2021-07-29

Removing The Frame And Dropping The Context

In The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa wrote:

The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively-- because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins.

I was thinking about this quote in the context of "political correctness," "cancel culture," and other forms of rigtheous indignation. 

Let's take an old example. There are numerous instances of the n-word's being used throughout the books To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For this reason, both of these books have at times been subjected to bans. The n-word is considered too triggering and hurtful to be included in many libraries and school assignments in today's world. 

And yet, both of these books are not only about racism, they can indeed be considered treaties against racism. In fact, they are quite explicitly about racism against blacks, and in both books, the n-word is used to accurately depict racism while telling a story about how we all ought to overcome racism and treat blacks equally. Part of the message of both of these books is not to use the n-word. The books use the n-word in order to show how ghastly and racist it is to do so. Use of the n-word is presented as an example of people behaving badly, so that the authors can go on to show how people ought to be behaving instead.

It is only by removing The Frame from these books that we could ever consider their use of the n-word to be hurtful. We remove The Frame by interpreting the dialogue in the books as though it has been spoken today, right now, right in the same room as the reader, possibly directed at the reader. It is only by taking the books in this light that we could ever be offended by their use of the n-word. 

By maintaining The Frame, however, we maintain that these are fictional stories, we observe the behavior within those stories, we reach the end of the book, and we come away with an important moral message: to eschew racism, treat other people as equals, and not use the n-word.

In short, it's The Frame around "the picture" that enables us to do this. Without The Frame, it's just some old white people using the n-word at us. But with The Frame, they're good stories with important anti-racist messages.

There are plenty of other, more modern examples out there. Certain jokes told by comedians could be considered hurtful and "problematic," but only if we consciously remove The Frame; only if we deliberately refuse to allow the comedian to tell his or her joke as a work of art or an act of performance. If we instead allow the comedian to play his or her role and put on an act, then our sensibilities can remain intact. Jokes might be made at the expense of us and "our kind," but it's all in good fun. It's all an act. There is A Frame around the picture. It's only hurtful or problematic if we deliberately remove The Frame.

This is exactly what happens during heckling. When a comedian encounters a heckler, the heckler has decided to remove The Frame from the comedian's act. Every time the comedian tries to tell another joke, the heckler steps in with a comment that removes The Frame and forces the comedian to be a normal person again (rather than an actor). The comment might be something simple, like, "You're not funny!" Or, it might be a case of someone's taking offense at what the comedian has said, and arguing against it. It's then the comedian's task to attempt to best the heckler, reclaim the audience and The Frame, and continue his or her act.

Here's a really good example of this. Comedian Norm MacDonald tells a joke about teachers, and a teacher in the audience becomes offended. She tries to remove The Frame from MacDonald's act, but he deftly reclaims it:


What makes this so great is the fact that Norm MacDonald is an expert at using hecklers' own tactic against them. When hecklers try to be funny, or try to make a point, Norm MacDonald either refuses to acknowledge the joke or takes their statements very literally. In doing so, he removes the hecklers' own Frame, and takes back control of the situation.

In every-day interaction, human beings use humor to reach out to one another and let each other know that, despite any difficulties or miscommunications, "we're still friends." When it's properly received, that humor can mend almost any fence. But when the interlocutor refuses to acknowledge the humor - or, as the psychologists call it, the "repair attempt" - the interaction goes sour. The other person has to want to get along with you. If he or she refuses, there isn't much you can do. If they remove your Frame, you can't paint a picture. It's a power-play. They do it to gain the upper hand in the interaction. You can either give it to them, or walk away. 

Another person who wrote about this concept was Ayn Rand. She called it "context-dropping." If you "drop the context" in To Kill A Mockingbird, and instead just focus on the words printed on the page, then the n-word is the n-word, and that's despicable. If you maintain the context, then you see it as a story in which awful people said awful things, and the reader then learns an important message.

If you maintain the context of a comedy act, then you can hear all kinds of funny jokes. I've had stand-up comedians single me out in the audience before, and tell a few jokes at my expense. I could get really mad and feel insulted, and that would be dropping the context. It would be removing The Frame. Instead, I could appreciate the humor of the situation, laugh at myself a little bit, and have a good time. The choice is mine, but whatever I choose, the situation depends on The Frame, and whether it is allowed to separate the picture from the real world.

