Alan Watts – Music and Life. (via somewhere on Twitter months and months ago)
This year was terrible in many ways but really really wonderful in many others. Some good stuff…
In July I spent a few weeks in Sweden, most of it hiking. A couple cold, soggy, windy days were terrible, but I can laugh about them now. And some of those days were right up there with the best days of my life, period. One of them was so especially grand that I still haven’t quite yet found the words, and may never, and maybe I shouldn’t.
Other travel highlights: a trip to see friends get married in Maryland; a workation to Chicago to spend time with the best team on the planet; and a visit to New Orleans to celebrate my grandfather’s birthday. Along with his travel and stay in Georgia for a few months, I got to spend more time with him than I had in decades. I don’t take it for granted.
I mastered sleep. Oh my lord has this been huge. My family spent the previous two Christmases at the beach. Both times, I ended up sleeping 10, 12, 14 hours a night… and napping in the afternoons.
After a few days like that, I felt like I was seeing in color again.
The freshness didn’t last after the first awakening – I spent a year squandering it – but the second time around I realized it was dumb to let myself spend months decaying into zombie mode. I just can’t thrive on 6-7 hours a night; I’m more of a 9er. A regular, earlier bedtime has cost me a few dozen late-night movies, but it’s been so, so, so worth it.
I started making collages every now and then. I tried it on impulse because I had some magazines and scissors nearby, and it was instantly therapeutic.
I found a meditation routine and got into a groove with it, and fell out and found it again, and again, etc.. I eat veggies every day (pretty much, mostly, I try?). I don’t do as many straight-up workouts as I used to, but the average day is more active.
I biked more in 2017 than any year since I was a kid. I barely drove at all (yaaassssss), outside of trips to my parents’ house or out for a hike.
Aside from the Sweden trip, I had a lovely day knocking out a 35K at Cloudland Canyon for my 35th birthday. And on a lark one Saturday I walked 20-something urban miles from my house in downtown Atlanta to the summit of Stone Mountain. Really glad I did it, and I will never do it again.
I put in a bunch of miles at my favorite state park once or twice a month.
I read a bunch of good books (8 them by John Mcphee 😎). Here’s the best of my reading year, with the top 5 distinguished with a *:
- Assembling California 😎
- Black Flags: The Rise of Isis *
- The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream *
- Death: A Graveside Companion
- How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds
- Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI *
- Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath
- Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data
- The Odyssey (trans. Emily Wilson)
- On Trails: An Exploration
- A Philosophy of Walking *
- The Pine Barrens 😎
- Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games
- The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
- The Survival of the Bark Canoe 😎
- Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals *
- What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen
(On a related note, I’m in the market for more fiction…)
I didn’t see any movies released in 2017, which was fun for a few months… and then didn’t feel any particular way for the bulk of the year… and then felt deeply miserable for the last few weeks. But for the last few days it’s been nice to salivate and plan what I want to catch up on. Instead of trying to keep up with whatever happened to be new, I saw a lot of great old stuff and re-watched a lot of things I love.
The best of the new-to-me for 2017:
- 10 Cloverfield Lane
- 20th Century Women
- Allied *
- American Honey *
- Children of Heaven
- End of Watch *
- Frankenstein *
- In the Bedroom
- The Invitation
- Love & Friendship
- Punch-Drunk Love
- Shaun of the Dead
- Stagecoach *
- The Village
I perfected a bunch of small things. And I still feel really smug about these dumb little tweaks and upgrades to stuff that doesn’t matter very much but still makes a difference. I got a trim wallet and a fresh key fob and new keyrings that better fit my ideal pocket situation. I switched over to wireless earbuds and thin linen bath towels. I got new pens and longer Lightning cables and made fine-tuned some hiking gear. I donated a bunch of clothes, and standardized much of the rest (blue oxford-collar button-downs, grey sweatshirts, grey t-shirts, and jeans, or GTFO).
