Monday, April 27, 2015

Aging and the Perception of Time: Part 2

Following yesterday's posting about the increasing time it takes to escape one's home as one ages....

I answered this question on Quora some time ago: "Why do I feel that there are some days that pass so fast and other days too slowly?"

I'll repost my reply here:
Human beings reduce familiar actions and things to abstract models. We don't fully notice an individual chair once we mentally assign it to the class of "chairs". They almost "disappear" into their categories.

As we grow older and experience more and more, fewer and fewer things surprise us. Nearly everything is categorized, and thus falls beneath our conscious awareness. Eventually, we're no longer living in the world; we're living in "Worldworld", a set of assumptions and summations and mental shortcuts that keep us from experiencing the here-and-now in a fresh and vital way.

This is adaptive; we need to be on guard for the new and the mysterious (i.e. stuff that might harm us), not pouring our attention into every single daisy the way young children do. But this takes us out of our senses and into our heads (our abstraction-oriented cortex), and time passes much more quickly when attention is focused there, on symbols, shortcuts, and taxonomies, rather than on an infinitely rich and nuanced array of ever-shifting perceptions. That's why time appears to go faster as we age. Less surprises us, and more is reduced to mental abstraction. The world disappears as the model fills out.

Days which pass slowly are ones where you, for whatever reason, "come back to your senses" and experience the raw immediacy of your surroundings. Because such experience is richer/denser, the pace of time appears to slow. This happens when we're thrust into a new or surprising environment, or when some internal impulse spurs you to temporarily discard the mental modeling and immerse in the immediate.

Immersing in the immediate sounds lovely, and it can be. But it can also result in a cognitive stall - aka boredom. Everything seems immediate - but oppressively so! That's a bad sort of slow-passing day. So...experience of the immediate is not always lovely. And, by the same token, to focus attention on abstract mental modeling can be profound - especially if you're a mathematician! Neither perspective is fundamentally better or worse. But if time seems to uncomfortably slip away, you need to shift from abstraction to perception. And if time seems to uncomfortably drag, you need to shift from tedious over-awareness of your prosaic surroundings and find the infinite space and freedom in your creative imagination.

My other Quora replies.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Aging and the Perception of Time: Part 1

Every decade seems to add 10 minutes to the time it takes a person to get out of the house.

This has bugged me for years. It's certainly not that I'm taking extra time to primp my hair or "pick out a cute top" (I'm not sure what that even means; I heard Reese Witherspoon say it in a movie once). So, yesterday, I decided to finally figure it out. I carefully self-observed myself-as-lab-rat while I prepared to go out. The goal was to identify steps and delays that wouldn't have been in my mix at age 24.

It's not that I generally move slower; I've still got the mannerisms of a Tasmanian Devil. And I didn't notice any major time sucks; just an aggregation of tiny factors. Here's what seems to have changed:

1. Carefulness
I counted nearly a dozen very minor additions to (and double-checks of) the house-escape process which my 24-year-old self would have skipped. Not coincidentally, my 24 year old self also screwed up a lot more than I do (forgot to bring stuff, accidentally wore mis-matched socks, etc.).

2. Overhead
One adds minor responsibilities and habits over time. I turn off lights more diligently now. I wear orthotics, which need to be switched out when I change shoes. I live in a place where I can turn down the thermostat when I go out (instead of rented steam-heated apartments). I close drawers and arrange things, etc..

3. Richness of Inner Life
There's more going on in my head, which slightly untethers me from the physical realm. I found it strangely easy to lock my focus onto this experiment of self-observation - the meta level - but the outward focus I'd once devoted to, say, tying my shoes is now more diffused. I'm not moving that much slower, but every physical action seems to share brain clicks with mental processes.

4. Less Stress
All physical tasks were once performed as if I was in a race. I still run up steps, but connective micro-movements are calmer. An optimist would say I'm fighting the flow less; a pessimist would say I'm dawdling just a little.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Resilience Postscript

I wrote last week about resilience, describing how, in the midst of disaster and disappointment, the key move is to remain open to the serendipitous opportunities which could inevitably turn the tide, rather than wallow single-mindedly in whatever just happened.

I can imagine some readers nodding in agreement with this sensible advice, while others frown at the needlessly big deal being made over such an obvious bit of logic. Both reactions would miss the full brunt of what is a radical proposal.

