Monday, May 25, 2009


After 6 weeks of working at a preschool I have learned a few things. Even though I am there to teach the kids, they have as many lessons for me as I do them. And the most applicable to my current status in life is the value of failure. I know we have discussed this in previous posts but I want to address it one more time, since I really feel it is so important.

As a shaper of young minds, as I guess I am for one more week, one tends to think of the most effective way to teach these kids what is right and wrong, what works and what doesn't. Having lived 22, almost 23 years, I know a thing or two about how to do things. Sure I have a lot to learn. But when it comes to the capabilities of a 5 year old, I like to think I have the experience to make an attractive lady bug out of construction paper, and I can handle a puzzle with pieces larger than my hand. So I could very easily lead them through each task by essentially telling them what to do and when. But how would that prepare them for being 22 or even 12. They wouldn't learn a thing, other than it is handy to have someone there who knows what to do. Instead, asking them how they think it should be done, or what they think about whatever we are talking about emphasizes the process of getting something right, through that beautiful teacher that is failure. Getting something wrong is the best way to show someone how to do it right. None of us rode perfectly the first time we sat on a bike without training wheels. But being afraid to fail would surely keep us from trying. We could ask our parents a million questions about how to ride a bike, what to do when you start to lean too much in one direction, etc, but having all of that in our heads would be no substitute for that experience of actually trying it.

Revisiting that speaking tour by Rob Bell that I talked about a few posts back, he had a great lesson about failure. He told the story of a pottery class. At the beginning of the two week course the teacher split the class into two groups. To one group he said, "spend the next two weeks making only one piece of potterty, that your final grade will be based on." To the other group he said, "spend the next two weeks making as many pieces as possible, just churn them out as quickly as you can, spend every free moment making pottery pieces, and at the end of two weeks you will have to pick just one to be graded on." At this point in the story it becomes clear that one group will have the better pieces, and both Alex and I are sitting there thinking, "of course its going to be the group that focuses on just one piece. The other group is going to be churning out pottery pieces at such a rate that they wont spend enough time on them and they will be sloppy." Rob continues to tell us that at the end of two weeks, the group that made just one piece has all these elaborate theories on what makes a great piece and what techniques are most effective, etc. But their pieces looked terrible. On the other hand, the group that made as many pieces as possible had these intricate, interesting pieces because they had failed so many times that they learned from experience what worked and what did not. We were dead wrong.

I think that story exemplifies the tragedy of young people, maybe just young people from our generation. Or maybe I shouldn't speak for my peers and instead should say that it exemplifies a problem that I have. I don't know if there is a word for it but I have failure-phobia. I am afraid to do anything until I know enough about it because I want to remove all doubt that I will succeed. I get this idea that I can figure anything out, that I am smart enough to learn enough about whatever it is I have to do before doing it, so that when it comes time to do it I will know enough about it to get it right and thus not fail. From a larger perspective I think us young people get it in our head that we have to live the perfect life from the starting gate, that "hey, you've had time to think and to ponder life, now get living and do it right." That we have to pick one career path and stay on it and never waver (see previous posts for more on this).

How did we get this way? We surely failed enough as children, chose wrong, flip-flopped. I would wager that at least 99% of the things I can now say I can do I failed at the first time, maybe more than that. So why are we (or at least am I) still so afraid to fail.

I read an article recently that described a failed movement in child rearing that unfortunately affected quite directly my generation. It was the self-esteem movement, in which starting in the 80's parents and teachers started good-jobing every kid for everything they did, even if it sucked. You drew a couple of letters backwards it was "good job" not, you were close, nice effort, but this was wrong. You struck out in baseball, "good job." Not, it's alright, try again next time, keep your head up! It lingers today. If you walk around the preschool I work at you will hear "good job" being barked all the time. I do it too. It's hard not to. But what this achieves is not its intended consequence. Instead, it gave us the sense that everything we do is amazing even if its not. Instead of being told "its ok to fail" we were told, "you didn't fail, you did a great job!" Well did we? Of course not, but instead of learning to cope with the fact that we just aren't good at everything, we believed we were. And now as we enter the harsh "real world" as we like to call it, we find it less enthused with our efforts. So even though we failed thousands of times as kids, we are only now confronting that fact. We are confronting the fact that we are not good at everything. And what we still need to confront is the fact that experience is important. That sitting around theorizing about perfect pottery will produce garbage. It's ok to fail. We learn from it. In many ways it's more important than succeeding. So, lets go out there and make as much pottery as possible, and enjoy the experience. Sounds a heck of a lot better than sitting in a room for two weeks making nothing but your head spin. Theories are important. But they mean nothing if they aren't practiced.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Rain in Your Face

A few weeks ago I was walking home from work on a blustery evening because I had missed my bus. Half way home, it began to rain. This was mid-April, so the rain was quite cold, and the strong winds drove each drop into my face very firmly. Leaning into the wind, squinting and furrowing my brow to resist the icy darts, I honestly felt quite stressed. It would seem there are a lot of things that might stress someone who just got off of work and has to walk through the cold, driving rain, but what I felt was most immediately causing the stress was the tense muscles in my face. I relaxed them, resting my eyelids to protect my eyes from the rain a bit. It felt good. And the rain in my face felt just about the same. It occurred to me that this was probably a blog-worthy metaphor playing out in real life. Is it the rains of life that cause us pain, or the bitter, resentful squinting we do when we step out into them?

Last night when I got out of work, the horizon to the east was clear and bright, but to the west there were black clouds and distant thunder. It was clearly about to storm. I had my gym clothes with me, and there were four days of my gym membership left. It seemed clear - today was a gym day, not a day to run outside. So towards the gym I turned.

But the air was so warm outside, not to mention crammed with sweet aromas from blossoming trees, that I decided I would risk going home and running outside. I had just been given some troubling news at work (to be discussed in another blog entry), and I needed to soak in the skyline and run along the lake - I needed some perspective. I walked a bit faster and changed course for the bus stop. One block from the bus stop, I saw my bus loading - two minutes earlier than it usually does. I began to run, but the bus closed its doors and was pulling away when I was only two houses down. I slowed my pace and prepared mentally to walk home as the dark clouds pulled closer. I was going to need a little more perspective than I initially thought.

