One of the simplest and most powerful lessons that I am struggling to learn is that I have no control over anyone else and everyone else is different from me.
This is obvious and, at the same time, not obvious. I have never seen the universe through anyone else’s eyes and I have never processed the input of my senses with anyone else’s brain. Since my own perspective is the only one that I am familiar with, it seems natural that I would assume that everyone thinks like me.
I don’t think I’m alone in making this assumption but I might be wrong. Maybe everyone else is much smarter and more evolved than me. Maybe everyone else figured this out when they were four and there is something terribly wrong with me.
I kind of doubt it.
I don’t doubt that there is something wrong with me. I know there is. I just think that we all assume that everyone should think like us. The fact that they don’t is frustrating. In fact, that’s one of the biggest sources of frustration (not to mention conflict, violence and war) in the world.
Let me stop the irresponsible speculation and bring it back to a subject I can speak about with some authority.
When I am upset with someone close to me, it’s usually because they have reacted to something in a way that is different than the way I think they should react. When I remember that they are different from me I can remember that communication is needed. Communication between two related but separate entities. That takes effort. It may take time and even some translation.
But it works better than the non-existent mind control or telepathy that I often try to employ.
Hope this is helpful to someone. If it isn’t, it’s a sign that I’m nuts.
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
But then again, no…
Let me start again.
Yesterday we went to the beach.
It was, as usual, awesome.
I have never had a bad day at the beach. I imagine that it’s possible and I have met people who don’t like it but for me, it’s always good and usually great.
I went there with my son, Yogi and my 10-year-old niece, Lilyette, who is visiting from Maine.
Yogi and Lily spent most of the time in the ocean. I spent most of the time building a sandcastle.
I should say that Yogi and I are Sand Castle artists. I have loved building sandcastles since I was a kid growing up in Hampton, New Hampshire. I passed that love to Yogi and when he was about 7 we learned how to build really impressive castles, really sand carvings, from a company called “Can You Dig It.” Rather than building up, the way to make great looking castles is to make a huge pile of hard, wet sand and then carve a castle (or whatever) out of it.
While Yogi and Lily were swimming, I used a big shovel and built
up a big pile of sand and mixed in water to make it hard. It takes a lot of
physical labor for a long time before the final carving started and, as usual,
I got a few looks and a couple of comments as I labored like a ditch digger.
Just like a ditch digger, in fact.
After a couple hours, Yogi and Lily come out of the water to
help me carve so the castle would look good before the tide came in and wrecked
That’s a big part of what we do. We actually like to start
building right around low tide so we have a few hours to create an elaborate
structure before the tide comes in and swamps it, creating our own epic
As we carve out blocks of stone and crenellations and
windows and doors and stairs, the castle suddenly emerges out of the blob of
damp sand. People start to comments on how awesome it looks just as we are
finishing up. It’s very satisfying.
But it’s not why we do it. We do it because the whole
process is fun and exciting.
But most of the process is not interesting to watch.
Which brings me to Rocketman.
We finally saw Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, this week
before it left theaters completely and it was pretty darn good. I thought it
was a little better than Bohemian Rhapsody and Shelley thought it was a little
worse. I liked the stylistic risks the director took and I’ve been on a bit of
an Elton John kick lately, partly because his catalog has been playing in
public places because of the release of this movie and partly because his songs
are fun to play on the piano.
When you start digging into his catalog, even just the hits,
it’s pretty clear that Elton John is amazing. For the last month, the song Grey
Seal (a weird cut from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that apparently nobody,
including Bernie Taupin, understands) has been permanently worming around my
ears and it’s only starting to drive me crazy after about four weeks of
non-stop heavy rotation.
But what Rocketman (and Bohemian Rhapsody) deals with is the
happy and unhappy effects and side effects of success. What we don’t see much
of is the creation. In Rocketman, we see Elton John playing Your Song as he
looks at the lyrics for the first time as if the chord progression was
suggested by the lyrics and the melody popped out a few moments later. In
Bohemian Rhapsody there is a scene where Freddy Mercury keeps telling Roger
Taylor to sing higher as a way of representing Mercury’s perfectionist drive.
As a result, Taylor keeps singing the same (correct) note with a bit more
intensity each time. Neither snippet makes much sense as a representation of
any creative process, let along the process of people we have come to revere as
genre-defining (and smashing) geniuses.
Of course, the reason for this is that the actual creative
process is dull as dishwater to watch. Most of it is ditch digging. The flashes
of insight come out of the details and happen internally when they happen at
all. From the outside the interesting stuff comes at the end when the finishing
touches make the sandcastle or the song or the novel come alive.
