The Fundamental Error


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THE FUNDAMENTAL PERCEPTUAL FLAW BEHIND MOST UNHAPPINESS

In the long run, what really matters is how we spend our time, not what we accomplish. If you have enough money to not worry about having enough money, then you can do something else with your time than make money. If you have enough stuff, then getting more will not make you happier. But what you do with this fleeting gift of time and health does matter. In fact, it’s all that matters.

Advertising and promotion make it seem like there’s something other than what’s right in front of you that will make all the difference to your happiness. That’s the fundamental error in a nutshell. Once you buy that lie, then you’re hooked on searching for different solutions to the same invented problem. So your life becomes a hustle, a chase, and the moments that might have been worthwhile seem empty and trivial. You’ve been sold a bill of goods!

When you seem to be on the winning side of that hustle, the illusion is exhilarating. You’re a winner! You’re managing your life well and reaping the just rewards of such diligence. You’re a smart shopper, a wise investor, a clever player.

On the other hand, when nothing seems to be going your way, then you’re in need of expert advice, a consultation, a series of tests, a new drug. It’s easy to see how arbitrary and foolish this dividing the present moment into “fun” and “boring” is when we look at others. Who hasn’t met a dentist in his forties who divorced the wife of his youth and took up with his much-younger dental hygienist? His wife got the house and he got a new convertible. Three years later, he’s trying to re-invent himself as a counter-culture type, attending Burning Man and writing a blog. Fifteen years later he’s living in the Philippines, sleeping with five different women younger than his youngest daughter and drinking himself to death. What happened?

He mistook the illusory hustle for life itself.

Of course, when I beat up on our hypothetical dentist, I’m really trying to throw focus away from myself. I am, of course, both the horny dentist and his complicit hygienist. Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, said “Most of our problems are linked to our inability to sit quietly alone in a room.” That is a more elegant way of positing what it took me several paragraphs to say. As a generalization, most of us would agree that the present moment is sufficient for our happiness, but try telling that to an irritable five-year-old, or someone who’s spent the last hour in a doctor’s waiting room.

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Internet Addiction Goes Deeper All The Time


Why have sex when you can manage a virtual candy store in a video game? That’s the question millions of Japanese young people are asking themselves, as they increasingly choose to stay single and not have sex. 

In Japan, a third of people under 30 have never dated anyone ever.

45 percent of women say they have no interest in sex or even “despise” it, and over 25 percent of men feel the same way.

Yesterday, a Chinese tourist in Australia was checking her Facebook page on her cellphone when she stepped off a pier and fell in the ocean. She was found floating on her back, holding her cellphone aloft. She said she couldn’t swim, but fortunately, she was able to float. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BIG TOBACCO VS. THE DEVELOPING WORLD


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Tobacco consumption more than doubled in the developing world from 1970 to 2000,according to the United Nations. Much of the increase was in China, but there has also been substantial growth in Africa, where smoking rates have traditionally been low. More than three-quarters of the world’s smokers now live in the developing world.

 

In most of the poorer countries that I’ve visited, a pack of cigarettes costs about a dollar. Marlboro, the world’s premium brand, might go for twice that. Many brands that we haven’t heard from in quite a few years, such as Pall Mall or Old Gold are still sold, though the tobacco in them maybe not be of American origin. 

 

More than five million people die annually of smoking-related causes, more than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, according to the World Health Organization.

 

In developed countries, smoking has been in steady decline for years, so manufacturers have targeted the developing world. Nicaragua and Paraguay, with a minimum wage of ten dollars a day (and even those jobs are hard to find) can hardly afford a dollar a day addiction. But, prodded by advertising and placement in movies, the percentage of smokers is growing rapidly. The preventable deaths will occur down the line. 

A BRAND-NEW SLIM (short story)


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A BRAND NEW SLIM

Slim´s big problem was that he thought only in terms of black and white. He didn´t allow for gradations of any kind: hue, density, or intensity. Either he was for you or against you.
With that sort of lens, the world seemed like a rapidly drawn pencil sketch, and nobody or nothing in it could earn his admiration for long. That´s why, at forty-six, he was still a virgin. No real woman had proved herself good enough.

He enjoyed pornography because in the videos and pictures he was never allowed to learn much about the women involved, so they couldn´t disappoint him by being flawed human beings. The same went for food. He enjoyed the anticipation of eating more than the act itself. All meals were more or less disappointing. They were just enough to keep him going until the next letdown.

It was his greatest hope that someday all this would change, though he hadn´t the faintest idea how this might come about. Then, one day when he least expected it, the idea came to him that incremental change might be the missing concept he had never before seriously entertained much less valued. It occurred to him that slow progress might be better than no progress at all, and that the amount of time it took to accomplish something might not prove terribly important in the long run.

