Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

Educated (Part 2)

My previous post on this book was written while I was still in the process of reading it – upon finishing it, I have a few additional comments. But before going any further, let me state unequivocally – I highly recommend this book to everyone – just buy it and read it now.

OK, here’s some thoughts off the top of my head…

  1. This is a compelling, stunningly well written memoir of someone who, although young, has traveled a journey unimaginable – unimaginable, that is, until she so eloquently yet viscerally captured every detail of it in this book and handed it to us. It was difficult to put down, the ultimate sign of a well written story.
  2. What does it mean to be educated? The answer could not possibly be explained any better than the epic tale of discovery she tells over the course of 352 pages. In short: To be educated is to be transformed.
  3. What a mystery humans are! There was a point early in the book where I had moments of suspicion, knowing the general arc of her story and where she ended up. I thought This doesn’t seem possible – how could someone who not only never set foot in a classroom until she was 17, end up with a PhD ten years later? A Cambridge scholar with a fellowship from Harvard no less. Really? Suspicious, that is, until she explained exactly how this transformation happened…
  4. Where does innate intelligence come from? How do two simple, uneducated religious zealots (her parents), one of whom runs a junkyard, both of whom deprive their children of any education (including zero “home schooling”), produce not one but 3 PhD’s out of seven children? Where does this intelligence come from – intelligence, mind you, that cannot be stopped? That will not be denied?
  5. Intelligence, by the way, that will ultimately transcend the mythology and superstition of religion? Intelligence that will finally, after thousands of years, rise up and defy the oppressive patriarchy of simple men? Where the fuck did this come from?
  6. And finally – how difficult it is for young adults to break free from their toxic and oppressive families. Even after violent abuse and neglect, for most people, it seems to be an almost impossible task. But, like a painful metamorphosis, for those strong enough, they eventually shed their former selves and become something more. They become who they were always meant to be.

Kurt Vonnegut: Thank You And Good Night

Ok, I first posted this on March 3, 2017. But it’s so good I feel compelled to repost it once a year, if for no other reason than because it just inspires the fuck out of me. It makes the incomprehensible and unexplainable somehow make sense. Whenever you feel beaten down by life, this will surely lift your spirits. Please enjoy…


In 2006, a year before he died at the age of 85, Kurt Vonnegut was invited visit the students of Xavier High School in New York City. Although he declined their invitation, stating “I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana,” he wrote the students this letter in reply. I came upon it at a time in my life when I was having a hard time creating and it resonated deeply. He wrote:

“Practice any art . . . no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.  Starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives…”

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

How Will You Spend Your Time?

It’s all fine and good to have wildly varying interests, to want to learn and focus your energy on multiple disciplines. But there’s a very real problem with that – we have a limited amount of time and energy, and to do any work at a high level requires a significant amount of both.

Knowing this forces you to be selective about how you choose to spend your time, which isn’t easy. Then there’s the question of what, if any, goals do you have? This has always been a bit of a problem for me, if only because I’ve never really been very good at accomplishing specific long-term goals. There always seems to be outside forces over which I have no control that throws a wrench in the works. Or perhaps my long-term goals were unrealistic?

Any goals that require manipulating a complex non-linear system (like the world) seem to be out of reach – although Marc Andreesen would argue that point. Maybe I’m not smart enough to figure out how to crack that nut, or maybe I’m too self-defeating – I’m not sure. Note: Flag that topic for more thought...

Just maintaining your state of health becomes more and more time consuming as you age – exercise, meditation, mindful diet, sleep, physical therapy to mitigate deficits brought on by cancer treatment, stretching, constantly preemptively working to fix a body that just seems like it wants to break down, somehow keeping your demons at bay; this list could go on and on – oh, and don’t forget the importance of fucking daydreaming for Christ sake. That’s where some of the best ideas come from…

So go easy on pursuing too many things at once – ask yourself: What do I really want to do? What makes me happy? What do I have control over?

What would have been important to have at least attempted before I died?

There’s your answer.

Where Does Your Mind Go?