Changing into my running clothes at home, the thunder began to shake the pictures on the walls, but there was no rain yet. Looking out the window, I decided I would not be stopped from getting my perspective. I didn't care what the bus or the weather had to say about it. Before stepping out the door the rain began to fall, and hard. A wall of water had blown in, violently disrupting the still, aromatic air. As I waited for the elevator a friendly neighbor looked at me in my shorts, noted my umbrella-less state, and tried to be helpful,

"Do you know it just started to pour buckets out there?"

Yeah. I know. What are you trying to say?

As badass as I had tried to hone my attitude to be up in the apartment, I have to admit the intensity of the rain surprised me. It was almost hard to breathe with that much water in my face. The wind made it hard to run in a straight line. About fifty feet from the door I was saturated, freeing me to forget about the fact that I was getting wet. As I ran toward the lakefront, instinctively avoiding the deep puddles that had already formed in the gutters, I relaxed my face and enjoyed the feeling of excessive amounts of warm water falling on me from the sky. By the time I reached the lake I was almost laughing. Standing on the rocky ledge above the water, watching the lightning light up the darkness over the shimmering, turqoise water, I accepted the new reality of living in an environment filled with flying water instead of air. The water that flowed down my nose and into my mouth tasted sweet, and I pitied the group of runners who had huddled under the bridge to wait out the worst of the storm. How would they ever know how the rain tasted, or how it feels to relax their faces and stop noticing the rain? On the run back I realized how silly I had been to avoid the puddles before, and I made a point to stomp with both feet into every puddle I passed.

Now I am dry. My clothes are dry too.

I wonder when it will rain again.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


A couple weeks ago I attended a speaking tour by Rob Bell, the pastor of the church that my fellow blogger Alex and his fiancee attend. The subject discussed was the link between suffering and creativity. In the discussion Mr. Bell said something that struck me, and relates to something that has consumed much of my thoughts recently. He said "you can own something, but not possess it, and you can possess something, but not own it." We own things we don't necessarily use as we should. Either we don't respect the function they provide (like admitting technology is incredible but we are not entitled - see last posting), or we simply don't need them. Basically, we misuse many of the things we own, and should reevaluate our possessions.

Moving across the country a few weeks ago put the subject of "stuff" square on my mind, and it has persisted. Packing everything up in Boston forced me to confront the physical items I call my own in the harshest way - as basically a chore. And while standing in my room before I started packing I could have told you with confidence that I didn't really have much stuff, when it came time to pack it all up I swear items were being materialized every minute. Stuff just came out of the woodwork, and I really had to evaluate why I own the things I do and if I really need them.

Clothes are a good example. There are so many shirts that I have that I like owning. But I never wear most of them. I pulled some of them aside into a bag I would potentially donate, including some shirts that I was really on the fence about. And after weeks I didn't notice their absence one bit, and I don't imagine I will. We have these attachments to things that cause us to hold on to them much after they have expended their utility. Another example is my former mp3 player. I loved that thing. I bought it together with my brother, it came with me to Ecuador and had photos on it to prove it, and it picked me up when feeling down. And I sold it on eBay a month or so ago. I never used it. It was bulky, and I have an ipod shuffle I use now because I like the simplicity of not really having to spend time choosing exactly what to listen to. But when I packed up that player and had to erase all the data, it was hard. I second guessed my decision big time. I felt like I was losing a part of me, like I was giving up my past. Now, months later, I don't miss it one bit.

I think we put parts of our selves in the items we call our own. And sentimentality isn't necessarily a bad thing, don't get me wrong. But when we hang on to things long after we stop using them, all of a sudden our stuff becomes a burden. One more thing to carry, to worry about, to protect, to defend.

There is something simple and serene about having few material possessions. Thoreau said it best; "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" I am not advocating swearing off all material possessions. Quite the contrary, I am advocating being conscious of everything you own. Make the distinction between things you simply own and things you possess. The story Rob Bell told to illustrate this point came from a poverty stricken village he visited in Rwanda. He had just finished talking with a family devastated by AIDS, in a community ravaged by the disease, as well as war, when he walked out of a hut to the sound of a loud ruckus nearby. He followed the sound to an old, run down building. Inside, members of the community were dancing like it was their last moment on Earth, hands and faces to the sky, singing, pouring their hearts out. Rob turned to a man nearby and asked "what are they doing? Why are they doing this today?" And the man responded, "oh, they do this everyday at lunchtime." Perfect. As Rob said, they had been given this moment, why wouldn't they dance. Ravaged by unimaginable suffering, they created something beautiful, everyday. As he said, none of them owned the building, but they all possessed it. They gave it life.

What do you own but you don't possess. What do you hold on to long after it has lost its utility. And what do you possess? What do you give life to.

Monday, March 23, 2009


We are very reliant on our technology. Not only that, we feel entitled to it, without stopping to realize how amazing it is today. Sure it's great to hear about the newest technology or think of ways it can make our lives easier in the future, but if we don't also appreciate how amazing it is today, what's the point? With that attitude, we will never be satisfied with what we already have. Watch this youtube clip of Louis CK explain this concept in a much funnier way than I just did. He makes some good points.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Energy Crisis

Before I get into the bulk of my post, there are a few items of business to attend to. First, sincere apologies for the long breaks between posts. For 10 of the 20-some days between posts I was on a road trip and was unable to post. However, it is our intention to post closer to once a week as opposed to once every three weeks, so an apology is in order. The second item of business is the issue of reformatting. At the onset of this blog, Alex and I discussed a desire to have it be less a one way conversation and more an open dialogue, with our readers responding to our posts, challenging our assumptions and offering counterpoints. Thank you for all the comments we have received so far. However, there is some concern that we are still approaching each new subject as a diagnosis and prescription for problems we perceive to be important. We'd like to shy away from that, promoting more of a question and answer format. We hope that all our readers will offer their own answers and critique the answers we offer in our posts. An exchange of ideas and opinions will help us come to better solutions, as opposed to Alex or me decreeing them from our couches and keyboards. So, here it goes.

The question for this post was inspired by my aforementioned road trip, where we woke up most mornings at 5:30am for the days drive, and ran on drinks and foods we perceived would deliver quick cheap energy. So my question has to do with our expectations of our diet, and the energy it provides us with, as well as the marketing that surrounds the food we buy. The question is as follows; are we all more tired than we should be, and is it because of our diet or something else?

