My Past Self Says…

This morning I had a conversation with my past self. She said she was disappointed in my life, and I said, “That’s fine,” and sipped my tea.


There’s not that much you can say to your past self. The things you need to tell them are mostly things you can’t tell them. “Time traveler’s paradox” aside, most people don’t really understand things until they’re ready. One of the benefits of talking to your past self is you can save yourself the effort; you know, better than any other possible mentor, what your past self isn’t ready (or willing) to understand. 


I am perfectly aware I’m a disappointment to my past self. It’s a long list. I don’t work for the UN, the World Bank, or any other household-name governmental or non-governmental body; I don’t hold a teaching or research position at a university. I haven’t started any companies or non-profits. I haven’t solved any intractable problems or written any works considered “indispensable” or “essential.” I have an impressively short list of committees chaired, working groups led, or panels moderated. Or participated in, for that matter. 

It’s gotten to a point where I can look at my past self’s to-do list and feel like I spent the last seven years dodging bullets, Matrix-style. Thank God she didn’t know how to get what she thought she wanted. Plus, I got this cool trench coat and shades out of it, so…’nuff said. *Adjusts shades.*


Back to my past self. She has1 a lot of great ideas, goals, and ambitions. She has so many that they prevent her from getting anything done because she has no idea where to start. And she has no idea where to start because everything seems so immensely important – her future is on the line, remember! – that she’s terrified of failure. No, actually, she’s crippled by the idea of failure. So she spends a lot of time imagining “success,” because she’s heard it’s important to know what you want out of life. 

There’s a problem with imagining “success.” It’s a really amorphous concept. It’s a constantly shifting benchmark2. Worse, it’s subject to a great deal of external pressure. Everyone else has a simple formula for success, and it boils down to “be like me.” You don’t notice it’s horrible advice until you know more than one other person.

In short, you can spend a lot of time trying to imagine success and still come up with both nothing and everything – neither of which are good places to start. So my past self is a bit…stuck. But she’s determined. Good Lord, that child has determination. I think I’ll have some more tea and wait this one out. 


I am fine waiting because, recently, I had a bit of a part-the-clouds moment. Without going into the gory details, it boils down to this: instead of defining success, define failure. 

I know, I’m an optimist. Imagine some sparkles and sunshine. (And please understand this may not work for everyone; I simply offer it as a potential path for those struggling with the specific issue of “fear of failure.”)

Here is an oversimplification: when possibilities for “success” are infinite (see, I told you I was an optimist), there’s no point in wasting energy trying to work out the infinite. 

Instead, start where you are. You’ll find that “failure” – in contrast to “success” – is often a very stable concept. There are many ways to achieve degrees of success, but usually failure consists of a few large, simple actions or omissions3. Identify the few, large, simple paths to failure. 

Your goal is now very simple. Instead of working toward success, work to avoid failure. Any time you avoid failure, congratulate yourself: job well done. 

You think this invites mediocrity? 

No. It forces you to push through mediocrity. “Avoiding failure” sounds simple, but sometimes it’s very hard indeed. In my case, the things that consistently cause failure are behaviors that are very ingrained. So it can feel downright Sisyphean to keep at it. But I would argue that subverting ingrained tendencies is the very definition of not-mediocrity. In fact, there’s another way of looking at this: if you don’t want to accept mediocrity, you must become comfortable directly addressing failure. There is no other way to move past your internal status quo. 

My past self was not comfortable addressing failure. She wasn’t comfortable thinking about failure. And she didn’t want to learn how to avoid failure when she was convinced she knew how to pursue success.

The irony is, I can’t even say I’m sorry she didn’t get what she thought she wanted. A lot of the stuff composing her idea of success now sounds like my idea of hell. She had her ego pinned on being an expert, and “expert” is a very fragile title. It’s a very stagnant job description. 

I’m deeply grateful to her for diving in and finding out what didn’t work. I’m grateful for her perseverance when she didn’t know what she was doing, although – from today’s perspective – her behaviorisms also look suspiciously close to the definition of insanity. Sometimes I wish she had learned more quickly, but the time traveler’s paradox cuts both ways – so I have to respect her choices. 