Creation is boring to watch and mostly boring to do. I
worked with a bunch of people including Dick Clark (briefly) and Spike Lee
(very briefly) to create a reality show based on Instant Film, the festival I
created with Peter Lebow and Charles Papert to make movies in two days. It was
hopeless because making a movie is mostly boring, grinding work if it goes
well. If it doesn’t go well in some interesting and spectacular way, the movie
won’t get finished.
The takeaway is that anything worth doing takes a lot of
grinding work. Even writing a blog post.
But it’s worth it.
And it’s worth it, not because of the success that comes
when people like it, it comes from the act of creation itself. Once you know
that, the ditch digging part becomes fun.
If I was a sculptor, for example, it would take a long time
to get to the point where anyone, including maybe me, could tell what I was
Fantasy: Tonight I’m going to go to bed early and get 8 hours of blissful, restful sleep.
Reality: I have a growing problem with insomnia that is getting worse rather than better. I now associate my bed with being awake. I need to make some serious changes to get better rest.
Fantasy: Starting tomorrow I’m going to be incredibly focused and get a lot done.
Reality: Every day I spend a lot of time driving around and when I’m not doing that I don’t have a good habit of getting focused.
I could go on and on but it’s a boring story already and the point has been made. Fantasy is fantasy. Reality is reality. I actually live in reality so I’d better deal with that.
By the way:
Fantasy: You read this and change your life completely because once you realize that you live as if your fantasy is reality, you jettison the fantasy and become incredibly focused, productive and happy.
Recently I was scratching my dog’s butt. He likes it quite a bit.
To be clear, I’m talking about the area above his tail, really analogous to the lower back on a human.
Most dogs like being scratched there. Porthos really loves it and often demands, sweetly (with big brown begging eyes) a scratch.
My friend Norman noticed and said “my cat likes being scratched there as well.”
I said, “how does it make you feel?” Scratching my dog’s butt is nice because it’s nice for him but it doesn’t really feel like I’m getting much out of it. His head is faced away from me and I kind of feel like I’m doing him a favor without getting much in return. It kind of feels like I’m giving him pleasure in an obligatory way.
Norman replied, hilariously, “it’s a little like fan service.”
I understood what he meant, exactly.
Kind of like how superhero movie makers have to put in certain references for the die-hard fans of the original comic books. These tidbits don’t serve the story or flesh out the characters. They just bring jolts of recognition to those of us who read about these characters 22 pages at a time back in the late 70s.
Scratching my dog’s butt is pandering and it feels good for him just like Flash Thompson in Spider-Man feels good for me. If you know what I mean you know what I mean. If you don’t, it really doesn’t matter.
Here are some other things that I love guiltily because I feel like I’m being pandered to.
This format/station plays exactly what I want to hear every time I turn it on. I don’t do it that often because it makes me hate myself for being so predictable. I thought I was an individual with wide and divergent taste but it turns out I’m just part of a demographic that loves REM, Prince, The Rolling Stones and Daft Punk and then is delighted to hear my favorite Soft Cell and Def Leopard songs that I didn’t know I wanted to hear (but Jack did).
It makes me feel dirty.
Ready Player One
I’m talking about the book which was not really very cinematic but was really aimed precisely at geeks who were born in the sixties.
I’ve never resented loving something so much.
Me First and the Gimme Gimme’s
I just discovered this band. They do punk covers of decidedly non-punk songs and it’s fantastic. Take the catchy melody of and touching lyrics of “Seasons In the Sun” and shred away the shmaltz with heavy drums, crunching guitars and howling vocals.
And it makes me feel dirty.
And I love it.
Please keep scratching my butt.
Spiritual Principals* And Other Practical (Meaning “Useful”) Jokes (Meaning Truths)
I was recently talking to somebody about comedy and he pointed out that most of it doesn’t hold up, but we agreed that Monty Python and George Carlin are both still funny decades later. My “Useless Theory of Funny” posits that comedy comes from pointing out the limits of language and meta-language. A lot of comedy points out the hypocrisy of the time and as times change what is funny changes. Carlin and Python pointed out the basic contradictions of humanity and so their comedy is still mostly hilarious.
One of my favorite bits of Carlin’s was the reduction of the 10 Commandments down to two.
He ends up with 2 and then adds a third one.
Don’t be dishonest
Don’t kill people most of the time
Don’t push your religion on other people
When Jesus was asked what was the most important commandment he said:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, Love thy neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
(If you don’t believe in God and can’t read about God, substitute “a Higher Power of my own understanding” or “The Universe” instead.)
