Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

Learning, or Self-Designing Software?

If our brains are our biological hardware, then learning could be understood as a way of acquiring new software. This ability to learn is an essential component of what makes us human. We can choose to update our hardware with the software of our choice. Want to learn something? Seek that information out, synthesize an understanding of it, and rewrite a new software module for your brain.

We all have the ability to design who we are. Think about that for a moment. Yes, intelligence manifests itself differently in each individual, but we are all capable of this, to a greater or lesser degree.

And here’s a very important point – there are many, many things in life that we have no control over. But learning is not one of them. You can choose what you want to learn, and once you have internalized it, no one can ever take it away from you.

So who do you want to be?

K – Horror

Lately I’ve been going down the Korean cinema rabbit hole, and I haven’t seen a bad movie yet. “Oldboy” (2005, written and directed by Chan-wook Park) was one of the first Korean films I saw and I was absolutely transfixed. I am fascinated by seeing stories told through lens of another culture, and Korean culture has a very specific and endearing humanistic element to it. Since ground zero of my film obsession starts with horror, that’s where my focus has been. And I have not been disappointed.

In the last week I watched “The Wailing” (2016, written and directed by Hong-jin Na) and “Train to Busan” (2016, written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon) and both of these films were absolutely stunning. “The Wailing” is really a masterpiece that is pretty much impossible to describe with western film as a reference, but you are drawn in to the story from the first frame. You immediately realize this is the work of a master – don’t try to understand everything that is happening – just submit to the experience. What a glorious and mysterious experience it is, not unlike life itself.

“Train to Busan” seems at first to be an interesting and entertaining Korean take on the zombie genre, but develops into something much, much more. It is a story about the frailty of human nature, weakness and redemption, love and sacrifice – and it features an astonishing performance by a child actress. All of this is beautifully framed against the now familiar backdrop of the apocalypse. But the horror isn’t focused on the zombies, rather it is about how weak and imperfect humans desperately try to cope and survive. In this sense, it traces a strong lineage back to George A. Romero’s vision of how humans behave when confronted by an existential threat. There are scenes in this film where I was moved to tears…

For the last 30 years I always thought it was a missed opportunity for cable not to offer a horror channel. Well, that never happened, but today we have “Shudder” – a streaming service that costs about five bucks a month and offers horror movies from around the world. A treasure trove for the horror fanatic. They’re not all winners, but these two films are a great example of just how good international cinema can be. That is to say, as good as it gets…

Twenty Years Part 1

20 years.

240 months.

1,040 weeks.

7,300 days.

3,504,000 hours.

According to a Social Security actuarial life table, I have 21.55 years left to live. Let’s be optimistic and say that I don’t feel that great the last year and a half. That gives me 20, which doesn’t seem like a lot. Fucking hell.

Better get busy

You’re Never Finished

The process of becoming is never finished. Let me explain… Whenever I start on some long range project or goal, I tend to become somewhat consumed by it. If I’m not careful, other areas of my life will suffer from a lack of attention. When I realize this is happening, I will think to myself “When this is done I can spend more time on… (fill in the blank).” The problem is – when I do inevitably finish whatever I am working on, there is always something else, some other goal, some other opportunity to grow in a new area ready to consume my attention. I’m not sure there is an answer here, or even a problem per se – I guess I’m just making a personal observation.

If there is a point here, it’s this: It’s critically important to pick your goals carefully – especially if you are a finisher who is not deterred by a long term fight. Because you are always going to give up something in return for the goal completed. And the process of self-actualization, of becoming you, is never over until you’re dead.

So be careful what you wish for…

Recovery

This is an often neglected but critically important concept for maximizing your experience in life. I didn’t fully understand why until I was older…

It’s easy to grasp why this important when healing from an injury – the body is rebuilding itself after sustaining a physical trauma. But as I have aged I realize that we need to recover from mental stress as well. This takes time though, and if you don’t understand why you need it, it can seem like wasted time.