And when she says she’s frustrated, disappointed, impatient, and overwhelmed – usually all at the same time – I just have to reassure her and tell her to hang in there, understanding comes a day at a time.. 

After all, I talked with my future self yesterday. That’s what she told me to say. 


1 Had? I mean, I’m currently talking to her…we’ll stick with present tense and call it the least of our worries. 

2 Don’t believe me? Have yourself a few successes. You’ll notice they don’t really stick around. The minute you achieve “success,” your metric has changed. Furthermore, even if you can define success (and good for you if that’s the case) – spend some time deciding if you want to. Once you’ve decided what it is, you close yourself off to the possibility of other “equally good” outcomes.

3 Excluding what the insurance companies label as “acts of God.” If it’s good enough to expunge the responsibilities of insurance companies, it’s good enough for me.

A Year Since Last Summer

This morning I sit on the balcony with coffee and lose track of time. If I’m not careful, I lose a whole year. 

I blame it on the trees. They are the same color as last August, that rich green of deep summer. Spring left central Texas months ago. We’re in summer for the long haul, now – the stretch of the year that lasts from late April to November – so it’s easy to lose track of the difference between June 2020 and August 2019. Time (and everything else, if we’re honest) turns a bit liquid once the daily temperature exceeds 90’F. 

I don’t really mind. It’s a novel exercise – “What would my life look like without 2020?” More than 2020, of course – what has changed between this summer and last? What would I lose if I was really sitting here in August 2019? Was there anything I should have held onto – that I didn’t?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this year has changed my world. It’s been an internal change; nothing flashy. Some days I don’t even notice it myself. But in June of last year, I was happily embarking on a busy summer. I was grateful to have a busy summer. 


For about two years prior, I’d grown very comfortable in my role of “busy.” It’s an easy role – American society even attaches a measure of prestige to it. It’s like a consolation prize. “Ooh, look – you haven’t accomplished anything of note, but you’re busy! Tell me more.” 

In August of last year, I decided to do something I’ve never voluntarily done. For the first time in my life, I voluntarily decided to drop a responsibility that had told me who I was. I decided to give up being busy.

For a busy person, few things are quite as terrifying as not being busy. Busy is more than an identity, more than a way of life; it is an existential retort to the idea of a cosmic “so what?” 

Busy is the opposite of facing up to those “so what?” moments. You think I’m joking? How many busy philosophers do you know? There’s a reason that philosophers, as a profession, are known for sitting around. It started with the Greeks and there’s been no reason to change a winning formula.

At any rate, I’m not going to list out everything I was juggling at the time. That defeats the point of giving it up. So, having stepped away from the gory details, here is what we are left with: although it didn’t all happen at once, I went from working a measurable 60 hours a week to, currently, 24 hours a week. 


The thing about working 60 hours a week is you always have something to do. Furthermore, and more importantly, you always have a beautiful excuse for things that remain undone: “I’m busy.” It’s not even a falsehood. What more could you want?

The obvious answer is – more time. But this isn’t quite the case. When you work 24 hours a week for other people, you are left with the prospect of at least – at least! – 16 hours of a working week to work on your own projects. In terms of actual time, you have four whole days to yourself. What this translates to is a revelation. It turns out some things still don’t get done. The reason they don’t get done is no longer because “I’m busy.” They don’t get done because, simply, I don’t want to do them. 

It turns out there are some things I just don’t value enough to do. 

Let’s revise the above statement: it’s not that I don’t value these miscellaneous things enough to do them. It’s that I value my own time too much to spend it on them. When your time is your own, you become aware of its value in a way that is antithetical to most discussions of an hourly or salary pay rate. 

This may, of course, not be true for everyone. I ask the economists in the audience to kindly look away. 


Allow me to digress for a moment, while the economists are elsewhere recovering. Among the various job outcomes represented by my college friends, I see a remarkable lack of diversity in qualitative outcome. 

