our anchors.

Traveling was a great chance for me to get lost in thought. Interestingly, the bulk of the threads in my head were long-simmering ideas that I now pulled on further.

I traveled alone for most of my trips. In practice, this meant that I was constantly surrounded by new single-serving friends in each new city. I’d meet them where I stayed, on tours, on lines, in bars at night — pretty much everywhere. Spending so much time, with so many new people, I often saw people at their best and worst. It brought me back to the concept of kindness and being gentle with each other that I wrote about a few months ago. Writing about my standard of kindness isn’t my goal here; I wanted to quickly write up this post because of this great quote* I came across:

We all carry these things inside
That no one else can see
They hold us down like anchors,
They drown us out at sea.

It perfectly captures this idea that, as much as we think we know about others, there’s so so much that we don’t. Earlier this year, I had a conversation with my friend David about how so much of the behavior we find confounding in others, is typically rooted in that person’s past, which we have no idea about. Their behavior doesn’t make sense to us, because their behavior is incongruous with the person that they are — that we see in front of us. The behavior taps into the person they might have been, and while circumstances have changed, it’s hard/impossible for people to change. We carry these things around inside us, no one else can see it, and unfortunately some of it holds us down, and in the worst case it can pull us away from the life we should be living.

As if I needed another reason to try a bit harder to be gentle with others, this quote perfectly captured it. We all have our own anchors. Our own weights that drag us around. That probably can’t be helped. But we can help each other.

*It’s actually not a quote, they’re lyrics from a really obscure, strange, sad, little song. I found the snippet of lyrics on Pinterest and then tracked down the song. I ended up finding a cover of the song, which I now prefer far more than the original. In fact, the song is totally stuck in my head. Give it a listen.

beauty vs the world.

For a long time, I assumed that like most things, there was a natural balance between the horrors and the beauty of the world. The yin and the yang that was part of the normal harmony of things. While this might still be true, I’ve learned that it’s wrong for me.

I’m in the middle of my escape. Some free-form time bouncing around Europe with no firm plans. Yesterday in Scotland I got to visit Culloden, the site of a historic and bloody battle with the English. As with any site of mass death, my mind went to the “horrors of the world” frame. Especially because of the juxtaposition with the beauty that I’ve witnessed recently everywhere around me. I’ve been constantly awed on this trip — the sky, the clouds, the bodies of water, the lush landscape, the animals, the countryside, the monuments, …, pretty much everything. My mind went to these as countervailing forces — the beauty vs the horrors.

This time though, my mind stopped. It felt wrong. These aren’t two sides to the same coin. Yes, the beauty really is omnipresent. Naturally, though, within great beauty are imperfections. That’s what’s changed for me. Now I view it as boundless beauty and natural imperfections. It’s us, humans, who turn these imperfections into horrors. Individually, I’ve often turned the imperfections around me into my own personal hell. Others have taken imperfections and used them to inflict horrors onto the world: Creating hell for others.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve spent too much time on the darkness. I have, at times, fixated there. Or the derivatives of it: fear, worry, angst. But the beauty is in the trees, in the sky, in flowing water, in our families and friends, in a sunny day. It’s so abundant that it’s overwhelming once you finally open your eyes and your heart to it. It’s appreciating this — immersing oneself in the beauty– that prevents us from making the transition from the natural imperfections to full-blown horrors. Just appreciating and enjoying every day. Being really present has been building for a while. But it’s crescendoed on this trip. The cynic in me points out that it’s easy to appreciate when you’re on vacation and that in the grind this too will pass. I’ll bet no, but I guess only time will tell.

