Odds and Ends

1. Yo-Yo Ma and some of his friends having lots of fun (use a browser other than Chrome). E pluribus unum.

2. How to get bigger portions at Chipotle— “shoving the burrito until it explodes.”

3A. An analysis of The Americans. 3B. Kerri Russell makes Jimmy Fallon wear the Felicity wig.

4. Book recommendation—The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking.

5. Long essay recommendation—The Dark Power of Fraternities.

6. On (not) getting by in the gig economy.

7. I know you like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, but what about Pedestrians in Bars Eating Toffee?

8. The Pope Obama has been waiting for.

• See “First Time Here?” for a newly up-to-date top ten posts of the last twelve months.

You STILL Have a Wired Doorbell?!

A wonderfully quiet, calm, early morning. Just me and the iPad Air, on a stool, at the kitchen island. I’m George Foreman and my green tea latte, banana with peanut butter, and bowl of oatmeal are Frazier. I open ZITE and select one of my “Top Stories”, an article titled “Interior Design Tips & Furniture To Consider When Moving Into a New Home”. I want to be prepared in case I buy a new home today.

Scrolling, scrolling, some cool ideas like a pallet coffee table or a “murphy bed for the kids’ room”. Then the game changer. “Connect With Your Home Via Your Smartphone.” Here’s the paragraph. Savor. Every. Word.

These days our smartphones can do almost anything. There’s an app for everything so why not take advantage of this? In your home, you can have things like a wireless doorbell. Whenever someone’s at the door your phone will ring so, even if you’re in the garden, you’ll hear the doorbell.

Our smartphones. Never be lonely again. We’re a club and you’re in it.

There’s an app for everything. I have read there are a whole lot of apps, but I never knew there’s one for everything. Had I known about the one that heals calf muscles, I would’ve been running all January and February. And had I known about the app that enables you to peer into the near future, I would’ve avoided last weeks argument with the GalPal. And had I known about the ones that rake leaves, mow, and pick up doggie do, I would’ve spent all weekend inside learning more about interior design.

A wireless doorbell. Hot damn. Whenever someone’s at the door your phone will ring so, even if you’re in the garden, you’ll hear the doorbell. Until now, I thought my most pressing hardships in life were health related—persistent skin cancer, an enlarged prostate, worsening vision. Now that I think about it, I have long been tormented by a litany of missed house guests as a result of my feeble, wired door bell, and my gardening. Because thanks to technology, we have way more time on our hands than ever before and we’re spending a lot of that freed up time dropping in on one another.

Just the other day, three young women stopped by to give me a birthday present, an advanced copy of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. They emailed me later to say they rang the doorbell and waited as long as they could. I guess that’s why Marley was barking so excitedly. At the time I was knee deep in compost.

And then a few weeks ago, Jimmy Fallon stopped by to ask if I would be his first guest on the Tonight Show. He emailed me later to say he rang the doorbell and waited as long as he could. At the time I was planting seeds.

And then a few months ago, President Obama stopped by to see if I wanted to play golf and help troubleshoot the Affordable Care rollout. He emailed me later to say he rang the bell and waited as long as the Secret Service would let him. At the time I was stringing up some snap peas.

And then a year ago, Kate Middleton stopped by to ask for some parenting advice. She emailed me later to say she rang the bell and waited as long as MI6 would let her. At the time I was installing a drip water system into a raised garden bed.

And then two years ago, Pope Benedict XVI stopped by for some personal counseling. He emailed me later to say he rang the bell and waited as long as the Gendarmie Corps of Vatican City State would let him. At the time I was weeding.

Someday, I will gather my children’s children around and tell them exactly what it was like to live through the wired doorbell era. I won’t spare their feelings and I’ll use big words like “distressing”, “harrowing”, and “horrifying” because they’ll be sups smart.

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My Turn to Crime

It’s not my fault. I’ve fallen in with some bad dudes. It started a few years ago when The Sopranos drew me in. Then The Wire. Then Breaking Bad. Now The House of Cards. I should be eligible for a mail order degree in Abnormal Psychology.

What is it about Tony Soprano, Avon Barksdale, Walt, and F.U. that makes it so hard to look away as they leave ruined lives and dead bodies in their wake?