If you look at food marketing these days it seems to all be focused on energy. At least food marketing on the road. Energy drinks seem to be ubiquitous at this point, and if you haven't had one today you've probably had one at some point. I don't even need to mention how popular coffee is these days. And beyond that, you have foods from Quaker Oats to candy bars such as Snickers to vitamin waters to water itself claiming that each product will give you "more energy." Where did this concept of "more energy" come from and why do we feel we have such a deficit? When talking to someone a couple of months ago about the fact that I was a vegetarian his immediate reaction was "oh so you must have loads of energy, eating all those veggies." Do I have more energy? What is this baseline that everyone seems to be comparing their current lack of energy to.

I think one obvious answer for whatever lack of energy one may perceive would be lack of sleep. But of course that's not marketable. If pillows were disposable and you needed a new one every night then maybe marketers in gas stations and supermarkets would be targeting sleep as a factor for energy. But then again, with our culture of overworking and overscheduling, it isn't popular for any of us in our own calculations to look at the time spent horizontal last night as a reason why we are fighting sleep today, because hey, I'm busy, I can't sleep 8 hours every night. However, if we are being honest with ourselves and really don't have as much energy as we should, I would put a lot of weight on sleep.

If diet does play a factor, which I think it certainly does, then the products marketed to give you energy are probably not ultimately the key. At least that's how it felt on the road trip. If you've ever been on a road trip you know how easy it is to eat horrendous food. When the majority of your contact with food becomes rest stops, with a plethora of gas stations and fast food chains, then you are bound to make some questionable choices about food. But the worst part is that you actually start to believe the marketers, buying drinks and candy bars "designed" to give you more energy and keep you up when driving. Yeah I felt more comfortable sipping a green tea drink while driving, putting my faith in the caffeine to keep me alert, when really I was plenty alert before my shift, I just wanted the drink as an insurance policy, a "just in case." I think all of this energy marketing, including moderate amounts of caffeine, become placebo. I think we trick ourselves into thinking we could have even more energy, and if we could have more energy, it must mean we currently don't have enough. And if we don't have enough, we simply need these products to keep us alert and give us elevated energy levels, when really the whole time we have stayed at an even level, with our perceptions of our energy level fluctuating below and above the line based on our consumption of whatever foods we convince ourselves will affect this level.

It seems like such a recent trend to re-frame our food in terms of energy. Don't we get energy from anything we eat? That's the nature of calories - ultimately a unit of energy content of food. So couldn't we say that a twinkie is an energy bar, because it has a lot of calories in it? No one would buy that, of course, because it is refined sugar and carbohydrates that provides quick energy but offers a crash just as sure. But Quaker Oats, whole grains, offer longer lasting energy, and also nutritional benefits beyond simple energy. Yet a new ad campaign, at least in NYC, frames these oats as units for delivering energy to propel humans through life. I think we miss something by looking for food solely for energy. We are not cars and food is not gasoline. We get more from food than just its caloric content. Otherwise the "ice cream diet" would be perfectly acceptable.

Next time you are in a supermarket, pay attention to food marketing. The next time you stop for coffee, consider if you are actually getting more energy than you would have had if you hadn't relied on coffee for energy for so long. I don't drink coffee so I can't answer that question. If you do really get more energy, maybe I will have to get to know my local barista. But ultimately I would like to know what you all think. Do we have a personal energy crisis? Do foods and drinks help us acheive a level of energy we wouldn't already be at if we didn't choose foods based on energy claims? Are there other factors to our energy level (like maybe drinking high fructose corn syrup and consuming nutritionally deficient foods actually lower our energy level, and fresh produce instead will deliver more energy)? You know what I think, but I want to know what you think. After all, this is just my opinion, hashed out during a Celtics game, as tenuous and as open to revision as any other argument I could make.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Now, even though it has been over three weeks since my last entry, some of you might remember that I was talking about media and communication. Throughout that entry I was holding to the ideal that there is no substitute for direct, physical human interaction. In this age of widespread 'enlightenment', we pride ourselves on knowing better than to consider ourselves purely physical beings. We have learned to pay lots of attention to our thoughts and emotions because we have discovered the important roles they play in life. I don't know if this is really a new thing, I have only been around for about 23 years myself, but I am noticing a tendency to overlook the importance of our physicality whether it be in communication, relationships, religion etc. Health issues aside (but certainly to be addressed in a later entry), we need to start giving our physical nature more credit. To that end, I will share a little thought I had this week.

I was listening to public radio and an astrophysicist from the University of Chicago was talking about her book Einstein's Telescope, about how the gravitational pull of dark matter creates curves in space-time that act as lenses to magnify objects much further away than we used to be able to look. Interesting stuff, but to jump to the relevant portion, she mentioned how we can see stars that are 14 billion lightyears away from earth. That means when we look at these stars, we are seeing them as they were 14 billion years ago. That is very interesting to scientists because that is around the time the universe seems to have started expanding, give or take a billion years maybe. As much as there is to be learned from such sights, and as cool as it is to look back in time, they are so old I can't help but feel like they are a little irrelevant. If we want to know anything about what those stars are doing right now, we will have to wait a long time. But by then, it will have become very old news once again.

This sense of disappointment, like we can't see the real star as it actually is right now, applies to other things as well. Our own sun for example. We always see it as it was about 8 minutes ago, never how it actually is right now. And when light is used to transmit data through fiberoptic cables or between satellites, well, we all know how awkward it is when someone being interviewed in Iraq pauses for 5 seconds before answering Matt Lauer's questions. Even over much shorter distances, like when you see your own little image in the corner of a videochat screen, there is very visible delay. And if you haven't ever thought of this before, the images you see of yourself in real mirrors even have a delay so slight you could never perceive it. Not only mirrors, but light and sound from the person across the table from you. We may be three feet from each other, but I am still interacting with a person who existed some fraction of a nanosecond ago. All this made me think that the closest I will ever come to interacting with someone completely in the present is to be physically touching them. Nerve signaling and brain function speeds may be circumvented someday, but until then physical contact is the most effective way to engage with someone in the present moment.