2021-07-16

The Purple Bicycle

When I was in elementary school, the sport of mountain biking was just starting to gain mainstream traction, and given that I lived in Utah, you can only imagine what that would have been like for my peers and me. It was exciting.

I remember one store in my local shopping mall, called "Pedersen's Ski & Sports." (I Googled it just now, and it appears that the store still exists, although it has relocated from Provo to Layton, Utah.) Throughout the winter, the store was full of skis and ski boots, but during the warmer months, it was stocked bottom to top with bicycles. Bicycles of every color, shape, size, and price-point! It was not a fun "sporting goods store" to go into when I was into basketball, tennis, and soccer; but when I gained an interest in riding a new bicycle, Pedersen's was a dream world.

I had outgrown my old BMX bike and I wanted something really cool - a nice mountain bike with eighteen gears (more gears is better, right?) shock absorbers (new-fangled devices that I was amazed to find on a bicycle), hand-brakes, and everything else that a little kid might get excited about. One day, my family was at the mall, and I wandered into Pedersen's to look at the bicycles. My eyes gravitated to one that was a metallic grey in color that sort of color-faded into a deep, dark purple. I have no recollection of how good the actual bicycle was, but the color was mesmerizing. I was completely captivated by it.

For weeks and months, I would go with my parents to the mall on any conceivable pretense, just so that I could get another look at this bike. I would dream about it. I would ride around on my Walmart BMX, pretending that I was riding on this fantastic purple bike instead. I would sit and daydream about it. 

I was totally obsessed. It was a good obsession, though. It gave me something to dream about. It gave me something to hope for: maybe when my birthday or Christmas came, I would discover that my parents gave me an amazing purple bicycle. 

In hindsight, it doesn't matter to me at all that my parents ended up buying me a different bicycle. I was a little disappointed at the time, but what I ended up with was still a really fun, white bicycle that I faithfully rode for years and really loved. I got what I needed; the story has a happy ending.

However, this morning I was thinking about that purple bicycle in the context of dreaming about it. My white bicycle ended up being my next, beloved bicycle, but that purple bicycle was my dream. Every child deserves to dream about something. And what I realized was that I never would have had that dream in the first place, had I not grown up at a time and in a place where shopping malls existed and products could be displayed and demoed to random children window shopping as their parents ran errands.

Today, I shop almost entirely online. I don't step into a store if I can help it, because going into a store is an annoying waste of time for me. Besides, I can usually find a better price online, anyway. So, my life is much better now that I can avoid malls and stick to online retailers. 

I wonder how my kids feel about it, though. They don't have a frame of reference for going to malls and checking out what new toys exist, so they don't really know what they're missing out on. But I know that they're not getting as much exposure to the array of available toys and bicycles and items of interest as I did when I was their age. 

An ascetic might argue that they are able to content themselves with the simpler things they can easily access: drawing pads, educational lessons, Amazon Echo games, and so forth. But how much more fun might they be having if they had access to a dream? Again, the fondness I have for the memory of that purple bicycle wasn't that I actually got to own it and ride it every day. No, the fondness I have for that memory is that it was a really beautiful, simple dream for a young boy. I wanted a cool bike, and that was the coolest bike I had ever seen. And I allowed myself to dream about it every day.

What do my kids dream about if they don't pass by bicycle stores with purple bikes on display? That's for me to find out. And to nurture.

2021-07-05

On Trusting Experts

In 2019, I had a lot of friends who encouraged people to "trust the experts." A common criticism they made was to denigrate people who had "done their research," which was usually maligned to be something like watching three hours of ideologically motivated YouTube videos. The basic idea was that "Karen" and her having "done her research" was no match for an expert's years of study and advanced degree.

2020, of course, put an end to that sort of argument, at least as far as I've observed. No need to rehash the details here. The so-called "experts" gave befuddling and contradictory advice on managing the COVID-19 crisis, and then shut down the country for a year or more while the global economy ground to a halt. It was a disaster. Importantly, many of these same friends I had stopped criticizing people for "doing their research" and instead started criticizing people for "trusting the experts." 

