Category Archives: Life

The Holy Grail

Generalizing from me and people I know, the preeminent challenges in the lives of educated financially-stable folks are (1) finding sustainable true love, and (2) finding meaningful work.  Which of these predominates depends on the individual and what stage of life he or she is in.

As far as problems go, these are relatively “good” ones.  But they are problems nonetheless.  And solving them both – that is, finding meaningful work that allows one enough time to find, cultivate, and nurture a sustainable true love – is the First World Holy Grail.

I won’t sit here and say that I’m even close to having the path to the Holy Grail mapped out.  I don’t have the age or the track record to credibly make that claim.  But I do think I’ve figured out a few angles that make getting to the Grail more likely than if one were to just charge blindly into the hills after it.  Here are some of them:

  • Learn and accept yourself.  And then be willing to share that self.  This is ~50% of the battle.
  • Acknowledge and accept tradeoffsHaving it all is a crock.  Time and energy are finite resources, and devoting yourself to one thing means neglecting something else.  Figure out your values and priorities so that you can budget yourself accordingly.
  • Take calculated risks.  Sometimes to get where you want to go you have to jump over a cliff.  Do it.  Just make sure you do the math on the distance and wind resistance and how fast you need to go and all that stuff first.
  • Be process- rather than outcome-oriented.  If you enjoy and find value in the work itself, whether you achieve the desired result matters much less, which helps you keep going in the face of failure.  And speaking of failure…
  • Use it.  Figure out what you did wrong.  Figure out how to correct it for next time.  Then move on to next time.
  • Listen to Max.  He won’t steer you wrong.

Given the number of self-referential links in this post, I guess I’ve stumbled upon what this blog is about: the pursuit of the Holy Grail.

Or, to put it in more familiar, less-Dan Brownish terms, the Pursuit of Happiness.

Happiness as the Holy Grail.  Sounds about right to me.

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Everything and Nothing

What you do in life means everything and nothing.

It means everything because as far as we know you only get one life.  That’s it, one bite at the apple and you’re done.  So if you waste it, and you don’t do what you want, you’ll never get a chance to do it again once your time is up.

But on the flip side, what you do in life means nothing because, to paraphrase Hugh’s landlord, one day you’ll be dead and none of this will matter.  That time you peed your pants in 5th grade, or you won the state championship, or you bombed a test, or you got that promotion, or your business failed, none of it will matter because you’ll be gone.  And eventually so will everyone else who remembers that stuff too.  And then you’ll really be gone.

So don’t let your personal myth delude you into inaction.  Don’t waste days and months and years capitulating to fear and doubt.  Very little damage done in life is irreparable, few paths are true dead ends, and nobody is that interested in what you’re doing.  Nobody will remember your big flop or your grand embarrassment in fewer years than you’d probably care to think about.  The only person your time here really matters to is you because we know for a fact that you will run out of it.  Don’t let that happen before you get what you want out of this place.

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What Could Have Been But Never Will

In one of my all-time favorite essays, cartoonist Tim Kreider names and examines The Referendum: the “phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt.”

Drawing on personal experience, Kreider explores in precise, poignant prose the cross-cutting tensions (internal and otherwise) and melancholy that comes with trying to figure out if the grass on the other side really is greener, and if so how much.  A few money quotes:

“Friends who seemed pretty much indistinguishable from you in your 20s make different choices about family or career, and after a decade or two these initial differences yield such radically divergent trajectories that when you get together again you can only regard each other’s lives with bemused incomprehension.”

Quite a lot of what passes itself off as a dialogue about our society consists of people trying to justify their own choices as the only right or natural ones by denouncing others’ as selfish or pathological or wrong. So it’s easy to overlook that hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a poignant insecurity, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.”

“Watching our peers’ lives is the closest we can come to a glimpse of the parallel universes in which we didn’t ruin that relationship years ago, or got that job we applied for, or got on that plane after all. It’s tempting to read other people’s lives as cautionary fables or repudiations of our own.”

It’s a fantastic piece and well-worth saving and coming back to periodically.  This is especially true for most of the people reading this blog, as I think that The Referendum tends to come well-before midlife among educated big-coastal-city types by dint of constant exposure to diverse lifestyles and opportunities.

Note that The Referendum is a direct manifestation of the Kundera Principle, and when properly sublimated becomes the basis for much great art.

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General Theory #52

Life gets better – not necessarily easier, but less confusing and more fulfilling – when you stop pursuing things that everyone wants and start going after what only you could have.  Applies to careers, audiences, significant others, etc.  