Physical contact is relatively rare in daily life and has a lot of mystique about it. What is more personal and private than touch? What is more comforting in the right context? Few things can send a louder message than how you touch someone. Or how you don't touch them.

So hug someone you care about today. And maybe kiss them too.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Combined Action

So for no apparent reason, at the beginning of last year I decided that I would do something almost no one does - stick to a New Year's resolution. It's always such a funny thing. People are so hopeful, so eager to identify the areas of their lives that need improving. Maybe its the euphoria of the holiday season still wearing off, but everyone believes that this year will be the year they do it. Then winter drags on too long and they forget about it as easily as the idea came. I am not claiming to be better than these people because I stuck with mine. It was actually sort of a fluke. I somehow picked something I ended up finding an incredible passion for. My resolution was to learn how to cook, and a year later I think I have succeeded, at least to the extent I had hoped (at the very least I've moved beyond mac and cheese and chicken nuggets).

With my recent success I was a bit more ambitious this year with three resolutions. I have dropped one, I hate to say, but I am chugging along with the other two. They take on the form of a strategy that is the subject for this post - combined, sustained action. But let me first tell you why I think many resolutions fail so quickly. Let's take one goal people strive for all the time (especially come resolution time); to exercise more. But what does that really mean? I think many people fail because "more" just simply isn't an easy concept to manifest. For example, if you go from never exercising to doing it once a month, technically you are exercising more, but I'd wager your goal was a bit loftier than that. Likewise, exercising 6 hours a day is more than anyone currently exercises (I hope), but that's because it isn't feasible, and also not what you were going for. Thus, setting an easily divisible, daily goal creates a digestible target focus on.

In light of this approach, the two resolutions I have stuck with have come in this form. They are as follows; 1. to exercise daily, and 2. to read 10 pages daily. This has given me very attainable and easily targeted goals. For example, when I go to bed at night an ambiguous answer is not possible to the question of whether or not I exercised or read 10 pages. I can't argue with myself about whether or not I did it, I simply know, throwing vague concepts of "more" or "less" out the window. I have to make a concerted effort to accomplish each task. Because of this daily sense of accomplishment, I also get daily reinforcement, and have ultimately looked forward to both activities.

Now, I think the ultimate concern when identifying a useful New Year's resolution is its effectiveness. And with my resolutions, effectiveness ultimately comes from scope. If you look at my day's activities, reading 10 pages takes me maybe 20-30 minutes, and exercising takes me less than that (so far it has been sit-ups and push-ups before bed). What is the impact of these actions? Not much. "Oooh, big deal, 10 whopping pages," right? Well, that depends on your scope, and is ultimately what makes each goal so attainable. In the course of a day, each activity doesn't take much extra effort and ultimately doesn't accomplish all that much on its own. But combined, well, there is your proper scope, for over the course of the month I will have read an average length book and done somewhere around 2000 sit-ups and 500 push-ups. Over a year that's at least 12 books and a meaningless number of sit-ups and push-ups. Now there's your impact. And I actually stick with it because again, on their own, each activity is not particularly challenging. But they are all part of a larger strategy. Combining small, repetitive actions to reach a larger goal.

I think this concept of combined action applies to many other aspects of life. For an individual, combined action involves the aggregation of these daily choices that add up to something meaningful (eating one extra serving of fruit on any given day is a good choice, but ultimately wont cure cancer. But, done every day for the rest of your life, well, now we're talking. Small, simple, positive choices - added). Likewise, for a society, the combined actions of its citizens add up to something impactful. For example, when faced with an opportunity to help, maybe volunteer, you may find yourself asking "what difference can I really make, I am only one person." Or you've heard the argument against voting; "what's my one vote really gonna matter?" Baad attitudes, right? (though I cannot exempt myself from thinking along these lines from time to time) Because we all know that the combined effect of voting is an election, with winners and losers, and progress. But the combined effects of lending a helping hand, in any way you can, are no less obvious, no less important. If all of us chip in more, we all start to make a difference, with our combined action. It's like those refer-a-friend programs. Bring someone along and you've doubled your impact. So, just like reading 10 pages or doing a few sit-ups, the task itself is relatively easy on its own, the result relatively limited in its impact. But over time, my abs get rock hard, and more people get a warm meal, clothes for their back, or maybe the neighborhood gets a little cleaner, or you take a car off of the road for a day when you bike to work, or more waste gets recycled, or simply more smiles and genuine connections are spread throughout the world. It ALL adds up.

So maybe Gandhi was right after all, with his seemingly oversimplified answer to how to make a difference. In the end, we all simply must "be the change we wish to see in the world."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Waking the Watch Dog

One of my favorite parts of managing my Facebook profile is the section where I can list my favorite quotations. Some of them are funny, others rather serious, and some you wouldn't understand unless you were there. There is one quotation that I think has a lot to of depth to it, worth unpacking for you here.

I first heard this quote in a sermon about a year ago, and it is from the man who brought us the familiar phrase "The Medium is the Message", Marshall Mcclune. The quote of his that I have on my profile is basically a more interesting way of saying that:

"The content of all media is merely the juicy piece of meat held by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind"

It is quite the claim. There is so much fun, educational and useful content conveyed through media, how could it all just be a distraction? And what is it a distraction from? How is media like a burglar? What a negative metaphor for him to choose. What I usually think about media is something more along the lines of "There is nothing inherently wrong with [insert media], its just how you use it that can be good or bad." Marshall Mcclune heard people saying this and he thought that sort of thinking was "the numb stance of the technological idiot." Harsh.

So what's his deal?

One answer to this question is found way back in human history. All the way back when we had languages, but no formal writing system had been developed yet. Human relationships and the preservation of societal knowledge could only take place when people were physically in the same place. Then the medium of writing was introduced. It was no longer necessary to interact with another person to exchange information with them. Communication could take place over much greater distances in time and space. When telephones, radio and television each arrived, they brought with them the ability to exchange more and more information while allowing each individual communicator to stay closer and closer to their own living room. Now the internet, combined with cell phones and the 3G network, has time, space, and our own bodies playing less of a role in communication than ever.

Comparing the early state of human communication to its present state reveals a paradox. Long ago, human communication required physical presence, and so demanded full attention and a considerable amount of time to carry out, thereby limiting the number of events one could participate in during a given day. Today we have an abundance of communication events in our lives every day, each requiring very little time, and therefore less of our attention, and usually no physical presence at all. The paradox here is that as human communication grew, human interactions shrank.

