The skill of goals

No matter what you’re doing at a given time, there are two skills that you are also developing, or not:

  1. The ability to allocate your effort & attention to achieve your goals.
  2. The ability to pick the right goals.

Ignore the former and you will tend to act ineffectively. All you’ll get for your effort & attention is a whole lot of frustration. Ignore the latter and you will tend toward unadmirable traits & behaviors — you’ll be an asshole.

Your goals are the outlines of the person you intend to be; your agility in the pursuit of those goals is the coloring and the shading that fleshes him out.

Same same but different is this poster by Joey Roth:

Charlatan, martyr, hustler

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All of this is true

“All of this is true” was written neatly in black dry-erase marker on the glass of the sliding door. Beyond it, the balcony, the railing, the street, and the big corner gas station with the floodlights that never went off (much to my irritation). Assorted traffic passing at appropriate speeds, low buildings across the street, a big chunk of sky — an urban tableau streaming in through the glass. Every glance out that aperture made a frame for the time-lapse video of my memory of this place. And every frame was pre-captioned: “All of this is true.”

It was a reminder. I was in the habit, in those angry days too, of peering out over the railing to see some fat, greasy neighbor move down the block and thinking something like “I can’t believe people can live like that.” Or, in the middle of the night, moonlighting as an insomniac and blaming my plight on the blazing bulb across the street: “They shouldn’t be leaving that on! What is wrong with people??”

At night, the words projected their shapes onto the backside of the pale curtains. But vibrations — whether from the choppers at the Dominican biker club across to the street, or subtler forces — occasionally altered the light’s refraction through the glass, casting new shadow messages onto the cloth.

Things could be different, but they’re not,” it said once, flickering. “Accept that and go from there.”

A thought about Science

Science is a way of training minds, so that when you’re looking at, say, new images from space, you can turn to your colleague and say “So cool, right!?!?” and know that the look on her face means she knows exactly how cool.

It’s just a verification system for information you trade with others.

Just 🙂

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Pokhara, Part II: Inflection point

This is Part II of the story. Read Part I here.

“Meditation: Why Bother?” (Mindfulness in Plain English, Chapter 1):

Just because of the simple fact that you are human, you find yourself heir to an inherent unsatisfactoriness in life that simply will not go away. You can suppress it from your awareness for a time; you can distract yourself for hours on end, but it always comes back, and usually when you least expect it. All of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue, you sit up, take stock, and realize your actual situation in life.

There you are, and you suddenly realize that you are spending your whole life just barely getting by. You keep up a good front. You manage to make ends meet somehow and look okay from the outside. But those periods of desperation, those times when you feel everything caving in on you—you keep those to yourself. You are a mess, and you know it. But you hide it beautifully. Meanwhile, way down under all of that, you just know that there has to be some other way to live, a better way to look at the world, a way to touch life more fully. You click into it by chance now and then: you get a good job. You fall in love. You win the game. For a while, things are different. Life take on a richness and clarity that makes all the bad times and humdrum fade away. The whole texture of your experience changes and you say to yourself, “Okay, now I’ve made it; now I will be happy.” But then that fades too, like smoke in the wind. You are left with just a memory—that, and the vague awareness that something is wrong.

You feel that there really is a whole other realm of depth and sensitivity available in life; somehow, you are just not seeing it. You wind up feeling cut off. You feel insulated from the sweetness of experience by some sort of sensory cotton. You are not really touching life. You are not “making it” again. Then even that vague awareness fades away, and you are back to the same old reality. The world looks like the usual foul place. It is an emotional roller coaster, and you spend a lot of your time down at the bottom of the ramp, yearning for the heights.

So what is wrong with you? Are you a freak? No. You are just human. And you suffer from the same malady that infects every human being. It is a monster inside all of us, and it has many arms: chronic tension, lack of genuine compassion for others, including the people closest to you, blocked up feelings and emotional deadness—many, many arms. None of us is entirely free from it. We may deny it. We try to suppress it. We build a whole culture around hiding from it, pretending it is not there, and distracting ourselves with goals, projects, and concerns about status. But it never goes away. It is a constant undercurrent in every thought and every perception, a little voice in the back of the mind that keeps saying, “Not good enough yet. Need to have more. Have to make it better. Have to be better.” It is a monster that manifests everywhere in subtle forms.

Go to a party. Listen to the laughter, those brittle-tongued voices that express fun on the surface, and fear underneath. Feel the tension, the pressure. Nobody really relaxes. They are faking it. Go to a ball game. Watch the fans in these rand. Watch the irrational fits of anger. Watch the uncontrolled frustration bubbling forth from the people that masquerades under the guise of enthusiasm or team spirit. Booing, catcalls, and unbridled egotism in the name of team loyalty, drunkenness, fights in the stands—these are people trying desperately to release tension from within; these are not people who are at peace with themselves. Watch the news on TV. Listen to the lyrics of popular songs. You find the same theme repeated over and over in variations: jealousy, suffering, discontent, and stress.

Life seems to be a perpetual strungle, an enormous effort against staggering odds. And what is our solution to all this dissatisfaction? We get stuck in the “if only” syndrome. If only I had more money, then I would be happy. If only I could find somebody who really loved me; if only I could lose twenty pounds; if only I had a color TV, a hot tub, and curly hair; and on and on forever. Where does all this junk come from, and more important, what can we do about it? It comes from the conditions of our own minds. it is a deep, subtle, and pervasive set of mental habits, a Gordian know that we have tied bit by bit and that we can only unravel in just that same way, one piece at a time. We can tune up our awareness, dredge up each separate piece, and bring it out into the light. We can make the unconscious conscious, slowly, one piece at a time.

The essence of our experience is change. Change is incessant. Moment by moment life flows by, and it is never the same. Perpetual fluctuation is the essence of the perceptual universe. A thought springs up in your head and half a second later, it is gone. In comes another one, and then that is gone too. A song strikes your ears, and then silence. Open your eyes and world pours in, blink and it is gone. People come into your life and go. Friends leave, relatives die. Your fortunes go up, and they go down. Sometimes you win, and just as often, you lose. It is incessant: change, change, change; no two moments ever the same.

There is not a thing wrong with this. It is the nature of the universe. But human culture has taught us some odd responses to this endless flowing. We categorize experiences. We try to stick each perception, every mental change in this endless flow, into one of three mental pigeon holes: it is good, bad, or neutral. Then, according to which box we stick it in, we perceive with a set of fixed habitual mental responses. If a particular perception has been labeled “good,” then we try to freeze time right there. We grab onto that particular thought, fondle it, hold it, and we try to keep it from escaping. When that does not work, we go all-out in an effort to repeat the experience that caused the thought. Let us call this mental habit “grasping.”