It really feels like a big break through for me. I’ve talked with friends about my theory of how we’re all broken inside, usually a result of stuff that happens to us early. I call them the “cracks” where life pressed on us too hard. It could be our parents, a traumatic event, pretty much anything. This leaves an imprint and some of those imprints are so deep they create cracks. It’s in these cracks that we’re most vulnerable: where the darkness, pain, suffering, cravings, and aversions leak into us. It’s these cracks throughout our lives that make us who we are. One of my deepest cracks has been never appreciating, or letting myself indulge, in the present. Instead I’d endure the self-flagellation over past mistakes and I’d dwell and obsess over them. Likely the result of internalizing others criticism of me early on. Soon I wouldn’t need their criticism, there was that voice, almost always present, to criticize. There’s my obsession in planning and worrying for the future. Likely the result of seeing firsthand the consequences as I grew up of my parents’ plans having gone off-track. So I’ve always been immersed in the past and/or the future — never the present. Until now.

I wrote, in a much more verbose way, the above in my journal a couple of days ago while on the bus heading back to Dublin. Yesterday, I came across Cory Booker’s Bard commencement address. I last wrote about Cory five years ago. He’s probably the only politician I’d ever work for. Cory is a guy who I come to adore, respect more ever time I come across something about him. He never fails to humble me. His speech is amazing. His theme is the “conspiracy of love.” The speech touches a similar theme as above (and the similar graduation theme of remembering those who came before you and serving as this for others, that I built my 03 Rutgers speech around).

I hope everyone is able to spend a bit more time enjoying the boundless beauty. There’s some definite beauty in that speech — so watch it too!

infinite possibilities.

Every now and then I’ll read some thing that instantly floors me. I’ll get goosebumps and my mind races while I try to slow it down to process what I’ve just read.

Marina Keegan had just graduated Yale when she died in a car accident. In light of this, her final  column in the Yale Daily News is magic. It so eloquently captures the feeling of infinite possibility that comes with young adulthood:

Of course, there are things we wished we did: our readings, that boy across the hall. We’re our own hardest critics and it’s easy to let ourselves down. Sleeping too late. Procrastinating. Cutting corners. More than once I’ve looked back on my High School self and thought: how did I do that? How did I work so hard? Our private insecurities follow us and will always follow us.

But the thing is, we’re all like that. Nobody wakes up when they want to. Nobody did all of their reading (except maybe the crazy people who win the prizes…) We have these impossibly high standards and we’ll probably never live up to our perfect fantasies of our future selves. But I feel like that’s okay.

We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious as we lay alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out – that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement.

Those are feelings I can painfully relate with. The fear of not measuring up, not living up to my potential, of falling behind, and then the eventual calm when I realize that there is still infinite possibility. I could never ever have predicted the course of events that has come in my life to date. The times when I was most bleak, most self-critical, self-loathing, when I feared that I had blown my “one chance” was usually right before a turning point that opened a fantastic door. You never know. As Marina said, “it’s never too late.”

It’s pitch-perfect with this quote from Benjamin Button that I absolutely love. It resonates so much that I want to worship it:

it’s never too late…to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

 The quote is just so right. So amazing.

It, of course, strikes me as harsh that someone with so much talent, so young, beautiful, and smart would have her life ended so prematurely. It strikes at our notion of a plan– it’s why national disasters that kills tens of thousands don’t unsettle us as much as a terrorist attack — natural disasters are supposed to happen, terrorist attacks are not. To see death come to the very young frightens: If it could happen to her, couldn’t it happen to me? Her writing gives me the sense that Marina lived her life to the fullest with each of the too short days that she did have. I’d like to believe that this came through in her writing. For those who knew her, if they said the same, it’s more, unfortunately, than a great many who have lived twice as long can say.

Let’s remember: It’s never too late. To start. To dwell in infinite possibilities. It’s never too late, because we don’t know how long we have, or what’s in store. So let’s “begin a beginning.”

the best luxury.

While the broader economy struggles, Silicon Valley sits apart. Things are red-hot. With Facebook’s impending IPO, the crop from 2011, and the current venture climate: wealth is in the air. Lots of talk of buying condos, building homes, new cars, and fancy vacations abound. It’s been interesting to see how people treat newfound wealth and the luxuries they choose to indulge in. As a (very, very) small beneficiary of this macro-windfall, this also applies to how I’ve been thinking too much about my small indulgences.