I don't personally find this paradoxical trend to be appealing, but I have a hard time denying it is there. So how did it develop? Mcclune would say that while news stories, phone conversations, TV programs and wikipedia articles captivated us, the media that conveyed them went about the business of changing the way we live. The content of our media distracted our minds while part of our humanity was burgled away.

Now, Mcclune didn't mean to say that media are purely a negative force in society. There is no denying the incredible benefits of our communication technology. There are probably even many human relationships that are stronger today only because modern technology exists. The convenience of typing a short message to someone lengthens the list of people I am keeping up with, but every time I post on someone's Facebook wall, it also comes with the message "this is the way I relate to you." I have to admit that in my life I let these hidden messages be sent far too often. A may not see a friend who lives 20 minutes away from me for months at a time, even though I send them regular messages online, usually about how we should 'totally hang out soon'. The pressure to actually show up at their door and spend some of my time and energy enjoying our relationship is diminished by the soft, perpetual message from Facebook telling me "you are already staying close to them, thanks to me." I disappoint myself, but even worse, I have alreadt passed up several opportunities to make my life richer.

You can probably imagine other messages various forms of media are sending beneath the surface of their content. Most of them encouraging us to do more things, and to do them alone. And media are not only the obvious forms of communication that I have been discussing so far.
Clothing, furniture, buildings, food...they are all media, and they are all messages. What does a frozen dinner say? A glass skyscraper? A compact fluorescent light bulb? We do not acknowledge these messages very often, but it doesn't mean we aren't responding to them.

I think all we can hope to about this is be more aware of what we may unintentionally hear or say with media. We can keep the benefits without letting ourselves wander into the pitfalls. And this awareness can even be expanded into all areas of life, because after all, it is impossible to ever be doing just one thing. Which is actually another one of my favorite Facebook quotes...

P.S. I borrowed heavily from the sermon I mentioned earlier. Its awesome, so if you want it, let me know and I will send it to you.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I think I know what we're after. And I think we are misguided. After reading and rereading some of our posts, and more importantly the comments left (thank you all!), I think Alex and I are after something specific, something that needs reconsideration. I shouldn't speak for Alex. But based on conversations with him and with many of my other friends, all in the same position as I find myself (with that daunting question of "what do you want to do with your life" hanging over our heads), I think we are all desperately seeking an answer to that question. I mean, how great would it be, if someone asked you, a relative, a coworker, a classmate or friend, what you wanted to do with your life, and you actually had an answer! How incredible! And what if you not only had an answer, but you had a plan. Well then you are going places in life. Right?

Wrong. I am generally in favor of listening to our elders, and usually do it with great respect. After all, they've been through some things, and have a better grasp on how life works than I do (even if I build myself up from time to time thinking otherwise). On top of that, they have no reason to mislead me, and instead have a strong desire to advise me. I know I enjoy advising my younger brother on college and how it all works. We all want to help. However, there is a huge piece of advice that I have neglected. It came in many forms over the past couple of months, from many sources. From my commencement speaker, from my parents, from books I've read and stories I've heard. The nugget I've avoided, with faulty reasoning, is the virtue of going with the flow of life, that you never know where it will take you and no matter how much you plan, life will carry you where you never expected it would. As my Dad said in a comment, and Alex alluded to in his post on our generation, the decisions we make today will not affect our lives as profoundly as we think. To put it another way, if we can't answer that question tomorrow or even in a year, we are not destined for unhappiness.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, to choose correctly, and more importantly to have it all figured out. I have this misconception about careers that once you choose one you are stuck with it. That if I want to work in environmental policy then I am stuck on that track for the rest of my life and I can never deviate, that I have to pick an organization and work my way up. That if I want to be successful, I have to lay out my goals for my career now. I think its easy for us to look at someone who is very successful and think, "Oh, that must have been their goal. They must have planned on writing that book at this point in their career, and they must have planned on that speech at that point." We think this because it is very easy to look at the past events of their career and see how it lead them to where they are today (success, prestige, influence). But how hard would it have been for them, 20 years ago, to pinpoint where they'd be today, and more importantly how they'd get there? Impossible, for most. There are the exceptions, long-term careers that people can be quite content with; doctors, teachers, etc, where they may very well be in one hospital or school the rest of their lives. But for the rest of us, we will move, change companies or even fields. How boring would it be if we didn't? I think it's questions like "what do you want to do with your life" or "where do you see yourself in 10 years" that imply an answer is necessary. What is wrong with a simple "I don't know?"

I am reading "Dreams From My Father," by Barack Obama right now. This book has really been the final kick to get me to come to the other side, to jump in the river, or at least not view the river with such disdain. In the introduction to his book, Obama speaks about how it was some friends in Chicago who convinced him to run for State Senator. About a hundred pages in, he talks about how he slacked off his last few years in high school and even experimented with drugs. To hear his voice as a young man (written when he was 33) talking about himself as an even younger man, it sounds like a very different person. I think the ultimate delusion that is so easy to fall into, at least for me, is the notion that if nothing else, the Presidents of the United States simply must have had that as their goal. They must have been working their whole careers toward that. And even if not all of them did, Barack Obama, possibly the most driven and hard working person on the face of the earth (sorry for the hyperbole) simply must have been working hard since he was born to get to this point in his life, right? Wrong! A friend convinced him to get into politics. And look where he is now! When he was 22, do you think he knew where he'd be at age 48? No. Life took him to where he is. Instead of working toward the presidency as a goal, he did something better. He prepared himself for opportunity. When his friend urged him to run for State Senate, he was prepared, through his education and past experience, to seize that opportunity. Same for his US Senate run, and finally his latest achievement. And he said "yes" when presented with that opportunity.