While the suggestion might seem reasonable (or even mundane) in the face of minor foibles and letdowns, it becomes much more counterintuitive (and much more useful) in higher-stakes situations, where one feels much more compelled to cling to the drama rather than embrace tide-turning serendipity. I noted recently that "character" is measured by the rate at which one discards ones values as stakes rise. This is an example of that. It's a "stakes" thing. It applies come what may, and no matter how many times your life has been smashed. It applies even after a cancer diagnosis. Even after the death of a loved one. Even after an amputation. Are you still calmly nodding (or shrugging)? :)

The more convinced you are that life as you know it has forever come to an end, the more necessary it is to steer into the skid by acknowledging that unfamiliar life is full of opportunity.

I used to view the ending of Million Dollar Baby [warning: spoiler ahead]...

...(where a talented woman boxer becomes paralyzed, and begs to be killed) exactly as the filmmakers intended me to view it: as a tragedy due to the loss of her reason to continue to live. But I've come to view it as an entirely different sort of tragedy.

A friend recently went through a year of dialysis (the debilitating and extremely time-consuming process of compensating for malfunctioning kidneys). That was bad enough, but then his worst fear came to pass: he was told he'd need a transplant, via risky and highly invasive surgery followed by many weeks of recuperation. He went through all this horrific hardship, after months wrecked with worry, and when he emerged from it all, he blinked his eyes and looked around, and realized it had all just been...stuff! Very soon, though, he began worrying about kidney rejection. Now that would be truly horrific! And so the cycle recurs (he's still fine, by the way).

One can make disaster the first step toward turnaround, or one can make turnaround the first step toward disaster (noting that unexpected turnarounds are far more common than confirmation of one's worries). The irony is that it's completely a matter of free choice - like choosing to steer (effectively) into a skid or to steer (fruitlessly) out of one.

Here's another way of expressing it all, thanks to an Alec Baldwin one-liner which boils all my rambling down to three magical words.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Resilience Means Giving Serendipity a Chance

Great Amazon reviews for Navy Seal Eric Greitens' new book, "Resilience":

If there's one thing special services soldiers know about, it's resilience, and Greitens, a Rhodes Scholar and Oxford PhD, is said to have created an elegantly insightful work.

I haven't read the book yet, but I feel prompted to try once again to explain my own resilience trick. It's such a simple thing, yet unbelievably hard to explain*. I've torn up many sheets of paper trying, but let's see if I can manage it this time. If you're in a hurry, skip to the condensed version just above the illustration, below!

Have you noticed that problems and setbacks often turn out, in the long run, to have been not so bad...or even positive? A wrenching break-up with a romantic partner allowed you to meet your one true love. A debilitating illness gave you time to read and think and work out deep problems. Your house burned down, and, with nothing to lose, you found the courage to make life changes your previous complacency would never have allowed.

As I recall dips that transformed into swells, I regret the time I wasted lamenting bad results before the game was over (and the game's never over until hearts stop beating!). Rather than wallowing in bad outcomes long after the actual injury, the smart move is to direct attention sooner toward the next scene.

Any point in time may later be recognized as having been the turnaround point. So why wait for future retrospection? Why not inhabit that outlook immediately? It's just a matter of shifting perspective.

It's always an option to release your grip on whatever just happened, and embark on the twisty, unknowable path to the next thing. Of course, that next thing may be another bad result. In that case, simply repeat. Aggregated failure can't weigh you down, only aggregated lamentation of failure. The problem's not the problem!

Rather than courageously hope for remote brighter future to arrive, the trick is to amiably shift focus forward; to let difficult moments be step one of the next chapter rather than step two of the previous one.

I'm not suggesting a heroic push toward victory from the pits of aggrieved desperation. For one thing, that's just another way to over-dramatize the situation, and I'm more interested in quashing my dramatic impulses. For another, you don't know what to push for, or what victory would look like. Situations where things worked out for the best always yield outcomes which couldn't have been predicted, much less pursued, at the time. It's all about the serendipity, baby, and serendipity works best if you simply make yourself receptive and responsive to its subtle machinations. Trying to force serendipity is like pushing a string.

Admittedly, it's an unnatural shift. Remaining receptive to serendipity is hardly a natural stance in the wake of bad news. We're conditioned to respond to disaster and disappointment by closing and clenching - the posture least expedient to turnarounds and most impervious to serendipity. That's why it often takes so long for disaster to morph into success. It's not that serendipity works slowly, it's that we are slow to embrace it, thereby failing to notice and engage with tide-turning micro-opportunities as they present themselves.

