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Monthly Archives: November 2019

Paying It Forward

If someone teaches you something, particularly if it’s difficult, and then you go on to master it – I don’t think you really have any choice in the matter.

You must, in turn, teach others.

Everybody Bleeds the Same

When we all finally come face to face with our own grimly inevitable existential threat – color, race, gender; rich, poor, crazy, sane, idiot or genius – none of it matters.

In the final moments of our brief visit to wherever we exist at that particular moment in time, we’re all the same person.

Everybody bleeds the same.

Thanksgiving (Part 2)

This year it is particularly important for me to reflect on this idea, or at least it feels that way. When your job is seeing the wreckage of every possible thing that can go wrong with the human body, it’s easy to get a skewed sense of what’s normal with regards to health.

On a personal level add in the inevitable entropy that comes with age and things can start to get a little dicey. I have actually recently started to think about “getting things in order” for the big send-off. Mind you, I haven’t actually done anything yet – but the whole thing is starting to seem less and less abstract.

Even though it sounds morbid, I actually think it’s probably healthy to think about one’s death in a very real, concrete way. Most of us live in such denial about what’s coming – I’m not sure if the denial is good or not – sometimes it’s true that ignorance is bliss – but I know that for me, at this moment in time, it’s important to face the inevitable. It’s not realistic to think that you will just keep getting chances to start off down some exciting path after each health set-back. Pain will eventually wear you down and make you disengage.

So with that happy note, I’d like to take a moment to be grateful. Grateful to have had the run I’ve had, and grateful for maybe a bit more time to keep living and be engaged with life.

Grateful for the 35 year relationship I’ve had with my wife, and grateful that I didn’t die a painful death from cancer 8 years ago. Grateful for my friends and my job, which pays me for the privilege of helping other people.

One moment at a time folks. It’s all we’ve really got anyway.

What Do You See?

You know – when you look at the world around you?

Kindness or hatred?

Hope or despair?

Meaning or nihilism?

Beauty or ugliness?

Comedy or tragedy? (actually, these two go together)

Let’s be clear: nothing in life is black and white, i.e. by definition there are no absolutes. This implies that each of these extremes exists on a continuum. But with that being said – which way do you tilt? And do you think you have a role in how you think and interpret the world around you, or you simply at the mercy of forces greater than you?

All things considered, it’s certainly multi-factorial – but I think we can agree that we some control over this process.

In other words – we choose to see what we want to see.

We Are All Weak

So let’s use what strength we have to support someone who needs it.

Trust me, you’ll feel better if you do.

ER Apocalypse (Part 3)

Ok, in 10 years I don’t think I’ve ever seen the census quite this high – 82 patients in 25 beds, and it’s not even flu season yet. Hey, I was in triage and let me go on the record and say I tried my best not to miss anything – focusing my attention entirely on each patient as they tried to express to me while they were here. After what seemed like a hundred patients in 12 hours, trust me – it wasn’t easy.

But it’s one of the things I love about my job – I can just totally be in the moment and get lost in the work. To everyone else it must seem like total chaos, but to me I’m in my element.

Welcome to the ER! We’re open for business 24/7 and we never turn anyone away. Please bear with us – I promise you, we’re doing our best.


This is a well known pattern for me – some health issue (or issues) comes up (hello surgery number 5 in 8 years), presenting in tandem with some work projects and their deadlines, and presto – everything else just starts to grind to a halt.

The health issues I can’t control – they just have to be dealt with. It’s nothing life-threatening, just constant grim reminders that things are inexorably winding down, and that perhaps I wasn’t dealt the best genetic hand to start with. Ok, let’s just be honest – I’m pretty sure my body is trying to kill me – while at the same time, I’m desperately trying to hold a machine together that just wants to fall apart.

So my body and I are at a standoff – it’s saying we’re winding down here buddy while I’m holding firm, looking back steely-eyed like Clint Eastwood and replying not so fast buster, as long as I have any say in it we’re not going anywhere.

But the real point of this post is this: I’ve got to simplify my life and really pull back from the extraneous things that are distracting me from doing what is really important.


When you’re overwhelmed, make this your mantra.


Maybe instead of trying to find your way home, you should just push ahead in the darkness and see what’s out there.

Fortune Favors the Brave (Part 2)

Love him or hate him, there can be no question that Elon Musk is operating on a different frequency than everyone else. Pretty much all of his ventures have seemed so far fetched as to be borderline insane – at least until he starts pulling them off. The idea of designing a reusable rocket that could land on a barge in the ocean didn’t just seem crazy, it didn’t seem to be in the realm of possibility from an engineering perspective – that is, until Space X proved otherwise.