Quantitatively, many of them have jobs, some of them are in grad school, a few of them are in between jobs. Some of them are earning “good” money (plot twist: to the Federal Reserve, it’s all the same unless it’s laundered); some of them are barely earning more than minimum wage in their respective states.  A few are receiving unemployment. 

Qualitatively, all of them seem to have about the same level of work-related happiness and meaning. This level is best described as “meh.”  

So – goes my logic – that means that neither happiness nor meaning are directly correlated to the job outcomes of college-educated individuals?


The point that I wish to highlight here is that, in my limited observations, the individuals who are earning a lot or in more prestigious positions don’t seem to be a great deal happier than the ones who aren’t. They certainly have fewer stressors; they don’t worry about medical crises or rising rent. But the absence of toxic stress isn’t the same as a perceived increase in happiness or life meaning. 

The thing about a paycheck is it doesn’t measure what you think it measures. Most people think a paycheck is a measure of the value of their time and skills. But it’s not a measure of your value of your time; it’s a measure of what the market is currently prepared to pay for the time of a person with a particular skill set. 

You may note a bit of slippage between the two concepts. 

Before I am required to include a chart, graph, or spreadsheet, I will derail the labor economics portion of this discussion. The important point I wish to highlight is that, once basic needs are met, no one other than you can accurately define the value of your time to you. As in other areas of life, knowledge is crucial. So spend some time thinking – how do you value your time?

You may feel your time is best valued in time spent with family; in gardening, reading, cleaning, skateboarding, painting, praying, or any other of an infinite variety of activities that help humans feel alive. You may have several competitors for “most valuable use,” or you may wish to discard the idea of value and simply embrace the moment. 

Currently, I find my time is best valued in writing. That is, there is no other activity which I feel is as good a use of my time. It’s not a comfortable place to be – there are lots of other activities which are almost as good, and sometimes I am aware of the opportunity cost. But I would far rather have the option to choose, with the knowledge of what I am measuring against.

The price is that, between last summer and this, I’ve discarded a lot of goals that have been with me for a while. In some cases I’ve let go of a decade’s worth of ambition. Give up busyness, gain an understanding of value: for me, right now, it’s been a fair trade. 


Of course, after all this I remain a workaholic. It’s a family trait on my mother’s side; some things are not passed on by chromosomes, but what Terry Pratchett refers to when he observes that “some genetics are passed on via the soul.” Just because I’m not busy doesn’t mean I’m comfortable not doing anything. 

But at least the things I now stress (bad habit, don’t recommend it) about are things on my own behalf. Here is the slightly morbid truth: I’m finally working on something that, if I died part way through, would still have enough of me in it to be worth leaving behind – something that no one else could have made. 

To make something that no one else could have made: that’s the closest I’ve come to understanding how I value my life, and the lives of those around me. 

I guess it has been a year since last summer, after all.


Caffeine Routine (Morning Notes To Self)

The coffee is kept in the pickle jar; that’s all you must recall. 

(Where are the pickles kept? In the fridge, of course. Why would you be worried about pickles at this hour of morning?)

As I was saying – your job is to move the coffee from the pickle jar to the French press without further catastrophe. I’m saying “further” because there has likely been at least one catastrophe already today. Not necessarily yours – it could have been an “other people” catastrophe – but why tempt fate? Never let catastrophe know you haven’t recently seen its face. 

Now, assuming catastrophe has been successfully let out (be sure to let the cat in first – not at the same time) – pour boiling water over the coffee. You should have already set on the water to boil in order to arrive at this stage – of course I mentioned it. You just forgot. Well, put the kettle on, we’ll wait. 

No, you can’t have ramen for breakfast. Not even with an egg in it. 

No, you don’t want oatmeal for breakfast. Too wholesome – what kind of day can you expect once you’ve started it off with oatmeal? 

Cheese grits – that’s the best breakfast. With an egg on it. And jalapenos, and hot sauce, and lots of coffee. Infinite refills, diner-style, and the coffee must be in a diner mug, unbreakable and infinite as the coffee. 

No, you don’t have time to make cheese grits. What do you think this is, a diner? 

