer to being contraptions in the Wonka chocolate factory than they are to being bona fide museum displays.

So then this also raises the question: why isn’t a school bus considered attractive? Is it not ‘sleek’ enough? Aren't its midtones captivating? And if not, why don't they build school buses to be more visually appealing? Do other cultures look at Volkswagen Beetles as being stunning? Is stylishness all in the eye of the beholder? These are the things they should talk about in those car magazines, but they're occupied with championing design, handling and performance.

Many car owners seem to have a special pride about their hunks of metal. They act like it's an extension of themselves, that it fits into their persona like any other characteristic. They are one with their mode of transportation. Some mortals seem to enjoy working on their cars every day on the calendar, as if it’s some hallowed ritual that must be performed, though that’s antithetical to me. I would only work on my car in three instances: a) If the pope told me to and I were Catholic; b) If I suddenly no longer had 762 other more important things to do; or c) I was dead. Other than those, there’s no compelling reason to work on a car that I can see.

When you get down to it, a car is a shell. It’s a snail with a chassis. Deal with it. I hate to demystify whatever castles in the sky some of you may have built up over your lifetimes, but someone had to do it sooner or later. That thing out in your driveway is a junkyard waiting to happen. It has no soul, and it won’t take you to the promised land. Look inside it — it's no more than an ambulatory cocoon.

Motorholics keep their works of art well-polished, much like a trophy. Cars can be status symbols. If you have a car with a certain insignia on it, that can denote prestige, sophistication and wealth. But before we start frothing at the mouth, let's get back to the original purpose. A car takes you places by rolling along a road, and then with that accomplished it attempts to let you do so comfortably while having an enjoyable time. However, the road doesn’t care what emblems are attached to the car, or how much you’ve shined the tires. Those are just for show.

People look for excuses to use their cars even when they don't have somewhere to go. They'll just go out for a drive. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's an interesting development. Does this happen in other areas of life too, where we use something just for the sake of using it? Do you turn on a light just because it flips your switch? OK, then. You proved your point.

Perhaps cars have transformed more into mobile living spaces over the years. If we could get wheels under our house, might we be tempted to take it around the block for a spin? Are we finding ourselves with the urge to be in constant motion? One thing about being on the road is that people are always coming and going. Neither direction can figure out which is preferable, so they alternate. "We'll go this way, and you guys go that way. If you find something, tell us, otherwise when you get to the end, turn around and we will too." It's the law of vehicular distribution.

The anthropomorphizing of the machine is part of the industrial age's post-evolution vestiges, but it’s a phase we will hopefully soon overcome, because cars have done nothing substantive to deserve this form of admiration.

Have you ever wondered why cars come in different flavors? But the thing is that it’s just like M&M’s — all the colors taste the same. It wasn’t until I was 11 years old before I learned this revelation, which is also about the same time I stopped playing with cars. Coincidence? I think not.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Acoustic Contemplation

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Up to this point, all my posts have been planned out in advance, and refined to within a millimeter of their lives, so I'm going to try something different today and just write from scratch in one sitting and see where it goes. Sometimes musicians make impromptu recordings without all the production trappings and just let them take on their own direction, and those can be interesting in their own right. It doesn't have to be anything special, but it can be a nice change of pace. Informalizing formality can be tricky, but probably everything's simulated to some extent anyway, so you have to pretend you don't know that and play along like you do with anything else. Like how you eat macaroni and cheese even though you know the orangeness of it doesn't really come from cheese.

Do you ever start thinking of something, and then after a while you ask yourself what made you think of that, so then you start retracing your mental steps, and it's funny how one thing can trigger another. Kind of a six degrees of separation in your head. That seems to work better for me when I'm in a quiet moment, such as just before falling asleep and my mind is wandering. You could also do it completely consciously, though being fully aware of what you're doing could hinder the process.

When I started the thought process, it was simple enough, just thinking maybe about something that had happened that day, or something I was planning on doing the next day. Or it could have been how people experience linear time differently based on their perception speed and their total accumulated time of consciousness since birth. One of those, anyway.