These friends of mine were always on the side of what I would consider to be "the truth." That is, when the experts were largely correct, so were my friends; when the experts were largely incorrect, my friends were great sources of better information. But on the moral issue of advising people to trust experts, they flip-flopped.

As for me, I never criticized people for "doing their own research," because that's precisely what I believe everyone should do. No one should ever take for granted the idea that the experts probably know what they're doing. One should always verify information; and the more controversial or the more widespread the impact of that information, the more important it is to verify it. This kind of attitude comes easy to a type 1 diabetic, because we diabetics often know more about our condition than most of the doctors in our communities. We certainly know more about our own bodies than the "experts." We are used to "doing our own research" and arriving at life-saving conclusions to better manage our lives and our blood sugar.

Today, many people (say, about half the country) still insist on "trusting the experts" or "following the science" or whatever the canard happens to be. This morning, I thought about a hypothetical scenario that might help them understand the value and importance of skepticism.

Imagine you're a woman who has recently gone to her doctor to get a prescription for birth control, for the first time. You fill the prescription and start taking the pill. Very soon, you notice that your body feels very different. In fact, it feels awful. You're really uncomfortable all the time and you're struggling to just be normal. So, you go back to your doctor. He tells you that this is a common set of symptoms and that many women take time to adjust to the birth control pill. He advises you to stick with it. So, you do.

But months go by, and your discomfort doesn't let up even a little bit. Every time you think about going back to the doctor, you remember what he said. Some days you figure that you probably just need a little more time to adjust. Other days, you shrug and figure that even if there is some kind of underlying problem here, going back to the doctor is pointless, since he'll probably just tell you the same thing again, anyway.

One day, you come across a website or an internet forum of some kind, where many women describe symptoms a lot like yours, and many of them insist that the problem went away when they switched to a different kind of birth control pill. You know it's not real medical advice, but the women all seem very emphatic, so you figure, what will it hurt to try a different pill?

You make an appointment with a new doctor, you tell her that you want to try a new birth control pill. She shrugs and says sure, you can try it. She writes you a new prescription, which you fill. You make the switch and, sure enough, your symptoms let up a bit, and then a lot, and then after a few weeks, you feel completely normal again. You're back to your old self.

If you've ever been through something like this - or know someone who has - then chances are, you already understand the value of being skeptical of "the experts." You have gained some familiarity with internet research and you have an informed opinion of which other patients to listen to, and which to take with a grain of salt. You have developed a more nuanced understanding of which kinds of risks are worth taking, and which are not.

In doing so, you have equipped yourself with the tools required to verify the information that the nation's "experts" are giving you, and you have come to a point where you feel confident in the kind of research you are willing and able to do on your own time. There should be more people like you in the world, and fewer people out there who blindly trust "experts" just because they're "experts."

2021-07-04

Why It's Important To Get The Diagnosis Correct

I have seen multiple people on social media and in the media attempting to make the She'carri Richardson marijuana issue into a racial matter. I think this is an incredibly bad idea, and will here attempt to explain why, being as brief as possible.

First let me state that, unlike many of the commentators on this issue, I have actually been involved in amateur athletics. I have known perhaps a dozen Olympic competitors and many dozens of NCAA athletes, including myself. That means that I have firsthand knowledge of the kinds of problems athletes face when it comes to the draconian rules foisted upon amateur athletes and the somewhat arbitrary enforcement of those rules.

Second, let me state in as emphatic terms as possible that many if not most of the rules governing amateur athletes are utterly preposterous and ought to be eliminated. This includes the rule against marijuana use. While my readers know that I am adamantly opposed to recreational drug use, I am also a fervent believer in both marijuana legalization and and end to the continued hounding of people who simply choose to live life differently than I do. But the laundry list of terrible rules that amateur athletes are subjected to is long and far more problematic than the rules surrounding marijuana. It is all of these rules that must be changed or eliminated, not merely this one rule about marijuana.