I finally took care of a bunch of tedious finance/household administration that I’d been putting off for, uh, years. I asked people where to spend more on charity, did it, and it felt wonderful.
Afters years of being inactive, I deleted my Facebook account and never looked back.
I let my 8-year-old Tumblr drift into dormancy, ported the posts over here, and decommissioned it entirely.
I let this blog lie fallow. And I started it again. ❤️
I had talked about doing the SweetH2O 50K for the previous 4 years, pretty much since it first started. I’d put it on the That Would Be Cool to Do list every year, and when springtime rolled around I’d forget about it/chicken out/go traveling/kick myself for not registering. After a nice wake-up conversation with a friend, I decided it was time to put up or shut up. This would be my first ultra… and my first marathon**, technically.
Emphasis on the air quotes. I’d been out for a long (~30M) hike/trailrun about a month before the race, but that’s somewhat typical for me a long day in the mountains. I took my time, took lots of breaks, and didn’t really think of it as a training. I didn’t even remember the 50K was coming up until about a week later. I registered on March 23. The race was set for April 16. Between those two dates I did a grand total of 26.5 miles of running, which I now find funny/brilliant/lucky but at the time had me a bit panicky. I figured I was pretty much screwed overall fitness-wise, so I focused on hill-climbing runs, keeping the core muscles in tune (situps, pushups, planks, various leg raises, etc. etc.), and lots of stretching. I’m lucky I’m young and resilient. Next time, it would be wise to plan ahead and take it a bit more seriously.
Highlights from the Race
- Being so nervous at the starting line that I had to leave the pack and face the opposite direction before the gun fired. And then I was fine.
- Settling in at the very back of the pack, where I knew I belonged, for the for few miles with a couple other guys also running their first ultras.
- Ridiculously beautiful morning weather! Perfect.
- A giddy, loopy, ridiculously fun runner’s high/ Transcendental Experience of the Union of All Things from ~8-12M.
- Tripping and falling into a creek at the ~16-mile mark. Soaked from neck down.
- Passing people. I’m human.
- Drinking a nice cold Mama’s Little Yella Pils at ~22M. Aid stations rule.
- Metabolic crash into my own personal hell at ~24-27M. This was a dark place, a highlight only in hindsight.
- Finishing in 7:47 (#141/250) and not feeling all that bad.
- My awesome new shirt and hat.
One part of the race route (a giant loop, run twice) is an out-and-back spur to an aid station. This is a maybe 2-mile round trip where you have runners going both directions. The brilliance of the course layout is this spur comes after a nasty section of just brutal hills, and the second time you run the spur is right around the marathon mark, i.e. when it’s hot and you’re crashing. But this is also the only time you cross paths with your fellow runners. And the thing is, everybody is cheering everyone else when they pass by. “Good job. Keep it up. Stay strong. Not much further. Looking good. You’ve got this. Doing great.” I don’t want to get too hippie-dippie about it, but it is amazing how much these platitudes can lift you up, and how quickly I fell into saying them, too. And when you remember that they’re coming from people who are every bit as tired, sore, thirsty as you are and just as likely to be in their own hellish mental state… there’s something special there. You feel grateful to be out there, struggling, but supported and somehow maybe saying something another person needs to hear. Life lesson.
Now that I finally gave myself a chance, I think I’m hooked. Next stop, 50M.
*Misleading title. Please don’t follow my advice.
**I have little to no interest in road marathons, unless I hear about a really amazing course somewhere.
Things that, while I was in college, I wish I’d had/made more time to learn about: film, psychology, business, economics.
Things that, since college, I’ve found myself learning more and more about, without applying any special focus: film, psychology, business, economics.
Which relates to another note-to-self from a few weeks ago:
Some careers I considered, ages 5-15: archaeologist, carpenter, National Geographic explorer, SWAT team, writer, conductor.