So instead of grasping for something we can't have, something we ultimately don't want, let us prepare ourselves for opportunity, and be ready to say "yes!" when it comes. Let us embrace the uncertainty of life, and honor it for the joy that it brings. How boring would life be, if we knew where we were going to be when we were 40, or even in 10 years! Would it really be worth living, if we saw it coming so clearly? I'd rather not know. Instead, I'd rather be prepared for the next stage of my life and take opportunity when I see it. I can't answer what I want to do with my life, but I can answer what I want to do in the next year. Let's start there. The fear is that it will lead to unhappiness, to go with the flow without control. But happiness is ultimately much more about your perspective on life and much less about the things you actually do. And the most beautiful thing of all is the ability to change your circumstances. If the flow of life leaves you unsatisfied, you can change it! So maybe, insead of attempting to re-route the course of the river by diverting its flow to fit your plan (nature always wins, anyway), AND, instead of jumping in with nothing, lets bring a paddle, just in case. But in the meantime, enjoy the ride.

The next time someone asks me "what do you want to do with your life?" or any variation on that question, I think I will smile, and say "I don't know; and isn't that great?!"

Friday, January 23, 2009

Two Old Characters Address Happiness

I love public radio. If you didn't already know this about me that makes me kinda sad because it means we probably don't talk to each other enough. Its like there is an army of curious people out there who have made it their full-time job to bring the most incredible, inspiring, bizarre and newsworthy stories from around the world into your life.

I love retelling my favorite stories from the radio to those unfortunate enough to spend time with me right after I get out of the car (the only place actual radios are used anymore.*) Sadly, I have heard too many good stories on the radio to retell them all right now, but one good one is standing out in my mind. It was on the program called Speaking of Faith, and it was all about the concept of 'Doubt'. Doubt is a long conversation waiting to happen, so to keep it (a bit) shorter I will just tell you about two doubting characters that I found fascinating: Diogenes of Sinope and Epicurus.

Diogenes was one of the original cynics. In my own words, a philosophical cynic is someone who doubts that society is constructed in the way it was meant to be. You have probably heard of a few people influenced by cynicism even today. They reject wealth, power, fame, possessions, and even devalue their own health and hygiene. They teach equality of all humans and a return to the rhythms of nature. They do not criticize absolutely everything, as the modern use of the word 'cynic' connotes today, they are only critical of those things which are not an essential part of a truly happy life. A beautiful way to encapsulate all these views is to boil them down to the idea that all suffering is caused by false judgments of what is valuable. An excessively general idea, but one you would have quite a bit of trouble refuting.

My favorite story about Diogenes is a legend passed on about an encounter he had with Alexander the Great. Alexander admired Diogenes, as they both shared incredible ambition, though one man applied his externally, and the other internally. During one meeting of the two...

Diogenes asked Alexander what his plans were.
Alexander: To conquer and subjugate Greece.
Diogenes: Then what?
Alexander: To conquer and subjugate Asia Minor.
Diogenes: And then?
Alexander: To conquer and subjugate the entire world.
Diogenes: And what next?
Alexander: Then I will relax, and enjoy myself.
Diogenes: Why not save yourself a lot of trouble, by relaxing and enjoying yourself now?

Now, Epicurus was not a cynic, but a materialist. Sounds like the opposite of a cynic at first, but materialism as an ideology does not value shopping and money, but rather suggests that physical matter is the only thing that can be proven to exist, and therefore calls into doubt all things non-physical. What Epicurus derived from this philosophy was the belief that the goal of life was to achieve tranquility and freedom from fear or pain through a life filled with modest physical pleasures. A key to finding happiness through physical pleasure was developing control of your physical desires so they would not run rampant and possibly lead to physical harm.

I personally find materialism to be a bad explanation of the way all thing work, but I do enjoy some of the smaller ideas that were born out of it. Namely, that of learning to control your appetites. Whether we hold physical pleasure as the ultimate good in life or not, we all understand the role hunger plays in the human experience. Food, sex and habit-forming drugs like caffeine, nicotine and alcohol are the easiest to identify. But there are some obsessions that are less physiological, though I would argue no less physical, that can be equally consuming. Pride, or ego, power, leisure, possessions...vague ideas that we never feel like we have enough of and are therefore always hungry for more of. Epicurus basically said we must realize that the cycle of desire and fulfillment is endless. Cycling through it faster and faster will not get you anywhere new, but more likely destroy a person. The trick to slowing down the cycle is to learn to enjoy the craving within you as much as the fulfillment of it. Both are equally important to the delivery of satisfaction, but the average person obsesses over only one of them.

After all, when you are truly thirsty, nothing is as pleasurable as a simple glass of water.

You have probably heard the term 'epicure' used in modern language to describe someone who is picky about food or art because of their expensive tastes. This word does come from Epicurus, but ironically has a meaning almost entirely opposed to his views. Epicurus wanted to put so much emphasis on the control of human desire that he recommended abstaining from rich food and drink, sex and lavish possessions. Not exactly what you picture when you think of an epicure, but now you can see why he came up in the same radio program as Diogenes.

I enjoy seeing how ancient ideas about happiness and "the way things are supposed to be" have not changed much over time. Unfortunately, neither have they been implemented very effectively. There is much more to all of this than I have laid out here, so please research these characters and their ideas more on your own. In fact, in my efforts to only relay my favorite tidbits I have misrepresented them a bit here and there, so please don't consider this a philosophy lesson.

Also, check out Public Radio. Some of my favorite programs include:

To the Best of Our Knowledge
The Story
Speaking of Faith
This American Life

*Please note that live online broadcasts and archived podcasts now allow you to listen to radio programming almost anywhere, anytime. This means you can be listening even if you don't spend much time in your car.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

What Happened...?

Movies have a pretty incredible power over us sometimes. For two hours or so you get wrapped up in a story that you don't want to end. You want it to be true, you want to live it. At least if its a good one. I had the good fortune to see an excellent film today with a friend that got me thinking a lot. The movie is one I'm sure you've heard of, as it will undoubtedly be up for many awards; Milk. To give a quick summary of this biographical picture, Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist in the 1970's. The movie chronicles the growth of the gay rights movement that began in San Francisco but grew to national proportions. Throughout the film, we see the transformation of Milk from a 40 year old insurance agent in NYC, to a hippie business owner in San Francisco, to a suited up political activist that has the power to move a crowd of thousands to their feet to march. Powerful stuff, and Sean Penn is amazing.