Catch the kettle before it wakes the roommates. Pour the coffee into a mug. Be sure to place the mug on the counter first. Do check the inside of your selected mug prior to filling it with coffee; in this way we avoid a repeat of the “Cricket Incident.” 

Coffee and thoughts of breakfast – that should keep you going until lunch. 


The roommates are asking where the cat came from, they haven’t seen this one around before. How should I know? Ask the cat, that’s its business. What do you mean we don’t have a cat? We do now.


Here There Be Dragons

Here, there be dragons. 

If I sit in the common room – my preferred workspace – I can hear activities from all of my roommates’ rooms. (It’s better than Netflix, what can I say.) Lately, the apartment has reverberated to the sound of growling, roaring, blasts of flame and other special attacks. One roommate is deeply engaged in World of Warcraft; another, Old School RuneScape. The third roommate has a cat. The cat has, so far, produced slightly more growling and roaring, but slightly fewer blasts of flame, than the two games.

This flurry of constant activity dates to the start of shelter-in-place. Since mid-March, the roommates have been locked in battle with beasts great and small. (The cat appears to battle dust motes, but it has a win streak that surpasses the humans’.)

Every once in a while, they stumble forth from their rooms. 

Mumbling into their headset microphones, they ravage the kitchen for keyboard-safe munchies. I hear the fridge, the microwave, the recyclable bin (in that order), and then a mad dash back to their lairs. (The cat is the exception; once it has made it to the common room it has no interest in returning to confinement.)

Every once in a while the roommates’ paths intersect. There is a moment of flurried panic as they realize they are trapped in the kitchen with another creature. This is followed by a few seconds of calculation. They gauge who is closest to the fridge and how much time remains on the microwave cycle. They eyeball the front door, and wonder if they have time to take out the recyclables or pick up the mail rather than stand in a rectangular box with another human. They evaluate their chances of remaining camouflaged against the cupboards if they hold – very – still – oh, darn it, he’s already seen me. 

It’s not that they dislike each other. During other epochs, they have happily interracted. 

It’s that they currently can’t afford distraction. They have their missions, their quests, their agendas. They have found purpose. They have found what gives their life meaning. Compared to the eternal urge of the hero’s quest, small talk barely signifies. 

When one has faced dragons, there are no more small things to talk about.


Misunderstood Words

For twelve years, I had a violin teacher who also happened to be a Scientologist. He was an excellent violinist and a very good teacher. He mostly focused on teaching me violin, but every once in a while a repeated mistake in my playing would be too good to ignore. He would pounce on it and insist we discover what the problem was. 

He was convinced there were exactly three barriers to learning. These barriers were:  a “misunderstood word”, a “lack of mass”, or “too steep a gradient.” 1

In terms of my musical malpractices, it frequently emerged that the symbol I had confidently denoted a B-flat was, in fact, a C-sharp. (Or some such error. My ability to read music was and is…limited.) 

This, I was told, was the musician’s equivalent of a “misunderstood word” – a word which one uses frequently, but (in a twist on illiteracy) fails to understand. 

The idea of “misunderstood word” stuck with me. It is a useful expression of an observable phenomenon: people often fail to understand the definitions of a word even after using it many times. They simply absorb what “everyone knows” through a sort of cultural osmosis, until one day they come across a use of the word that doesn’t match up with what they imagined “everyone knew” – and in that instant, their ability to understand things they’ve built on that word comes crashing down. 

Where am I going with this? To find a dictionary…haha. Um. Lest you wander off, let me tell you where I am going with this. Are you familiar with the term “alternative facts”?

Great. How about “fake news”? 

Ahhh, excellent. 

Let’s set aside the issue of “wilful ignorance and manipulation” for a moment, because I’m still not sure I understand that concept. Let’s just look at the idea of “fact.” 

It’s a word we are exposed to from the moment we enter school (if not before). We are exposed to it in the context of the scholastic: “Children, you must learn your math facts. 2+2=4.” We are exposed to it conversationally: “I am furious at him, and that’s a fact!” We are exposed to it persuasively: “The facts are on my side.” 