As is visible in my last post, I’ve been spending a lot of time in my head. Maybe a good thing. Thinking about what matters and the “why’s” of various stuff. A few weeks ago, John Lilly shared a link of this video of Mo Cheeks, the then coach of the Blazers coming to the aid of a young girl who had stumbled, and then had trouble getting out the words to the national anthem. It’s a pretty remarkable video. At 1:56 in, that look of gratitude and appreciation is amazingly, amazingly powerful. I get choked up every time I see the video, and at 1:56, it overwhelms.

Kindness. It’s what Mo Cheeks showed. And, as I’ve been reflecting on this new decade of my life, on what matters, and what I’ve learned, it’s one of the things that I’ve kept coming back to. I don’t know much, but I do know that kindess has been one of the best luxuries in my life. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s potentially one of the most important things about our humanity.

I grabbed lunch with my brother today. I wasn’t especially hungry and since I only nibbled at my food, I had this huge takeaway container. On my way home, off a side street, there was an (apparently) homeless man, sitting on his sleeping bag, hunched over some Fritos. I saw him, and as I’ve become trained to, I quickly looked away and kept walking. Then I registered that I was holding food. I thought about it for a second and then doubled back and asked him if the kind of food I had was OK/if he wanted the leftovers. He was grateful and thanked me. As I handed over the food we made eye contact. I saw this weary, weathered look and tired gratitude in his face. As I walked away, I found myself with a bit of that same overwhelmed feeling I mentioned from the above video. I felt incredible. Not because I’m some great person for giving away something as trivial as leftovers (in fact, I’m actually pretty callous towards the poverty I see, and resent myself for it). I felt so happy because I was lucky enough to be in a position to able to show a tiny, minuscule act of kindness to someone. I felt blessed. I was filled with a certain love for that guy. Maybe love isn’t the right word – was it compassion or empathy? Either way, it reminded me that when I have that feeling is when I’m among the happiest that I ever am. That feeling is an absolute high.

When I’ve thought about this, it reminds of the even simpler kindnesses. Just smiling at a stranger. I think that’s a kindness. It’s being gentle with each other. Holding a door open. Helping someone pick up something they spill. Stopping to ask if someone needs directions. Helping a stranger park their car when they’re struggling to back in. Carrying groceries. Or again, even just the simplest of all, smiling at a stranger. I think the world can often be a ruthless, rough place. We’ve all got so much going on. So many pressures. Obligations. Fears. Hopes. Just so much. And that simple act of smiling, or these other kindnesses, is that incredibly powerful way of being gentle with each other.

So many things in my life go back to my mom. I wonder if this is one of those too. I remember once long ago, my brother said to me that our mom has this way about her, that makes people want to help her. Maybe everyone thinks that their mom has this inordinately kind face and demeanor, and if so, add me to the list. But I think my mother is one of my best examples of that softness and kindness in how you can carry yourself.

Grace is one of my favorite concepts and attributes. I’m sort of obsessed with it. There’s this beautiful grace in kindness.

So there it is. Kindness. The best, most valuable, luxury there is. I hope to indulge a lot more in 2012. I encourage you to do the same.

with age.

Change is a topic I’ve thought a lot about. Recently I’ve been noodling over how I’ve changed over the years. My tastes. How I make decisions. How I interact with the world. What I value. How I spend my time. What I worry about. What makes me happy. All that stuff. Recently I’ve found that my random thoughts on this have sort of cohered a bit.

What’s different now that I’m in my 30’s? I think it’s a certain comfort.

There are a bunch of things that over the last 10 years caused me a ton of churn and tumult. Continue reading

the white earbuds society.