Over on the other side of the mind lies the box labeled “bad.” When we perceive something “bad,” we try to push it away. We try to deny it, reject it, and get rid of it any way we can. We fight against our own experience. We run from pieces o ourselves. Let us call this mental habit “rejecting.” Between these two reactions lies the “neutral” box. Here we place the experiences that are neither good nor bad. They are tepid, neutral, uninteresting. We pack experience away in the neutral box so that we can ignore it and thus return our attention to where the action is, namely, our endless round of desire and aversion. So this “neutral” category of experience gets robed of its fair share of our attention. Let us call this mental habit “ignoring.” The direct result of all this lunacy is a perpetual treadmill race to nowhere, endlessly pounding after pleasure, endlessly fleeing from pain, and endlessly ignoring 90 percent of our experience. Then we wonder why life tastes so flat. In the final analysis this system does not work.

No matter how hard you pursue pleasure and success, there are times when you fail. No matter how fast you flee, there are times when pain catches up with you. And in between those times, life is so boring you could scream. Our minds are full of opinions and criticisms. We have built walls all around ourselves and are trapped in the prison of our own likes and dislikes. We suffer.

“Suffering” is a big word in Buddhist thought. It is a key term and should be thoroughly understood. The Pali word is dukkha, and it does not just mean the agony of the body. It means that deep, subtle sense of dissatisfaction that is a part of every mind moment and that results directly from the mental treadmill. The essence of life is suffering, said the Buddha. At first glance this statement seems exceedingly morbid and pessimistic. It even seems untrue. After all, there are plenty of times when we are happy. Aren’t there? No, there are not. It just seems that way. Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension that no matter how great this moment is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are either going to lose some of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you are going to die; in the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory.

Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Luckily, it’s not—not at all. It only sounds bleak when you view it from the ordinary mental perspective, the very perspective at which the treadmill mechanism operates. Underneath lies another perspective, a completely different way to look at the universe. It is a level of functioning in which the mind does not try to freeze time, does not grasp onto our experience as it flows by, and does not try to block things out and ignore them. It is a level of experience beyond good and bad, beyond pleasure and pain. It is a lovely way to perceive the world, and it is a learnable skill. It is not easy, but it can be learned.

Happiness and peace are really the prime issues in human existence. That is what all of us are seeking. This is often a bit hard to see because we cover up those basic goals with layers of surface objectives. We want food, wealth, sex, entertainment, and respect. We even say to ourselves that the idea of “happiness” is too abstract: “Look, I am practical. Just give me enough money and I will buy all the happiness I need.” Unfortunately, this is an attitude that does not work. Examine each of these goals and you will find that they are superficial. You want food. Why? Because I am hungry. So you are hungry—so what? Well, if I eat, I won’t be hungry, and then I’ll feel good. Ah ha! “Feel good”: now there is the real item. What we really seek is not the surface goals; those are just means to an end. What we are really after is the feeling of relief that comes when the drive is satisfied. Relief, relaxation, and an end to the tension. Peace, happiness—no more yearning.

So what is this happiness? For most of us, the idea of perfect happiness would be to have everything we wanted and be in control of everything, playing Caesar, making the whole world dance a jig according to our every whim. Once again, it does not work that way. Take a look at the people in history who have actually held this type of power. They were not happy people. Certainly, they were not at peace with themselves. Why not? Because they were driven to control the world totally and absolutely, and they could not. They wanted to control all people, yet there remained people who refused to be controlled. These powerful people could not control the stars. They still got sick. They still had to die.

You can’t ever get everything you want. It is impossible. Luckily, there is another option. You can learn to control your mind, to step outside of the endless cycle of desire and aversion. You can learn not to want what you want, to recognize desires but not be controlled by them. This does not mean that you lie down on the road and invite everybody to walk all over you. It means that you continue to live a very normal-looking life, but life from a whole new viewpoint. You do the things that person must do, but you are free from that obsessive, compulsive drivenness of your own desires. You want something, but you don’t need to chase after it. You fear something, but you don’t need to stand there quaking in your boots. This sort of mental cultivation is very difficult. It takes years. But trying to control everything is impossible; the difficult is preferable to the impossible.

I’ve read these words before. They hit me different every time. This time I’m heavily primed — in Nepal, post-retreat, middle of the night, alone — and they hit me hard. The world vibrates and, with it, so do I. I feel it.

Yes, now I remember why I mediate at all. It’s so easy to forget, and misery clouds your memory and vision. Something I know can help becomes just another imposition, another thing standing between me and what I want to do right now (as if I ever really know what that is).

This is what I want. This is it.

I’m propped up against two beds’ worth of pillows. I sit up a bit straighter, pull my legs into Burmese posture, wrap my shoulders in a shawl, set the timer, close my eyes, take one relaxed breath, them another…

And thirty minutes later, I feel much better. Neither tired nor anxious. I fold my my shawl. The first wisps of daylight are peeking over the hills.

Take away anxiety and the various paths into the future become clearer. Selecting between them, and following the selection are easier too. So I grab a quick workout—100 burpees—rinse off in the tepid hot water, and I’m a brand new man by the time the kitchen opens for the morning.

Breakfast is served right outside my room on the second floor balcony. I order the fruit & yogurt—no glutenous granola today—and milk tea, and behold the sunrise.

Behind me are a set of bookcases full of random volumes left behind by travelers from around the world. I go over to look for a breakfast companion. Typical array: travel guides (mostly outdated), some topical design books (“Bed & Breakfasts in the Himalayas”), local culture, Buddhism, international best-sellers. A few titles catch my eye. Probability suggests this is inevitable, but let’s call it fate for now.

  1. The Godfather of Kathmandu, by John Burdett. I’ve seen this book several times already on the trip and almost bought it in Suvarnabhumi Airport last week. It’s the fourth book in the series that started with Bangkok 8, which I’d heard enough about to put at the top my [untouched] “Prep for Thailand” reading list. Ordinarily, I would start with the first book in a series, but the title of this one is too obviously relevant to postpone.
  2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. This has been specifically recommended to me a dozen times by as many people. A sci-fi classic, ubiquitous in the geeky circles I always find myself in. I’d bet 90% of people who’ve used a programming language have read it. I’ve resisted reading it because of it’s popularity and because I get more excited about “serious” books (a preference that I doubt does me any good, in the end). Time to put my money where my doubt is? Yes.
  3. Shopping for Buddhas, by Jeff Greenwald. Though I never heard of it before the trip, this book keeps showing up in the travel sections of bookstores in Nepal, and I keep noticing it because I kept finding myself shopping for Buddhas myself. No other trinkets interested me. I never picked up the book because it was published by Lonely Planet (in their defunct “Journeys” series), and for all the time I’ve spent with their books I never came across one that wasn’t a travel guide. This made me skeptical of its quality. Today it’s time to take a look.