As a matter of fact – the amount of “fact” we are exposed to far exceeds the amount of information anyone in their right mind is ready to examine and verify.

I don’t think all of those people are trying to mislead. (Well, not all of them. Probably. By the way, did you see where I put my tinfoil hat?) I think they just use the word “fact” in a way that is a little…non-factual. The word “fact” is a wonderful example of a “misunderstood word” magnified to the societal level. 

Now, what do I mean by that? 

People typically use the word “fact” when discussing one of five different things. 


Fact: a claim that can be checked, verified, replicated; a claim for which overwhelmingly conclusive evidence exists. 

Claim: A theory for which either no conclusive evidence has been produced, or for which evidence has yet to be evaluated and verified.

Value: An socially-validated experience of “truth” which may not be demonstrably true. 

Experience: the subjective understanding of a factual event or series of events.

Opinion: A subjective expression of a mix of claims, values, experiences, and social influences. 


When you say, “Person A killed Person B,” that is a claim, until conclusive evidence is presented and evaluated. 

(A “claim” can be true, false, or unproven; a “fact” is, as a condition of fact-hood, always and necessarily true. If new evidence later disproves the fact, it ceases to be a fact.)

When you say, “The act of killing produces death,” that is a fact2. It can be medically verified. 

When you say, “It is wrong to kill,” you are not stating a fact. You are stating a value3

When you say, “This event is a terrible tragedy,” you are sharing your experience of the event.

And when I say “People typically use the word ‘fact’ to mean one of five things,” I am expressing an opinion. 


I mention this because most news stories are a mix of all five of the above. The problem is that they are sometimes not clearly differentiated. They are sometimes presented as all “fact,” or at least not clearly presented as claim, value, experience, and/or opinion. Any of the four are worthy of discussion, but they must be understood for what they are and they must not be confused with fact. 

This lack of differentiation creates the opportunity for ideas like “fake news” and “alternative facts” to gain traction – because these ideas contain a very small grain of truth. They give voice to the latent recognition that what is presented under the label of “fact” is sometimes not a fact. The problem is not with the presentation of verified facts; the problem is with the incorrect labeling of things which are not facts as facts. 

Now, I am very late to this party. A lot of other people have already discussed the implications of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” These discussions are usually conducted along ideological, moral, or logical lines. Today, I am simply interested in exploring them as symptomatic of a “misunderstood word” problem surrounding “fact. 

The first issue is that – by leaving the definition of “fact” up for grabs – we allow the implication that evidence is completely arbitrary. And arbitrary evidence is antithetical to justice. The institution of law (upon which the legitimacy of most democratic governments at least claims to exist) requires an evidence-based, fact-based justice system. You cannot have both arbitrary “facts” and a legitimate claim to govern in a democracy. A true democracy must be based on fact.

The second problem is that these labels devalue actual discussions of complexity. They devalue, as a knee-jerk response, the critical re-examination and clarification of the information that is regularly presented to us. If you have criticism of a news source, you are yourself suspect of laundering “alternative facts.” But the act of re-examining positions in light of new evidence (key word: evidence) is an excellent response. 

It is crucial to an intelligent society – and a democracy (whichever comes first). The key is that this re-examination has reasonable grounds for its existence; that it seeks to evaluate facts based on genuine evidence; that it is transparent about its methods, assumptions, and logic; and that it does not attempt to disingenuously steer the social narrative prior to reaching a conclusion. 


While we’re on the topic – because today’s “news” is so often linked to the events of “yesterday:” the above five definitions are also critical in understanding and discussing history. 

There is a factual history. It is a singular, verifiable narrative, because – in this universe, as far as we know – only one reality can exist at any given time, and it’s opportunity cost is all the other possible realities. 

There are also experiential histories. These are narratives of personal or group experience of the outcomes or effects of the factual history. 

Both are crucial to our understanding of past actions and present choices. Neither should be devalued in favor of the other. Both must be acknowledged for what they are. And their distinctions must be clearly appreciated. 