For example, working as an ER nurse is obviously stressful. It happens to be a kind of stress I like, but it still takes a toll. So in order to keep from burning out, I need time to recover. Everyone is somewhat different in their needs, but in my case after two or three days of consecutive 12 and a half hour shifts, I need to catch up on my sleep and think about something completely different. Dealing with the consequences of taking an active part in life and death decisions and the aftermath of losing those you are trying to save can be haunting. Nobody is perfect, and in order to become highly skilled there is an inevitable learning curve. No one wants to admit it, but we all make mistakes. The question is: How do you handle it?

Here’s how: By being kind to yourself, understanding that this is how life works, and giving yourself time to recover so you can fight another day.

Vibe

The way something makes you feel. It might be good or bad, but it can never be indifferent. A vibe will jack you up one way or another, but it won’t ever leave you feeling “meh.” We all project a vibe of some sort, consciously or not. What vibe are you projecting? What kind of vibe do you want to project?

I Am Not This Vessel

Did you ever look in the mirror and think “Who is this person?” Sometimes, if I look closely, I feel like I’m looking at a stranger. I’ll think “This is what I look like?” It’s really weird, because I don’t strongly identify with what I am seeing…

I wonder how many other people feel this way. Maybe everyone does, at least briefly, for fleeting moments. When you’re young, looking in the mirror (on a good day with the right lighting) can be fun. As you age, this begins to change, until finally one day you realize it’s better not to look. The mirror is no longer your friend.

The good thing about this disconnect between the body and the self is that it makes aging less painful. If you never really identified with your physical body as “you,” it makes losing youth a little more bearable. It does, however, raise the very important and eternal question: If you are not your physical self, then who are you?

John Collins

When I was in third grade, I had a friend named John Collins. I had never met anyone like him – extremely confident, good looking and charismatic. He not only had no fear of adults, he would openly mock them – and they seemed afraid of him. I would watch him, kind of scared but thrilled, jacked on adrenaline and never quite sure where things were going. I would later find out he was a psychopath, but at the time I fell under his spell and thought he was the coolest guy in the world. He ended up murdering several innocent people, including a family in a home invasion. But I digress…

I remember when I first met him in school, he showed me some condoms he had – they were each different colors, like the kind you would buy from a vending machine in a truck stop men’s room. I had never seen a condom before and I remember thinking they looked like balloons. We went to the school bathroom and put them on, real innocent kid stuff, then we wore them all day in class. It felt forbidden and weird, like I was entering a world I didn’t really understand, but it seemed exciting. I was nine years old.

After that we would sometimes hang out after school and go to his mothers apartment where we would drink her wine and generally get into trouble. There never seemed to be anyone home, his mom was divorced and probably working. He had a baby sister who would go on to pose for Playboy magazine and have an affair with the governor of my state. I remember seeing her picture when I was in my early twenties after he died and thinking how strange life was…

My parents clearly recognized there was something very wrong about this boy and forbade me to see him. Of course this just made me want to hang out with him even more. When I was ten we moved to a different part of town and I didn’t see him for a few years. I remember running into him as a teenager and he was using heroin. He looked like a homeless guy, real disheveled and dirty. Not so cool anymore, but I was still glad to see him. I’m not sure he even recognized me…

After the murders, he went to prison and was eventually killed there by some other inmates. He couldn’t have been more than 21. He represented kind of a turning point in my life, but I didn’t know it at the time…

Guess I’m Dumb

OK, this post is going to be a very specific type of musician nerd-out… Glen Campbell passed away last week, and like millions of other people I went down the YouTube rabbit hole checking out stuff he had done. I always appreciated his voice and guitar playing, and was familiar with his work as a studio musician with the “Wrecking Crew” in Los Angeles. During that period (the early to mid-sixties) he played on some of the Beach Boys early hits and developed a relationship with the band. In late 1964 – early 1965, he toured with the group when Brian Wilson was unavailable due to health problems. I’m telling this short back story to set up the real focus of this post…

