Freedom

“There is a famous allegory in the writings of Rabbenu Yona:

‘Prisoners in a jail effect an escape – they dig a tunnel under the wall of their cell and squeeze through.  All except one: one prisoner remains, ignoring the avenue of escape.  The jailer enters to discover that his prisoners have flown, and begins beating the one who remains.’

This is a difficult allegory to understand.  Why is the one who remains being beaten?  He appears to be the one who is acting properly; after all, he is the only one obeying the law. What has he done?

The meaning is this: in remaining, he has escaped more profoundly than those who have fled. The escapees have broken jail; it no longer contains them, that is true. But the one who remains has redefined the jail: when he shows that he is there voluntarily, he shows that this is no jail at all. While the cell was intact, he appeared to be imprisoned; but now that it is clear that he has no desire to leave, he reveals the jail never held him. A jail is a place that holds those who wish to be free; those who wish to be there are not held by it. The jailer is angry not because this inmate has done something as simple as escaping, but because he has declared the jailer and his jail to be entirely irrelevant. The others have left the jail; he has utterly destroyed it.”

– Rabbit Akiva Tatz, Letters to a Buddhist Jew

Shoot ‘Em

Per my last post, I have a pretty anal-retentive approach to goals, habits, and projects, which has helped me to push forward on a wide array of big pursuits that I care about.  But, over the years, I’ve also slowly accumulated a list of small, random skills I’d also like to improve or acquire.  And, precisely because I don’t care that much about them, I never really get around to doing anything about them; they seem to perpetually live on my back burner.

This fall, however, I came up with a new idea: each quarter, I’d choose one of those random back-burner pursuits, and commit to spending 5-10 minutes on it daily for three months.  At the end of the quarter, I could make a more permanent, ongoing habit of anything I discovered I really cared about; for everything else, a quarter’s worth of daily progress would be enough to check the box, and to make me feel like I had put in the effort.

So, in September, I started off with chess.  Prior to that, I had played perhaps five games of chess in my life.  I knew how the pieces moved, but that was about it.  So I read a handful of chess books (in case you’re on a similar quest, I highly recommend Bobby Fischer Teachers Chess), and then started playing games. Three months later, I’m still a bit short of grandmaster.  But I can, at least, hold my own in a casual game – well enough to play with a friend, or against a simulator on the iPhone to kill time on a plane or train ride.  Which, really, was all I wanted.

This week, with a new quarter, I moved on to a new skill: playing pool.  Fortuitously, there’s a pool table in my building lobby, which is almost always abandoned in the mornings.  So, for five or ten minutes on the way to work, I stop in and practice some pool drills.

Much like with chess, I think I’ve played maybe two dozen pool games in my life – usually while in a bar, fairly drunk. It’s a frustrating game for me, as, in my mind, I’m excellent.  The geometry and strategy make perfect sense.  But somehow, when the stick hits the cue ball, things never unfold quite like I envisioned them.

We’ll see how much that changes over a quarter of practice.  But if I’m diligent, I think I should be able to make it from horrific to just moderately terrible.  And, for me, that should be good enough. I can move on next quarter to massacring drawing instead, and can keep crossing those little things, one by one, off my back-burner bucket list.

Taking Stock

My freshman year at college, neck-deep in starting my first company, I got an early taste of worrying about work/life balance.  How much time should I spend on the company, I wondered, versus on classes and homework, or on boozing, socializing, and pulling crazy pranks with friends?

At that point, I had also just re-read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and I still remember being struck by the exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat.  When Alice asks the Cat for directions, he asks her where she’s headed.  “I don’t much care where,” says Alice.  To which the Cat replies, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

With that in mind, I set out trying to envision an ideal future life, a clear sense of where I wanted to end up, so that I could choose the right roads going forward.  By the time I turned 50, I asked myself, what did I want to be doing?  What did I want to have already accomplished?  Who, really, did I want to be?

To keep things structured, I broke my life down into four broad categories: Work (the things I did for a living, and to make a broad impact on the world), Play (things I did just for my own enjoyment, like writing, playing music, or travel), People (friends, family, and eventually building a family of my own), and Self (mind, body, and spirit).  And, for the better part of a year, I tried to work out a vision for each of those areas that seemed right, that excited and inspired me.