Finally, regarding the racial angle of this issue: By turning this matter into a question of racism, we allow the olympic committees and other amateur athletic governing bodies to continue to enforce these absurd rules while lazily promising to do something about racism. Racism, while terrible, is not the problem with amateur sports. The horrible list of preposterous rules athletes face is the real issue. We should not deflect from that issue with a sideshow about racism just because complaining about racism currently happens to be chic. If the olympic committees solved their race problems overnight, She'carri Richardson would still be in trouble for using marijuana. Is that what we want? No! We want - or should want - an end to the list of ridiculous rules we saddle innocent competitors with. 

So, please, I beg of you, stop making this a racial issue. The issue is not race or racism. The issue is that these oppressive athletic organizations and governing bodies heap unreasonable rules upon all athletes. The mere existence of these rules is bad enough, but allowing them to continue also allows the administrators to choose who they will punish, when, and how; which, in turn, allows them to subject athletes to the administrators' private biases as well.

We will never fix these problems if we continue to misdiagnose them. In this case, race is not the problem. Bad rules and bad governance are the problems.

2021-05-21

Why Social Media Is A Glorified Chatbot

Some of you may be aware of the fact that I do some work with AI chatbots professionally. For the last two weeks or so, in my own spare time and for personal edification, I've been playing with a consumer-grade chatbot AI called "Replika."

The way it works is:
  1. You type something to the bot. 
  2. The bot processes what you say via Natural Language Understanding, and figures out what you mean probabilistically. 
  3. The bot then selects from a pool of available responses based on its internal algorithms.
The bot's responses are composed based on training data, so you won't get the same answer every time (unless you repeatedly ask the same question), with the goal being a response that is a lot like something a "real person" would say. Maybe, in fact, a real person DID say that very thing in response to a similar statement made by some other real person in some chat log years ago. This is the nature of training an AI conversation-bot.

Now, consider social media. Social media works in a similar way:
  1. You type something into the "create post" box. 
  2. The social medium processes this information through its own algorithmic understanding of you (your profile info, your past posts, your friends and their profile info, etc.). 
  3. The medium then selects from an available pool of *respondents* based on its internal algorithms.
These respondents are guaranteed to respond to your post in a way that is just as predictable as what happens when you feed an AI chat log data. (Sorry, I don't mean *YOUR* response; *YOU* are of course a thoroughly unique unicorn. But OTHER people are more predictable than you...)

At a psychological level, a Facebook user will have the same experience as a user of "Replika AI." I type my feelings into a box, and an algorithm decides what kind of response I receive. In the Replika UI, you can even give "likes" and other reactions to responses you receive, so that the algorithm can update its understanding of what "drives engagement" and respond to you accordingly in the future. Remind you of anything?

I submit that the social media experience is no more "real" than my experience with an AI chatbot. Especially if you spend a lot of time discussing politics, or sports, or etc., you are feeding utterances into an algorithm, which then serves you algorithmically driven "content." It doesn't necessarily matter that Bob *REALLY SAID* that you were a dumb so-and-so; what matters is that the algorithm had a certain prediction that X number of "Bobs" would respond to your post in a certain way, and crafted your user experience accordingly.

In short, social media isn't really social. Maybe it was, once upon a time, but now it's not. If you want to have a meaningful social interaction with someone, you have to do it one-on-one. You can still use technology to do it, but if you're just posting things into the ether or following online discussions and interjecting where you see fit, then you are essentially having a one-way conversation with an AI.

Coming to this realization has completely reshaped my understanding of the internet. I hope it will reshape yours, too.

2021-05-19

When Does Something Become Racism?

I've been thinking a lot about so-called "Critical Race Theory" and its relationship to actual, run-of-the-mill racism. Truth be told, there's a lot to dislike about CRT, but it's been difficult for me to express exactly what is wrong about it. Meanwhile, I've read a lot of analyses from academics who are critical of CRT, and their explanations - while very valuable and compelling - seem to fall short of explaining why I think CRT is nothing more than a new form of racism.

Then, the other day, the issue clicked with me.

A Victim Narrative

Let us begin by considering plain, old racism. Let's take an example that everyone already agrees on: nazi-style white supremacy. We all agree that white supremacy is invidious racism, so this works as a viable starting point from which to build.