My theory rests on the assumption that I’m a part of the 99% that has a social conscience, but sometimes still wrestles with doing the right thing. At 2a.m., with the streets deserted, we still wait for the red light to turn, but not before imagining going. We get frustrated with people all the time, even irate at times, but we successfully suppress our violent tendencies. We get used to the tension between our better and worse-r selves. And fortunately for society, our better selves almost always win out.

Tony, Avon, Walt, and Frank are the 1% that effortlessly give in to their worse-r selves. Their lives are not complicated by other people’s feelings. Once off the rails, they have zero regrets. On second thought, scratch Tony from that foursome, his earnest therapy sessions with Melfi disqualify him from the truly pathological.

In large part, I think I find these dramas so compelling because I can’t fathom what it would be like to live completely unencumbered by doing the right thing. To not give a single thought to authority, social convention, and the social contract we enter into as drivers while running the light. To not care whether someone lives or not.

There’s another important variable in the equation. For me the gruesome violence is usually just palatable enough because I know they’re fictional dramas. After watching The Wire, I can reason, “That teen drug runner didn’t really die at the hands of the other teen drug runner, because they’re acting.” LIke when watching a play or reading a novel, it helps to know it’s imaginary. In Breaking Bad the innocent kid on the bike in the New Mexico dessert didn’t really die. He’s probably a popular eighth grader somewhere in SoCal.

Could the time I’ve spent with the Mount Rushmore of television criminals have a deleterious effect on my normal, law-abiding self? That’s doubtful because the Good Wife makes me take a powerful antidote to these intense crime dramas every Sunday night. Downton Abbey.

Postscript—Watch this 60 Minutes segment (13:40) on Wolfgang Beltracchi (13:40). Beltracchi, as evidenced by the final exchange which begins at 13:28, has Mount Rushmore criminal potential.

 

Paragraph to Ponder

From David Denby in the New Yorker

I’m . . . angry about the talk of artists inevitably dying of drug overdoses. Some of this talk may be cant. Fifty years ago the same was said about jazz musicians—they lived out at the edge, baring their souls as well as their craft every time they played, and it took the life out of them, so they had to turn to heroin. Really? But Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie had very long runs, and heroic actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both in their seventies, are still alive and working very hard. Beethoven did not become an alcoholic, and neither did Picasso nor Matisse. On the other hand, anonymous men die in the street every week from heroin. There’s no necessary connection between artistic talent and drugs and alcohol. We don’t really know what Philip Seymour Hoffman’s demons were, but he was a man acquainted with despair, and now some of us are feeling a little of that, too.

Hoffman’s genius illustrated.

And why Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is so scary. “Regardless of how much time clean you have, relapsing is always as easy as moving your hand to your mouth.”

Finding Purpose Outside of Work

From Derek Thompson’s short article on the ten fastest-growing jobs and the odds that robots and software eat them:

1) Personal care aides: 74%
2) Registered nurses: 0.9%
3) Retail salespersons: 92%
4) Combined food prep & serving workers: 92%
5) Home health aides: 39%
6) Physician assistant: 9%
7) Secretaries and admin assistants: 96%
8) Customer service representatives: 55%
9) Janitors and cleaners: 66%
10) Construction workers: 71%

So if you want dependable employment, become a registered nurse or physician’s assistant. Demographics will be on your side too with the “graying of America”, but most significantly to me, helping others live as healthily as possible is especially purposeful work.

Once one’s basic needs are met, creating lasting and meaningful purpose in life is people’s single greatest challenge. Those who fail to create purpose don’t contribute much to other people’s lives, they just piece together daily routines that enable them to mindlessly pass time. Ask them how they’re doing and the honest reply would be “existing”.

I’d love to be proven wrong, but Thompson’s list makes me think that jobs of the future may be less meaningful and more monotonous, creating a fork in the road between people’s paychecks and purpose. People will find purpose within their families, their outside-of-work interests, and their civic associations. They’ll come home from work and care for others in and around their own homes; they’ll be photographers, bloggers, and others types of artists; they’ll coach youth sports and volunteer at non-profits to improve their communities; they’ll grow and cook healthy food; and they’ll travel to do similar things further away.

 

We Have Lost the War on Drugs

So says Vermont’s Governor, Peter Shumlin. And it’s impossible to argue with his conclusion. Last week Shumlin dedicated all 34 minutes of his annual State of the State speech to what he described as Vermont’s “full blown heroin crisis”. Here’s a nine minute long PBS NewsHour segment on Shumlin’s speech. “In every corner of our state,” Shumlin said, “heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us.” Most of what follows are excerpts from the New York Times coverage of Shumlin’s speech.