Over the past year, whether I was in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Cincinnati, there was always the unmistakable sight of white earbuds. Walking in the morning across Madison Ave, getting on the El headed downtown, or out for a run along the Ohio river: White earbuds dangling.

I was heading in to the office. Naturally I had my earbuds in and I was probably listening to a podcast. As I walked downstairs to the train, I passed  two older, visibly homeless men asking for money 100 yards apart. You become immune to these requests so quickly. At times you don’t even notice or process them anymore — you just unconsciously know to keep walking. This was an especially freezing cold March day Chicago and I wanted to get on the train as soon as possible. When underground, I checked my phone and saw the train was still a few minutes away. With time to spare, I took in my surroundings and registered no less than five folks who also had their white earbuds in. For some reason, my mind also went back to the homeless men I had just passed by minutes before.

That’s when the thought formed: Had we become an earbuds society?

It was the division that was the clearest to me. Apple, a company whose products I love, stood out as a clear example. You have millions of people who flock to Apple stores, buy the latest in technology: laptops, phones, tablets. Admittedly, it’s a diverse group. Apple fanboys(girls) are everyone from those who camp out for hours to be first to the more casual buyer who waits.

These items that can cost thousands of dollars. They’re amazing devices and I find extreme utility in them. So I’m not calling out any intrinsic issues with them or saying there’s anything wrong with Apple or buying their stuff. My larger point is their roles as a representative of the division between vastly divergent economic lives.

There are a ton of other signs for who belongs to what “economic class” — Audi or Honda?, Coach purse?, designer jeans?, Patagonia jacket?. The white earbuds, might be the most subtle, but also maybe its clearest manifestation. It’s not an overt display of wealth, it’s an ordinary one. It’s the stuff that you don’t even realize — the things you take for granted — that are often the clearest basis for division.

So, one, the white earbuds are the subtle representation of the split in society. You are either a part of the group that can (fairly) casually drop a few hundred dollars to join or you aren’t.

The second thought was more resonant. The earbuds represented the barriers we put up to avoid engaging and really looking into what’s going on around us.

It’s easier to walk by someone in need if you can pretend you don’t see or hear them. White earbuds allow us to stay in the perfectly manicured iPhone universe  and tune out all else.

It’s a lot easier for us to do this because the road forks very quickly. A homeless guy asking for money is lazy, looking to buy alcohol, and avoids working — someone who has spent his life shirking his responsibility to himself and society. He’s that. Or… A homeless guy asking for money is a military veteran, who had a sick spouse that led to an eviction, bankruptcy, the loss of a job, the path to battling alcoholism, and every day tries and fails to get back on his feet. Or has a mental illness (maybe PTSD, maybe schizophrenia, etc) that led to estrangement from family, the inability to hold down a job and the downward spiral. The stories I’ve heard go on and on.

The thing is, I don’t know which of these is the dominant case. Maybe the archetype of the lazy, good-for-nothing homeless represents 80%. Or maybe it’s that of the veteran in shitty circumstances that’s 80%. My point is the road forks very quickly. From seeing him begging for money– and us walking by– or to actually stopping and giving them money (or food, whatever) and letting them enter our consciousness. We wish to prevent that fork, whether consciously or not, and white earbuds are our invaluable ally.

So, two, the white earbuds are our daily subtle helper to stay within our worlds and prevent the lives and circumstances of others from affecting our paths.

I don’t have a pronouncement, a solution, or a recommendation. I’m not judging or lecturing anyone. I am a member of the white earbuds society. With all the talk of the Occupy Wall Street & the 99% and 1%, I guess 10 months ago I was wondering if the division is far more distributed a ~80% 20%. Is it really just all about the “super-rich” or is the much broader antipathy of me and my peer-group also responsible for the absurd state of everything?

I believe we have a white earbuds society. And almost a year after I first had this thought, I could see it in my nieces and nephews. In the iPhones they had, the presents they got for Christmas. A new generation growing up with white earbuds.