I love this. Of course this gets twisted into the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” which is fine as far as it goes but what the actual quote from the actual Bible (I won’t go so far as to say the actual Jesus since it was actually written down many decades after he died) says is that there is an equivalency between loving yourself, loving your neighbor and loving God.
Love God = Love Yourself = Love Others
Divide by Love and you get.
God = You = Others
I think it’s important to note that “love thyself” is a necessary part of the Commandment. It’s also interesting to note that this wording doesn’t appear in the 10 Commandments but Jesus rightly points out** that all the spiritual principles that he teaches and the Old Testament teaches can be derived from these three sentences.
Love Your Neighbor
As a side note, it also means that being a judgmental hypocrite is contraindicated by the teachings of Jesus.
Assholes, take note.
Speaking of assholes, a friend of mine has a picture of Charlton Heston as Moses on his fridge. In his hands, Heston has the stone tablets on which the 10 Commandments are inscribed. Instead of 10, there are only two.
Don’t Be An Asshole
I think this is a terrific summation of the Commandments and a fantastic guide to life. When I set out to write this post I thought that’s what Carlin ended up with. Thanks to Google and YouTube it took 10 minutes for me to find out I was wrong and then I promptly admitted it.
Speaking of promptly admitting being wrong, that brings up another list that can be reduced to a more manageable size. The 12 Steps of AA can be summed up by combining the steps into 4 groups of 3. The first three basically say “There is a power greater than myself and I ain’t it.” The second three say “I’m not perfect and I’m willing to admit it.” Step 7, 8 and 9 say “I’ve hurt people and I want to make amends for that.” The final three steps are basically “keep applying the first steps and help other people.”
One of my favorite parts of 12 Step culture is The Serenity Prayer.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can And the wisdom to know the difference.”
Like everything else in today’s post, this is an edited version of the original prayer that Reinhold Niebuhr originally wrote sometime in the 1930s. I love this shortened version because it reads like a joke and yet encapsulates a profoundly simple yet powerful guide to approaching life. It comes from a Christian theologian but it seems downright Buddhist to me.
The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha are:
There is suffering
Suffering is caused by craving
Eliminating craving will eliminate suffering
Craving can be eliminated by following the Eightfold Path
One way to sum up the Eightfold Path is:
Don’t be an Asshole
Another way to sum up the Eightfold Path is:
Develop your understanding of the world so that you can distinguish what you can change and what you can’t.
Have the courage to change what you can.
Accept what you can’t change.
Be serene about it.
Sound familiar? It’s the Serenity Prayer. Did I need to point that out? Probably not. But I did.
Here’s my interpretation of the teaching of the Buddha. Please forgive my self-indulgence. It goes like this.
Reality exists as it is. Humans invented language and other ways of interpreting reality to help us survive. As a result of these constructions of our minds, we are out of touch with reality almost from the moment we open our eyes. There’s a wall of words and concepts around reality and there are illusionary mental constructions starting with our sense of self that stand between reality and our experience of reality.
I said reality six times in the last sentence.
But talking about reality is part of the problem.
Don’t look at the finger pointing at the moon. Look at the moon.
Happiness is a function of acceptance. Spiritual growth is a function of understanding that I’m not god, I’m not in charge, I’m not perfect and I have done things that have hurt people.
Interestingly, one of the goals of AA participants is to accept life on life’s terms.
So here’s the deal.
Love and Accept God or a Higher Power of your own understanding
This requires a daily investigation into what God actually is beyond the constructions of language and culture that probably do not accurately represent the way it actually is.
Love and Accept Yourself
This requires a daily investigation into what You actually are beyond the constructions of language and culture that probably do not accurately represent the way you actually are.
Love and Accept Other People and Help Them As Much as You Can
This requires a daily investigation into what people actually are beyond the constructions of language and culture that probably do not accurately represent the way people actually are.
Love and Accept the World/Universe as it is
This requires a daily investigation into what the World/Universe actually is beyond the constructions of language and culture that probably do not accurately represent the way it actually is.
Don’t Be An Asshole
Avoid suffering by being cool (see above)
Suffering tends to lead to asshole behavior so this is key
Don’t be dishonest
Don’t hurt yourself or other people or other living creatures
Don’t mess up the world
When you are dishonest or when you hurt people or when you’re wrong, promptly admit it and make amends
Thanks for reading! Hope there’s something in here that’s helpful.
*I spelled Principles wrong on purpose.