Sumlin wants to reframe the public debate to encourage officials to respond to addiction as “a chronic disease, with treatment and support, rather than with only punishment and incarceration.” “The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards,” Governor Shumlin said, “while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards.”

Last year, he said, nearly twice as many Vermonters died from heroin overdoses as the year before. While it may be acute in Vermont, it is not isolated. In the past few years, officials have reported a surge in the use of heroin in New England, with a sharp rise in overdoses and deaths, as well as robberies and other crimes common among addicts. Those same statistics are being replicated across the country. Lawmakers in virtually every state are introducing legislation in response to what is rapidly being perceived as a public health crisis.

“The Centers for Disease Control and most national experts agree there’s an epidemic of drug overdose deaths in America,” Dr. Harry L. Chen, Vermont’s health commissioner, said in an interview. He said the rate of overdose deaths across the country had tripled since 1990.

“Nationwide, more people die of drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes,” he said. And nearly 80 percent of inmates in the state are jailed on drug-related charges. The governor made a plea for more money for treatment programs, noting that incarcerating a person for a week costs the state $1,120, while a week of treatment at a state-financed center costs $123.

Mr. Shumlin also wants to encourage discussions on ways to prevent addiction in the first place. He is providing a grant for a team that made a documentary film on heroin addiction titled, “The Hungry Heart”, to visit every high school in the state.

I learned of Shumlin’s bold speech shortly after reading an essay titled, “A Mission Gone Wrong” by Mattathias Schwartz in the January 6, 2014 New Yorker. I highly recommended Schwartz’s piece. He thoughtfully weaves several decades of US drug policy throughout the story of a recent joint US-Honduran drug mission gone horribly wrong. Long story short, it is impossible to limit the global supply of drugs. The only way to minimize their impact is to somehow reduce demand.

Upon finishing Schwartz’s engaging and depressing history lesson, I concluded that our national drug policy isn’t just the least effective of all our government’s domestic and foreign policies, but it has been the least effective for decades. I like to give our government the benefit of the doubt, meaning I assume most government workers are rational; we learn from our mistakes; and consequently, our policies gradually improve over time. None of those assumptions hold when it comes to the War on Drugs. Our policies are irrational and unchanging. As a result, the negative outcomes are totally predictable.

 

Churches of the Future

I grew up a seven mile bike ride down Chapman Avenue from Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. Recently, Schuller’s evangelical Christian ministry declared bankruptcy, conducted its last worship service, and sold the Cathedral to Orange County’s Catholic diocese for $58m.

Jim Hinch, a reporter and columnist for the Orange County Register does an excellent job explaining the Cathedral’s decline in the context of the changing landscape of religious life in the United States in 2013.

Hinch grew up in SoCal and studied English literature at Berkeley and Oxford. I find his analysis more insightful and convincing than some of his other readers.

Here’s a key paragraph from near the end of his American Scholar essay:

In a few years, perhaps a decade or two, religious America will catch up to Orange County’s present. There will be a shrinking number of evangelical megachurches, gradually aging and waning in influence. There will be numerous small, eclectic, multiethnic evangelical congregations whose emphasis on spiritual commitment and social service is unlikely to attract a large, mainstream following. And there will be surging numbers of immigrant Catholics, Pentecostals, and Muslims. The political influence of evangelicalism will decline. America will not become like Europe, where ossified state churches proved unable to compete against the inherently secularizing forces of market capitalism—and where immigrants’ faith expressions are often met with hostility. America will remain exceptionally religious. But traditional evangelical Christianity will no longer be a dominant presence in that religiosity.

Describing the heyday of the evangelical  movement, the 70′s and 80′s, Hinch writes:

As the boomers’ youthful political activism evolved into the suburban libertarianism and mistrust of government that propelled Ronald Reagan into office, evangelical megachurches offered their own spiritual blend of social conservatism and entrepreneurial innovation. Pastors emulated the corporate managers who often filled their pews. They researched their audience, introduced new products, marketed their offerings, and measured success by growth in membership and budgets.