I'll be thinking about some dialog from a TV show, like NUMB3Rs, where they were talking about probability factors, and it will take me back to 10th grade math, and then I'll picture my teacher, Mr. Brandt, who was my favorite teacher, and then I'll think of when I saw him a few years ago when I went back to my hometown to attend my grandfather's funeral. Then I think of some of the people I saw at the funeral, and my previous associations with them, and a clerk at the grocery store who reminds me of one of them, and I think of the head of cabbage in the produce section, which reminds me of somebody from church. And then I'll think about standing in front of a large congregation of people at church, and picturing each of them as different types of vegetables, which will bring to mind Archibald Asparagus from a children's video, and then I'll think how fans at a professional basketball game will wave styrofoam tubes in the air when an opposing player is shooting free throws and this is something condoned by the league, but it doesn't faze the shooter because they do it continuously so that it blends in to its surroundings like the sound of a vacuum cleaner doesn't disturb a baby after a while but a much quieter door shutting would, but if the fans at the basketball game would shake them for a few seconds and then suddenly stop, and then start up again, and then stop, that would mess the shooter up, because he'd get out of his rhythm — the fans are inadvertently helping him get into a rhythm by allowing him to shut out the extraneous stimuli in his periphery... And then that segues nicely into the entropy of the universe affecting my granola cereal in the morning, turning the whole sequence into a tumultuous yet innervating existential sojourn. And so this is why I can't get to sleep that easily.

Many times it will take me probably 20-30 minutes to fall asleep at night, even if I'm dead tired. I suppose I could be melatonin challenged, but I think it's just that it's hard for me to wind down at the end of the day, especially when I've been thinking about so much.

I've heard that it works best when trying to fall asleep to imagine a blank slate to clear the thoughts from your mind. Yeah, like that's gonna work for me. If I consciously think of a blank slate, then that engenders several other thoughts along the same lines. Besides, to the creative mind, how can anything be blank or empty? The artist in me sees the blank slate and wants to paint something on it. Nice try, but everything means something. In my world, you can't suck the meaning out of an entity and leave only a vacuum. I do a nice Monet on the canvas, and then think of myself as a world-renowned impressionist, and where I'd live if I were that rich... Somewhere overlooking a large bay and where the only sound was a butterfly flapping its wings. And then my other home would be in the woods, with 200 acres of unadulterated timber surrounding me on all sides. Did somebody say sleep? I've got conscious dreams to pursue first. I'll fall asleep when my synapses keel over.

Meditation at least lets you cogitate to a certain degree. I've read that in meditation, you're supposed to not concentrate on a particular thought, but just let the thoughts flow. I can see the ambitiousness of this in theory, and for the most part I can do it. But then a truly interesting thought comes by, and I have about a quadrillion mental magnets that are drawn to it, like little piglets congregating to their mommy when it's feeding time. My brain needs nutrition. So much for that.

Have you ever tried to not think of something? For the next ten seconds, don't think about elephants. Remember, no elephants. Don't picture them at all. Ready? Go.... Thousand one... thousand two... thousand three... Hey, you're not supposed to be thinking of elephants. Anything else but elephants. You've got numerous other choices, so it shouldn't be hard to forego just one of them. Think about certified public accountants eating chow mein atop a pole in the Serengeti while dressed in mumus. Lots of other possibilities besides elephants.

People have asked me why I like rainy weather. Like I know my own psychological makeup and have Freud living in my shirt pocket... I'm a doctor, Jim, not a shrink. The best I can tell is that rainy and overcast weather makes the sky seem closer to me, and I find that comforting. Like a giant grey blanket covering the atmosphere and tucking it in all snug. So there.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Untitled Mountains

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The mountain was steep and treacherous. Ascending it would not be an easy task. Alas, it would require a great deal more than a perfunctory attempt, for many had come and turned away before reaching the heights. But I was either going to make it or die trying...

After days of arduous climbing interspersed with rigorous introspection, I eventually approached the summit. In the distance I saw the entrance to the guru’s cave, where he lived to stay clear of the elements. As I drew closer, I pondered who I was and what it was I wanted. He was expecting me.

“Come in, my son,” he offered. “You’ve had a long journey and need rest.”

“Yes,” I nodded, “I come seeking wisdom. Fatigue is but a by-product for a higher purpose.”