It’s now some 20 years later, and though the age of 50 has inched closer (I’m now just 12 years off), my vision has changed surprisingly little over that time.  Which is excellent, as those long-term goals serve as the basis for my short-term planning, too.  I work backwards from them to 5-year goals (where do I need to be in 5 years on a given goal, to be on track to hit the overall goal by 50?), then to 1-year goals.  And then I translate those, in turn, into either habits for the year (like daily meditation, a monthly museum visit, or a quarterly weekend trip) and projects (big but finite things, like building the Composite client app, which I sort into a long ordered list, then knock off by focusing on one at a time for the first couple of hours of my day).

Most days, I can just get down to work, knowing that, if I stick to those projects and habits, I’m on track to my longer-term goals.  But twice a year – once on my birthday (which happily falls on the middle of the year, in July) and once at year’s end – I stop and take stock.  I look at the big picture.  If I spend the rest of the year climbing the ladder as quickly as I can, those two times, I pause to make sure the ladder is on the right wall.

I start by reviewing my goals – the age 50 ones, as well as the 5 year, 1 year, and project/habits that stem from them.  And then I take a careful look at where I am right now.  During the week between Christmas and New Years, I write in-depth reviews of the four areas of my life – Work, Play, People, Self.  For each, I summarize where I stand, how I fared the past year.  And, for each, I give myself a letter grade, and then see if I need to make any tweaks to my upcoming projects and habits to do better in the year ahead.

Sure, it’s a pretty wonky and time-consuming approach.  But as the world basically shuts down this week anyhow, it’s easy to fit in.  And, for me at least, it pays dividends in purpose, productivity, and sanity for the next twelve months.

Couch Potato Head

“An interesting illustration of the uselessness of a brain in a body without movement is the sea squirt, which spends the first part of its life as an animal moving around, and the second part attaching itself to a rock and then camping out as a plant.  As soon as it settles down, does it use this time as an opportunity to meditate or think about the meaning of life?  No, it eats its brain for the energy.  This should make us very curious about what happens to a human brain in a body that spends too much time on the couch.”

– Todd Hargrove, A Guide to Better Movement

Stupidface

A month or two back, I introduced myself to a guy I see frequently at the gym – a big black dude in his early 50’s, who’s usually lifting about five times whatever I am.  We had already reached the head-nod stage of recognition, but had never actually talked.  And I’m very glad we finally did, as he turns out to be tremendously nice, and very funny.

He had recently been having should issues, and so a few weeks ago asked me for some mobilization and rehab exercises and advice.  Which led a mutual friend to point out the irony of one of the biggest guys in the gym getting advice from a guy who looked like the gym’s accountant.

Somehow, that evolved into a line of Steve Urkell jokes.  Which, in turn, led to me to saying that I preferred to be called Stefan (Steve’s suave French cousin, for those behind on their 90’s television).  And, from there, the nickname stuck; he’s been calling me Stefan ever since.

A few days ago, however, he came over to confirm my real name.  He had apparently seen me with Jess and my parents, and had wanted to say hello, but didn’t want to call me Stefan, given that they weren’t in on the joke.

And though I told him they wouldn’t have minded either way, apparently his caution stemmed from having once been burned in a similar situation.  A friend had jokingly started calling him “Big Head,” and, in return, he had nicknamed the guy “Stupid Face.”  So, inevitably, at one point he came across the friend, along with his friend’s children and elderly parents.

And, without even thinking, he waved hello and said, “what’s going on, Stupid Face?”

Apparently, not a big hit.

Forget Me Not

One sunny afternoon two or three summers back, I headed down to Battery Park City on a whim, to take the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty.  I had spent more than 15 years as a Manhattanite staring out at her, but had never gone out to see Lady Liberty up close.

Except, it turns out, I had.  As my mother informed me after I told her about the trip, she and my father had taken my brother and me when I was nine or ten. Sadly, that’s pretty much par for the course, as I’ve similarly forgotten a wide array of childhood adventures and experiences; enough so that my mother frequently suggests she should have just locked my brother and me in a closet for our first ten or fifteen years of life, and then told us that she had taken us to the places that they actually did, as it would have saved a lot of time and money but yielded the same result.