For obvious reasons, the movie made me think about changing the world. I saw parallels between Milk and Barack Obama, as both started as community organizers with no name and only their ideals to guide them. I will admit too, that I was taking mental notes; "how did he organize that group," "what did he say to make that change," "where did he start and how did he know what to say?" The answers to a lot of these questions, I figured, had to do with both the times and the cause. The cause, in the sense that, the cause of gay rights was both pretty black and white, and very personal for Milk. Black and white; they were being discriminated openly, so it was easy to tell who was on who's side. And personal, because Milk was gay, so he knew what to say and when because he himself was discriminated against, as was his community. It came from the heart. Easy enough, I suppose... But, the times?

This second idea got me thinking. Milk benefitted from the time period in the sense that the 60's and 70's were already times of such drastic social reform and civil rights awareness. With other minority movements in full swing, as well as anti-war protests, peace movements, and an entire generation that rebelled wholeheartedly against the establishment of their parents', the gay rights movement fit very nicely into this cloth. But if you look at the 60's and 70's in the context of the last century they seem like an anamoly. I mean, when you think about the 40's and 50's, you think leave it to beaver and the family from A Christmas Story. You think innocence, and unfortunately still lots of intolerance. On the flip side, when you think of the 80's and 90's, instead of seeing them as a continuation of the change from the previous two decades, it seems like change hit a wall. There were no more protests, no more social movements. In fact, it was a step back for the environmental movement, with Reagan repealing much of the work of the 70's movement. What happened..?

The answer I can come up with is one that calls for hope for today, and that is that change oscillates and is generational. For whatever reason, the young people (people who were 18-30's in these decades) of the 60's and 70's just could not accept the establishment and fought their hardest to change it. Maybe their parents raised them to be dreamers of a better tomorrow; or maybe it was quite the opposite, that their parents bought so fiercely into the system that they alienated their children enough that they could see the built-in injustices for what they were and could fight them. It's probably that. Regardless, they brought change. Then, the young people of the 80's and 90's stopped this momentum. Why? Well, a lot of change had already happened, so there was less injustice to enrage the youth, and likewise there wasn't a horribly unpopular war to demonize. But I think the answer is more generational. If you look at who raised the youths of the 80's and 90's, who taught them in school, it was people who were young in the 40's and 50's, the time of American innocence. At home they were taught of the good old days when kids listened to their parents and didn't do drugs or march on the streets, where order and discipline were respected. Their teachers in school were of the same persuasion. Growing up in that kind of environment, you'd feel more inclined to buy into the system, to believe in the end it will work for everyone.

Which brings me to my point. Who were we raised by? Our parents were those kids in the 60's and 70's who didn't listen, who didn't buy into the injustices of a broken system, who decided it was time to unite and rise against the discriminators and bigots and polluters. Our parents were dreamers, and if they didn't march in the streets themselves, they knew 10 people their age that did. Our teachers were the same way. All the people sculpting our minds from day one were people who saw real results from fighting, protesting. I always wonder why protesting went out of style. It seemed to get things done.. at least eventually. People are too serious nowadays; they can't justify missing that day of work or school to go walk around in the streets. They don't believe anything will change if they go, or they believe the tired argument of "what's one more voice going to matter anyway.."

At my college graduation last May, and at the high school graduation of my brother a month later, I heard speakers across the board mention the hope they had for our generation. They kept saying things about how like no other time in history we need change, and just from talking to students in the halls or dining halls they knew we were dreaming of change too. And they expect a lot from us. Because even though it is our parents who are at the peak of their careers and have the most influence they have ever had at work and in their communities (a place someone with youthful ideals drools over, a position with influence), ultimately it is the young people who dictate change in this country. It is the idealism reserved for the freshest faces, those of us who have yet to give up hope in the face of the system. Our parents and teachers expect so much of us because, as Alex said in his post about our generation, they have told us from day ONE that we can do anything we want to, that the world is full of endless possibility, and that we CAN change it.

I think the problem that we are running into now, the problem that Alex explained so perfectly, is that we have been instilled with all this hope, this vision, this dream, our whole lives, that we want to do something immediately, and more importantly we think we can do it immediately. We don't know our own limits, which is scary, in a good way. Yet, the institutions for us to express this passion, this dream, are not in place to serve us. The system exists today as it did for our parents. In the 60's and 70's politicians and non-profits and communities did not go to local college campuses to recruit optimism or outrage. When our parents and their peers graduated college, there wasn't an organization called Change, Inc., or Protesters and Co., or Civil Rights Conglomerate that recruited young talent for their causes. And good riddance. No, our parents fought the institutions that existed because they didn't believe that this was all to life, that you had to get a job in an office and raise a quiet, neat family and look away when their neighbor was beaten for being different. They stared that injustice square in the eye and acted. It's time for us to act. We aren't going to get that call that Alex referred to. No one will call tomorrow saying, "look, man, the globe is warming, poverty continues to ravage the third world, we are overpopulated, malnourished, oh, and there is war in the Middle East...think you could help?" That call will not come. We have to make them hear our voice. The time is now. We have to fight. Our survival depends on it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

To My Generation

Devin and I recently had the rare privilege to have a conversation, in person, regarding the things you just read about in his last post. The conversation was far too short, but if you were paying attention to what he wrote, you know we made the most of the time we had.

Talking about making the most of all of the gifts and time you have been given is fun and easy enough, the tricky part is figuring out what exactly it is you will be doing when you busy yourself not wasting a minute. Yes, I am talking about discerning one's vocation. A daunting task for anybody, and one that can surely consume a thoughtful person at any age, but I imagine there is a uniquely terrifying character about it when you are seriously addressing it for the first time in your early twenties.

You see, at this age we are naive, and we fear that we have only a matter of months to make the plans that will determine whether we will be happy or depressed for the rest of our lives. This misconception aside, we youngsters have another problem: we are extremely reluctant to take a stance on what really excites us. After all, how are we supposed to know, of all people? We only recently recovered from a debilitating condition known as "childhood."

Childhood is characterized by years upon years of praise and encouragement flowing over you at all times. Children, the most common sufferers of this ailment, are often told things like "you can do anything you want to" and then given minor obstacles to easily overcome, affirming the idea that they really can do anything. It is normal for children in this situation to start holding the concept of conquering small obstacles in very high regard – even as an end unto itself. For in the world of children, there is no end to the parade of obstacles coming before you, each only a little more difficult than the last. At the same time there is no end to the support you receive along the way, nor the applause when you daily find yourself capable of a little bit more than you were the day before.