The guru poured me a warm drink, and as we sat down over the crackling embers, he regarded me. “Tell me your story,” he said, in a way that expressed interest and compassion.

“My story… is incomplete and I want to finish it, but I will tell it to you as much as I know,” I explained.

He shifted his legs and leaned back to get more comfortable. “I am going nowhere, and time is what we have. Please go on.”

“I have questions, but I don’t know if I could be asking better questions. I don’t know how to ask what I need to know.”

“Please, my son… Don’t trouble yourself with such minutiae. I would like to hear about you foremost. I would like to know your struggles.”

“I guess struggles are normal then, aren’t they? There’s no way I wouldn’t have them, right? That makes sense... Well, there’s a song where the singer says he’s seen fire and he’s seen rain. I think I know what that means. I’ve seen both...” And then my voice tailed off.

The guru looked at me sympathetically. “And tell me how they made you feel.”

Gathering myself, I continued. “Together... they made me feel empowered. Alone, they made me feel lost and wandering.” I shook my head. “I search for answers… I don’t know…”

“What is it you wish to have answers for?”

“What’s it all about? Can you tell me what the meaning of life is?”

The guru paused and grinned, an indication he had once been where I now was. He looked me squarely in the eyes. “And why do you think you need to know it now?” he asked. “Isn’t that what living life is for?”

“Hmmm.” I pondered this. “So I’m not supposed to know yet?”

“What are you going to do when you find out, my boy?”

“Uh… I don’t know... I suppose I figured it would bring me peace.”

“Oh, it’s peace you want. That has its merits, and someday you will have ultimate peace, but in the meantime you will be disappointed if that defines your happiness. Life isn’t about arriving somewhere, it’s about getting there. Don’t look for perfection, but only work toward it. You can have high expectations, and this is noble. Yet temper that with patience as it comes to you incrementally.”

“Tell me more about this. What kind of peace can I hope for?”

“A reassuring peace that comes and goes will be more common. And there are other less agonizing ways of finding any kind of peace than in searching for that Holy Grail of the meaning of life. Knowledge alone doesn’t bring peace, and it’s not even a requirement.”

“So then… how do I go about finding at least occasional peace?”

“The answers are inside you. No one can learn them for you. Peace only comes from within. I can no more give you peace than I can give you my own hopes and dreams.”

“How does one look inside himself?”

“There are a few ingredients for this. You must look carefully, and shut out all the paraphernalia. Analyze the things that truly matter the most to you. Listen to your subconscious more. It will give you a clearer picture. Trust your instincts. Pay attention to them and you will learn how to recognize when they are trying to tell you something. These all take much discipline, and you will get frustrated,” he said purposefully, making sure I was following him. “And then lastly, you can see your reflection in others. Look closely at them and you’ll see yourself better.”

I was overcome with the moment, and listened intently as he continued. We spoke into the night, and I felt as though a weight had been lifted from off my shoulders. I slept well that night, and my dreams came alive.

In the morning I bade farewell to the guru. He was soon a memory, though still present.

My day-long journey back down the mountain had a different tone than my journey up. What was night was now day.

Coming down from the mountain with renewed vigor, I met a passer-by at the bottom who was on his way up. “Do you seek wisdom?” I asked.

“I am indeed seeking wisdom,” he said. “Do you know the way?”

“I do. As do you, in fact. The guru will tell you merely what you didn’t realize you already knew. The way is found without climbing mountains. The way is within your reach right now.”

“So you’ve met with the guru...”

The man and I regarded each other, and we spoke into the night.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Going For a Swim With a Hollow Holiday Untopic

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I heard that today is some holiday, but I don’t have time for that sort of thing. Dressing up in macabre costumes has always seemed like an open invitation for closet exhibitionists and voyeurs to be spontaneous (ironically through formalized activities), while being prompted by their need to conform and be accepted by society… but then it is also fun for the kids. It’s a very confusing holiday. I don’t think holidays were meant to be this confusing. Nah, I’m not going to talk about ghouls and goblins. But I do want to address overcoming our demons — which is no more than our own selves. When someone comes to trick-or-treat at the door of your soul, it's you.