I bring the trio back to the table. Breakfast arrives, and I open The Godfather of Kathmandu:

Ours is an age of enforced psychosis. I’ll forgive yours, farang, if you’ll forgive mine—but let’s talk about it later. Right now I’m the back of a motorbike taxi hurtling toward a to-die-for little murder off Soi 4/4, Sukhumvit. My boss, Colonel Vikom, called me at home with the good news that he wants me on the case because the victim is said to be some hyper-rich, hyper-famous Hollywood farang and he doesn’t need poor Detective Sukum screwing up with the media. We’ll get to Detective Sukum; for the moment picture me, if you will, with a Force 8 tropical wind in my face causing eyes to tear and ears to itch, on my to one of our most popular red-light districts where there awaits a larger-than-life dead Westerner.

I’m nearly there. With a little urging my motorbike jockey drives up onto the sidewalk to avoid the massive traffic jam at the Soi 4 junction with Sukhumvit, weaves in between a long line of cooked-food vendors busy feeding the whores from Nana Plaza who have just gotten up (it’s about eleven in the morning), slaloms between a mango seller and a lamppost, returns to the tarmac with the usual jolt to the lower spine, and now we’re slowing to swerve into Subsoi 4. (Should one add the two fours to make the lucky number eight, or should one accept the stark warning: two fours mean death twice within the Cantonese luck system, which has taken over the world as a vital component of globalization?)

One page in, and I’m already feeling an unusual amount of resonance. Sukhumvit is one of the biggest roads in Bangkok, and it’s where I spent most of my time in the city three weeks ago. Near the Nana MRT stop, no less. I never got anywhere near Soi 4/4, but I have some experience with Chinese thoughts concerning the number 4:

Back in ’06 I spent the summer studying Mandarin in Beijing. Early in the program, I went to buy mobile phones with some classmates and we found that phone numbers without any fours were much more expensive than phone numbers with fours. Why? The Mandarin words for ‘four’ (四, “sì”) and ‘death’ (死, “sǐ”) are homophonic, just with different tones. So fours imply death. One four in the phone number took more than 50% off the price. Two fours were 70% off. Additional fours did not merit additional discounts, suggesting that two fours is all it takes to be maximally screwed. I’m anti-superstitious, so I took the discount.

The way I see it, superstition is wrong because luck isn’t a property of the objects we assign it to, it’s just in the mind. But ever since reading Larry Niven’s Ringworld, in which a character is brought on a risky voyage because she comes from a long line of lucky people (like sole survivors of major catastrophes), I’ve definitely allowed for the possibility that luck is real — just because we can’t perceive it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. So say there is luck out there in the world, the likelihood that our superstitions correlate with the actual distribution of luck is vanishingly small. Therefore, if lots of people are avoiding certain objects or events because they’re “unlucky” (Friday the 13th, walking under ladders, black cats, etc.), that means there are fewer people competing for whatever luck that is there. So that’s the easiest luck to get. Nobody else is going for it. I’ve been consistently anti-superstitious ever since my first kiss on October 13, 2000—a Friday. Stray cats and ladders are my jam.

Four is easy for a math major to love too. Besides being a square (2^2) and the first non-prime even natural number, it’s x^x where x=2. By itself, that’s unimportant, but I’m 27 years old—x^x where x=3. Wrap your mind around that!

I laugh at the impertinence of my thought patterns, but the conclusion is obvious: 4 is my number today. I’m going to read the first four chapters of these books. If it kills me. I hope the chapters aren’t too long.

I take four bites of yogurt and four sips of tea, and forge on. In Chapter 4, we meet the title character, a exiled Tibetan lama of Western parentage who is trafficking drugs to fund the war to free Tibet. Monk, businessman and freedom fighter—this is a guy I can get behind. The book is great. I’m reluctant to stop at chapter 5, but rules are rules.

Next up: Hitchhiker’s Guide. It flies by quick and easy, and doesn’t really grab me, but I enjoy seeing the source material for so many things I’ve heard of in other places (e.g. the Babelfish, Trillian, “mostly harmless”). It’s like driving around L.A. for the first time after 20 years of seeing movies. Favorite quote: “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” Makes me want more breakfast. I order another milk tea.

Now for Buddhas. It begins with an epigraph from DeLillo’s White Noise, which I read on the adamant recommendation of a girl I met in Florence on my previous open-ended journey.

I was one of them, shopping, at last.

The book tells of how the author ended up in Nepal for lack of any other clear direction, having rejected out of disgust the obvious career paths at his feet. Sounded familiar. He fell in love with the place and ended up returning on a magazine assignment, but ended up writing part of a novel, flesh out a first book comprising letters he wrote home describing the place. Sounds like something I could do. I’m starting to like this guy.

I don’t give much weight to the coincidences I notice, though I luxuriate in them. My major advisor at Williams, Ed Burger, has some excellent points on the topic in his book Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz:

Coincidence surprise us because our intuition about the likelihood of an even is often wildly inaccurate…. Simply put, the underlying principle is that if we have many opportunities to witness some rare event, then it is extremely likely that eventually we’ll see it.

One of the keys to putting coincidences in perspective is to realize that we usually haven’t decided what type of coincidence we are seeking before we happen to witness is…. Finding coincidences among millions of possibilities is an entirely different proposition from looking at just one question.

Consider all the moments in your life. If we model time using Plack’s interval there are 10^43 moments per second. If we model it using film speed there are 24 moments (frames) per second. Other senses can perceive smaller timescales than vision, but let’s go with this conservative estimate. There are more than 2 million moments per day, 3/4 of a billion per year. With all those moments, a pattern recognition system like our minds will find a whole lot of coincidences. As Burger writes:

How likely is it that there would no coincidences… among this blizzard of possibilities? The likelihood that there would be no coincidences is essentially zero.

In The Unbearable Lightness of BeingMilan Kundera has some excellent thoughts on the subject of what coincidences (“motifs”) we end up seeing:

Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. Co-incidence means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet: Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven (though the meeting of Beethoven and the butcher would also have been an interesting coincidence). But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music. Whenever she heard it, she would be touched. Everything going on around her at that moment would be haloed by the music and take on its beauty.

Early in the novel [Anna Karenina], Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and the end—may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.

They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.

It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences. … But it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

What begin as essentially random observations become reinforced by our attention to them. Might as well be conscious of your own complicity in the process — it makes the work of building a life (a story) much more fun. Especially if you recognize that your past, your memories, are nothing but stories you’ve written, edited, and retold for yourself and others. Meaningless, yet meaningful. Or, we could say that all of the meaning we create in our lives amounts to nothing. So teaches Buddha.