Then Hinch describes the demographic shift which will make the United States’ majority population nonwhite in roughly three decades. Church attendance numbers prove that shift hasn’t been kind to suburban evangelicalism. He writes:

Orange County is dense with Vietnamese pho joints, boba tea shops, Asian shopping malls, halal markets, Mexican swap meets, punk-rock nightclubs, and art galleries. Corporate-style megachurches seem bland by comparison.

Hinch’s analysis of evangelical Christianity’s decline probably applies to mainline Protestant denominations who are also experiencing significant declines in membership.

My church experience may be symbolic of these larger trends. Much to the GalPal’s chagrin, I don’t enjoy my Lutheran church’s worship service as much as I do our adult “Sunday School” class between services. During the services, everyone listens passively while one or two people take turns speaking week after week, month after month, year after year. By lunch on Monday, 90% of people would do poorly on a quiz on the sermon’s content.

In contrast, adult Sunday School encourages active participation. We’ve been studying the early Christian Movement which has prompted people to rethink some of their biblical assumptions they’ve always taken for granted. It’s far more engaging because it hinges on dialogue, more specifically, people share contrasting perspectives on important questions of faith. Complexity is honored as topics are explored in more depth. Consequently, for me, the experience is more meaningful and memorable.

[thanks to SMW for the link to Hinch's article]

Best Of 2013

Most widely read Pressing Pause blog post—What Engineers Get Wrong. Thanks to a pissed off A-list blogger who linked to it.

Grooviest place to blog from—my current location, Tenth Floor of the Seattle Public Library.

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Endurance sports tweet—Will Farrell via Bonnie Ford, “Pretty sure nobody would run marathons if they were never allowed to talk about running marathons.”

Novel—Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Nonfiction book—Blaine Harden, Escape From Camp 14.

Best under the radar book by Blaine Harden—A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia.

Investment—Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund.

Television moment.

Adult television series—Breaking Bad.

Netflix original series—House of Cards.

Application—Pressreader—The world’s newspapers at your fingertips. They’ve renewed me for another three months. To quote Kurt Warner after his SupBowl victory, “Thank you Jesus.”

Song—Passenger, Only When You Let Her Go (I was late to that party, a 2012 creation.)

Film—12 Years a Slave.

Text abbreviation my students taught me—tbh (to be honest).

Lunch my sister will still poke holes in.

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Pope of the Year—Francis.

Worst excuse for losing a race—the other guy spent more on his bike—Black Hills Half Iron.

Workout—solo ascent of Mount Saint Helens with new friend.

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New friend—Cervelo R5.

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Salinger Documentary (2013)

A bevy of blockbuster movies are premiering, but I recommend an under the radar mindbuster. Salinger is an intriguing meditation on literary genius, fame, privacy, and mental illness.

About midway through the lengthy documentary, I became convinced that Salinger was mentally ill. The filmmakers convincingly argue that his WWII military service had an indelible impact on his psyche and his writing. If he knew what the first 48 hours on the ground would have been like, June 6-7, 1944, I wonder if he would have volunteered. He was fortunate to survive the first two days. 

Salinger’s was not a dangerous or violent mental illness. The truth be told, no one is “normal”, most of us suffer from mental abnormalities or quirks of some sort. Salinger’s imaginary characters and families took precedence over his living, breathing family and friends. He only harmed people who competed with his imaginary characters for his attention. When they interfered too much, he banished them from his life.

One form our mental illness takes is thinking accomplished artists or athletes owe us more than their art or public performances. Oddly, more and more people are following public figures on Twitter. Receiving tweets directly from celebrities seemingly deludes people into thinking they’re in some sort of relationship with them. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, many people so identified with Holden Caulfied they felt entitled to know everything possible about his creator. Sometimes to the point where they’d drive to rural New Hampshire and knock on Salinger’s door.

Maybe because people are so desperate for notoriety, they’re offended when someone like Salinger consciously rejects fame. Salinger practiced Zen Buddhism for many years and became an adherent of religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna and Vedanta Hinduism. Fame was another intolerable distraction from the imaginary, literary world he greatly preferred.

How should we live with present and future Salingers, single-minded geniuses whose work isn’t just the most important thing in their life, but the only thing? By leaving them mostly alone to write, to compose music, to draw, to sculpt, to fulfill their specific life purpose.

One additional thought. It was fortunate that Salinger never needed to teach writing at a University because he never could have controlled his affinity for women decades younger than him. He would have kept a few university attorneys employed all by himself.