To illustrate – let’s consider World War II. The war is a fact; it has verifiable dates, events, and actors. These dates, events, and actors were the same regardless of what faction you represented. 

However, the events of World War II were experienced in widely divergent ways by different groups or factions. In an experiential sense, a farm girl in Illinois and a Japanese naval officer did not experience the same war. 

They were affected by the same factual events, to varying degrees and distances. But they felt the impact of those events from different contexts. Their responses arose from their subjective experience of an objective reality. And in order to effectively understand how individuals and societies interacted with each other in the decades following the war, we must take into account both fact and experience. 

Finally, there are claims and opinions. A historian can have an opinion, and based on that opinion can make a claim that a war was fought in this or that place, for this or that reason. It is, however, not a fact until contemporary evidence supports the claim. Sometimes the phrase “generally accepted” will be used – and this indicates a claim that has no contradictory evidence and seems very likely, based on the body of contextual knowledge – but also does not (and may never) have any specifically conclusive evidence. 


Well, this is a lot to sum up. If any of you brave readers are still around, you’re made of strong stuff indeed. 

In recognition of your bravery, I’ll end quickly. We live in a complex society. In order to support this society, our language must support nuance. We must actively use our language to support nuance and complexity. 

I’d say “that’s a fact” – but in fact – that’s an… opinion. 


1 It is not my purpose to delve into the workings of his system of belief. Neither am i endorsing or marketing any of the aspects of Scientology, or its many for- or non-profit affiliates.

2 There are facts for which specifications of time or place are necessary. These specifications must always be clearly and consistently acknowledged. For example: it is true to say that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States in 1945 – but it is not factual. A strictly factual statement would be that he was president until his death on April 12th, 1945. In this way, you prevent the listener’s assumption – based upon a true statement, remember! – that FDR was president in October of 1945.

3 You are stating a strongly-held belief that the act of killing is a negative moral position. Your value may be based on logic – “killing leads to breakdown of the relationships necessary for social functions and thus to unstable societies” – but there is no piece of evidence that can definitively prove “wrong.” You can’t prove the morality of an action, you can only evaluate the action based on agreed-upon conventions or, perhaps, upon your personal understanding of empathy.


Sense of Place: Northside News

Throughout my high school years, I was fortunate to outsource much of the business of broadening my world.

By this I mean I took many, many walks. There were a few destinations that always reset my mind, gave me hope in a larger world full of opportunities. They were places that contained some glimpse of a life I wanted to be a part of. 

Sometimes it was as simple as the color of a house or the glow of a mica-shaded light in a window. Sometimes it was a yard with hibiscuses in bloom, or a peony bush. It was a park, a vegetable stand; a mechanics shed, a health-food store. For about a year, one of these places was a little newsstand (now defunct) called Northside News. 

The place shared a doorway and a smell with the next-door cafe. The smell was not unpleasant – just pervasive: smoke, fresh bread and hot grease. Everything in Northside News smelled of it, including the books and papers for sale. After a minute inside, you smelled of it too.

I found three irresistible draws inside Northside News. 


The first was the periodicals. They did not have the typical supermarket selection. There were a few glossies – I believe Sports Illustrated and Popular Mechanics made the cut – but generally speaking, they specialized in niche, imported, or otherwise hard-to-find publications.

The ones I was interested in were mostly European. They were printed on heavy, non-gloss paper; either all black-and-white photography, or richly colored illustrations. They only came out two or four times a year, and they were expensive, at $20-$30 an issue. 

Alongside the attractions of beautiful illustration and concept-heavy editorials – mostly in languages I couldn’t read – these publications had another draw. They made no pretense of observing American PG standards. They were as close to smut as I had any hopes of getting without having access to some of the more niche publications kept behind the counter. Whoever picked Northside News’s stock had good taste. 


The second item of interest was half-hidden at the very back of the store. It was a bookshelf. It was one of those rickety wooden types that, in defiance of both capitalism and the law of cause and effect, has somehow never been new. It looked like it was either rescued from the curb or the dumpster. 