So today Elon unveiled Tesla’s first electric truck, and at first glance it’s another WTF moment. I, however, am reserving judgment. I just saw a picture of it and I’m not quite sure what to make of the fucking thing.

One thing’s for sure: There’s never been anything like it before. That carries a lot of weight in my book.

Classic Grindhouse Movie Posters (Part 1)

This poster for director Eddie Romero’s 1969 Filipino horror film is a classic one-sheet from the golden age of exploitation. And really – could there ever be a tag line better than this: Hideous zombies lusting for bizarre human pleasures… WTF!? Count me in!

This Moment is All We Have

Being in the moment – this seems so easy to grasp, yet so hard to pull off. It’s certainly a constant struggle for me. Instead I’m always thinking about the future – grand plans that, if only I can pull them off, will somehow make life better, somehow make me feel fulfilled and valuable. What bullshit.

The reality, of course, is that this moment is all we really have – and once it’s over we’ll never get it back. It’s one less moment of life we have in the bank, or, as Chuck Palahniuk so succinctly puts it “This is your life and it’s ending one moment at a time.”

I think this is one of the things I instinctively love about being an ER nurse – because of the intensity and constant overload of the job, it forces me to simply be in the moment. No time to think about the past, or the future for that matter – you just focus on whatever emergency is right in front of you. And because you are providing a meaningful service to other humans (or at least trying), you of course feel valuable.

But take that away and I can start to feel a bit lost, because whatever creative shit I am doing doesn’t really seem like it makes a difference to anyone but me. Sometimes that’s enough and sometimes it isn’t.

I wonder: Is it recognition I am looking for or just the knowledge that whatever I’ve made was somehow meaningful to someone else besides me. Hmm

Do It Like You Care or Don’t Do It At All

I would go so far as to say that if you don’t really care about what you’re doing, it’s not only never going to be great, it’s probably not even going to be good. And let’s be clear: by not caring, you’re sending a clear signal that no one else should care either.

I see this play out everywhere and it’s simply maddening. Food is a great example. If you’re eating at a restaurant, it’s going to fall into one of three categories: franchise restaurants, corporate food, or a sole proprietorship.

In franchise restaurants (e.g. McDonald’s, etc), the experience has been standardized completely – the whole point of eating in a place like this is that you know exactly what you’re getting; it’s going to be the same every time no matter where you are in the world (well, almost). Greatness doesn’t even factor into the equation. It’s about the reassurance of dependability.

With corporate food (think catering at a Hilton wedding), the meal is being prepared exactly as outlined by whatever faceless institutional committee designed the menu. Ingredients come from corporate suppliers with an eye towards maximizing profit and everything is done on an industrial scale. There will be some variation, but it pretty much is what it is, which is to say it will never be great. Think industrial kitchens – the only difference between hotel and prison food is the ingredients, and they might not be as different as you might think.

So that leaves us with sole proprietorships – the mom and pop restaurants that you’ll still find in most towns and neighborhoods (BTW – I’m including the ultra high end Michelin star restaurants in this category – right along with the food trucks). This is the last bastion of potential greatness, which makes it all the more tragic when you find one that’s just phoning it in.

These are the restaurants that have the potential to create sublime food, primarily because they fucking care. They care, of course, partly because their business depends on it, but also because they take pride in what they do, and gain pleasure from knowing they are doing something well that serves their community. When you eat at a place like this, it’s often a meal you will remember – and sometimes it sets the bar for greatness. Places like this are the reason we go out.

But I’m not just talking about restaurants here – this idea is relevant to everything.

Either do something with 100% effort, or don’t fucking bother doing it at all. It’s your only chance to be great. And here’s another tip – people are watching everything you do, not because they give a shit about you, but because they want to know what kind of person you are in case things go south. They want to see what you’re made of.

Everything you do defines who you are.

The Appointment (Part 1)

It wasn’t dark yet.

The wind was whipping off the canals hard enough to make Nils tighten the scarf around his neck, then pull down the wool cap on his head, stretching it in an attempt to cover as much skin as possible. It was early winter – things would get a lot colder in the coming months. But today – at this moment – it was clear, cold, gray, and very, very windy.

He wasn’t in a rush, but he had to be somewhere at a particular time, and so walked briskly. His partner, Demi, knew he had something specific to do, but no more than that. Nils liked it that way – the bottom line was this: anyone who asked too many questions wasn’t going to be around very long. But Demi gave him plenty of space, and they had fun together, so Nils was comfortable just enjoying the their time together and seeing how things played out.