Happily, we humans can be trained to respond in counterintuitive ways. We can learn to steer, against instinct, into a skid. If you can train yourself to respond to adversity and setback with an open, loose attitude, redirecting attention forward rather than obsessively locking attention on previous injury, life transforms miraculously. Just from that one tiny adjustment.

It takes practice. But even by deciding to practice this, you'll be 95% of the way there. When a student driver seeks out icy surfaces to practice skid recovery, that very act of cheerfully seeking out the Scary Thing transforms her attitude toward ice. When the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune become an opportunity to practice "skid recovery", you've mostly completed the shift, before practice has even begun!

I'm no Navy Seal, but I've learned resilience via other channels. And while I'll enjoy reading Greitens' book, I'm nearly certain it will amount to some version of the above. Because the only way to overcome the pain and trauma of your own grippy attachment to a given bit of drama is to steer into the skid; to open wide, embrace the winds of fate, and bemusedly let serendipity carry you to the next scene and its infinite opportunity. Serendipity's the ever-willing rescuer, and resisting one's rescuer is never helpful!

Shorter version:
The longer you wallow in whatever just happened, the greater the probability you'll miss out on noticing and engaging with the opportunities which would have turned the tide.

Disaster and disappointment aren't the tombstones of hopes and dreams. Rather, they're the launchpad of all that's to follow.

It's easiest to express this visually:

Esoteric addendum: Nothing ever actually happens to you. Stuff happens around you. The awareness at your core - which has blithely hummed as it has peered, since early childhood, outward from your eyes - has never wavered amid the ever-changing plot points of your life.

Feel free to pass this on to anyone you know in the midst of Bad Scenes.

* - here are my previous efforts to express this: Perils Are Not Infinite; The Stories We Tell Ourselves; Ants v Humans; "So That Happened"; "Oh Shit" Antidote; The Real Secret

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Taco Fixation

For the past year or so, I've been enjoying a total panini lifestyle (e.g. this), but I've recently switched over to tacos and haven't looked back.

Tacos are more versatile, easier to assemble, and a great way to make a relatively few calories really satisfy. Here are two recent concoctions, each kooky in its own way. First, crunchy salmon tacos (shot both nude and condimented):

Crunchy Salmon Tacos

Broil a slab of Alaskan salmon, starting with skin side down. Flip when surface has darkened, and broil very carefully to char the skin without burning it. Add scallions to side of pan during final few minutes.

Roughly chop the salmon, and break off chunks of crunchy skin.

Chop the scallions to 1-inch lengths.

Assemble and top with salsa verde (see recipe, below)

You can see it a little better if you click to expand the photo

Carnitas/Potato/Pear Tacos With Double Garlic Salsa Verde

Bake some Trader Joe's Potato Tots 20 minutes, then roughly quarter them with a chef's knife

Slice Trader Joe's pre-cooked carnitas and griddle (I use one of these)

Griddle scallions alongside the carnitas

Cube half an over-ripe pear

Assemble and top with salsa verde made with double garlic (see recipe, below)

Note: I griddled the meat and scallions without fat. Results were just slightly dry. Either griddle the scallions (or scallions and carnitas both) in plenty of fat, or else (more healthily) drizzle extra virgin olive oil over taco fillings just before eating.

Salsa Verde (courtesy of Paul Trapani)

6 smallish yellow tomatoes (I use Trader Joe's Yellow Tomatoes On The Vine)
1 jalapeƱo pepper with some pith and all seeds removed (be conservative and adjust heat later via Tabasco)
1/2 clove of garlic
1/2 onion
A handful of cilantro (most stems removed)
Juice of 1 lime

Add to food processor (I use this tiny, cheap, easily-cleaned one that works great for this purpose) and pulse until no large chunks remain. Stir in salt (for extra control) manually.

The tortillas I use are the best. They're from Tortilleria Nixtamal, in Queens. Wherever I find myself (often 45 minutes or more from Nixtamel), I dutifully trek there each week for tortillas. Because while it's possible to simplify and streamline recipes, you can never eliminate the requirement of a level of commitment that's a few degrees north of what most people deem sane. Not if you want deliciousness, anyway.

I'm also really really careful in how I griddle the tortillas. I move them around with my fingers, I pet them, I agonize over them. Again, too much. But the results rule....