Why this idea took hold one day, seemingly out of the blue, didn´t seem as important as the ramifications of the idea itself. Why, if this were true, then he had had his priorities screwed up for a long, long time.

He decided to test it, and began to study playing a musical instrument he knew nothing about, as well as learning a new language. The first few days showed rapid progress, but then he hit a wall, first with the clarinet and then with Russian. It all seemed too much. Where was the pleasure that came with doing something you were already fairly good at? He felt clumsy and stupid. Where was the fun in that?

After a few weeks of daily practice, he could play a simple melody on the clarinet and knew a dozen short phrases in Russian. After a month, he could play three songs and count to twenty.
What had at first seemed hopeless at last felt possible. His practice sessions rarely exceeded an hour per day, split evenly between the instrument and the words. Sometimes his progress was rapid, sometimes it was non-existent, but he continued anyway, for the sake of the experiment.

Slim began to look for other half-hour activities that he could practice on a daily basis. Jogging and figure drawing soon joined the regimen. Now, two solid hours of the day were spoken for. After six months, nothing substantial had really changed yet everything felt better. He was proud of himself. His own behavior had shown he was a man of his word.
He also found that when he spoke to others, he was far less negative than he had been before. He had always been quick to point out what was wrong with any circumstance. Now, such fault-finding no longer interested him. His few companions noticed the change and thought perhaps he was on anti-depressants. One female friend of a friend was convinced he had fallen in love, probably with a younger woman.

“He’ll be back to his old self as soon as the floozy leaves him,” she assured the group the moment he left the room.

The cynical female was named Crystal, and her secret was that she wanted Slim badly. She knew there was no young floozy vying for his affections, but it made a good story, and motivated her romantic ambitions. The fact that he had shown no prior interest in women only heightened her passion. She was the huntress and he was the prey.

“You know what´s wrong with you?”she told Slim when she found him sitting alone in booth at a café. Even though Slim hadn´t known anything much was wrong with him before she spoke, he had been trained to be polite to strange women.

“No, what´s wrong with me?”he replied.

“You think you´re better than the rest of us. But you´re not. You´re just a garden-variety human bean.”

Slim took time to imagine himself as a bean plant entwined on a bean pole. He nodded, thoughtfully, and wondered how long he could hold his breath around this woman, and if such behavior would cause her to leave him alone. He had been practicing holding his breath for increasing periods of time, and was now up to almost two minutes.

She had him pinned into the booth, having suddenly slid in beside him. Unless one looked very closely one would not be able to tell he was holding his breath, for his cheeks were not billowed out ala Dizzy Gillespie. But his face was growing slowly red. He was starting to sweat.

“You don´t strike me as a person who has a lot of secrets. Am I right?”she continued.
Slim shook his head “no.” The sounds in the restaurant took on a heightened quality, as if somebody had just turned up the volume. His ears began to ring.

“You do, however, seem like someone with blood pressure problems. Like somebody who´s about the have a stroke. My father had a stroke at fifty-five, but he lived for twenty more years in a nursing home. Every morning they would wheel him out into the day room and plant him in front of the television, but he couldn’t get them to understand that he hated TV, especially the programs the other residents and nurse’s aides liked to watch. So one night he managed to get himself over to the side exit and threw himself out the door and into the snow. He crawled a few feet before stopping. They found him frozen stiff the next morning, only five or six feet from the…”

Slim let out his remaining air and gasped for breath. No one else in the restaurant seemed to notice, but Crystal stopped talking.

“You are a strange one,” she finally said. He nodded.

They were married just a few days before his forty-seventh birthday. They honeymooned in Arkansas, spending most of the weekend in a motel just outside of Eureka Springs. He found out by looking at their wedding certificate that she was fifty-one.

“I’m glad you don’t have a thing about older women,” she cooed their first night in bed. He hadn’t thought about it one way or the other, but he guessed she was right. Separated from his clarinet, he practiced scales on a broom handle. He had packed his Russian textbook in his overnight bag, and was able to sneak in a half-hour of verb conjugations in between sight-seeing trips. Just before bed, he jogged in circles around the motel until he feared he might be taken for a prowler, and then up and down the dusty rock road that led to the main highway. Finally, he drew her as she reclined in bed, watching TV. She was flattered by his attention.