The streets were crowded with people walking in a disordered fashion; the problem was that what was street and what was sidewalk wasn’t clearly delineated. He was always fascinated by how, if you kind of put your head down a little bit, and didn’t look anyone in the face (it was important not to meet anyone’s eyes), even in the most chaotic crowds you could just kind of go on autopilot and people would naturally create a space for you to walk in. The effect, however, is ruined if you actually look at anyone.

If you walk in this manner, you could be a billionaire or a pauper, a priest or an assassin, a captain of industry or homeless, a genius or a dimwit – no one walking by you would ever know or even give it a thought, because to them you’d become invisible. It’s some weird quirk of human nature, and he could confirm that it was the same all over the world.

Nils liked paying attention to the world around him – especially people. If you really watch, they’ll tell you things without ever even knowing it. This effect works best when you’re watching individuals in a group of people – in these situations you can closely observe behavior, body language, and facial expression in real time while they are interacting with their group – all the while they are completely unaware of you watching them. You’ve really got to look closely and watch for “tells” – little mannerisms that give away their true thoughts and intentions. With enough data, you can get this down to a science.

Glancing at his watch, it looked like he was going to have some time to kill, so he decided to stop at a cafe in the square and do some some people watching. You never know what might present itself, he thought. If you watch for it, life will often tell you what to do next.

Requiem for the Lost

Vincent van Gogh was wildly unsuccessful in his lifetime. Having decided to become an artist at age 27, he lived the next 10 years on a monthly allowance from his brother Theo prior to committing suicide. A couple of years before he died, Theo married a woman named Jo, and she joined Theo in his quest to make a name for his brother. Theo, you see, was an art dealer.

So far so good, except Vincent becomes more and more debilitated by his mental illness as he grows older – he spent a year in an asylum after checking himself in at the age of 35-36. The brothers were quite close, after Vincent killed himself at 37, Theo died 6 months later from Syphilis.

Now the story could have ended there, but of course it didn’t. What happened? Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger, that’s what. Theo’s wife began publishing a book of Vincent’s letters to her her husband – she had worked as an editor, and after failing to interest anyone in the art world in his paintings, she tried this tactic. It worked.

After apparently not following advice to throw out Vincent’s paintings when Theo died, the success of her books sparked enough attention to allow her and Theo’s son to carry on promoting the collection. They had, of course, named their son Vincent.

But the whole point of this post is not really Van Gogh, but rather how perilously close his work came to being thrown out in the trash. Except for this one woman, it most assuredly would have been.

So how many great artists have forever been relegated to the dustbin of eternity because no one took up their cause after they died?

The answer is more than you can imagine.

Building Music Like an Architect

This idea is really not so unusual – classical forms of composition had strict rules within which the composer would create – but in contemporary pop music I’m not sure how common this thinking is.

I was looking at 17th century architecture today in Amsterdam when this idea struck me – if one is stuck composing using one paradigm, it pays to think in different terms to generate new ideas. I like this one, because it implies thinking about structure before motifs or themes are explored.

You could even reverse engineer another piece of music in this way. I’m thinking beyond the obvious intro-verse-chorus type structure, actually incorporating macro-dynamics into the picture, e.g. Where does this composition build in intensity? What is the overall arch of the thing? Does it change dynamically, and if so, how and where?

I almost always composed from musical ideas first, most often chord changes, but sometimes from melody or rhythm. Once I had these themes in place, then I would begin to construct the music around them. This, of course, illustrates how my mind naturally works – for me, the music had to be interesting first, then everything else came from that.

But every style works differently – with rap/hip-hop, I’m guessing either the beat or the vocal comes first. With metal, it’s going to be the guitar riffs, with jazz, it’s chord changes/melody/structure.

It might be fun trying to compose something this way…

Writing is Freedom

I just visited the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam – it’s a sobering and powerful reminder of the systemic cruelty humans are capable of inflicting on each other. But the most salient point of the experience, for me, is the humanity of it all. You are not left with an abstract reading of the events of WWII, instead, you sense what it felt like to live in fear.

But for the sake of this post, I was struck by some of her writing – mind you, this is from a 13-15 year old girl, albeit a very smart and clearly well educated one.

So imagine she’s living in an attic, hidden, with seven other people – for two years. Not only can she not leave the hiding space, the windows are blacked out so she can’t even see outside. And yet…

I’m paraphrasing here, but she makes the point that “writing is freedom. When I’m writing I can go anywhere, be anything, and do whatever I please.”