White supremacy has a fundamental contradiction, which is that it is not actually about the supremacy of the white race at all. Instead, white supremacy is a victim narrative. According to white supremacists, other races are to blame for all the problems that white people face. Other races, through immigration, interracial marriage, and cultural proliferation, are upending the traditional lifestyle of an "old-timey" white supremacist. That is, there was supposedly some set of halcyon days, way back when, and back then the white race was everything it was supposed to be. Then, the story goes, along came other races, which caused all sorts of problems. 

Obviously, a narrative like this does not describe a superior race, but an inferior one. A truly superior race would be able to easily counteract the influences of other races on national culture. A superior race would be so obviously superior that all other races would want to be more like it. But that's not what white supremacists think or claim. White supremacists claim to be victims of other races. 

Why Cultural Pride Is Not Racism

This inherent victim narrative also sheds light on why non-whites who have always been proud of their own unique cultures are not committing racism or cultural supremacy when they celebrate their own cultures. Namely, there is no victim narrative in celebrating one's own culture.

Take Black History Month, for example. Traditionally, "Black History Month" has been a celebration of black historical figures and the important contributions they've made. We learn about objectively great people like Harriet Tubman, who helped human beings escape from slavery; Duke Ellington, who elevated the intellectual rigor of jazz music to the same level as Western Classical music; and Alexandre Dumas, who became one of the most successful writers of his time, so successful in a white-dominated culture that many if not most people in that culture don't even realize that he's black at all.

What all of these stories have in common (aside from the obvious) is that they don't pander to a victim narrative. Tubman's story is about triumph over slavery, not about the plight of enslaved people. Ellington's story is about his magnificent creative mind, not about the biases that kept him from growing into the genius that he was. Dumas' story is simply about being a great author and a charismatic person. 

And so it is with any cultural heritage celebration. For the most part, people are celebrating the things that make their cultures unique: art, music, cuisine, history, a common story. They're not exalting in their status as oppressed people, they're just enjoying themselves. Without a victim narrative, there can be no objection. Loving one's own culture is no different than loving one's own family or appreciating the color of one's own hair.

But Then, Resentment Appears

Unfortunately, practitioners of Critical Race Theory, and those ordinary people who have become enamored of its teachings, do in fact promote a victim narrative. What began as a celebration of their own uniqueness veered into resentment. It is this resentment that I argue is racism.

During the Rwandan genocide, there existed a victim narrative similar to the white supremacist one. The Hutus blamed the Tutsis for their comparatively low station and exacted their revenge. It was this resentment that enabled a political dispute to fester into a genocide. We all have our differences with all kinds of people, but when we allow those disagreements to grow into pure resentment, and when we build that resentment into a victim narrative, then that's when we've become racists; and racism is never that far away from ethnic cleansing.

The defining feature of CRT, even beyond all the postmodernist academic mumbo-jumbo, is the resentment. CRT is primarily about advancing a victim narrative of "structural racism" that permeates all social interactions. As a self-contained system, it works. That is, it appears to me that CRT is at least internally consistent. I'll let the academics debate the truth value of CRT's fundamental claims, such as they are. 

But the real problem, the one thing that makes Critical Race Theory a kind of racism, is the fact that CRT's primary focus is resentment. Notice that this resentment is even fixated on a single group of people: whites, and primarily cisgendered white males. The entire world is the terrible place it is thanks mainly to cisgendered white males, so claims CRT. The problems that exist out there can ultimately traced back to them.

So we can see that Critical Race Theory is merely racism in a fancy hat. But I would even go one step further and suggest that CRT's fixation on a single, easily identifiable group of people as the villains of the whole story creates an incredibly dangerous situation.

2021-05-04

You All Keep Telling Me I'm Wrong, But...

Here it is, straight from the horse's mouth:

"I was responsible because I made the decision to do drugs," Alig said. "And when I made that decision I wasn't on drugs."