No matter how hard I try not to prepare too much filling (because tacos use less than you'd expect), I always make way too much (because tacos use way less than you'd expect). The solution is this:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Stupid CEO Raises Minimum Salary to $70K/year

The CEO of a tech start-up decided employees need to make at least $70,000/year to be happy, so he slashed his own salary and restructured the business to make it so. The company's average salary had been $48,000 year, so 70 employees will get raises, and 30 of them will double their pay.

Sounds good, right? No, it isn' all. This means employees will be earning far more than their market value, and capitalism abhors such distortions (see the story of the hell I was put through when I tried to share Chowhound's acquisition pay with our two most hard-working volunteers). It's a recipe for unintended consequences.

The big problem is that these employees will quickly adapt to the extra income, and their overhead will rise accordingly. They'll soon come to depend on it, with at least two ghastly results:

1. Serious peril if the company ever goes under (or if they're laid off). They'll be forced to withstand a crippling 50% cut in pay when they take employment elsewhere. With lifestyle and overhead engorged far above what their true market value can support, this won't amount to a simple matter of resetting to a previous status quo. It will be a catastrophe.

2. The workers will essentially be slaves to their employer. Since they can't ever leave, they can't ever say "no". To anything. The boss will effectively own these workers. Worse, every manager will effectively own his/her underlings. And we all know how graciously a certain proportion of our species is prone to handle power.

The CEO should have taken all this into account. The fact that he didn't makes him a poor leader (leadership is all about considering contingencies). It's a perfect example of what perturbs me about a certain strain of liberalism, which operates on ditzy feel-good impulses with brain happily disengaged. The coiffure of pseudo-generosity barely combs over a wide bald patch of vain sanctimony. In the long run, I suspect this guy will still feel like a hero even after his ill-considered maneuver brings catastrophe to many of these lives.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Four Stages of Duck Arrangement

Stage One: Goldilocks
What's wrong with this world? Why is there always too little of what I want and too much of what I don't? Why are things so seldom "just right"?

Symptom: Bewildered anger and dissatisfaction
Ideal age: 1-5

Stage Two: Whack-A-Mole
I can make it happen. Just as soon as my ducks are all in a row, I'll find happiness!

Symptom: Anxiety
Ideal age: 6-14

Stage Three: Faux-Insight
This fucking world sucks, and I don't get my due. No matter how hard I try, ducks never line up for long.

Symptom: Depression
Ideal age: 14-24

Stage Four: Insight
It's not about me, nor should it be! Let the ducks behave as they will; happiness is wanting what you get, rather than getting what you want!

Symptom: Peace
Ideal age: Adulthood

For some reason, a great many grown-ups are still at stage one. Though there are also plenty of numb, beaten-down stage three people who believe they're at stage four. And those who reach stage 2 tend to get stuck there until the stress nearly kills them - or they experience some life turmoil which jars them out of their stupor.

It's inescapable: everyone must traverse all four stages; peace is unattainable until you've first passed through both anxiety and depression. The big surprise is that equanimity springs directly from abject dissatisfaction. We assume happiness will arrive when circumstances are happy; when those damned ducks finally line up, but that's a sham we fall for again and again. External circumstance is merely an entertaining kaleidoscope (to be relished in all its kooky turns). The disjoint has been entirely internal all along; a matter of perspective. It turns out equanimity precedes contentment, not vice-versa.

Further reading:
The Toddler and The Steering Wheel
"The Deeper Implications of Holiday Blues"
"Ballasting Happiness"
"The Monks and the Coffee"
"An Adult View on Preference"
"The Times Everything Worked Out"
"Uncommon Terseness"

Friday, April 10, 2015

Cruelty, Conquerers, Greatness, Psychopathy, and Yesterday's Lunch

I often ponder Steven Pinker's theory that world violence has been in sharp, perhaps permanent, long-term decline. I've previously written about it here and here.

This dovetails with one of my favorite psychological "flips". When I feel dismayed by the callousness and cruelty of our species, I remember: we hardly ever punch each other any more. And we only very rarely mash each other over the head and steal stuff. As I go about my day, I may experience errant bits of malevolence, but I'm very likely going to get home safe, come what may.

That might sound like scant comfort, but it's actually quite a lot. We fail to love enough or care enough, yes, but we've come an awfully long way since we left the caves. In fact, we've come a long way in my own lifetime. I remember when there was a lot more punching and mashing. My father could remember when going to police to complain about getting socked in the mouth could get you socked in the mouth - even by those same police.