You know – when its left to its own devices? When you’re not directing it? Does it sometimes surprise you, or is it predictable?

‘Cuz if it’s predictable, you might want to feed it a different diet…

Educated

To say that Tara Westover’s best seller “Educated” is a compelling book is to say nothing new – it’s been pretty much universally heralded, and I will start by adding my name to the list. It’s really, really good.

But I was surprised to find myself actually getting angry for long stretches, because it’s out of character – I don’t generally react that way to anything. I long ago learned to accept life for what it is, making no judgments. And although I don’t have children, there was something about her struggle that touched me – and triggered certain core beliefs of my own in a way that was both judgmental and emotional. I was kind of repulsed by my reaction, which was mystifying. What was happening?

In retrospect I think it triggered feelings from my own childhood, although it wasn’t direct. The mistreatment and abuse of children is always disturbing, but sometimes it catches you in surprising ways.

I think my anger and revulsion (which is not justified) was centered around her relationship with her father. Before I go any further, let me say I have no right or business to make judgments about anyone’s beliefs or interpersonal relationships. But having said that – here we go…

The pious righteousness of “believers” can be nauseating and just seem simplistically stupid to secular non-believers. To have a critically injured child and refuse to take them to the hospital because “god will heal them better at home” starts to raise my blood pressure. To deprive highly intelligent children of an education just seems willfully cruel and ignorant.

But then to have the child defend the very parents whose primitive, dogmatic beliefs inflicted this misery, even while she is struggling to make her way in a world she is woefully ill equipped to navigate (because of her parents), is both completely understandable and maddeningly infuriating at the same time.

Just writing this is making me feel uncomfortable, because, again, I have no right to make any judgments, and yet there is no denying I was judging them as I read the book. But on reflection these judgments were rooted in my own neglected and abusive upbringing, and my anger as a young person forced to recognize the reality of my situation. I felt angry having to cut ties with my own family in order to survive and start my own life. Like her, I was ill equipped to do so, but it seemed to me as though I had no choice. I did not then, nor have I ever, felt good about any of this – I just did what I thought I had to do in order to survive.

I guess this is the power of a great book, it forces you to confront things in yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t.

Billie and Finneas Eilish: The Real Deal

At some point in the last six months or so, the name Billie Eilish kept popping up as a teenage YouTube sensation, with some ridiculous number (millions) of downloads. I initially (mis)interpreted her appeal as something for pre-teenage girls – her being sixteen and all. But ever curious, I thought I’d check it out.

Let’s just say that my initial perception was spectacularly wrong.

Yes she’s a teenager who writes and records songs with her big brother in his bedroom at their parents house. Yes she is hugely appealing to teenage girls. Yes she became known as a YouTube artist – or at least that’s where they initially posted their music.

But the music (and it’s production), for me, is undeniable. Her and her brother are the real deal. The first thing I heard I was their cover of Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” which stopped me dead in my tracks. It’s just the two of them, and the only musical accompaniment is Finneas’ acoustic guitar. The first thing I was struck by was their ability to come up with a completely different take on the song – the second was their groove, and the third was their ability to create an arrangement with a lot of space. If you write and arrange music, this is a pretty big deal, especially when you’re young – because it requires using restraint, which is something that normally comes with maturity.

The second song I heard was “Ocean Eyes,” this one was done in a studio (Finneas’ bedroom?). It immediately reminded of two of my favorite artists – Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. WTF!? This is from a sixteen year old and a 21 year old in 2019? Recorded in their bedroom? I’m confused – are kids aware of this stuff? I’m pretty sure Finneas is…

See, art comes from wherever it wants to. It just is, and often, especially when you’re an adult, it shows up in places and genres that you wouldn’t expect. But when I find it, even if I’m a 62 year old man and the artists are teenagers, I just go with it – because the real shit doesn’t show up very often, and when it does age has got nothing to do with it.

Now, I’m just speaking for myself – YMMV. But for me, their stuff is pretty fucking cool.

So to both of them I’d like to say: Nice work. I’d be proud to have made any of this stuff myself, and I don’t say that lightly.

Undeniable.

Finished!