In Chapter 4, Greenwald explains his selection from the myriad variations of posture and hand positions you can find in Buddha statues:

A Buddha is not a simple thing to shop for. He comes in infinite sizes, a full spectrum of colors, and a daunting variety of postures and poses. The postures — standing, walking, reclining, or sitting in meditative bliss — are called asanas. Then, to complicate matters even further, there are the mudras: hand positions. Sometimes the Buddha’s fingers are intricately linked in the tongue-wrestling pose of dharmachakrapravartana mudra: ‘Turning the Wheel of the Law’. Or with his right palm raised; ‘Fear Not’. Both hands up, palms facing outward: ‘Calming the Ocean’. Once a temple in Thailand, I think I saw a gestures called ‘Forbidding His Relatives to Fight with One Another’.

Fortunately, I knew from the very beginning which asana and mudra I wanted. The pose is sometimes called ‘Subduing Mara’; but the more familiar title, which I prefer, is bhumisparsa mudra: ‘Calling the Earth to Witness’.

That pose seemed to embody the state of mind that would fix me up once and for all — it spoke of an approach to life and to work that I needed to be reminded of constantly.

Why? Well, I think it has to do with an unconscious fear of success: a very contemporary (and peculiarly American) malaise that, much like chronic fatigue syndrome, you never even realize exists until your lover or your analyst uses it to explain what’s been wrong with you all these years. Then the indisputable accuracy of the diagnosis washes over you like a hot tide, your face burns with the sugar rush of catharsis, and you are filled with the giddy conviction that you can make it all happen after all.

And why not? I mean, if the problem is fear of success, and you can somehow eliminate the fear, then all that’s let is success: gleaming out there on the horizon like an illuminated skyline, brilliant, inevitable, you couldn’t miss it if you tried.

So why not another pose, like ‘Fear Not’? Well, if the only thing to fear was fear itself, then that ‘Fear Not’ pose might be enough. But this is not just plain, ordinary fear of something like death or rotten shellfish. This is fear of success, a far more insidious foe. It elbows its way into every situation, from table tennis to romance, and takes many strange and terrible forms — not the least of which, as any writer knows, is a relentless, demonic distraction.

On the surface, this distraction may manifest as a simple desire for a pepperoni pizza or cup of espresso. You know the technique: momentary diversion. What the demon really wants to do, of course, is snatch the page right out of my typewriter carriage, read it with a sneer, and howl, “This really stinks, boy! It’s the worst kind of amateur drivel! What makes you think you can get away with inflicting this gibberish on anyone with brains enough to avoid it? What gives you the right?”

Bhumisparsa mudra is the gesture that Siddharta Gautama made at the moment he achieved enlightenment. Mara, Lord of Desire, had just laid all the temptations of existence before him and he had resisted them all. Mara’s final challenge, as Greenwald dramatizes it, was:

“Okay. So you can’t be tempted…. Just one last question, though. What I wanna know is this: who gives you license to sit here and decided that what you know, what you think you know, is worth hearing, let alone worth teaching? Where do you get off, claiming that you could be the Enlightened One? What gives you the right?”

Siddharta reached down with his right hand and lightly touched the earth.

The earth is my witness. Existence is my witness. No more is needed.

And so I am convinced: this is the pose I want. My friends can attest that I’m no stranger to the fear of success, and for the time being I’m nothing if not a writer living in Nepal. Greenwald’s analysis fits me well too.

End chapter 4, book three. I crack open a bar of dark chocolate. The sun has cleared the roof and shines on the balcony. It’s the perfect temperature for late morning in the mountains—warm enough that my fingers aren’t cold but cool enough that the chocolate doesn’t melt on them as I savor it.

Chapters 2-4 of Mindfulness perfect the morning’s symmetry: four books, four chapters per book, four hours, and four squares of chocolate. (I confess, there were four cigarettes too.)

I surge forth into the day. It’s time to go shopping.

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The ethics of eating meat

Back in April, I submitted an entry for the the New York Times’ Tell Us Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat essay contest. This is a topic I’m passionate about, think about constantly, and often fail to stop myself from debating (and fighting) with people about. This what I wrote:

Is it ethical to eat meat? Like every other ethics question, the answer is somewhere between definitely and no.

Let’s look at some other ways to divide up the food world to put the question in context. Local v. non-local: Is it more ethical to eat bananas from Nicaragua, or a chicken I raised in my backyard? Organic v. non-organic: is it more ethical to eat an ear of corn grown with pesticides that kill organisms in place, then taint soil and waterways; or to buy organic bacon from the farmer I see ever week at the greenmarket? What if that ear of corn is Roundup Ready? Then the question is genetically-modified versus non-GM, and you have to ignore the damage done to farms and farmers by Monsanto’s devastating pesticide in order to say its more ethical to eat that than a taco al pastor from the corner store. Or how about edible food-like substances v. real food: should we eat Twinkies instead of tacos?

The answer to all of these questions is: maybe. You can’t decide without more information. Put someone alone on a desert island, or on food stamps with a family of five, and who would call it unethical to eat any of these? Those of us with that have the luxury of choice can choose freely, but the addition of freedom does not transmute those choices into ethical imperatives. What it does do is give us the space to ask more questions, inquire deeper. Knowing the biological kingdom of your food is merely the beginning.

The mindset of “plants good, animals bad” is a cop-out, an easy answer to the question of how to eat in a way that expresses and aligns with our highest ideals. You are free to choose it if it you like, but if you truly want your view on the subject to correspond to reality, you have to admit shades of gray into your black-and-white world. You have to accept the possibility of nuance and seek it out. You need a worldview that doesn’t get so caught up on how disgusting and destructive the production and consumption of meat can be that it fails to see how disgusting and destructive eating plants can be too, just because it’s less obvious. The ruined cornfield bleats its anguish in a different language.

Dig deeper.

There are things I had to leave out because of the word limit and I’ve refined my thinking since then, so I’ll return to the topic in future posts. For now, I just want to get this out of my email, where it originally disappeared after I sent it to the Times and then again in an email thread with some friends that became unsustainable.

Here are the winners from the contest.

Favorite quote, from judge Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation (1975):

“The tragedy is that factory farming survives despite the widespread agreement that whether we are primarily concerned about animal welfare, our environment or our health, it is ethically indefensible.”

I went googling for ethical vegetarians or vegans that went back to eating meat and wrote about it, and had some interesting finds:

“I still believe that the diversion of ever wider tracts of arable land from feeding people to feeding livestock is iniquitous and grotesque. So does the book I’m about to discuss. I no longer believe that the only ethical response is to stop eating meat.”