So when I mused a few years ago that I’d always wanted to eat at The French Laundry, and my mother informed me that I’d already been as a young teenager, I wasn’t surprised.  But I did feel torn between mourning that non-memory as a colossal waste, or celebrating it (even in conscious absentia) as perhaps one of the formative experiences that molded me into the snotty foodie/serious cook I am today.

More generally, I’ve been trying to take comfort in the idea that those forgotten memories are still somehow locked inside me.  Because, otherwise, all the time I’ve spent reading novels and non-fiction books, watching great films, taking classes, etc., has gone completely down the tubes, given that pretty much none of that content is still available for voluntary mental recall.

Recently, for example, I started re-reading 1984.  And though I for some reason remembered verbatim the lines, “The most deadly danger of all was talking in your sleep. There was no way of guarding against that, so far as he could see,” I had otherwise completely forgotten the entire novel, except that it had something to do with Big Brother and telescreens and the Thought Police.

Or, take Indiana Jones, about two minutes of which I caught in passing on a lounge-area television this past weekend. There, too, while I can visually picture certain iconic scenes, and remember a handful of pithy lines, I couldn’t even roughly outline the plot any longer, except that it had something to do with lost artifacts and being chased by Nazis.

In short, it appears I’ve lost the details of pretty much everything I watched or read prior to this decade.  Though I suppose it could be worse: my mother can read an entire book, and only when the twist ending seems oddly predictable, realize that she read the book previously, six months back.

Perhaps that’s what I’m trending towards myself, especially as I age.  But, on balance, I’m not sure I’d really mind. It must be nice to take something you already know you love, and then experience it again for the first time.

Wintertime Sadness

While most people assume that emotions start in your brain, and then spread into your body as physical feelings, cognitive science has long backed the opposite.  It’s called the attributive theory of emotion, and it posits that you first feel the bodily physical sensations, and then your brain notices, interprets, and labels those sensations as emotions.  In one famous study, subjects held pencils in their mouth in one of two different ways, which surreptitiously used the same muscles as either smiling or frowning. After just five minutes, the subjects rated themselves significantly happier or sadder, respectively, than just before they started with the pencil holds.

But many body feelings are fairly nebulous, and could match up with several different emotions.  So your brain also looks at context cues to try and figure out what you’re feeling, and why.  Fear, for example, is physiologically indistinguishable from excitement.  Which, in fact, is the basis for a great Cognitive Behavioral Therapy trick for dealing with anxiety or phobias: if you feel fear in your body (racing heart, sweaty palms, clenched stomach), but then consciously label that feeling as ‘excitement,’ the feeling matches the label well enough that your brain will play along.  So you’re not nervous about giving a speech – you’re excited to share your message.  You’re not afraid of flying – you’re extremely excited imagining how great the vacation is going to be when you land.  (Try it out – it works surprisingly well.)

Recently, I’ve been thinking about that in the context of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the wintertime blues that many people feel, especially in less sunny climes.  During the winter, people are often tired, slow, and low-energy; they want to stay indoors, huddled up in a blanket on the couch.  Because the physical feelings match, we call that feeling sad and depressed.  And so we treat the feeling, either with drugs, or with exposure to intense daylight-spectrum light and mega-dosing of vitamin D (the latter two of which are often as effective as the drugs, in case you want to Google those options up).

But over the past decades, we’ve increasingly realized that a lot of the ‘negative’ physical reactions your body produces actually serve positive purposes.  So if you get rid of those reactions, or substantially tamp them down, it often comes at a longer-term cost.  Consider inflammation – say, as a child’s fever, or in an athlete’s sore quads and hamstrings after a training run.  Sure, if a fever pitches dangerously high, meds to keep it down saves lives.  And if the athlete’s muscle soreness is bad enough to keep her up all night, the lost sleep may offset any upside from the training.  But, at slightly lower levels, that fever is actually helping the child’s body fight off the infection – something it would do less quickly and effectively if he’s given meds to drop his temperature back to normal.  And while a handful of Advil will make our runner feel better today, it will also interfere with the hormone signaling pathway needed to build muscle; in other words, those NSAIDs negate much of the point of going for the training run in the first place.