The bookshelf’s contents were, appropriately, also rescues: second hand books that were mostly end-of-term castoffs from Butler University’s liberal arts majors. Judging by the unusual concentration of works by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Potok, at least one of the students had taken a course on Jewish literature. Works by Singer were my particular prize – The Manor; Shosha; Short Friday and Other Stories

These books were a special part of my introduction to the fantastical. They did not draw from tropes of science fiction or “fantasy” as a genre. Rather, their power arose from equal parts mysticism and the grotesque. They revolved around the irony of conscience in an arbitrary world – a place where either God or the Universe is so distinct from humanity as to remain forever unknowable. 

With the exception of Jonathan Swift and some of Mark Twain’s short stories, I am not familiar with another author so successfully ironic. My high school self didn’t know how to express what was going on in these stories, but the imagery and atmosphere was so rich that it nonetheless was a powerful lesson in ambiguity, complexity – understanding how a thing could be two or more ways at once. My religious instruction, while not dogmatic, had not acknowledged the necessity of ambiguity. 

There are some faith traditions which thrive on ambiguity. Buddhism is an obvious example; from what I understand, it is predicated upon the idea of “now” rather than “someday.” Closer to my own religious lineage, Celtic Christianity is also heavily associated with the idea of “mystery” – the miraculous union of apparently-opposing aspects through the state of divinity. 

For any faith to survive, it must come to grips with ambiguity. Otherwise it devolves into apathy or fanaticism. You can ignore ambiguity, you can try to avoid it – but the only way forward is through it. Repeatedly. 

Sex and intellectual growth also require the ability to wrestle with complexity. You can be this and that, you can think this and that; there will always remain the things you haven’t experienced, haven’t thought of; and yet! Somewhere in the midst of all of this neural activity is a creature called “human.”  This lively entropy is completely alien to the cause-and-effect, reward-and-punishment system of morality (read: evaluation and decision-making) most of us absorb as children. 


After all of the above – you could say ambiguity was the third draw of Northside News. The place was seedy, yet safe enough for a high schooler to enter. It was adult, neighborhood, safe, weird, risque, familiar and an agent of change. It was some sort of edge. It was a faultline in my world of knowledge. It caused upheaval, but it was also inevitable and new – the old story of innocence, impulse, information, and exploration. 

Sometimes, when I open a book, I can still smell the place. 


Coffee With Cardamom

Some days I want change. Today is such a day. 

My world, right now, is rather limited. So, too, is my ability to affect change. That is why I just dropped three crushed cardamom pods in my coffee press and called it “a change.” 

It’s a tiny thing, this break in routine. But right now the act of making coffee is the closest I have to any daily ritual. If a ritual is understood to be an action repeated with intent, then there is also significance in the act of introducing anomaly to the pattern. 


This is, of course, an imaginary construct against powerlessness. It is the ridiculous yet visceral urge towards irreconcilable opposites. It is the wish for the world to be different

I want change, yes – and peace and creation and healing and the chaos of rebirth and destruction. I am selflessly greedy; I want none of this struggle to be necessary. I want the ideal of Spaceship Earth. I want people, as a species, to have fulfilled lives doing whatever they do best, without impinging on anyone else’s ability to do the same. (I’m not going to say “I want everyone to be happy” because, frankly, I suspect there are people who just wouldn’t be happy with that.) 

Somewhere, if you catch Probability on a very good day – there’s a version of our universe in which, each time there is a chance for strife – it misses. 

Each time we are faced with the opportunity to do harm, we don’t. We dodge each trap of choice, while retaining free will. 

In this thought-experiment, there is no divine intervention which keeps choice or chance on track. This is no Paradise, no Nirvana. This is a place of human decision. So the word for it is: Utopia.


Now, for a bookshelf detour. There is a book called The Power of Myth1; it is a conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers on why, and how, we need the mythic. I have recently acquired a copy, after brushing against references to this work off and on over the last decade. 

One constantly recurring theme is the idea of the price of life. Campbell goes beyond simply discussing the old duality of life and death to suggest that the act of life requires an act of death – an act of killing. This is framed as the necessity of eating (animal or vegetable, both involve an organism’s death). Yes, that escalated quickly. 