Ok – I just finished one of those large scale projects with a deadline that swallowed up my entire fucking life like a black hole for at least a month (ok – that’s a bit of an exaggeration for dramatic effect, but you get the idea). It’s finally done, and while I certainly feel good about it – I have to ask myself: Why on earth do I allow this to happen? Is it really necessary to let work related obligations take over my focus so completely? Surely there must be a better way…

In this particular case I could have mitigated it by starting work on it earlier – and being more on top of breaking it down into manageable chunks, each with their own deadline. But here’s the thing – because my job in the ER is so mentally and physically taxing, when I go home, the last thing I want to do is more job-related work. So I procrastinate and put it off – and we all know what a good strategy procrastination is.

I think better planning is the answer I’m looking for.

Come to think of it – this would probably solve a lot of other problems as well.

Sometimes it’s good to remind yourself how simple the solutions are. The real question is: Why do we choose to ignore it?

Interesting Daily Blog Alert (Part 1)

There’s not a lot of people writing compelling daily blogs out there, so when I find one I want to pass it on. For the record, I’m not sure my blog qualifies as compelling, but hey, it is daily – and I enjoy it.

Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen’s creation, is really only the second daily blog I’ve found that I read regularly – not every day, mind you, but my erratic schedule allows me to go on it and binge a few posts at a time. He’s been writing daily since 2003, so there’s a lot to go back and explore.

Don’t be put off by his focus – he’s a highly respected economist who teaches at George Mason University, but his interests and intellect are far-ranging. The depth of his knowledge and his ability to see the threads that connect the complex non-linear system that is our world is staggering.

My admiration for Seth Godin and his daily blog is well documented here – he was solely responsible for inspiring me to write something and make it public daily, and I am forever indebted to him for it. Seth is just a master at making succinct and brilliant observations that “connect the dots“ between different disciplines, offering insights that seem to have a weirdly universal appeal. He’s been posting since 2002, so I’ll never run out of stuff to read.

Both of these daily blogs give you the feeling that you’ve tapped into humanity at its quirky best – I always come away feeling a little smarter, a little more thoughtful, and a whole lot more curious about unknown topics after reading.

So there you go. Read and learn.

You’re welcome!

Too Much Stuff

Here’s something it took me a while to figure out: Paradoxically, too much stuff can be limiting rather than freeing. I always thought that more stuff equals more choices, which, if you follow a certain logic, it does. But all that choice ends up not having the effect you thought it would. Instead of feeling more creative, I would become overwhelmed because I had too many goddamn choices, which, of course, led me to become paralyzed. I felt like – If I can do anything, where do I start?

On top of which there’s this: you’ll never master too much stuff – especially if we’re talking about technology. I don’t care how smart you are, it’s just not going to happen. But if you narrow what you need down to the minimal amount of tools necessary, you can.

I’m thinking about music technology here, which is really just software – albeit incredibly deep software. But the concept applies broadly across disciplines.

Good to keep in mind the next time you think “Ooh, I want that shiny new thing NOW…”

Want, OK – need? No.

What If?

What if you take all the things you’ve lost with disease and age and instead of becoming less than what you were before, you somehow become more? Is it possible to use loss as fuel to build something new and better? As if you aren’t less because they’re gone, but rather you’ve become something more?

I realize this very well may be wishful thinking. But what if it’s not? Besides – what are your other options? This is kind of a leap of faith for a “glass half empty” guy like me, but hey, I’m nothing if not adaptable.

Education

“We think about education as a stepping stone into a higher socio-economic class, into a better job. And it does do those things. But I don’t think that’s what it really is. I experienced it as getting access to different ideas and perspectives and using them to construct my own mind. An education is not so much about making a living, as making a person”.

– Tara Westover

Pay Attention (Part 2)

Observe what is interesting and process it.

Question everything, think, then form your own opinion. Change as needed – this part is important.

Always keep an open mind and stay alert for opportunities where you were wrong – this means you get to change your mind, which is proof that you are growing!

Mostly, though, just pay attention. If you do so, life will teach you much of what you need to know.