When I read this, I thought yes! This is exactly what writing is! You create whatever world you want, making up your own rules (or not) as you see fit. It is the ultimate in simple human expression. I say simple because everyone who is literate can write, so you already have the basic tools needed at your disposal. As opposed to, say, music; where getting to the level of self-expression requires quite a bit of study and practice – there’s a pretty steep learning curve.

I guess my main point here is that everyone should write. In her case, the decision to write something everyday about her existence turned into a historical document. It is certainly one of the most powerful and remarkable written records of a child facing the great horror of the twentieth century. She annotated the last two years of life on her own, simply to express her humanity. It is an innocent child staring into the gaping maw of the abyss, unable to fully comprehend her own existential threat (or worse yet – understanding it).

She died of typhus at the age of fifteen in the Bergen-Belson concentration camp in Germany, 1944. It is believed she died within weeks of the Allies liberation of the camp.

Her voice will never be forgotten because she took the trouble to write it down.

Redemption (Part 3)

I slowly lowered the gun until his head was centered in the sight. I had no real idea who this person was, nor did I care. See, I was a different person then – I’m not like that anymore. I realize that doesn’t erase the fact of what I did – but make no mistake, I took no pleasure in it. I just needed the money to survive – or at least that’s what I told myself. How did I get here? Well, let’s back up a bit…

When I was fifteen, my older sister was dating a vet that everyone called Spider, who, years before, had been deployed as a sniper. He enlisted voluntarily at the age of eighteen, and as a result of his personality type and physical traits, eventually ended up in the United States Marine Corps Scout Sniper School. Spider was about fifteen years older than I was, and took a liking to me immediately. At first, the feeling wasn’t mutual – mainly because I had learned not to trust anyone. I wouldn’t aggressively push people away, instead it would quickly become clear that there was very definitely a wall beyond which you weren’t going to pass. At the same time I was sending out this message, I could be smiling and deceptively friendly – but that was as far as I’d go.

I guess he admired my fierce independence, so he gave me plenty of space whenever I would see him – because of this, I eventually let my guard down and we became friends. He wasn’t exactly a father figure, or a big brother, but because of his age and experience he seemed to fall somewhere in between. Eventually we became close, or at least as close as I’d ever been with an adult. He didn’t seem to be working at the time, and had a drinking problem coupled with an impressive taste for weed. It seemed as though there was always either a cigarette or a joint in his mouth, but no matter how much he drank or smoked, his demeanor was always pretty much the same – unflappable. Nothing, I mean nothing, ever seemed to get him excited, he just always had this Zen-like sense of cool, looking at the world through what appeared to be coal black, emotionless eyes. It got to the point where I would feel proud if I could make him laugh, if only because it seemed so hard for him.

Spider only had one skill, and at first glance it appeared to be pretty useless in the civilian world. He was a sniper, and although he didn’t talk about his military experience, it was obvious he had been good at it. So it seemed natural for this older man to want to pass on the skillset he knew to a boy on the cusp of manhood. Especially since there was this dynamic of father/son, or big brother/little brother underlying our relationship.

The summer I met him, we would go out into the mountainous woods of western Virginia and shoot a few times a week. In the south, everyone had a gun, so the idea of an older man teaching a boy how to hunt was the most natural thing in the world. Occasionally we’d run into other hunters, and they would always look approvingly at both of us, smiling through their beards stained with tobacco juice. They’d usually have a bottle of bourbon, and would share a swig with Spider before grinning and saying A’ight, we’ll let you boys have yer fun, see y’all later and ambling off.

The thing was, we weren’t really hunting – at least not yet. Spider had his Steyr SSG 69 rifle outfitted with a high-powered scope, it was one of the rifle’s he had been trained to use in the military. He said under the right conditions it was accurate up to a half-mile. No, he wasn’t teaching me to hunt per se, it was more like he was teaching me how to shoot. More precisely, he was teaching me how to shoot like a sniper, and it turned out that I was a natural, or at least that’s what he said. It was the first time I had ever been good at anything. I grew to love our time together, and because he encouraged me, I wanted to be the best for him, to make him proud of me. Spider was the first close relationship I ever had with an adult, and he was the first one to ever tell me I had something special. If you’ve made it to fifteen and no one has ever told you that, you’re starving for it, even if you don’t know it. His lessons and attention were like water to a man dying of thirst, only I wasn’t even aware how parched I was before I met him.

For better or worse, the skills he taught me changed my life. Change, however, is neither good nor bad. It just is.