Human bodies fluctuate cyclically over a number of time periods, from our daily circadian rhythms, to our yearly circannual ones.  And many of the aspects of these cycles are still a mystery.  Though it takes up a third of our lifetimes, for example, we’re still not sure why people need to sleep, or what, exactly, it does for us.  Similarly, we know that there’s a swing over the course of the year – during the spring and summer, we have more energy, need less sleep, can more easily shed pounds of fat; whereas in the fall and winter, we bulk up, conserve energy, and want to curl up and sleep somewhere warm.  While a bunch of that likely stems from a basic evolutionary fact – it was harder to find sufficient calories in winter back in our hunter-gatherer days, so it made sense to hoard them during that time – I strongly suspect there are other physiological reasons for the swing.  Much as a field needs to lie fallow to recover between harvests, perhaps the winter slowdown allows for longer-term recovery in our bodies and brains, much as sleep allows at the daily level.

So, in short, I’m not sure ‘winter mode’ is something we want to cut out entirely, even if we have the tools to do so.  At the same, time I am also sure that calling that winter mode ‘sadness’ and ‘depression’ is a quick way to feel, well, sad and depressed.  So, take a page from the CBT book, and see if you can make that winter shift seem less terrible by smarter labeling.  I’m done with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and am instead referring to it – in my brain to myself, and in conversation with anyone else – as Happy Hibernation Mode.

Embrace the fact that being low-energy in the winter actually feels good – in other words, it’s nothing to be down about.  Happy hibernating!

Success

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ivories

Miles Davis once said that if he’d spent half of his practice time on the piano, he wouldn’t just have been a better piano player, he would have been a better trumpet player, too.  Based on which, about a year ago, I started including some piano playing in my trumpet practice sessions.

The piano is a visual instrument – you can see the notes laid out in front of you – and I found that even playing painfully slowly through the chords of a jazz song was a great way to understand better the harmonic structure.  It inevitably gave me ideas and insights for improvising on the trumpet.

That said, most people don’t want to hear a jazz piece actually performed at a two notes per thirty seconds pace – the speed at which I was able to clumsily bang out chords with my fingers.  So piano remained strictly an academic tool, not something I could actually play as a musical instrument.

Two months back, I decided I needed to change that.  I got two basic piano methods (Alfred’s and Thompson’s), to work through site-reading, correct hand placement, etc.  And I whipped out the encyclopedic Patterns for Jazz, which lays out 500 or so stereotypical jazz phrases that work as building blocks in improvisational solos, which you can then transpose in your head (and out through your fingers) in all twelve keys.  And, for about twenty minutes each morning since, I set to work.

At this point, I’m still not booking Carnegie Hall or the Village Vanguard any time soon.  But, this morning, for the first time, as I worked on a Maj9 chord bebop pattern, I caught myself thinking, “that actually sounds pretty good!”  Which was gratifying enough to ensure I’ll be sticking with piano practice for the foreseeable future.  Sure, it’s slow and painful going.  But after even this short stretch, it’s amazing how fast progress adds up when you chip away at something day in and day out.

TWO

Back in the summer of 2015, after eight years of marriage, I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly single.  Friends and family argued it was for the best, but it still felt like a gut punch.  So I wallowed for a few months.  And then, I got up, shook myself off, and decided to head out on some dates.

The last time I had been single, online dating was still very much in its infancy.  But by 2015, there were more dating sites than I could count.  Over the years, however, I had always loved OK Trends, the great data science / dating psychology blog penned by the founders of OK Cupid.  So, that seeming as good a choice as any, I signed up.