Plus ça change… I would, for the most part, still have interest in certain aspects of these (maybe even the whole thing). Discovery, craft, research, suspense, mastery, performance. And over the past few weeks I’ve spent some time re-reading my journals from previous long hikes and travel. It’s both amusing and a little frustrating that some of the same ideas that consume me now popped up 1, 3, 5, 10 years ago. Or some of the really funny and observant things I wrote could have been written yesterday. As Andy writes:
It’s harder to construct a personal narrative of growth when the sentences showing that you used to be just as sweet remain visible.
Just makes me wonder if I’m really changing that much (do I want to?), or if I’m just becoming more like me. The metaphor that comes to mind is like when you’re downloading a large image file, and it gradually becomes less and less pixelated. Same Mark, more data, more detail.
Berlin, North Dakota. A Google Maps view of the small town where my father’s father grew up, and where my grandfather’s father is buried. I remember stopping by here on a family road trip out West a couple decades ago. I thought it was cool. Big land, big sky. And it was also awkward. The town had, as I recall, a population of 38 or so. Nothing happening. Dad was getting all sappy and wistful about this place, where he’d never spent much time anyway. It was nice for a bit, seeing Grandpa’s old stomping grounds, the school, the gym where he played basketball. But I eventually I got to thinking, come’on, y’know, let’s get to the Tetons already. At least Mount Rushmore or something. This place is windy and tired. And now I’ve gotten to an age where I want to go back and sort of wander around. Walk through some fields and daydream about where I came from and the generations that got me here.
And I went on to remind myself: “Gotta be constantly tweaking the recipe, right? I kinda know the ingredients but the ratios get out of whack”. I say all this because it reminded me of something that I bookmarked a couple months ago and forgot to share, which is Seth Roberts on Optimal Daily Experience (via Justin Wehr):
Everyone knows about RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances) of various nutrients. In a speech to new University of Washington students, David Salesin, a computer scientist, advised them to “maintain balance” by getting certain experiences daily:
something intellectual [such as a computer science class] (not so hard in college); something physical (like running, biking, a team sport); something creative (like music, art, or writing); and something social (like lunch with a friend).
This served him well in college, he said, and he continued it after college.
Roberts goes on to propose his own list. This isn’t rocket surgery. Make some basic priorities, try to check them off on a regular basis, re-evaluate every so often. So I think to myself, how simple would it be to take a basic calendar, divide each day into four quadrants for these four, and add a little check marks as appropriate so you can track yourself? Very simple. Done.
It also kinda ties in with Austin Kleon’s tumble about Ben Franklin and pros and cons lists. Says Ben:
And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra.
First off, I love the phrase “Moral or Prudential Algebra”. It ties in with my general attitude of 19th-century optimism (which phrase I stole for my Twitter bio), the idea that with a little forethought and pluck and some striving, you can make Good Life Decisions. And secondly, there’s that idea that you should lay it all out where you can look at it–and this is not just for quote creative unquote stuff. The point is, your life is the Ultimate Creative Project, if you will, so you’d best keep an eye on the how the stuff’s accumulating. Not the details themselves, but the pattern, the trend. To quote Colin Marshall again:
Satisfaction is a product not of where you are, but of where you’re going. To get calculistic, it ain’t about your value, it’s about your first derivative (and maybe your second). In this light, statements like “When x happens, I’ll attain happiness” don’t make sense, but ones like “While x is happening, I’ll be happy” make somewhat more.
And a bit later in the evening I was reading Derek Sivers’ excellent notes on The Happiness Hypothesis (in the bookpile now) and I came across a couple quotes that tie in with Roberts, Salesin, and Franklin. First on moral education:
Moral education must also impart tacit knowledge – skills of social perception and social emotion so finely tuned that one automatically feels the right thing in each situation, knows the right thing to do, and then wants to do it. Morality, for the ancients, was a kind of practical wisdom.
and then on choices vs. conditions:
Voluntary activities, on the other hand, are the things that you choose to do, such as meditation, exercise, learning a new skill, or taking a vacation. Because such activities must be chosen, and because most of them take effort and attention, they can’t just disappear from your awareness the way conditions can. Voluntary activities, therefore, offer much greater promise for increasing happiness while avoiding adaptation effects.