— George Monblot in The Guardian: I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly

“Replacing red meat with grain products leads to many more sentient animal deaths, far greater animal suffering and significantly more environmental degradation. Protein obtained from grazing livestock costs far fewer lives per kilogram: it is a more humane, ethical and environmentally-friendly dietary option.”

— Mike Archer in The Conversation: Ordering the vegetarian meal? There’s more animal blood on your hands


“I was a vegan for almost twenty years. I know the reasons that compelled me to embrace an extreme diet and they are honorable, ennobling even.”

“This book is written to further those passions, that hunger. It is not an attempt to mock the concept of animal rights or to sneer at the people who want a gentler world. Instead, this book is an effort to honor our deepest longings for a just world. And those longings—for compassion, for sustainability, for an equitable distribution of resources—are not served by the philosophy or practice of vegetarianism. We have been led astray.”

— Lierre Keith: The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability

“Human beings survive by eating other living things. I really want not only to eat, but to survive. Yet a nakedly logical way to judge the value of one kind of organism over another — the rightness of a plant’s death versus an animal’s — seems, to me, out of reach.”

— Carol Kaesuk Yoon in The New York Times: No Face, but Plants Like Life Too

This last one covers a some ideas I’ve been thinking a lot about: What exactly distinguishes plants from animals? The biological distinction is pretty boring—I would love to see someone make a moral argument for not eating meat based on the actual difference between them. And also the pain argument: plant behavior unfolds on the different timescale than animal behavior. Don’t eat meat because animals feel pain? Watch those time lapse videos of plants and then try to articulate the difference between plant and animal agony.

Pokhara, Part I: Things fall apart

I can’t sleep. Did I drink too much coffee at the café yesterday? Smoke too many cigarettes? What a disappointment. First afternoon off the meditation retreat and I immediately binge on three of my favorite chemicals: caffeine, nicotine and sugar.

The self-recriminations creep in from the shadows, shadows cast by the mountains against the pale light of a gibbous moon. Why can’t I control myself for more than a minute? Why can’t I maintain a positive state of mind for more than sixty? Why can’t I just sleep when I go to bed, like everyone else?

Why, why, why.

Ten days of meditation didn’t make a dent on this thought pattern, I guess! They say it takes 30 days to form a habit or break one. No way I could’ve held out for another 20.

Corrugated steel roofs & trees above the lake

Dhamma Pokhara. The trees obscure the lake and the clouds obscure the mountains.

Was it worth it, taking the time to come over to Nepal? Spending all that money on the flights? Not sitting my ass in one place for a more than a few months, and holding down a job like everyone else?

Questions with inaccessible answers. No answers you can trust. Therefore: bad questions. No point in asking them. Experience is what you make of it. Who cares what everyone else is doing. You’d be miserable like you always were back there in the square life. Leave that to everyone else and find a different path. Even if it’s terrifying to be lost.

You can’t chastise yourself out of a bad mood. Sometimes you can distract yourself out of one though. I grab my phone off the desk and pull up some poetry. Lines from Keats’ “To Sleep” were echoing in my head all retreat long, and I resolved to fill in the blanks and memorize the whole thing when I got back. Memorizing would occupy my obsessive mind, and this particular incantation was so deliciously germane, I had a chance of it working.

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
     Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,
Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light,
     Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close
     In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
Or wait the "Amen," ere thy poppy throws
     Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me, or the passèd day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,
     Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
     Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,
And seal the hushèd Casket of my Soul.

Damn you, curious conscience! Damn you and your burrowing! But thank you, John, for putting good words in my mind. It’s nice to wield another’s words against your woes. That last couplet was the first part that stuck with me, years ago. The mere suggestion of key makes feel I can almost wrap my attention around something inside me that, with a gentle twist of the mind, locks me in a dream world behind those oilèd wards. Better to do it myself than wait for Sleep herself to pay me some attention.

It isn’t enough though—the magic is tired too.

I look at the clock—4:30 am. Earlier in the night I cleared my RSS feed, dispatched all the easy emails. I’ve still got two hours ’til breakfast, and poetry asks a bit too much of my higher mental faculties. I need another diversion, perhaps a prose one, but the only book I have with me is Mindfulness in Plain English and the last thing I want right now is more meditation. I’d planned to reread some of the book in the lead-up to the retreat, but inspiration never came. I’m short on inspiration now too, but I guess it’s either lie awake in bead, read about meditation, or actually meditate. The internet is way too slow for the heavy-duty diversions—streaming media, book downloads, etc. I’d rather than read than meditate, so I open to chapter 1.

There are some other possible explanations, besides the chemicals, for the state I’m in. I’d had an unusual day. I’d spent a lot of time on the zabuton thinking about what I was going to do, immediately and long-term, after the retreat. The Want-To-Do List (a more empowering variant on the To-Do list I thought of supra zabuton I developed for Day One was:

  1. coffee
  2. fruit lassi
  3. vegetable juice
  4. chocolate chip cookie
  5. massage
  6. copy notes from gauze pad wrappers

The first three I took care of almost immediately upon arriving in Lakeside, the lovely tourist ghetto. I stumbled off the bus within a stone’s throw of what I heard was the best coffee joint in town, AM/PM Organic Cafe.

Boys sit under slanting tree by the lake

Across the street from AM/PM

Usually, I make a point of not stumbling off buses. However, it had been a brutal ride. I peaced out of the meditation center at around 11 with the sun on my shoulders, a pack on my back, and a smile on my face. I even had some fresh naan the cook insisted I take with me, though I planned to toss it at the first trash bin so I could resume eating gluten-free. Free of the cloister and gluten-free is just the thing for me.

In Nepal, a “mountain” has a snow cap; a big rock without one is merely a hill, though these hills dwarf most of the named mountains back home. I started the 4 km walk down the hill to the bus stop in Begnas, and soon as I came off the center’s access trail, cell service locked in and I became one of the last Americans to hear about Obama’s reelection. An excellent start! After a kilometer or two, though, the novelty wore off and my mind wandered forward once again to my afternoon of deliciousness. “Wish I could get there faster,” I began to think, but before I could finish, a motorcycle pulled over in front of me and the driver, a sharply-dressed Nepali guy, turned around and said “Need a ride down the hill?”

Yes, yes I do. I hop on the back.

Hills, from the sky

The wind is a delight, and I’m traveling 10 times faster than I have in a week and a half. He leaves me off at the bus stop and points me toward my bus; I promise to stay at his guest house next time I’m out this way. I board the bus, which is almost empty. A good sign. The conductor tells me the fare is 30 Nr (about 35¢). A good price. I calculate that this is 1/50 what it cost to get out here in a taxi. Bad sign. With a generous allowance for diminishing marginal returns on my rupees, I figured I was in for a ride that was at most 1/10 as pleasant. It turned out that my calculation was generous.