In Campbell’s own words:

Life is, in its very essence and character, a terrible mystery – this whole business of living by killing and eating. But it is a childish attitude to say no to life with all its pain, to say that this is something that should not have been….Only death is no trouble.” (emphasis mine)

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

It appears my thought experiment has just been called “childish” by one of the twentieth century’s best-known thinkers on comparative mythology. 

I can’t even say he’s wrong. It’s a demonstrable fact: life survives only at the cost of other life2.

Campbell continues to say that he thinks the world is perfect the way it is – there is nothing he would change.

“…People ask me, ‘Do you have optimism about the world?’ And I say, ‘Yes, it’s great just the way it is. And you are not going to fix it up. Nobody has ever made it any better. It is never going to be any better. This is it, so take it or leave it. You are not going to correct or improve it.’”

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

When life and killing are intrinsically linked, you can’t exactly go around playing Caped Crusader. (Well, capes haven’t really been in since The Incredibles, but you get the picture). 

There’s not that much to argue against a person who will simply respond that you haven’t evolved the higher understanding necessary to agree with them. That aside (“questionable scholarship aside”) – Campbell’s words bother me because they heavily imply that what humans need isn’t an ideal of Utopia; humans just need better rituals to navigate the business of killing things. (Periodically he also mourns the fact that modern societies have no rituals.)

I think Campbell fails to distinguish between necessity and gratuitousness. 

If you find you can do less harm – do so. That is the greatest act of change possible. If you can exist in such a way that lessens suffering, both individual and cumulative – do so. And look for ways to continue to do so. Globally it may be a lost cause. You can’t control anyone else’s actions. But you can try to lessen harm in whatever is placed in front of you, each day. 

Campbell doesn’t have a lot to say about my thought experiment anyway because he’s already said there is nothing he would change. 

Here is my unsubstantiated suspicion: Campbell could afford to say there was nothing he would change because, as far as these things go, he was at the top of the pyramid. He was educated (Dartmouth and Columbia), financially stable, a tenured professor. He had many safety nets against the rougher side of change. He had many insulations against precisely the cycle of desperate necessity he described as inevitable. Poverty and powerlessness were not his lot.

The rest of us dream of a changed world. The rest of us construct Utopias in our heads, and look for small ways to sneak glimpses into the everyday. 

There are plenty of times in life when imperfection must be accepted, acknowledged, embraced, or celebrated. Imperfection has its own lessons for us, and I spend a lot of time reflecting on imperfection. 

But the act of reflecting on “perfection” – even if we can’t agree on what it is or how to get there – also holds lessons. This act of imagining Utopia? It’s powerful stuff. It is an action I repeat with intent: a ritual, if you will, performed as often as I can get away with it. The understanding that I will always fail to create it for others does not release me from the drive to use it as the template for anything I do create – even if it is as simple as a single chance to “do no harm.”


Good grief, that cardamom coffee3 is good stuff. I wonder what else I can find to throw in there tomorrow? 


1The Power of Myth is a complex book, and it’s ideas – for better or worse – have shaped a lot of modern cultural production. Here, I have pulled at one small thread of many. My caution? Campbell is often viewed as some sort of Messianic figure, and I think that is precisely a view he seeks to bolster. The book should be understood as a heavily subjective interpretation at best – Campell cherrypicks sources and versions of myths, and he constantly draws from other fields – in which he has no in-depth knowledge – to back up his subjective claims. Having said all of that, if you are at all interested in narrative or symbolism or philosophy or the weirdness people get up to when they’re trying to make sense of themselves and the world – I think the book is a very worthwhile read. 

2 Of course, he’s ignoring plants and single-celled organisms who form chlorophyll from solar energy. But he would likely argue that soil is formed by decomposed life.

3 Upon coffee-enlightened reflection, I’ve now backed myself into a corner labeled “hypocrite.” Neither coffee nor cardamom are, strictly speaking, necessary. So in this act of consumption of once-living plants, I am back to square one. Dammit, I need better rituals for this sort of thing…