**I just gave Jesus props for being right. Did you notice that? Talk about arrogant.
I haven’t posted in a few weeks. I think the reason I haven’t is not that I didn’t have anything to say. It’s more that I had too much to say but I didn’t know how to say it.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been confronted with mortality. Death has affected the lives of people that I know and love in a profound way. I am not going to go into details because they are not mine to share. I have just written and erased several tries at obliquely describing the situations to give a sense of the horrible tragedy but I’ve realized it’s morbid and unnecessary. You, dear reader, don’t need information about other people’s lives. If you’re over the age of 10 (and if you’re not, stop reading this now and go play outside) you’re aware that everyone dies.
That’s the bottom, top and every line. Living things eventually die. People I know have and will die. I will die. You will die.
This calls up another disturbing truth. Everything changes and we have almost no control over anything.
As individual human beings, our childhood development can be seen as a process of rebelling against a lack of control. Infants can do nothing but cry when something in the environment (or their stomach or diaper) is not working for them so that’s what they do. Next, we learn to grab and manipulate things with our hands and then we learn to control our bodies so we can move around the world. The twos are terrible because we learn the word “no” and use it as much as possible as we learn new ways to control the people (especially those all-powerful grown-ups) around us. Next we learn “mine” and “sharing” and “not fair.” Then we learn how to throw things and read things and write things and sue people and invest in stocks and drive cars and fly planes and manipulate social networks to effect national elections and stuff like that.
We crave control.
Part of the motivation for wanting control is that we’re hardwired to enjoy it. One of the most wonderful things in life is the dance of a toddler who is just reveling in her ability to move. For me, the joy of shooting a successful jump shot never diminishes. That moment of satisfaction is sublime and I hope I can continue doing it for a long time.
But we’re also afraid of a lack of control. Terrified of it in fact. We fear the unknown and the dark and anything new or unfamiliar. We fear change. You could say that the ultimate evidence of our lack of control is death and so we are especially afraid of death but that wouldn’t really be accurate. Death is actually the reason we fear a lack of control. Death is why we fear change.
Evolution is spurred by death. We are here because our ancestors didn’t die before they had offspring. They survived by learning to control their bodies so they could evade some deadly threats and to control their environment enough to eliminate other deadly threats. They climbed trees to avoid sabre-toothed cats and then used sharpened sticks to kill all the sabre-toothed cats.*
So we fear death. In fact, all our fears are, ultimately, our caveman brain/body system’s way of strongly signalling us to avoid possible death. We avoid perceived risk because we fear death. We fear being ostracized because we fear getting kicked out of the tribe which would lead to death because the sabre-toothed cats will eat us while we sleep.**
The irony is that we do everything we can to avoid death including not think about it and yet it is the only thing that is certain. Believe it or not we are all going to die.
This is awful news.
Worse is that everyone we know is going to die. Keanu Reeves was recently asked by Stephen Cobert what he thought happened after people died. Keanu simply said “I know the ones who love us are going to miss us.”
This brings tears to my eyes even as I type this. It is profoundly true and profoundly sad. I miss my dad and I miss friends who have died. No matter what you believe happens after you die, we know that we are no longer here on earth in the same way.
So what is there to do with this information?
Here’s what I propose. Love people harder. Love yourself and love what you do. Treat this life like it’s the only one you have. Live better. Don’t escape life with chemicals and don’t risk death foolishly but also don’t avoid what you fear. The worst is actually going to happen eventually no matter what anyway so don’t let the fear of the worst keep you from doing what you love or what you want to do.
If you have resentment or unexpressed feelings, deal with them now. If you have things you want to do someday, do them now. If there is someone you’d like to talk to someday, call them today.
Be the best version of you that you can be. Live the best version of your life. Love and care for those around you. This life is short and we have very little control over any of it.
My father died on Tuesday, June 18, 2013, after a freak accident that happened the Monday morning before. I was able to be with him when he passed away but he was not conscious. The day before the accident I intended to call him but the day slipped away and I never got around to it. June 16, 2013 was a Sunday. It was Father’s Day.
I will always, always, always regret not making that call.
*At the same time, we have our demise programmed into our DNA. As far as I understand the science, cellular breakdown that eventually leads to death is not necessary for the survival of the individual but it is vital to the survival and evolution of the species in the long run.
**I could (and will) go on and on about how hilariously inappropriate much of our fear is. It makes sense to avoid deadly situations but our judgement about what is deadly is based on old information, like 30,000 years old. As far as our bodies are concerned, the fear of failing that keeps us from trying something new is as valid as our fear of being eaten by a hungry crocodile. We have a profound risk assessment problem.