Several Americans here have told me that Nepalis are the worst drivers in the world. This is true; they could not possibly be worse. It has nothing to do with their hand/eye coordination, or intelligence, or anything innate. Naturally, Nepalis are used to this. I am not. Every motor vehicle ride I go on gives me agitation bordering on agony, as drivers ignore every rule of the road and passenger comfort that I am used to in the States. They treat the road they way pedestrians in NYC treat the sidewalk: use any space available to you in any way you wish. Want to go faster than the car in front of you? Pass it, regardless of oncoming traffic. See some space between vehicles? Fill it—it’s wasted space. Turning? Why signal? People have eyes. Or ears: a honk doesn’t mean “Hey, you’re doing something wrong!” but rather just “Hey!”, and it’s not really optional, because constant honking substitutes for having rules and following them. If everybody knows where everybody else is and adjusts for it, then you can do almost anything you want without danger.

And it works, it really does. It squeezes much more bandwidth than US regulations would out of the narrow, bumpy roads overfilled with cars and buses and motorcycles and pedestrians and dogs and chickens and cows (which, like the sacred idols Hindus believe them to be, move for no man). But for the western traveler, especially one who loves orderly systems, it comes on like a constant violation of your serenity. And that’s without considering the exhuast quality. This is not a place of high emissions standards, so if it runs, it’s running, and any additional maintenance is a waste. Plus the gas doesn’t burn as clean because it’s been adulterated with kerosene, which fills the air with black smoke while it destroys the engines. No wasted space, only wasted hydrocarbons. So if you’ve got nausea coming at you from the motion, the deep breaths that would normally help will only make it worse. O culture shock! O doggy bag! Travel on an empty stomach and wear your filter mask.

Through those streets I rode to Pokhara. And, again, in a local bus not a cab, so it stopped every 50 meters plus whereever anyone flagged it down, honked like a street party, maneuvered like a boat, and filled up like the NYC subway tunnels during Hurricane Sandy. My serenity was tested, and it failed. I caved; I ate the naan.

Seventy-five minutes later we pulled into town, but not my part of town. A woman directed me to the next bus I need in broken English. I thanked her in broken Nepali. Bus #2 was more like a van and moved more like a roller-coaster. I was standing, so the excitement was multiplied. The air got better as we approached Lakeside, but I was losing hit points to the marauding walls and roof.

Two hours after I left the meditation center, I arrived, with a hundred good excuses for a stumble (though nobody cared). I proceeded directly to AM/PM, ogled the pastry case, ordered coffee and a mixed fruit lassi, dropped my bag, and popped into the store next door for a bottle of water and some cigarettes. Without a doubt I was caving to craving with the smokes, but I’d decided, supra zabuton, to prioritize working on other bad habits: overeating, not meditating, drinking, et al. Sorry mom! I sucked down the coffee, the lassi & a cancer stick, then put pen to paper.

Two hours, fourteen pages of notes, a vegetable juice, a masala chai and a second cigarette later, I was reinvigorated and rather buzzed on stimulants. Want To Do list status: 4 of 6. Time to find a bed. En route to a nice little inn I’d read about, I snagged some chocolate chip cookies from the German Bakery. They’re terrible, but I love them anyway. 5 of 6.

After ten days of cold showers and colder nights, I couldn’t have have cared less about paying more than necessary for a room if it meant guaranteed relaxation. The exchange rate was still ever in my favor. I showered, I changed, the sun slipped behind the hills. Only one thing left to do before dinner and a long sleep.

There were two massages places that I had my eye on. The first specialized in Ayurvedic healing massages, but they closed at 7, and it was 6. Appointments were available the following day, but this couldn’t wait. I had a Want To Do list to finish. At second place, all the therapists were deaf & dumb. From a great massage at the hands of blind man in Taipei back in ’06, I was comfortable with the idea that the loss of one sense enhances the others. However, after walking the whole strip twice, I couldn’t find it. I didn’t want to have a late dinner and no way was I getting a massage on a full stomach, so I settled for the massage place with the brightest lights and the most prominent location. I assumed I would overpay, but I figured it couldn’t truly suck and also stay bright & prominent.

Warning signs, in order of revelation:

  1. Shabby everything
  2. No other clients
  3. Seedy menu
  4. They made me pay first

I came up with rationalizations for all of these and dove into a “Special Trekkers Therapy” which was the recommendation I got from the girl at the front after I told her I like strong massages.

  1. I was recommended the most expensive treatment.

Whatever, $20, just touch me.

I think I fell for the Lonely Planet claim

What ensued was one of the most physically and emotionally abusive experiences in my life. From the stocky dude’s first touch to when I finally stopped him way, way too late, not a single muscle in my entire body had actually been massaged. Rather, I was forcefully compressed chunk by chunk by his meaty, senseless hands, which he moved mechanically around the surface of my body with complete disregard for the underlying anatomy or the reactions he elicited. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Different types of massages start with different “warmups” and since I had no idea what a Special Trekkers was supposed to be, maybe it pushed you around a bit at first in order to make the subsequent softness sweeter. This was not the case. A trained massage therapist might be able to execute a strategy that subtle, but if this guy had any training in anything all, it was kneading pizza dough, or crushing underripe grapes to make shitty wine, or executing low-grade torture orders for small-time loan sharks. But even then I would expect a perceptible level of professionalism, a sense that the had any idea what the fuck he was doing. A better explanation might be that he had never given a massage before; never received a massage before; had his peripheral nervous system damaged by a few years of jackhammering pavement, dulling him to any ideas of what might feel good to a body; and then, when the last masseuse got disgusted by the ownership and walked out, his sister at the front desk asked him to fill in last minute, interrupting him halfway through a six-pack:

“But I don’t know how to give a massage. And I’m drunk.”

“Ah, these dumb trekkers don’t care. Just do what you do to those girls with low self-esteem you keep dating, but avoid the genitals. Thirty minutes front, thirty minutes back. I’ll buy you more beer.”

When he massaged across the spine with pressure, I realized how screwed I was. I should’ve bailed then and demanded a refund, but I was so upset, so stunned, and I’d already paid. I wanted to salvage something, anything from my $20 (double what I pay for a dreamy massage in Kathmandu). I was paralyzed, or about to be. His phone rang, and he picked it up. After a chat, he carried on chatting with the girl from the front, over the dividers. He wasn’t just unable to notice how I was doing, he wasn’t even paying attention—more blind than a blind man. I tried to not pay attention also, but then an errant squash nearly broke ribs. The first of several, I needed all my attention and abdominal strength for protection.

I should’ve left. I should’ve should’ve should’ve.