In late 1964 Brian and Russ Titelman wrote a song called “Guess I’m Dumb” and they recorded the backing track with the usual suspects at United Western Recorders in Hollywood. It was supposed to be a Beach Boys tune but for whatever reason the band passed on it. So sometime around March 1965 Brian offers the song to Glen Campbell, who records his vocal over the backing track. It fails to chart, and fades away to obscurity – I wasn’t aware of it until last week when I came upon this version. I don’t know if Glen is actually singing this live or lip syncing to a backing track – it looks like this is from a 1960s TV show.

Holy fuck – from a songwriting/vocal performance perspective, this is really off the hook. So good it’s just insane. I transcribed the melody and chords and literally laughed out loud with total joy and amazement, thinking “You’ve got to be kidding me!” This song is a perfect example of why Brian was so respected as a songwriter and arranger (I’m assuming Russ’s contribution was the lyrics, but I don’t really know – whatever his involvement was, nice work!). The verses are a simple two chord progression over an ostinato bass, but the melody is just fucking genius – it has two parts, and each are beautiful and memorable. There is a predictable way each might have ended, and it still would have been great. But instead, Brian chooses to end each phrase with an interval of a minor seventh! I’m listening to it and thinking “Wow – this must’ve been hard to sing” and yet Glen delivers this seemingly effortless performance where he just nails it. Scary good. Goosebumps good. WTF good! Pitch fucking perfect – tone and phrasing to die for. I’m a somewhat jaded old pro who knows all the tricks, and this is just stunning. No trickery here, but plenty of magic!

So kudos to everyone involved – this is pop excellence of the highest order, and it wasn’t a hit. Art’s not always appreciated by the masses, but it will always remain transformative and magical. Enjoy!

Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen

In the planning and brainstorming phase, it’s important to have input from multiple qualified sources. But there are certain critical situations where there can be only one person in charge. Anything more creates a dangerous and unstable environment that will not hold. Extraneous input undermines the authority of the designated leader – and this is often someone who has spent years preparing themselves to assume that role.

I’m not going to get too specific here, but examples aren’t hard to come up with. A military commander in the field, a chef in the kitchen, a surgeon in the operating room, an air traffic controller… You get the idea. One person has a mission critical job to perform and a team to lead with precision and great responsibility. Anyone not working closely with this leader cannot intervene independently without compromising the integrity of the operation and the safety of those involved.

I guess the real lesson here is this: You hired someone because you thought they could do the job. Now get out of their fucking way and let them do it.

You Promote What You Permit

When I first began hearing this phrase years ago, I thought it was kind of simplistic and vaguely annoying. Life is too complex for behavioral responses to be guided by a catchy bromide. And yet…

The older I get, the more I begin to recognize the moral responsibility inherent in this statement. There are a couple of ways to interpret this, and they are related by an underlying principle of human nature. Thinking about this, I have begun to realize that one of my strengths is also one of my weaknesses. Let me explain – my personality dictates that I achieve any given goal with the resources I have available, that is, when dealing with humans, I am a realist. I accept people for who they are, and I don’t expect them to change. I have no illusions about somehow motivating them to behave in a manner different from what I observe. Instead, I figure out how to “make things work” with any given goal by enlisting their help only so far as might be expected given their past actions. This way I can move forward and not be sidetracked by “disappointing” behavior from those I am working with. Instead, I fully understand the limits of what this person is capable of, and I expect nothing else.

This has served me well in life, and it creates a lot less stress. The problem with this approach, however, is twofold. In the context of a work environment, it doesn’t give people room to grow. And in the greater context of society, it enables morally reprehensible behavior.