If they did little on their honeymoon, they did even less when they got back home. It took Crystal a week to organize their small apartment, and after a trip to Goodwill for second-hand drapes and K-mart for towels and cleaning supplies, they were domestically set. Then she began to watch television full-time. He still had a part-time job as a church janitor, and did some seasonal painting work when a friend of his who make a living painting needed a hand, but mostly they had few demands on their time.

She loved the daytime talk shows, especially the ones where the poor, uneducated women fought over men. Such programs confirmed all her prior beliefs about gender and race. She would hoot with pleasure when a melee of hair-pulling erupted while the unfaithful male in question snickered from the green room. Slim found it hard to be in the same room with her at these times, and spent a lot of time taking long walks trying to calm his nerves. Marriage wasn’t what he had hoped for, and pretty much what he had expected.

He decided to up his regimen of self-discipline. He added model-airplane building and calisthenics to his daily regimen. Within a few weeks Crystal noticed a difference in his muscle tone, and assumed he was doing it for her benefit. He let her assume what she wanted, and constructed a little space between the water heater and the basement stairs in which to construct and store his balsa wood model airplanes.

One night a week she would invite a few friends over for something akin to Bible study, though they weren’t actually reading the good book itself, but rather a guide to it that had been channeled by a blue-haired, self-proclaimed astral being who lived in New Mexico and had a cult following on the Internet.

Her fellow devotees were a mixed bunch, and the only thing they apparently shared was a deep distrust in organized religion and the government. Conspiracy theories of any kind were quickly accepted as Gospel Truth.

One evening, just after supper, he was doing push ups in the back-yard when he saw what appeared to be a pair of Mormon missionaries heading down the sidewalk toward their house. Even though he still had one more set of forty push-ups scheduled, Slim decided this would be a good time to head to the basement and begin gluing the tail wing assembly. He didn’t enjoy making polite small talk to salesmen of any kind, and the screen afforded by a few lilac bushes was not enough to ensure his backyard privacy, especially from those driven to save his immortal soul.

As he descended the basement stairs, he heard Crystal open the door and invite the young men in. She always welcomed anyone who might add to the day’s diversions. “What part of Utah are you from?” she cried loud enough to penetrate the floor boards.

It turned out that Crystal had quite a history of joining religious cults. When she was sixteen she had married a strict Seventh Day Adventist, who kept her pregnant and home-bound for almost a decade. When she escaped, leaving the children behind, she moved to the scrubby plains of Eastern Oregon, where she joined a large group of people who wore purple and jumped up and down, saying “hoo!” They were polygamous. Fortunately, they believed in and used birth control, which made her exit from there comparatively easy, and other than Monday night league bowling and her Internet dabblings, she had remained a spiritual free agent for a few years now.

That’s why Slim was surprised one night when she proposed that they join a church.
“Hon, statistics prove that couples that pray together stay together,” she had offered one night while he was brushing his teeth.

“That doesn’t seem a good enough reason to worship a false god,” he said.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and find the Real McCoy.”

As he spat into the sink he closed his eyes and was greeted by the image of Walter Brennan in overalls waving at the camera.

Slim tuned out the chatter from upstairs and concentrated on his model-building. He couldn’t tell what they were saying, but it seemed that he could hear the sincerity in their voices. Then, after maybe an hour, he heard the door close.

He finished what he had been doing, which involved an especially delicate operation of attaching a small metal hook to the rudder, and then lacing a control string through several other hooks and eyes. When he was done, he laid the model aside and went upstairs to see what there was for lunch.

The house was empty. There was a note on the dining room table in what he guessed was Crystal’s handwriting. “Gone to be baptized. I’m gonna be a Saint!”

He made himself a sandwich out of what he found in the frig, and then walked downtown to visit Glenn, who he knew would be home no matter what time of day it was. Sure enough, Glenn was in his room at the residence hotel, preparing some beans on a hot plate he kept in his room. It seemed like every time he visited Glenn, he had found him at his hot plate, cooking beans or making Kraft macaroni and cheese.

“How’s the wife?” Glenn asked when Slim sat down on the magazine-covered couch.

“Dunno. She left.”

“Already? That’s even quicker than I would’ve guessed. Think she’ll be back?”

“Maybe. Took off with a couple-a Mormon missionaries.”

“She’ll be back when she finds out what it’s really like.”

“You hear anything from the Feds?” Slim asked. Glenn had been waiting years for an answer to his request for a disability claim that he’d made when he heard that all you needed was to have a psychiatrist pronounce you unfit to work and you’d be taken care of for life. A lot of guys the age of Glenn’s older brother had taken that route, and had never worried about earning money again, as long as they maintained a minimal lifestyle, the kind to which Glenn had already become accustomed.

Glenn shook his head ruefully. “No justice in this world,” he sighed.