After turning me onto my back, he excused himself to take a piss, giving me time to gather my thoughts. He can’t possibly do much more damage here, I thought, I can make it. And he didn’t. Until he’d worked his way up to my head, put his palm on my forehead, fingers spread, and shook his hand side to side, bouncing my temples between his fingers, my head rolling on the table, back and forth, back and forth, for about 15 seconds. In a massage full of shockers, and some mediocre massages over time, this was without question the most uncomfortable, the most abusive & degrading, the flat-out dumbest thing that had every been done to me on purpose. Then he did again.

“Stop it,” I said.

“What?” he oafed at me.

“Stop it. I don’t like that.”

“Um, okay.”

But by then the hour was up anyway.

When I walked out, the front of the house was empty, so I couldn’t complain and ask for my money back, though I had the sense it was long gone already. I thought about standing outside and dissuading others from coming in, but I was too disgusted with them & myself, and too hungry to spend another minute in its aura. I needed to escape, I needed dinner, and I needed a drink.

Natural Health Center & Beauty Parlor

I took this picture of the place so I could slam them online, then set off down the street for my nice dinner, needed now more than ever. A cab darted into an alley in front of me and I dodged behind it without breaking stride, a man on a mission. Then the cab backed up into my legs.

This was too much. No damage was done, but the improbability of the insult floored me. I got hit by a car. I got hit by a car and it was merely a punctuation mark on an evening of abuse by Inattention. I’d become the punching bag of an indifferent universe. I was going to need two drinks. The day had started so well too, changed so drastically… the only response I could muster was a to fake a laugh (fake it ’til you make it) and call home. I never call home when I need emotional support—usually I just get a coffee and a croissant—but I was at the end of my rope, at the roof of the world.

Dad got a good (real) laugh out of the flash version of the story and encouraged me to get those drinks. I hung up on the steps of Newari Kitchen, where I’d dined on the eve of the retreat. Two terrible/perfect glasses of red, a banana lassi, a hearty Newari stew, and some Bhaktapuri yogurt work their magic and all of a sudden I’m buying dark chocolate in a corner store and heading back to my room to sleep the day off.

With so much much to shake off that night, no surprise I was having a hard time doing it.

This is Part I of the story. Read Part II here.

What I missed while getting the beat-down

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Ko Phi Phi Disapphoints

First things first, the ‘h’ in Thai romanization indicates aspiration on the ‘p’, so you pronounce it like “Ko Pee Pee”. This only strikes you as funny for half a day. Second things second, Ko Phi Phi is two islands, not one — Ko Phi Phi Don and Ko Phi Phi Leh. Leh, the smaller of the two is home to Maya Bay, made famous a dozen years ago by “The Beach”). As came Leo, so came the tourists, and as came the tourists, so went the charm.

Ocean vista with water taxi

The Beach

If you’ve been to a crazy college party, especially if it was at one of a warmer schools, then you can understand the dominant experience here. Every evening, the sweaty mass of Western twenty-somethings roll themselves off the beaches where they spent the day, clean themselves up (maybe), put on their best tank top, and head out to the bars. Ground zero is Dojo. For the next few hours, they suck mixed drinks from toy sand buckets, blaze through cigarettes, and start rubbing up on things that look good. As people realize that midnight has passed, they return to the beach, where the drinking continues, the dancing gets dirty under cover of darkness, hormones rage, and everybody tries to hook up with everybody else. Meanwhile the boys (and many of the girls) are peeing in the ocean, and the bass from the beachfront club throbs in sync with the libidos, deep into the night, spoiling the otherworldly serenity that would otherwise prevail for a mile in every direction. This continues until chemicals (natural and un-) can no longer sustain the wasted bodies and they expire, on the beach, or in bed with a stranger, or alone with regrets. It’s a true bacchanalia, in the least elegant way.

Dojo Bar

Every night at Dojo

I have nothing against bacchanalias, but even the Romans that invented them only they them five times a month. The Phi Phi revelers are on vacation though, and have nothing else to do the following day but the same thing again. More than a few have come for vacation and made it into a lifestyle. You can spot them, weary skin on young bones.

Chicks on the bar

The dude is the bartender

On our final night, my brother and joined in for the first act of the party. Tremendous fun. No impulse to rinse & repeat.

We had our least pleasant Thai service experience at the hotel. The restaurant’s waitstaff was barely trained and obviously never exposed to decent service. Neither they nor the rest of management camouflaged for an instant how uninterested they were in serving us or how little they cared for tourists in general. They never said “hello” or “good morning” in Thai or English, never confirmed or clarified our food orders, never even cracked a friendly smile. It was surreal, actually, and I left every encounter feeling very unwelcome. If I’m paying a decent amount and I’m on vacation, I don’t need obsequious or even professional service, but I really want to feel a part of a mutually beneficial transaction. Yes, I’m taking advantage of the purchasing power disparity between our countries; yes, I’ve gotten a good setup for a good price; yes, there’s an exploitative element to it; but if we do it right, we both come out ahead. I get to relax, and you get my money. But we both have to approach it right: I have to not be a dick, and you have to not act like you’d prefer I were elsewhere.

Hard to not be a dick when you’re drinking these

It’s easy to imagine why this might be the case. We parachute in and expect to be treated like princes, and with the amenities we’re adapted (addicted) to, things that are extremely difficult and expensive to provide on a poor, tiny, remote island, and are totally unnecessary for their own lives. Things like inexhaustible hot water, fast & ubiquitous WiFi, good coffee and other foreign foods. They do their best to hook us up, against the odds. There are limits to control, however, and the supply chains to the islands are long, fragile, and expensive. But we cut them no slack when the water is cold and its mineral content chokes the shower heads, or the internet is slow and doesn’t reach our room, or our ketchup & coffee aren’t Heinz & Starbucks. “Here I am!” we proclaim, “Where is my world?”

“You left it, remember? You’re really far from home.”

“Yes, but I thought it was coming with me. This is my vacation.”

“Yes, but this is our world. Yours isn’t possible here. That’s why it isn’t already here.”

“I have come for your beaches, not your lifestyle.”

“Ours is the lifestyle of these beaches…”

I’d hate us too.

Slices of pizza

A little taste of home

My brother wandered past the end of Long Beach, a half-mile stretch of mid-level resorts, and happened upon a beach where some locals lived. The beach was messy with trash and marine detritus. Someone there is cleaning up those tourist beaches, but they don’t have the opportunity to enjoy it. We do, and we piss on them.

When the size of the tourism industry in a location exceeds a certain threshold relative to other economic activity, everything gets sucked into its gravity, and the natural soul of the place withers. You don’t go to Ko Phi Phi to experience Thai culture. You can’t — the debauchery has long since obliterated it. I guess some people like it that way. A lot of people keep coming.