One of my more controversial blog posts put it this way:

Drug use is a conscious act of self-abnegation. As such, every time a person takes a drug - any drug - they are turning their backs on their own lives. This is not merely because drugs are deadly (and they are). This is because the original motivation to consume drugs in the first place is an act of self-abnegation. Oneself, one's own thoughts, one's own life becomes temporarily insufficient (on any level, even a trivial one), and the drug becomes the remedy. Long day? Don't work it out, forget about it - take drugs. Party not fun enough for you? Don't take it upon yourself to liven up your social situation, forget about it - take drugs. Bored? Don't develop an interesting hobby or creative pursuit, forget about it - take drugs. Not feeling adequate? Have some problems? Take the easy way out, take drugs...

Such is the motivation behind each and every instance of drug use, from a child sniffing glue to the death of a famous singer. In all instances, the solution to a personal problem is resolved not by thoughts, choices, and actions, but by a short-acting drug that delays the working out of a solution. The goal is always to stop thinking as a stand-alone being - to either become one with the drugs or to not think at all.

This is death.

2021-04-12

What's Your Agenda?

As time goes on, the better I appreciate the perspective of people like Thomas Sowell, who has mostly stayed out of the libertarian "scene" because he's not a joiner. For understandable reasons, he doesn't want to join a crowd of like-minded people. Instead, he prefers to use his mind to follow the facts and lead him to his own conclusions. 

Of course, everyone says that this is what they do. Everyone says that they just analyze the facts and the data and make up their minds accordingly. The truth is, however, that most people filter their information through ideology. They embrace or privilege any fact that fits their preconceived notions and reject or penalize any fact that stands in opposition to what they want to be true. And, true enough, nobody's perfect.

Still, imperfection is one thing; actively fostering confirmation bias is something else entirely. Anyone who knows what confirmation bias is ought to be actively engaged in avoiding it. Sadly, many people know what it is, and work actively to promote it anyway.

For example: I recently saw a web-comic that claimed that all those who oppose allowing transsexual girls to compete with cisgendered girls in girls' competitive sports are really just bigoted against transsexuals. The exact claim was that you don't have to scratch very far beneath the surface to uncover anti-trans bias. I responded to this web-comic with some biological facts about how testosterone impacts athletic performance, and concluded my comment by saying that I didn't think everyone who is reluctant to allow such competition is automatically biased against transsexuals. The reply? "I never said that they were." No, the person to whom I addressed my comment did not - but the comic that we were all discussing sure did! How did that context get dropped?

Second example: In a discussion about how more people die from suicide by hand guns than are murdered by long guns, a friend of mine quoted someone who was arguing in favor of greater restrictions on hand guns. I emphasized a point in that quote, highlighting the fact that hand guns aren't seen to be as "spooky" as, say, AR-15s, and thus they don't get as much attention in gun control debates. Many people responded, essentially asking me what my point was. But that was my point. All of it. I didn't have a further agenda.

What these two examples highlight is a practice I've taken on recently, which I do increasingly more often. Rather than make a broad and all-encompassing argument in favor of X or Y, I like to find a simple point that every reasonable person can agree with, and highlight it. It has to be a factual point, and it has to be mostly unobjectionable. What I find is that highlighting this point also tends to highlight my interlocutors' own cognitive biases. They think I'm trying to "get them" (actual verbatim quote of one such person, by the way), when they've merely "gotten themselves."

To correct their opinions, they'll either have to come up with different reasoning for the same conclusion, or refine their reasoning to account for an undisputed fact that favors the other side. That's my agenda. Sticking to and emphasizing the bald facts and forcing people to consider them when they articulate their own points. 

Their doing so will make us all better off.

2021-03-26

"Long Covid"

The news of the day is that so-called "long covid," persistent cases of COVID-19 that never seem to go away even after months, is possibly not real. Much of the data documenting "long covid" consists of self-reported survey data collected by an organization lead by "spiritualists," and many of the symptoms associated with it are identical to the scientifically debunked "chronic Lyme disease."

What could be going on here?

When I read about this, I'm struck by my own personal experiences. Diabetics like myself often take a long time to fight even simple things like the flu and the common cold. Such is life with a weakened immune system. A cold that other people get over in two or three days can sometimes persist in my body for two or three weeks. This is a fact: I can't "fake" or imagine three weeks of a runny nose. 