Realizing this is making me rethink my approach to others. I am still in the process of figuring this out, but I have recently found myself in situations where I realized the ethically correct response involved considering the greater good as opposed to realistic problem solving. If someone you are working with is behaving in a manner that is toxic to themselves or others, don’t they deserve a chance to be called out on it so they can correct it? Maybe they don’t realize the effect they are having on everyone around them? Maybe by not speaking up you are depriving them of the opportunity to grow? Maybe by not expecting them to be able to change, I am enabling their dysfunction…

In the context of society, it’s easy to look back at the zeitgeist of Germany in 1933 and see what happens when “good” people don’t speak up and take action. These are questions I am wrestling with personally. The realist (cynic) in me says “Accept what you see as reality and try to do the right thing with what you have,” when perhaps I should be trying harder to actually change things that are wrong. I’m not sure – I’m a 60 year old cancer survivor who is acutely aware that I have a limited amount of time left. I intend to enjoy it and not waste precious time and energy trying to change things that are out of my control. On the other hand

Selective Hypocrisy

I was thinking about my post yesterday, in particular where I wrote:

“Part of the problem is the dreaded “Nothing is going to change – its been tried before” syndrome. People hold onto their cynicism like grim death.”

Then I realized this is precisely how I feel about our government and the general state of affairs here in the U.S. In my original post I was writing about trying to implement changes in the workplace, and how one must fight against this attitude in others to move forward. But this is precisely my attitude regarding political change. Hmmm… (uncomfortable self-recognition here).

I’m not going to say my attitude about politics is going to change (at least at this moment), but I do need to humbly acknowledge my hypocrisy here. I have made a conscious decision not to discuss politics on this blog, partly because I feel it is a toxic subject that only serves to divide us, when what we need is to respectfully acknowledge our differences and come together. I consider myself apolitical and don’t see that changing anytime soon…

But perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so cynical about humanity’s ability to change. I certainly don’t want to be a rigid old geezer. Life has taught me lessons it would be foolish to ignore, but one should never give up hope. After all, some things do change. I’m just not sure human nature is one of them.

The Thankless Job of Trying to Make Things Better

Initiating and implementing change in the workplace is fraught with peril – everywhere you turn there seems to be resistance. It can be even more frustrating when the change is meant to actually make the job easier. Part of the problem is the dreaded “Nothing is going to change – its been tried before” syndrome. People hold onto their cynicism like grim death.

Then there is the “Who do you think you are to actually think you change something?” It’s just exhausting and exasperating. There will be many times where you wonder “WTF was I thinking?”

What you were thinking was “I see an opportunity to make things better” and you jumped on it. Because nothing ever changes until someone recognizes a problem, sees a potential solution, and owns it.

Too Much Input

Badly wanting something to succeed adds an unnecessary extra layer of stress to an already difficult situation.

Better to do your best, relax, and just let it happen.

ESI Level L

The triage system used by most North American emergency departments is the ESI (Emergency Severity Index). Incoming patients are assigned to one of five levels by the triage nurse based on acuity and anticipated needed resources. Not surprisingly, the levels are numbered one through five, with level one being assigned to patients who are actively dying, and level five to wound checks or medication refills.

When you are a triage nurse, it isn’t uncommon to come across patients whose needs don’t fall into any of the available categories. EMTALA (Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act) mandates that anyone who presents to an ER in the U.S. must be medically evaluated, which can create a bit of a conundrum. That means that no one is ever turned away, whether their complaint makes any sense or not. I’ve often thought that perhaps there should be a level L, denoting the true nature of some patients need: loneliness.

After all, loneliness, if not a disease state itself, will certainly lead to ill health. And the antidote is about as simple as it gets – someone just needs to listen, to be present for and acknowledge this afflicted individual. The dosage of attention doesn’t even have to be that big, and you don’t need a doctors order or a pharmacy to fill it. It doesn’t even cost anything…

Just a little compassion, a little focused listening, and the acute phase of the illness can be controlled (at least in the short term) quite easily.

Facilitating the rich tapestry of human existence – just another moment in the day of an ER nurse…