I’ll move on.

Sittin' on a boat on the bay

Sittin’ on a boat on the bay

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I just returned to the messy world from my second 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. It was a grueling affair: 4am wake-up bell for 10 hours of seated meditation, broken up by half-hour meals (breakfast at 6:30, lunch at 11, and tea sans food at 5), some time to clean yourself after each of those (1 hr, 1.5 hrs, and half an hour, respectively), and five minute breaks between adjacent 1-1.5 hr sittings. Were there any time to do anything but nap and sleep, you wouldn’t be able to because all your diversions are confiscated at registration and locked in a safe. No phones, books, writing tools, no nothing. You can walk around. Trim your beard with scissors. But that’s about it.

As an easily-distracted person, raised on distractions and cognitively adapted, nay, addicted to them, this was hard. I will explain in greater detail the facets of this hardness in a subsequent post, but I’ll say that they caused me to cave slightly on the commitment, and use the pencil I found in the bottom of my bag to write notes, mostly Things I Want To Do When I Leave, on 4″ gauze pad wrappers. Surreptitiously, so as not to distract the others. Mostly in random moments alone in my 3-bed room, or in the middle of the night, red light from from headlamp quietly illuminating the waxed paper. Many good thoughts were not lost as a result, and I don’t regret it for a second.

I’ll get to those shortly, but for now I want to note several milestones that passed while I was gone:

  1. I found out that Obama won the election five days, almost certainly putting me among the last .001% of Americans to know. THANK GOD. I almost left in the middle after many distracted minutes spent realizing how much I cared.
  2. I have been abroad for a month.
  3. I haven’t had meat in two weeks (the food there was vegetarian, but I’ve stuck with it in Pokhara in preparation for a juice fast).
  4. I haven’t had any alcohol in three weeks.

Important things can happen if you just let them.

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A Theory of Art

Every work of consciousness is a work of art, including but not limited to “artwork”, because it reveals some aspect of truth (everything reveals some aspect of truth). A good work of art reveals some rarer, more valuable, more instructive aspect of the truth.

A great work of art reveals truths that are unusually useful to an unusually number of people. A bad work of art proffers banal truths, barely. The revelatory truths of a great work change the way you see the world, forcing it to assimilate things it couldn’t imagine, and thus increasing the concordance between your mental models and the reality they simulate. This makes your mind more skillful at navigating space & time.

If we are honest with ourselves we seek out the truths — the works of art — that challenge us and help us grow.

Seek out the best truths available. You’ll know them by the depth of the emotions they provoke, positive or negative. Fear is your friend, as is ecstasy.

Note: I’m starting a 10-day silent meditation retreat this afternoon and will be offline until November 12.

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What is Thai Standard?

Almost every restroom I’ve visited in Thailand has had an unexpected feature: American Standard fixtures. American culture is all over the place, as expected, but this is where I’ve seen the word “American” the most. So I suspect that a typical Thai’s interaction with “American” is pissing on it. I’m happy for American Standard’s success, but I can help but be amused by the suggestion that the American standard is the capture and redirection of various types of effluent. Certainly, there’s a lot of crap being moved around in America—truckloads of consumer goods crap, books full of ideological crap, pipes overflowing with actual crap from all that crap food we eat too much of. I hope other countries interpret the ubiquity of American Standard fixtures as a tacit admission that, yes, we produce a lot of crap, and as a partial apology for it. But that’s the deal: you buy our crap, and we’ll let you piss on us!

Compare that to another national standard, say, Russia. Russian Standard is a vodka brand. Of course. My brother tells me it’s also a major bank. While Americans are producing and moving crap around the world, Russians are doing business and doing shots, at the same time. There’s a king-size movie-theater popcorn bucket full of truth-kernels in that metaphor.

I haven’t seen a Thai Standard brand, but after a week in the country, a few “standards” have stood out:

  1. Nobody wears sunglasses. In NYC, wearing sunglasses in public is almost de rigeur, and it’s less about keeping away pesky UV rays than putting some psychic distance between oneself and the surrounding crowd. I find riding the subway much more pleasant when you can look around without having to play eye contact games—if you can’t see my eyes you can’t see me. It was on the Skytrain, Bangkok’s new elevated rapid transit system, that I noticed the disparity. I got on with my shades on, as usual, but when I looked around I was startled to be peeking so deeply into people’s souls. When I got off, I noticed that nobody on the streets was wearing them either. I asked a Thai friend about it. She said that she save her shades for the beach.
  2. Tuk tuks are super fun, and their drivers will lie to you for money. As we approached the different parts of the Grand Palace, these guys would tell us that this one was closed now but would be open again in an hour, then offer to take us somewhere else in the meantime. We never took them up on it, politely insisting we wanted to go anyway, but the ubiquity of this trick was surprising. Must be a lot of novice travelers passing through. On the other hand though, being conned into a tuk tuk ride can’t be the worst thing. Flying down the streets of Bangkok in a open-air cart is a far more titillating than many of the tourist attractions (Soi Cowboy included), so meticulously groomed for foreign viewers.
    The fam in a tuk tuk

    In the driver’s seat of a tuk tuk

    Soi Cowboy, Bangkok

    Soi Cowboy

  3. Sukhumvit Road has more huge adjacent high-end shopping malls than I thought possible. Who goes there? How many people can shop here how much to support all these high-end brands? It’s like NYC’s 5th Ave, Madison Ave, Soho and Union Square curled up on themselves and side by side. They have huge food courts (where you can eat cleanly-prepped “street” food), movie theaters, direct walkways to Skytrain platforms, plazas for golf one even has an aquarium, the largest in the country). Some have attached hotel/condo/office towers. The only big breaks between them are the spots where the new malls are under construction. It’s crazy, but a good place to ease into a different culture—I was rarely more than a stone’s throw from a Starbucks. (Speaking of Starbucks, it’s more expensive here than in the states, very much a luxury purchase. I understand that this is the case in a lot of cities, in Asia and elsewhere, that exploded into the 21st century.)

    Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok

    Not many malls in this shot, but you can see it’s a helluva road

  4. Thais are extremely polite. One language guide I read said hello is not correctly pronounced without a smile. In most cases (in shops & restaurants), we observed you also need to place your palms together at heart’s center and bow slightly. Perhaps the effect of this is dulled by familiarity for the Thai, but for us westerners, it’s a joy to experience. Genuine smiles from strangers really lift the spirit.

So what is Thai Standard? So far I’d say it’s a tuk tuk ride to nice mall with a clear-eyed girl for a cup of coffee. And some mango sticky rice! Now that’s a brand I can get behind.

Garuda, symbol of Thailand

The Thai Standard logo?

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