“Trouble is, you don’t have the right connections,” Slim explained, as if he knew what those connections were.

“You can say that again,” Glenn mumbled.

Even though he felt Glenn was a notch or two lower than the friends he could aspire to, Slim enjoyed visiting Glenn. He could relax around him. Together, the two of them could stare out Glenn’s window and watch car and pedestrian traffic cross the intersection in front of Glenn’s building. Looking up, over the paint store across the street, they could see a patch of sky above, bound by taller brick buildings on the next block, and that small frame of blue made puffy clouds seem precious. Minutes could pass without either of them saying anything.

Glenn’s furnished room had the Buddha nature.

Slim stayed most of the afternoon at Glenn’s, and then walked home, not knowing what he expected to find. Sure enough, Crystal was there, preparing dinner.

“I hope you haven’t eaten,” she said as he entered the kitchen.

“Nah. Just made myself a sandwich for lunch. Figured I’d have to order a pizza for dinner.”

“So is that your way of saying your glad to see me?” she asked.

“I guess. What was it like?”

“They’re nice people, and they talk a good line, but I couldn’t stand the music. It’s the corny stuff my parents used to listen to. And their temple feels like a Holiday Inn. Even when they try to be fancy, they’re plain and old-fashioned. Painted woodwork. Like a funeral home parlor. Gave me the willies.”

Slim decided maybe his new wife wasn’t so bad after all. He sat at the kitchen table and watched her cook, thinking that he had Glenn’s life beat by a country mile.

ENVYING A BIRD ON A WIRE


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Have you ever felt stuck in some sort of completely arbitrary and artificial human situation and found yourself envying a bird? A few days ago, I found myself in such a quandary, waiting in line to be processed for immigration and watching a bird perched on an electrical wire a few feet above. He could have flown off at any time, ignoring international borders and their guards, but he was content to sit where he was and stare down bemusedly on the long line of we humans waiting to have our passports stamped.

 

Sick with envy, I then mused that if I want the freedoms a bird enjoys, I would have to be willing to endure the risks a bird takes. He cannot visit the ATM and then go to a grocery store or restaurant to eat. Instead he has to consume the bugs and worms he can catch. He spends all his time in the open. I find too much time outdoors exhausting. I like to take a nap after lunch. If it’s hot out, I enjoy air-conditioning, and if it’s chilly, I crank up the heat.

 

So all freedoms have a price, and wishing that weren’t the case is merely an exercise in self-flagellation. In fact, envy itself tends to always involve a bit of voluntary self-torture, because it’s based in the arrogant supposition that you know enough about the object of your envy to make the comparison at all. You’re comparing your insides to somebody else’s outsides.  

Productive Enough For Ya?


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Does a life well-lived include a lot of productivity? How important is it to leave behind a legacy of work?

 

There are certain times in an artist’s life when he or she can’t seem to work fast enough to get down on paper or canvas all that want to find tangible expression. Chopin was already quite sick with tuberculosis when he finally finished his collection of piano preludes. Bach and Milton both struggled against failing vision before finally giving up on writing and editing their work.

 

For a select few, it’s been very important for the rest of us that they struggled to crank out new work while there was still time.  Today, a couple of hundred years later, there is little paper involved in the creative process. What will the museums of the future have to curate? E-mails?  

 

Amazon Kindle Direct publishing is now electronically publishing thousands of new works every day, most by unknown writers of mysteries, romances, and self-help books. No one will ever read most of what they have written. Likewise, there are now millions of newly-retired people writing blogs that will only be skimmed by other blog writers. Every backpacker nowadays is writing a travel blog, which is cheerfully rife with pictures of the blogger (called “selfies”) in front of some formerly exotic but now hopelessly over-exposed locale.

 

One thing we can be sure of: what we lack in quality we have made up for in quantity. There sure is a lot of it out there and most of it is being given away for free.  

The computer has made producing new works much easier and rapid than ever before, but the quality of what has been produced is less obviously improved, nor is it likely to be in the future, when the act of typing will have been replaced by voice commands. When music can be composed by a wave of a wand or some sort of controller, it won’t mean that the composer is any more gifted because he or she can equal Bach’s lifetime output in a few hours.

People will still be listening to Stairway to Heaven more than St. Matthew Passion, and I’m afraid no matter who comes down the pike in the future, they’ll have a hard time breaking new ground and through the accumulated detritus of centuries come before.

When Bach composed, he had to surround himself with assistants he could trust to copy out the individual parts for orchestra and chorus. He had to somewhat carefully apply ink to paper and, because paper was relatively precious, not make a mess of it. If he were alive today, he could simply press “start new page” on his laptop’s music composing program and start clicking away with the mouse or joystick.