I feel guilty. Not for being part of this white earbud society. I’m not sure where that slippery slope ends and so any guilt at living a very comfortable life is pretty much outside of my daily consciousness. But I do struggle with the latter point of the barrier and its resulting separation. That everything that this comfort and privilege that I have (earned?) also forms a barrier and prevents me from having empathy and understanding what is going on in the world around me. That my daily thoughts and reactions are shaped in the absence of others’ lives. Naturally, my experiences from the past few years shapes this fear in a big way. One of my biggest concerns is instability . I see unsustainable in everything: in the use of natural resources, in economic imbalances of currency and trade, and on a micro-basis in our individual societies. The white earbud construct helped highlight one such source of this division and the impact of it. And, maybe, one source of why such large sources of instability/inequity* can exist and grow.

White earbuds. Their presence divides us. Both in who has them and in how they keep our worlds separate.

*”Extreme inequity = instability/unsustainable” in my book.

naked and nothing.

This week brought the big news of Steve Jobs’ retirement as Apple CEO. Beyond being a brilliant technologist, businessman, or curator of painfully beautiful consumer products he’s a cultural icon. As I saw the profound impact his announcement had on many people I know, I tried to put my thumb on why. In the end, I’ve concluded that it’s because we know how hard it is to define genius. Like obscenity, most of us just know it when we see it. We see it in Steve Jobs.

The WSJ gathered the greatest hits of his quotes. They strike me with that powerful feeling of something articulated that you know to be true, that you feel, that you have been groping around to express, but could never find the right words. I’ll do another post about various Jobs’ quotes and what they mean to me, but for now I want to talk about this gem from his magnificent ’05 stanford commencement speech:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

I still remember the goosebumps this speech caused me 6 years ago. That first day, I watched/read it at least a dozen times because it spoke to so much to where I was in life. When I re-read it this week, it synced with another piece of writing that I recently read from a Paul Bucheit blog post called “I am nothing.” Here’s my favorite part:

Until we let go of our mental images of who we are or who we should be, our vision remains clouded by expectation. But when we let go of everything, open ourselves to any truth, and see the world without fear or judgement, then we are finally able to begin the process of peeling off the shell of false identity that prevents our true self from growing and shining in to the world. And it starts with nothing.

Bucheit echoes Jobs here.

We’re all, ultimately, naked and nothing. We turn our baggage into armor and it prevents us from living the life that we are meant to. It prevents us from experiencing the amazing promise we each came into the world with.

This week was great to remind me that I am naked. It’s a choice to wear that baggage — dogma, judgment, fear, failure, comparisons, etc. I am naked. I am nothing. And now that I’ve reminded myself of this, what should I do? Where should I go? How should I act? What should I pour myself into? These are the thoughts on my mind. Though my answers change depending on when I do the asking, I’m better for having the right foundation.

Anyway. Thanks, Steve Jobs. Not just for my laptop, phone, and tablet. But for serving as an inspiration. For showing us what it can be like when we live up to our promise in an area of our life. For reminding us to remember that we are naked and nothing, and that being so allows us to be everything we ever hoped to be.

2 hours of pain and bliss.

Below are some of the more interesting articles I’ve found over the past month. Not sure if it adds up to 2 hours of reading, but it sounded like a good title to me. Why pain? Because reading some of these articles made my blood boil and indignation rage. After avoiding these kinds of articles for a few months, I’ve jumped back in and hope that maybe something productive will result. Here goes…

1) NYTimes: Banks up to their old tricks.

After screwing over their country (and, to be fair, many other countries) American banks have decided they’ve been punished enough. They are passionately lobbying against regulation of the same complex financial instruments that pushed the world economy to the brink of collapse. They’re pushing for less transparency and less oversight. The money quotes:

“The banks run the place,” Mr. Peterson said. “I will tell you what the problem is — they give three times more money than the next biggest group. It’s huge the amount of money they put into politics.”