Note to self: moral education (not just ethics stuff, but we’re venturing into Franklin’s thirteen virtues here) involves a set of skills that you can practice. Practice and it becomes voluntary, habitual, sustaining. That’s my working theory, in any case. So what have I learned today? Pay attention. Make good choices. Nail the basics, consistently. Basically, the most vague, mundane things ever, but sometimes having a new sense of the gestalt of the whole endeavor can be very refreshing.
My first-ever trip to L.A. I liked it a lot. I had a feeling I would. I might even like it more than New York, but that’s still to be determined. The weather was perfect. 70° down to 45-50°. Sunny sunny sunny. Great neighborhoods. Some observations not necessarily about Los Angeles:
- The pleasing effect of variety in terrain is not to be underestimated. One thing I love about Los Angeles, San Francisco, Reykjavik (and to a lesser extent Portland and some spots in Nicaragua) is the quick changes from coast to city to mountain. It’s nice to feel that even if where you are is cool, something very different is nearby.
- There is a certain joy in seeing stereotypes/archetypes in real life: Homosexual guy walking back from a gym in West Hollywood. Asian tourists with cameras and fanny packs. California girl finishing a coffee on the way to yoga. I think archetype-spotting is a subconscious expectation of travel.
- I am tired of carrying a camera. I’m getting to the point where a crummy cameraphone snap is near-infinitely superior to toting a separate camera. Speaking of me tending to pack light…
- If I am going somewhere with multiple others (esp. females, sorry), transitions always take longer than I expect. I tend to be a quick packer and get-ready-er. But for other folks, there is clothing, hair, makeup to deal with; keys, phones, sunglasses and odds and ends to gather. So I twiddle my thumbs and keep the conversation going while the sartorial I’s are dotted and T’s crossed. I wonder how much time, over the course of my life, I will spend waiting for people to get ready, and if there is a better way to use it.
- Traffic wasn’t as bad as I expected. I think this is partly because I wasn’t doing a morning or evening commute, and partly because I’m used to trafficky Atlanta. Even so, not that bad.
- Los Angeles looks bigger on a map than it feels in real life. I get the opposite feeling in Manhattan.
- The Getty is really great. That said, here’s a tangent: When I’m in a museum, I prefer to stroll on the quicker side. I’ll glance at everything, but usually while in motion. The ones I like, I’ll linger for a few minutes. This is most definitely a museum burnout-avoidance technique, but also simply could be a way to avoid boredom, the pressure to feel edified. Would I enjoy more the ones I tend skip in a different context? Setting up high filters the way I do, what kind of art has an easier time getting through? What do I like more when I’m alert vs. when I’m tired? Hmm.
I felt pretty torn about this one. I’d been following Gretchen Rubin’s blog about the Happiness Project for a while and wondered what extra stuff would be in the book. I got it from the library, so I’m not sure that it matters as the only cost to me was time. Luckily she’s a really fluid writer and it’s a quick read, so it’s not in the “waste of time” category. Good parts:
- One source of inspiration for her: Best is good. Better is best.
- The idea that “The days are long, but the years are short“. Love that.
- The #1 contributor to greater happiness: her resolution chart. This is basic, daily tracking on whatever goals you have. It works. See: here here here here here, etc.
If there’s a downside, it’s that I wish she’d shared more of the studies she read up on (surely a ton), and less of the personal anecdotes of how she applied them. But then again, I wonder if I’d say the opposite if the reverse were true? Either way, you can probably get the most bang for your buck by ripping through the best-of section over on her site. Tyler Cowen says “On net, Gretchen’s tips will enhance your happiness.” I suspect this is true.