Would the quality of his work increase? Would he find more time to spend with his twenty children? Maybe he could lead rehearsals with his orchestra via Skype and not have to journey up and down the terrible roads of medieval Germany.

Tolstoy’s wife typed the manuscript for War and Peace twice, first and final draft, as he read from his hand-written manuscript. They would have had an ugly divorce, except he ran away from home just as he was dying from consumption and managed to succumb from the disease in an unheated railroad station in Siberia before she could start divorce proceedings.

Maybe a good word-processor could have made their time together more bearable.

BEWARE OF THE DESIRE TO BE CONSTANTLY ENTERTAINED


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Bach had twenty children, yet still found the time to write more and better music than a hundred of his contemporaries. When he was fifteen, he walked two hundred and fifty miles from home to attend school in another town. For a while, when he attempted to resign a post as a court musician, he was thrown into prison. I don’t know if he was ever bored. He certainly never played a video game or became addicted to a television series. 

Something has developed in my country and culture that makes me think that nobody will ever again be as profoundly creative as Bach. We don’t have time for it, because we’re spending all our efforts looking for comfort and diversion.
 

The expectation that life be entertaining is a new phenomenon, one that has blossomed like an algae bloom in the last thirty years or so.  I remember one day I was receiving a massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and on either side of me lay Thais in their twenties, who spent their massages playing with their smart phones, furiously scrolling up and down, hoping to be distracted from this deeply pleasurable and therapeutic experience by catching sight of a photo of a cute puppy or a meal one of their friends just ate. Certainly, given the rate they were zipping through these posts they weren’t doing much real reading, nor could they be noticing their massage, the thing that they were paying for and was happening to them here and now.

 

When the novel was first created, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, some warned that it would encourage the foolish and impressionable to waste their valuable time on trifles instead of concentrating on and working for what mattered. Nowadays, we would praise anyone who had the concentration to read a novel. We would declare that person a student of the arts, an intellectual.  Try teaching a college class that requires reading a novel and see how many of the students voluntarily submit to such torture.

 

Constantly seeking distraction or entertainment becomes addictive, and as with most addictions, you can never get enough of what you don’t need.  You end up trading the Real McCoy for its shimmering substitute. And when that trade proves unsatisfactory, you find there are no refunds.

 

Family life is more than a few good-looking actors sitting on couch trading witty comebacks. Romantic love is more than the titillation of a first kiss.  We all know that at least theoretically, but when faced with an opportunity to choose the real over the virtual, most of the time we leap for the illusion. This is why so many hope to enter the Entertainment Industry. Everyone is vaguely aware that there’s big money to be made there for simply goofing around and creating ghosts.

 

When you ask young people what they would like to be when they grow up, a discouraging proportion volunteer “a celebrity.”  The idea that a person would not be celebrated for outstanding achievement in a certain area, but rather that the state of being celebrated would itself become a full-time job is a relatively new one.  Think Paris Hilton, role model for a generation.

 

Entertainment is a first cousin of advertising, that all-pervasive enterprise which seeks to invent heretofore unknown needs and then fill them. Again, the end result is wasted time and resources, disillusionment, and bondage.  Far from being a lofty goal, the chronic thirst for entertainment proves the greatest obstacle to achieving any lofty goal.

 

But this process of fooling Pinocchio into becoming a donkey on Pleasure Island begins in his seemingly simple desire to be distracted.  Please, amuse me, now, this instant, or I’ll die of boredom! So you turn back to your smart phone, hoping this time the voyeuristic hit will satisfy. Most of the time it fails to, but intermittent reward is the essence of addiction. Usually, when you yank of the slot machine handle not much happens, but every long once in a while…jackpot!

 

 

It hasn’t been difficult for cell phone providers to peddle the myth of connectivity because the target audience is already pre-sold. They’ve long ago accepted the idea that connectivity beats physical presence. Experience has taught them that illusions on small screens are preferable to seeing the real thing. In fact, the smaller the screen and the tinnier the audio, the more compelling it is. All their friends agree, and the younger you are, the more that matters.

 

I fear for the young people of the world, whether in developing or developed economies. The Man has you by the throat and you don’t even know it. In fact, you’re grateful. The harder he squeezes, but more you’re willing to give up.  As it says in the Bible, Esau sold his birthright or bowl of porridge, and when he wanted a refund, it was denied him, though he sought it with bitter tears. Youth and health are a gift, a temporary gift that will eventually be taken from you. Wasting it chasing phantoms is grim folly.