“The outrage among the public means that things have a chance to change, if things move quickly,” said Michael Greenberger, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School and a former director of trading and markets at the C.F.T.C. “We’re in this brief moment of time when the average citizen is on a level playing field with the lobbyist.”

The banks run the place? A brief moment in time when the average citizen is on a level playing field with a lobbying group out to bankrupt taxpayers? Wait. What was that sound? Oh, just me throwing my laptop against the wall.


2) NYTimes Magazine: Tom Davis Gives up on Washington

An old article on a republican congressman from Virginia. Half human interest story and half sad state affairs of Washington. I would take 435 Tom Davis’ over almost anything else you could give me. I found it really interesting to read the story of a man who spent a lifetime in politics, played the game enough to exist within the power structures, yet refused to compromise on some core ideas and principles.

3) The New Yorker: Money Talks – the Obama budget

Peter Orszag, Obama’s budget head may have the toughest job on the planet. By all appearances he’s a non-political, intellectually honest policy wonk trying to follow through on an ambitious agenda while not bankrupting America. In times like these, saying that last phrase, becomes more than empty rhetoric. Interesting to read about the schism within the administration between those who are scared of our deficits and those who feel we need to march ahead to “right America”. Though, unlike the battle in 90’s, we live in a different world where the dollar is actually in some amount of danger.

4) New Yorker: Cost of healthcare…

Atul Gawande is an *amazing* writer. He wrote a great book called Better: A surgeon’s notes on performance. Here he takes on the peculiarities of health care costs. Gawande writes with the credibility of a renowned doctor and with the incisiveness of a gifted author to confront a taboo in the world of medicine– the profound import of money. Examining a city in TX that boasts health care spending far above the national average and surrounding towns, he dives in full bore. There’s a synergy to this and the Orszag article and, hopefully, we’re approaching a consensus in potential approaches. Make no mistake, health care is the single biggest threat to our country’s future. It threatens private sector viability and the potential to bankrupt the government. Social Security and bailouts can’t touch our medical system.


5) New York Review of Books: Crisis and how to deal with it.

Niall Ferguson is one of my favorite authors and speakers on economic issues. I’ll warn you to not read this next to any sharp objects, prescription drugs, or other dangerous things. The conversation, between some of the “brightest economic minds”, offers very, very little sunshine.

I’ll have 5 more in a few days.

duty & skill and will.

From last post – some thoughts inspired by Unforgiving Minute.

Duty.

Mullaley focuses on the notion of duty when discussing the Ramayana. I grew up with parents who are apart from the culture I grew up in. This created all kinds of problems and interesting/unique experiences. From them I learned and accepted the idea of a lifelong duty to family. While reading Mullaley’s thoughts on duty, I wondered what America’s current cultural notion of duty actually is. Back in the day, JFK helped shape a sense of duty to country. Going back to WW1 and WW2 you saw this reflected through in widespread military service across socioeconomic class. What is our  current sense of duty towards? Is it money? Prosperity? Have we been trained to believe that our duty is to maximize our personal prosperity. That in doing this, we do our service to society? (Shudder) If not this, then what?

Skill and will.

“Skill and will”, he told me, “win battles.”…

“Any knucklehead with sufficient practice can shoot a rifle straight,” he said. “Will, on the other hand, is different. Will takes character.”
The Unforgiving Minute, page 192

An elegant expression of what it takes to succeed. While, clearly, *skill* is not nearly as trivial as the quote makes it appear, the balance of the two rings true. Success can often seem far off, hard to realize, questionable, or even impossible. But, really, it requires just these two things. The hard work to acquire the necessary skills. Hours of training, practice, research, education, etc. It requires the will to believe. To truly, and completely believe, that once you apply your will to a problem, you *will* solve it. I’ve used the phrase “impose my will” previously, and I believe it. If you want something bad enough, I actually believe you can will yourself to achieving it. Life is often a question of will. What’s harder? Acquiring the skill or the will?