A scene from my recent vacation: Volcán Mombacho, as seen from the belltower at Iglesia La Merced. I did a bunch of journaling and drawing, so more thoughtful Nicaraguan posts are on the way…
I went to New Orleans this past weekend. Great trip, my opinion of the city definitely went up (which makes sense, because there wasn’t much lower to go before). Though I’ve been a couple dozen times, this was my first trip out and about as an adult, sampling nightlife-y kinds of things. Friday we were out in the French Quarter wandering around. The Acme Oyster House is okay, nothing special. Oysters are inherently good, but the rice in my mediocre gumbo was kinda crunchy. D.B.A. is a very cool spot with a great drink list. The rest of Frenchmen Street was good, too. There was also a cool spot on a street that I don’t remember that had really nice neighborhoody people who gave us directions. I’d love to find it again. Saturday was a little time in the Warehouse District and on Magazine Street. Republic reminded me of Opera here in Atlanta, so naturally I didn’t go in. I give my highest recommendation to The Bulldog on Magazine Street, which has a great selection and a sweet, sweet patio.
Yesterday on the way back home I came across a rough-looking guy. Sweating, dirty, walking with a cane. When he started talking to me I stopped. He told me he was from Metairie, and then told me he had diabetes and something else wrong that I didn’t really hear because I wasn’t really listening. He asked me for some money to help him out and I said “sorry” and walked away.
Then he said, “F*** you, man.” I kept walking as he continued to rant, but I could still hear it and eventually I was so pissed I turned and said something not very nice, and then went on my way, now fuming to myself about what a jerk he was. Then I went into a store and perused shelves of high-end imported Belgian ales to bring to a dinner party. And now we’re firmly in “Man Struggles With Affluence/Guilt” territory. But it’s more complicated than that, right?
I left the store and started to look for this guy. I spiraled out and did loops around town, trying to track him down. After a while, when I’d pretty much given up and was headed home, I saw him again. I walked up, told him I was sorry about our last exchange and I handed him a bill. He gave me a handshake. He explained his story again in more detail, but I mostly didn’t listen this time, either. I told him I had some family back in Louisiana near him. He told me he understood why it’s so hard to trust someone asking for a handout. We shared a fist bump and we went our separate ways. It was hot and I wanted to go home. I realized walking back that I hoped I didn’t see him again. I’m not sure how to feel about that. And I’m not sure, never been sure, whether I should give or just move on. If I gave to every beggar that asked me, worst case scenario? We’re talking like $100/year, maybe. But still you wonder if it does any good, but then again does it really matter because it doesn’t affect me that much, anyway, and then you start spiraling out again. There’s never an easy answer, which is both depressing and a kind of relief. It’s nice to have something unsettle you every now and then.
Last weekend was a little road trip out to Birmingham. So nice to catch up with a friend that I hadn’t seen for an absurd amount of time, and also make some new ones. I ate at Cantina, where the fishburgers and garlic fries get my hearty recommendation. Also saw Bon Iver (good performance) and Elvis Perkins (really, really good performance) in concert at Workplay. Workplay is a nice open venue that’ll fit a couple hundred comfortably. Wallflowers and concert snobs will enjoy the options: an elevated perimeter of tables that surrounds the main floor and the stage, and then above that there’s an upper deck with more tables and chairs and waiters at your beck and call. Nice. We also stumbled upon the McWane Science Center downtown whilst in search of a bathroom. Looked like there was a “Night at the Imax” sort of event going on for the kids.
I drove over to Charleston, SC for Memorial Day weekend. It was Spoleto Festival season, I finally got to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Company (after a mad dash from the parking deck to arrive in our seats *just* before it started). My favorite piece was Suite Otis, a tribute to the awesome (Georgia-born!) Otis Redding. Later the same day we stumbled upon Theatre 99, where we saw a good improv show by a group whose name I can’t recall. Moving on to food…
There’s good pizza at Social. But the drink (read: beer) list was uninspired (I’m spoiled by living a few steps away from Brick Store) and I didn’t quite fit with the crowd. Ditto Rooftop Bar at the Vendue Inn, but the views are nice. I did like the vibe and the jukebox at Recovery Room. The people at Joe Pasta were very kind and I also liked Monza.