In a world where love and long attention spans are scarce, it’s just good business.

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The Cruelty of Having It All

I find Barack and Michelle Obama’s relationship interesting.  They are both high-achievers, and he obviously has a very public calling, and they are both admirably candid about the difficulties this produces, and so they provide a readily-observable model of a couple trying to “have it all.”  And so far, they seem to be doing a good job; they work hard (vast understatement acknowledged) but seem to also be very involved in their children’s lives and with each other.  But they have resources most couples don’t.  What about the people in the world who have callings that don’t come with hired help and security details?  What about when they want families? 

There seems to me to be a moral dilemma before these folks.  A calling, by definition, is an all-consuming, selfish endeavor; it requires as much time and emotional and psychological energy as it can get, and the person giving it generally loves doing so.  But families need those resources too.  Relationships with friends, spouses, and children all require time and energy in order to grow and stay strong.  By nature, those types of relationships – especially the one between parent and child – require selflessness. 

So what happens when a person consumed by a selfish calling puts himself in a position where selflessness is expected or required of him?  In my experience, his loved ones get hurt.  Spouses and children go neglected or not provided for or both.  The person with the calling generally feels bad about the situation but can’t or won’t change, at least not without sinking into a depression that’s just as harmful to the people around him.  No matter how it plays, it’s a mess and people end up damaged.

This leads me to think that, to prevent anyone from being ground up in the gears of their passion, maybe people who have a calling in life should make the difficult decision to only have romantic relationships with people like them and avoid having children. 

This would obviously be hard: even if you have a calling, you can’t control who you love and you were made to reproduce.  But ultimately it seems like the morally righteous thing to do.  Because forming relationships with (or creating) people to satisfy one’s own needs knowing that one is unable or unwilling to fulfill theirs in turn is to treat other people as means to an end, and not ends unto themselves.  And when this causes people emotional or physical pain, to whatever degree, then in my book it’s immoral. 

But I guess then that my book implicitly says that the pain suffered has greater weight than whatever pleasures are enjoyed in the process; that it is better to not be alive at all than to be alive but neglected or impoverished or both; that it is better to not fall in love with someone who is ultimately going to hurt you than to fall and get crushed but to be a crushed thing that experienced that purest, highest emotion.  And I’m not sure I’m comfortable saying any of those things.  So I guess I’ve got some sorting to do.

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Salim's Helicopter Pt. II

When I got to Delhi, I took no chances: I checked into a “nice” hostel (air conditioning, no visible bed bugs, overhead lighting), drank only from water bottles that passed my seven-point seal inspection test, and limited my meal consumption to foods that were charred free of taste.  Anything yellow on my plate was isolated, dispatched into a napkin and deposited on the floor.  There would be no more gambling on grub in India.  My first night in the hostel, after buying my train ticket to Agra and witnessing an impromptu stray dog war (I’m talking West Side Story numbers, like 40 dogs), I laid in bed reading The Bonfire of the Vanities, communing with my still-grumbling stomach.

I spent the next day touring Delhi, and headed to Agra the following morning.  There I was badgered into accepting the services of a bicycle rickshaw driver by the name of Salim.  Salim was a thin man about my height with a thick mustache, sunken eyes, and a lantern jaw.  He wore a heavy, long-sleeved cotton button-up shirt, jeans, and sandals, attire that seemed completely inappropriate for anyone – let alone someone who peddles people around all day – in a heat so dry it chapped my lips to cracking within an hour of sunrise.  “Hop in,” Salim said when he saw that I was finally caving to his sales tactics.  He pointed to his rig, a large steel-and-cloth enclosure on high tires attached to a rusty bike.  “It’s my helicopter,” he said.  “Hop in.”     

All day, Salim peddled me around in his rickshaw from site to site, waiting outside in the swelter at each one, taking only an occasional break to smoke a cigarette and drink the piping hot (!) chai tea sold by roadside vendors.  He never broke a sweat, and when I offered him water, he politely declined.  Meanwhile, sitting in the shade in the back of the rickshaw, I was drenched and guzzling water like I just got out of The Box.  Lawyering Mike felt like a milquetoast.    