Like other dating sites, OK Cupid allowed users to post pictures, profiles, and personal specifics (age, location, etc.).  But, uniquely, it also presented a huge battery of multiple choice questions.  The queries (like “how often do you make your bed?” or “in a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?”) ran the gamut of relationship-relevant topics, from values and lifestyle, to spirituality and sex.  To sign up for the site, you needed to answer a first 25 or so questions.  Then, as you browsed the site, you could see the full list of questions that any other user had answered. But – and here was the brilliant stroke – if you wanted to see how someone had *answered* any of those questions, you needed to answer (or have already answered) the same question yourself.  Pretty quickly, just by browsing through others’ profiles, most users amassed hundreds of answers.

For each question, OKC also asked which responses you’d accept from a partner, and how important the question was to you in choosing a partner.  From which information the site could use a Bayesian algorithm, and kick out a ‘match score’ between any two users.  In my experience, the algorithm was impressively spot-on.  Anyone with whom I matched at 80% or up would make for a totally pleasant date; above 90%, and it seemed like there might be relationship potential.

So I was particularly intrigued to discover a very cute redhead with whom I was a ‘perfect’ 99% match (the site’s highest possible score).

I spent far too much time crafting an effortlessly casual first message to her.  And, miraculously (even more so once I eventually saw the daily deluge of messages she received, and to how few of those she responded), she quickly wrote back.  After a couple of email exchanges, we set a date for the next week: drinks at a wine bar in the West Village.

I have to admit, I had a crush on her before we even met live – enough so that I spent much of the week nervous that she would cancel.  But, she showed up.  Even prettier in person, she also turned out to be funny, articulate, smart, and well-read.  She had recently moved to NYC after finishing a masters degree in classical vocal performance, so we overlapped on a love of music, and of art of all kinds.  But she was also sporty and outdoorsy, read existentialist philosophy for fun, was a foodie and a dog-lover, dreamed of both adventurous international travel and weekend afternoons on NYC beaches just a subway ride away.  She kept up with my drinking, and my mile-a-minute talking style, matching both in spades.  I was pretty much smitten right away.

On our third or fourth date, we headed to a rock concert at Bowery Ballroom, stopping for dinner before at Freeman’s, a great semi-secret restaurant nearby.  According to her OKC profile, she was “mostly vegetarian,” so I started suggesting veggie-based dishes that we might share. What looked good to her? “The filet mignon.”  But didn’t her profile say she was a vegetarian?  “Well,” she smiled, “it does say mostly.”

After a month or two, we were spending more and more time together.  One evening, sitting together on the couch, I tried to ask, basically, if she would be my girlfriend.  Except I liked her so much that my brain sort of melted down in the process, and I became a completely inarticulate, babbling moron.  I’m pretty sure she had absolutely no idea what I was asking, but she stuck around nonetheless.  We started seeing each other even more frequently.  We headed off to Atlantic City for a long weekend; though the city was terrible (as my brother accurately describes it, “Vegas in a trash can”), we had a truly excellent time together, and I was sad to drop her off at her own apartment at the end, even after dozens and dozens of hours straight in each other’s company.  For Valentine’s day, based on her long-standing love of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we headed to Montauk.  She found a Clementine-colored hoodie, and, true to the film, even managed to get a mug custom-printed with her photo as a Valentine’s gift.

We started knocking off hikes and climbs of the tallest peaks within driving / training distance of NYC.  We ate our way around NYC, dining in holes-in-the-wall (hole-in-the-walls?) and fine establishments (like a birthday dinner at Contra; along with the truly excellent wine flight, perhaps the finest meal of my life).  We ran the Hudson River trail, cooked brunch, went to jazz shows and art museums, got lost in the stacks of the Strand (like any bookstore, a dangerous place to bring her, as she invariably refuses to leave).

Somewhere along the way, she apparently agreed to my inarticulate ‘let’s go steady’ request, as we moved in together.  My brother (who loves her, as does my whole family), still calls her Jess 99 at times, in honor of that original 99% OK Cupid score.  And, indeed, she’s as perfect a match for me as I could ever hope to find.  Smart, funny, literate, thoughtful, beautiful, articulate, kind.

As of today (or maybe yesterday? it’s a matter of some record-keeping dispute), Jess and I are now two years in, and going strong.  I am, in short, exceedingly in love, and unbelievably lucky to have found her.  Further special thanks go to the fine folks at OKC for the assist; without a doubt, she remains the best online shopping I’ve ever done.