We went to the renowned Hominy Grill but the Sunday brunch line was absurd so we went across the street to Fuel, which has great plantains and an enormous serving of chicken & waffles. If I’m ever there again, I’d like to check out Pano e Vino.
Out on Folly Beach, I recommend Taco Boy and maybe Lil’ Mama’s if you don’t mind a little waiting.
You probably recall Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article about the kids who were told not to eat the marshmallow. Those who were able to hold out were better behaved, higher achievers later in life.
Low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.
When I was reading it, it reminded me of some ideas that have been around for in economics for a couple centuries or so: time preference and intertemporal choice. Someone with high time preference will tend to consume sooner rather than later. People with low time preference are the savers—the ones who can hold out. The same applies to social groups or societies. For example, married folks or people who have children (or expect them) tend to have lower time preference and set aside more for the future. And they tend to display fewer risky behaviors, so they can actually see the eventual benefits of their saving. It’s the opposite for the single, childless, young. This relates to why single males in their 20s tend to have high car insurance, lots of cool electronics stuff, and little in their IRAs. Consume more now, have less later.
Of course you can substitute for the word “travel” any number of things you enjoy:
Last week the question arose as to what we would do differently if we were immortal… I answered that I would travel more.
Later the question was asked, what would you do differently if you found out you had only a short time to live. I answered again that I would travel more. Click, buzz, whirr…does not compute, does not compute… Given that I would travel more if I was to live either less or more the probability that I was at just that level of mortality that I should not be traveling now must be vanishingly small.
The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.
Things I intend to do:
- Travel outside my home state of Georgia at least once every month. This was my official New Year’s Resolution, probably the first year I’ve ever taken the resolution thing seriously. So far I’m 3 for 3 (January February March), and I’ve got #4 lined up for April, and a few other flights under consideration, along with the obligatory driving+hiking trips just over the border.
- Run an ultramarathon, i.e. any distance greater than the standard 26.2-mile marathon. I’ve been thinking about this for a good while, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for a decent 50K or 50M this year. I doubt I’ll be in shape to run the whole distance, but walking a bit is normal for these things. Or I might ignore the official races and tie this goal in with…
- Hiking from Blood Mountain to Amicalola Falls. I’ve been talking about this one for probably 6-7 years. It’s the southernmost stretch of the Appalachian Trail and the AT Approach Trail, about 40 miles. I’ve done comparable mileage on somewhat more forgiving terrain, so I know it’s doable. I just want to get it out of the way. I gave it a shot with a friend of mine last year (I think? or the year before?), but had to pull up short. Since then, I can’t help thinking, if only I’d done X and Y and Z differently. Failure always brings up a new strategy.
- Buy a house. Actually, let’s put this down as a “maybe.” I do want a porch, though.
I’ve just started reading the so-far excellent The Lost City of Z, about exploration in the Amazon jungle. The central character was a member of the Royal Geographic Society, and the author goes to the London headquarters to do some research…
In a corridor of the Royal Geographic Society’s building, I noticed on the wall a gigantic seventeenth-century map of the globe. On the margins were sea monsters and dragons. For ages, cartographers had no means of knowing what existed on most of the earth. And more often than not these gaps were filled in with fantastical kingdoms and beasts, as if the make-believe, no matter how terrifying, were less frightening than the truly unknown.
As in maps, so in life.
In a section later in the book (that I also interpret more broadly to relate to bold striking-forth and unknown futures in Life), another explorer describes the typical reactions he got to his plans:
There were the Prudent, who said: “This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to do.” There were the Wise, who said: “This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to do; but at least you will know better next time.” There were the Very Wise, who said: “This is a foolish thing to do, but not nearly so foolish as it sounds.”