And the macro view has transformed enormously. I remember when "pacifists" were a small minority (you'd visualize Quakers and flower children). While there are still plenty of hawks, that's no longer the dominant attitude. You don't hear terms like "dove" or "pacifist" these days, and that's because it's become the prevailing sentiment (though our leaders, as usual, have yet to catch up). Think about it: we no longer need a name to describe those who are philosophically opposed to war!

Anachronistic vestiges remain. We still describe guys like Genghis Khan, Napolean, Julius Caesar, and, obviously, Alexander the Great as great men. If any of them were working today, they'd be as despised as Hitler - who, even Holocaust aside*, would have been deemed a 20th century villain. I'm not denying these figures have been viewed ambivalently over history. I'm not saying their brutality's been overlooked. But, recently, Putin - (thought by some to harbor an Alexander the Great complex) - invaded a mere Ukrainian peninsula - and did so as "politely" as any invasion has ever been perpetrated - yet he's being loathed and isolated by a horrified international community as a power-crazed madman. We seem to have lost our ambivalence.

Conquerers are now clearly seen as unbridled psychopaths - very bad, self-centered little boys who must be stiffly punished and prevented from doing harm to others. And while I wish the counter servers at Boloud Sud had treated me more kindly yesterday, our evolution - even our very recent evolution - has been huge.

* - Not that Hitler's genocide was unusual; plenty of great conquerers have enjoyed ethnic population decimation as side projects.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Chocolate Expert

"Most singers become singers because they want to be singers, not because they want to sing. That's why most singers are so awful" (see this.)

I met a fellow at a food event once who gravely informed me that he's a chocolate expert. He's, like, the guy. He really, really knows chocolate. Pomposity is in decline these days (ego finds other channels), but he hadn't gotten the memo. You think you eat chocolate? You do not eat chocolate. Chocolate is eaten when he, and he alone, eats it. Because he's a chocolate expert.

Naturally, I tried to talk to him about chocolate. But it was excruciating. When I mentioned brands he knew, he'd interrupt me to boast about his close friendships with the makers. And when I'd mention stuff he didn't know about, panic flashed in his eyes as he geared up to fake a confident response delivered with barely concealed hostility and flushed face. I'd hoped to have a nice chat about yummy chocolate, but felt like I'd been caught in a knife fight.

It dawned on me that no one can ever discuss chocolate with this guy, because he isn't actually interested in chocolate at all. What he's interested in - all he's interested in - is being a chocolate expert. And that's a whole other field.

I told him who I was; that I'd worked as a food writer/author for twenty years, written or co-written a bunch of books, been interviewed/profiled a lot, had founded Chowhound, yadda yadda. He drank it up. At last, I was speaking his language. He was barely listening as he formed his own head-butting response where he'd inform me of the award he'd won for his blog, his imminent book deal, the recognition he'd received from the chocolate industry, yadda yadda yadda. But before he could unzip his fly for the pissing contest, I swerved into an unexpected offer.

It occurred to me that I could offer this young man the most valuable of gifts: the key to attaining his deepest desire. A simple adjustment could make him the highly-regarded expert he so sorely hankered to be. So I asked whether he'd like a bit of career advice from an old-timer. Slightly flummoxed - caught in boastus interruptus - he peevishly nodded.

"Chocolate," I began, "is great. Chocolate is sexy. Chocolate is popular. Everyone just loves chocolate!" He snickered proudly; yup, he'd chosen the perfect field to be a big fat expert! "But the problem is that you're not in the chocolate field. You're in the chocolate expertise field. And that's unspeakably boring to everyone but you."

"No one cares what a big fat chocolate expert you are," I continued. "No one will ever care. Your friends, and colleagues, who seem to care? They're faking it. They don't care. As fascinating as chocolate is, your mantle of expertise is the very opposite of that."

"But!", I exclaimed, my eyes blazing with hope, "if you can switch your preoccupation from chocolate expertise - which is small and dull and useless - to chocolate - which is vast and shiny and fun - you absolutely can't fail! People will want to hear from you, and everything will click into place for you like a frickin' charm!"

I departed quickly, before his anger could fully peak.

This didn't actually happen. I did meet the guy, and we did talk about "chocolate" - by which I mean his chocolate awesomeness - and I was trapped in a brief conversational mugging, but I never did offer him this advice/tirade. It wasn't because I was too polite. Quite the contrary; it was because I just couldn't summon the compassion, or stomach the inevitable friction.

See also: Leff's Fifth Law

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