As the day wore on, Salim and I got to talking about our lives.  It turns out we were almost the same age, though a life of hard labor, smoking, and whatever else made him look quite a bit older.  He had a wife and a newborn baby, and every day Salim would peddle an hour into the city on his “helicopter,” work for as long as he could find customers, and then peddle home at dark for dinner and sleep.  He had been saving up to buy a rickshaw from the man he borrowed his from, but thieves had stolen the borrowed one from him while he took a bathroom break and so he now worked twice as hard for half the money to pay his boss back and keep food on the table.  “I am a strong man,” Salim said, slapping the thighs that turned the pedals to carry me and however many others up hills and through crowded streets day in and day out under the unforgiving sun.  “Sure are,” I said. 

That night, after stopping at a few shops so Salim could get paid for bringing a customer by, he dropped me off at the train station.  We shook hands and I paid him, and then I headed into the station while he rode off in the direction from which we came, his load a little lighter.  That night I lounged in the air-conditioning and finished Bonfire, letting my thoughts drift occasionally from the words on the page to Salim; I pictured him peddling home, locking up his rickshaw and kissing his wife and baby hello; I wondered if his life was going as he planned it, as he wanted it to. 

The next day I met up with my friend and we set off for Khatmandu, off to be tourists somewhere else.  I don’t think I mentioned Salim to him. 

It’s mind-boggling to think about how arbitrary it all is: Salim was born where he was and I was born where I was and because of that he was peddling me around his city for less than what it costs me to buy a good meal in DC.  Staggering, the odds of fortune.  Whether you’re born to billionaires or junkies, in a country with an established rule of law or crushing despotism, with phenomenal athleticism or a stifling deformity, with green eyes or blue – it’s all a lottery.  And by extension, so are the opportunities you have in life, as well as whatever success you encounter.  Heck, even your talents and abilties are only meaningful in the context of the time and place you live in.  Yes, individual effort plays a part in success; but individual effort requires mediums to channel it through, and people to encourage and guide it.  And whether you have access to those things is a function of the genetic lotto.  There’s no moral dessert there.  It’s random, and if you’re reading this, you got lucky.  Because it could all be another way.

Keeping this in mind is hard but valuable.  It breeds humility and gratitude; when you realize how much of where you are is due to factors you had no control over, you tend to toot your own horn a little less.  And it breeds empathy too; you tend to judge people a little less harshly when you realize that you could just as easily be them, and if you were you’d probably act the same way they do.  These are good qualities worth cultivating.  And keeping the improbability of your circumstances on your mind as much as possible is a great way to do it.  I would even say that if you were looking for a cornerstone for any religion worth adhering to or any social policy worth implementing, this would be it.  But that’s just me.

These ideas are not new, of course.  Better minds have thought them.  But they’re still worth discussing for those who haven’t encountered them, or have forgotten them, because they’re not intuitive.  One has to be shown, over and over again, how amazing one’s life looks when viewed from Salim’s helicopter.

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Salim's Helicopter

During the summer of 2008 I went to visit a friend in Mumbai, India.  He had been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study the caste system on merit of his genius, and I was cashing in on a free place to stay and someone to show me around on merit of my being a freeloader.  I had done some traveling before, but nothing that could have prepared me for the difficulty of being a tourist in Mumbai.  Poverty is endemic and everywhere is overcrowded, so people and animals eat, sleep, and relieve themselves in the streets.  Exhaust fumes from shambling trucks and swarms of auto-rickshaws choke the air, and street markets and restaurants season the pollution with spicy odors.  Now take all that and heat it up with the kind of stifling humidity that makes summertime in the District seem mild by comparison.  That’s Mumbai.    

Suffice it to say, I didn’t avoid sickness for long. 

It happened after ingesting a deeply troubling yellow food product of indeterminate origin and washing it down with water – the ultimate traveler’s no-no – that I had been assured was purified to the highest standard.  It wasn’t, and consequently I was purified to the highest standard over the course of the next 24 hours, in what is to this day the worst illness I have ever experienced.  I spent that time lying on the floor of a non-air conditioned bathroom – dehydrated, unleashing all manner of foulage, and praying for death – while my friend went to a nightclub and then about his daily business, happy as a clam and laced up to the gills on stomach medicines.       

Fortunately God ignored my pleas for a quick death and saw fit to end my suffering just in time for me to catch my plane to New Delhi.  The plan was for me to go to Delhi alone to sightsee, and then my friend would come and meet me for a trip into Nepal.  Had I not recovered in time I would have probably forced myself to get on the plane anyway, but in all likelihood I would have been quarantined once I made a nightmare of the little plane bathroom.  I’m glad I wasn’t forced to play that scenario out; my time alone in Delhi turned out to be one of the high points of my trip, and a real eye-opener on how fortunate I am to be me. 

Continued Tomorrow . . .

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