Oh, and don’t be an asshole. Seriously – if nothing else, at least this is in your control.

A Little Doubt, A Little Confusion, and A Little Fear

Jeopardy answer: How do you control a large segment of the population?

What I am about about to say is so disgustingly obvious – but here we go… For everyone involved in shaping what sadly accounts for our current political discourse – how do I put this? The con you are attempting to perpetrate is completely transparent to anyone who is really thinking rationally. Yeah, and don’t think that we don’t know who you are – you can be goddamn sure you’re not fooling everyone. Of course I’m under no illusion that anyone in power is actually reading this, and I’m quite sure it would make no difference if they were. I’m just venting here (and if I can’t vent of my own blog – where am I supposed to?).

Anyway, this is the dumbest and most predictable con ever – but it keeps being used simply because it’s so effective. What’s the old adage? You’ll never go broke underestimating the American people? Yeah, that about says it – and it also explains why I’ve checked out of the American political system. Really – I’ve had more than enough. This is all a sad and prolonged tragic joke – a very long and successful swindle designed for the lower half of the bell curve, but I guess that’s enough for your bullshit to work. Taking advantage of those least able to recognize your game is surely an indicator of your moral bankruptcy.

I’m sad to say that I fully realize there’s nothing I can do to rectify this situation, and frankly I’ve got better things to do with the final act of my life than to pretend I’m even remotely interested in engaging with this bullshit.

So to all you would be Elmer Gantry’s out there – I’m not impressed, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Go sell your bullshit to someone who either actually cares, or is dumb enough to fall for it. God knows I’m not perfect but at least I’m trying to do the right thing. So here’s my message to you: Go fuck yourself – I’ve got other more important things to do in my limited time left.

Like maybe actually helping someone.

Confabulation

In psychology, confabulation is a memory error defined as the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world.”

It’s important to note that these memory errors are not made consciously

With that in mind, let’s ask ourselves a question: To what extent does this phenomenon shape to our memories?

Answer: Probably more than any of us would like to admit.

But here’s the thing – we couldn’t admit to it even if we wanted to, because confabulation implies that we are not consciously aware that we have made anything up. Mindfuck!

See, a lie is a conscious decision to tell an untruth. We know when we are lying, and therein lies the difference. Confabulation happens on a subconscious level – we aren’t consciously aware we are doing it.

I really think that everyone is susceptible to this – probably more so as they age. But add in any degree of mental illness or PTSD and you have the perfect set of circumstances for confabulation to “fill in the blanks.” You know – all the holes in your past that were blocked out of your memory in an effort to protect yourself from whatever horrible shit either happened to you or that you perpetrated.

Then simply repeat the false memories over a few decades and presto! What is real and what isn’t?

Sleepless

Well, not exactly. More like sleep-deprived, partly by my own choice and partly because of circumstances beyond my control. See, I work 12 and a half hour shifts in a fucking ER for Christ’s sake. With the commute and time to unwind, this works out to around 6 hours of sleep a night. Not enough – at least for me.

So for 2-3 nights in a row I sleep 6 hours a night. Then when I have my first day off I sleep 9 hours, and continue to do so until I have to work again and I start the whole thing over.

It’s kind of a crazy schedule, but trust me, there are lots and lots of people with more fucked up sleep habits than this. I work with people who are good with 4 hours – and they are always smiling and never complain, under the most trying circumstances you can imagine. I mean never.

So I just do it. I could force myself to go to bed earlier but I don’t. I’m not recommending that you try this at home – it’s probably not good for your mind or body. You know – you’re kind of encouraging the part of your brain that doesn’t want to conform and likes to misbehave.

Whatever, I’m just trying to have some fun and hopefully grow. If my mind wants to wander freely, I let it. It just so happens that it likes to do it at night before I go to bed.

Nothing wrong with that.

How Do I Get Better Service?

Option 1) Be a loud, insulting and demanding asshole.

Option 2) Be kind, polite and friendly.

Seems like a no-brainer to me. So it’s always surprising how many people go for option 1, then act surprised when it doesn’t work.

Some things in life just aren’t that complicated.