Then one day, you and your buddy are going for a car ride through the snowy potholes of Chicago and you realize the river of childhood obstacles ran dry a short while back without you noticing. You feel a little lost, and you question your own ability to make decisions. It occurs to you that your inclination to apply to grad school may be just the latest manifestation of your addiction to sequential obstacle conquering; the easiest and most logical way to prove yourself once again. Even worse - what if that was the only reason you marched off to college so boldly? You suddenly can't remember the last time you did something because it was your own original idea, leaving you feeling rather weak and disappointingly...childish.

But you have decision to make. How are you supposed to do it now?

Remember the first mistake I mentioned young people making: assuming they have a short amount of time secure a future of happiness for themselves by choosing the right career. Just because you don't yet know exactly what sort of work carries you away and makes the hours fly by with a thrilling and fulfilling rush, it doesn't mean you can't start trying things out. In the roughly quoted words of Benjamin Button, "I hope that when you find yourself in circumstances that don't suit you, that you have the strength to start over and change them."

One reason the pressure to choose correctly is so intense is because of the generally false correlation in our society between success in your career and happiness. Even more disturbing is the common belief that success if defined by money. Now, I don't need to be the next person in line to act like I am special for knowing that money is not what is important in life. That is really old news, even if it is still generally ignored. But these societal forces are acting on your troubled mind at all times. Should you follow your childhood passions to a life in the lower middle class or use your talents to achieve the sorts of things that will be rewarded with large amounts of money?

While discussing this question with friends recently, the intriguing words of an accomplished doctor were relayed to me fourth hand. He said "I can afford anything, except my own time." This doctor may very well have been following his passions when he applied to medical school, but now he has a problem. Too much of his time is demanded from him and the compensation he receives for it is money. It is a sad situation to find yourself in, but certainly one that we are all encouraged to pursue, at least implicitly. There almost seems to be shame associated with not being willing to put in the incredible amounts of time required to prove how important your career is to you. But I think that is backwards. Perhaps we should be ashamed of how much of our lives we are willing to sacrifice for such worthless rewards as riches or fame.

Even if you feel unfazed by the allure of money and acclaim, the pressure to succeed is not gone. You still want to do your best and make a real difference in the world. The illusion that time is slipping away from you may even be greater for you as you watch society's problems worsen faster than you can address them. So regardless of your motivations, the ability to resist the pressure to succeed ASAP requires obnoxious amounts of patience. In the real world, the chance to make your mark is not simply a matter of finding the right organization and signing up. No matter how impressive your list of previously conquered obstacles may be, you must start at the bottom to work your way to the forefront of the issues that concern you. Making a difference happens in small pieces that add up over a lifetime. You can’t call something successful until it is finished, and you are only just getting started.

On the positive side of being young, a lifetime of childhood and a successful college career can have you feeling extremely valuable and capable. Two important things for a young person to feel as they try to make their way in the world, but you need more than abilities and pride to make it in the end. You sit at home, mental and social tools in hand, waiting for the phone to ring. Somebody out there must have an important job that needs to be done and you know you are up to the task. But the phone just isn't ringing... What childhood and college often do not equip you with is a sense of direction and ambition. You are the perfect candidate for any job that you are told to do. The one thing you need to practice a little more is deciding what you should do.

An older and wiser man, upon hearing the plight of the talented college graduates sitting and waiting to be told what to do next remarked that it is a trend he has noticed in my generation. A sad trend, because he thought the desire to succeed is not compatible with the desire to be told what to do. I thought about this myself and realized that I would put it this way: the desire to lead is not compatible with the need to follow.

I said to Devin during our conversation about these things, "I would gladly be a leader, and a damn good one too, if someone would just tell me that's what I should do." Slightly paradoxical, but that is the struggle we face right now. We have time, talent and confidence; we just don't know what to do with them yet. Let's not allow that to bother us, or make us feel like we are lagging behind. Let's not search for the easy answers in the wrong places and pay for it later, or sit around waiting for opportunity to come knocking, let itself in and make itself at home. We will enjoy every moment we have, using them to boldly move forward with a slowly developing sense of purpose. We will remember that no matter what happens, we have the power to change things, and that happiness is always close at hand.

Or we'll try to at least.

Monday, January 12, 2009


So I had an epiphany the other day. Acutally it was more like a couple of weeks ago. It came about because of a trip home for the holidays that was wayy too short. Because of its extreme brevity, I had to seize every moment possible, which meant not allowing myself to be tired. I slept enough, but even after a good night of sleep I usually can't sustain a full day of activity without succumbing to some level of fatigue, for at least a couple of hours. But I couldn't allow even the briefest glimpse of tiredness to sneak its way in. I also realized that a lot of being tired is allowing yourself to be (and also comes about by negative thoughts, but more on that in another post). Anyway, the pull of friends and family made me realize that I had been wasting time being lazy, making excuses, letting life pass me by while I napped; that perhaps the cliche was correct, that we should "live in the moment." I always used to cringe when I read that on someone's facebook quotes, but it is true. I think I always doubted the sincerity of those people's facebook profiles. Facebook just strikes me as a poor medium for wisdom.

This realization (perhaps that I was prepared to assimilate a bumper sticker to my core beliefs) was compounded by a sentiment that hard work is just as key as seizing every moment, and in fact the two work well in concert. The inspiration for this piece of wisdom came from a slightly more abstract source, our President Barack Obama (I will forego the -elect part, as its only a week away, and I'd like this blog to have a timeless effect to it...) The man is where he is because he worked hard, hands down. Sure there was natural talent, but he worked damn hard. And he did so by not wasting a moment, an opportunity, to learn something new, to give it his all. I know he hasn't really done anything yet (shoot there goes the timeless effect) but he will, I don't care what the cynics say who claim "well he's still a politician..." He is, but get over it, he is different. But that is beside the point.

Idea - life is better when lived to the fullest. How do you get more out of life? By not wasting time. We don't have time to be lazy. In 50 years when we look back on our life, it will be defined by what we did, not by what we thought about doing but never got around to. Our biggest regrets will be those moments we didn't jump on, opportunities we let slip by. So - seize life. Take it. Stop making excuses. They don't matter. Just, do.