Historically, I’ve motivated myself through goals, then by having people there to catch me if/when I fall, winding me back up again and pointing me in the right direction, reminding me how to keep chugging away. Keeping my sights on the target, even if I happen to still be far from it, allows me to focus on the fact that the work I’m doing will come to fruition and be worth it all.

Let’s go back circa August 2008, and you can interpolate from the photo (superimposed to show the swimmers right next to each other) that Michael Phelps (left) won the 100m butterfly final in Beijing in part because he had the right form. He kept his body lined up and kept churning away. He trusted the process, honed it, and made it work for him. It works the same whether you’re ahead or trying to catch up. There are no substitutes for a full effort. Shortcuts for these things don't exist.

Watching the race, you can’t come away from it thinking that Phelps could have tried any harder than he did. He put forth a total effort. He had to. Anything less, and it would have been silver. Every little bit makes a difference in our lives. Phelps and Serbian swimmer Milorad Cavic were 1/100th of a second apart. Phelps was merely a bent finger away from not getting those 8 gold medals. Go ahead, bend your finger and see how easy that is to do. Now project that on a race where you’re moving all parts of your body continuously for 50 seconds, and you’ve just swung your arms over the top of your head, with adrenaline going full speed. There was no room for error in this race. One twitch anywhere and Michael Phelps would have lost. In fact, he was trailing in the race up until about the last .02 seconds of it. Look at all the ground Phelps had to make up when Cavic was less than 2 feet from the finish. How was it possible? Why did he even keep trying?

But Phelps didn’t panic. He just stayed with the plan. Observe the next frame below. His arms are still straight, his legs still aerodynamic, and he still hasn't started coasting. His face is down, and he’s not looking for the wall. Instead, he trusts that it will be there, and he’s not slowing down until he goes through it, not just to it. He didn’t give up merely because it looked impossible. Everything is impossible until it isn’t. Notice in this shot that Cavic is only about 4 inches from the end, while Phelps has about 2 feet to go.

With all this in mind, it's important to note that at no point was Phelps intimidated. He met the challenge head on, knocked it down, and beat the living tar out of it. He was unflappable.

I watch that race over and over, and I can’t figure out how Michael Phelps managed to win it. Cavic didn’t exactly slow down, and even though he had to reach at the end, it’s not unusual. Cavic ran a nearly perfect race. But Phelps did run the perfect race. Coming down the stretch, you can see Phelps gaining, yet the nearer they get to the end, it seems like Phelps just doesn’t have enough time to make up for the deficit.

Even when the race was over, it didn’t look like Phelps had won. It was an optical illusion. There’s no way someone could move their arms over their head from three feet away before someone else could swim six inches. The eyes can’t process an event like that and believe it in real-time. So everybody was ready to say that it was a valiant effort that came up just short. And then his name was flashed at the top of the scoreboard, his mom’s knees collapsed up in the stands in disbelief, and everyone was covering their heads, overcome by what they’d just seen… believing but not believing. The announcers were incredulous, trying to convince themselves it was true. That ‘1’ in Phelps’ lane apparently just couldn’t be willed away. It belonged to him. He owned it.

Michael Phelps would've made Winston Churchill proud, who once said in a speech, "Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty. "

To be inspired by others like this, who do their best and overcome obstacles to come out on top, is what it’s all about. We’ve all had some Michael Phelpses in our lives who show us how it’s done, and may be a source of encouragement for us to try harder. If they can do it, so can we, because there really are gold medals in all of us. It might not be in the 100m butterfly while the whole world is watching. It might be in the back yard playing with a 3-year-old and making them feel loved, or coming to terms with your own weaknesses, or smiling when you don’t feel like it, or expanding your mind to new possibilities, or being there for someone who’s having problems in the race. In large part, we get to create our own venues for where our races are run. We can’t do everything, but we can many times pick and choose those areas we deem most important, and then tell the starter that we’re ready to compete.

We also have to remember that although life is like a race, when it comes down to it we’re just racing against ourselves. We don’t really have to beat anyone else. When we’re in those lanes, it’s a bunch of other of our own selves — no Cavics to try to overtake. We’re striving for our best self. It’s true that all of our selves could take the easy route and just coast in, eventually finishing the race and making it look respectable. Or we could even appear to be trying hard but hold a lot of our energy in reserve since it requires so much. Or just maybe... we could reach deep down inside and give that extra effort that only we know whether we’re giving or not. That is what we’re competing against.

Is your life going to represent a gold medal effort, or something else? In life’s Olympics, we can all end up on the top step of that podium because anyone who wants to can be up there. Don’t be satisfied with anything less than gold. Awake your inner Olympian. This is your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you decide to accept it…

Video of the ending

(in this view, Phelps is on the far end and Cavic is closer to the camera)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lost Towns

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Being fond of atypical things myself, the humble town of Unalaska recently caught my eye. I came across it a few months ago while browsing the world, gazing up toward the frozen north. You never know what you’re going to find if you just look around to see what’s out there. It’s a place in Alaska, so I’m thinking what… the two cancel each other out? The postal address would say “Unalaska, Alaska”, which is kind of like saying “Negative, Positive,” “Backward, Forward,” “Undo, Redo,” like two opposing forces. But maybe on second thought it’s all about yin and yang. Perhaps Unalaska covers that other end of the spectrum that Alaska doesn’t, and they're a complement to one another.

The whole persona of Unalaska struck me as unusually unabashed in its scope. You’ve got to be pretty confident to call yourself Un-anything. I did find out later that I was mispronouncing the name. It’s actually a long ‘u’ sound, which is too bad, because anything with ‘un’ ought to be like the UnCola or Alice in Wonderland’s Unbirthday. (By the way, a very happy unbirthday to all of you out there who weren’t born on this day) Also, the second ‘a’ is the short sound, as in ‘ash’. But that makes sense, because ‘banana’ is the same way.

Unalaska is more than just a blip on the map — it’s a highly interesting blip. It’s very isolated from the world due to its unique circumstances. It surrounds itself in a group of small islands in Alaska’s archipelago, which I like to say any chance I get since it’s such a fun word. The archipelago is known as the Aleutian Islands, which consists of over 300 separate land masses, protruding 1,200 miles from the Alaskan Peninsula. So Unalaska could be misperceived as an Aleutian, but the further you discover about it, it becomes evident that it’s more real than any place on earth.

Unalaska is a port town, so ships come calling there often. Unalaska is so friendly that ocean craft of all types just gravitate toward it. It’s true that Unalaska is the 11th largest city in Alaska, however at an unassuming 3,800 people, it makes Palin’s Wasilla look like a noisy metropolis. There are only three cities in Alaska with more than 10,000 people, and I’m sure Juneau all of them.

From where I live in Oregon all the way to Unalaska, it's 3,696 miles, taking 3 days and 23 hours of traveling time to get there. And this is already starting from the west coast. That almost seems like a lifetime away, as if it’s a whole other surreal existence. The part of the trek just going through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory in Canada is 1,800 miles alone. After you get into Alaska and go past Anchorage, there are still ferry rides of 606 miles, 105 miles and 197 miles before finally reaching Unalaska.

So in order to get to Unalaska, you have to really want to go there, otherwise you could be easily distracted on the way. In short, nobody shows up there by accident. Everybody who’s there is there because that’s where their karma took them. There aren’t too many stragglers coming in on the ice floes.

It’s also interesting to note that going from Oregon to New York is shorter than going to Unalaska — by about 700 miles. But then anybody can go to New York. Where’s the adventure in that?

What would you do if you lived in Unalaska? The island is only 10 miles across, so there’s nowhere to speak of to drive. You could travel by boat to the neighboring islands, but there’s not much on them. Maybe you’d spend more time on the finer things in life instead of frivolous pursuits. You’d probably have a lot of good friends. For the heck of it, I’m thinking someday it would be fun to end up in Unalaska. There’s something pure about the whiteness of that region, and I have a feeling it would serve to cleanse the soul.

It’s just amazing to me that people live their lives in a locale such as this. They carry on in anonymity, the rest of the world oblivious to its majesty. And it’s comforting to know that there are completely out-of-the-way places like this where people can thrive. It gives one a sense of global community, and a tender sharing of Mother Earth.

Unalaska’s official website:
Wikipedia article on Unalaska:

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