Coughs and chest congestion are somewhat easier to fake and/or imagine. One can truly believe that there's something in one's chest without there actually being something there. Headaches, fevers (especially mild ones), body pains, lethargy, fatigue, and so on, are all symptoms that can be imagined just as well as they can be experienced in reality. Put slightly differently, these symptoms are as real when they are psychosomatic as they are when they are the result of a viral infection.

When I was a young boy, I caught some stomach bug. My family and I were all downstairs watching MacGuyver when a sudden wave of nausea swept over me, and I threw up all over the carpet. I felt physically awful, but I was also mortified by the fact that I had just puked in front of everyone, that I hadn't had enough time to run to the bathroom. I can still see it in my memories as clear as day. Rightly or wrongly, the experience got into my head and stuck with me a long time. I developed a bit of a "complex" over it. For months - years? - I had to sleep on my stomach with a pan beside the bed. Every little twitch and gurgle in my stomach seemed like evidence that I was going to vomit. I'd wake up in the middle of the night with an imaginary stomach ache and sit with my bed pan, trembling, waiting to throw up. I'd run into the bathroom and just wait.

You could say that I was suffering from "long stomach flu." I had a little mental thing that I eventually out-grew. But were my stomach pains and gurgles real? Absolutely. One of the things that cured me was the realization that I could make myself feel nauseous just by thinking about it, and that before I knew it, things were really gurgling in there. 

The root cause of my "long stomach flu" was fear. I had had a real stomach bug which, when combined with a situation that seemed traumatic for a little kid, because a genuine and perhaps justified fear in my mind. Then the fear took over and manifested itself in physical symptoms that lasted a truly long time. To this day, I'm a bit scared to vomit, and I try to avoid it if at all possible - even when it would probably help me feel better. 

But the stomach flu is small potatoes compared to COVID-19. Today, society is confronted with an illness that, when serious, results in hospitalization, intubation, scarring of the lung and heart tissue, terrible fevers, and slow suffocation to death. Even when it's not a serious case, patients are forced to wonder if they will eventually develop deadly symptoms, and the timeframe between minor covid and terminal covid appears to be days. That is genuinely terrifying. As for those of us who have not been infected, COVID-19 has held us captive indoors, forced us to wear masks in public, stolen hugs and handshakes from us, paralyzed our economy, and created a kind of mass hysteria that many believe to be completely justified. 

In short, COVID-19 is terrifying enough to make manifest any number of psychosomatic symptoms, even in people who have never been infected by it. Rather than dismiss their suffering, we should compassionately acknowledge it; but, we should acknowledge it for what it is.

Those patients who must recover from pulmonary and myocardial scarring will probably take a long time to return to noromal. This is to be expected, since wounds take time to heal. During that time, such people will probably feel weak and sometimes lightheaded from lack of oxygen and/or low blood pressure, and/or any other predictable symptoms that come from such a significant cardiovascular ordeal. COVID-19 is certainly not unique in its ability to cause this kind of lengthy recovery. Pneumonia of various causes will produce a similar long recovery in patients who experience severe cases.

As for those patients who have few remaining physical signs of a COVID-19 infection, and still report spooky-but-vague "long covid" symptoms like aches and head "fog" and fatigue, it seems more likely to me that they are struggling with fear and psychosomatic problems. That's okay! We've all been through quite an ordeal with COVID-19, even those who never contracted it. 

We should not, however, sink over a billion dollars of public funds into chasing a phantom. Treat people with compassion and listen to their stories. Hug them and give them emotional support. But encourage them to rise above their fears, or at least to be aware of them. The last thing anyone needs is a false excuse to be coddled.

I'll say one final thing in closing. Early in the pandemic, I noticed that the number of people claiming in casual conversation to be "high risk for covid" seemed to exceed expectations based on disease prevalence. That is, a lot of people seemed to be adopting an "out of my way, I'm high-risk!" attitude. This attitude was not without its rewards. Remember that early in the pandemic, grocery stores had reserved shopping hours for high-risk populations. High-risk people were first to be admitted to the hospital, first to receive medical treatment, first to receive the covid vaccine. They also received extra lenience from their employers, and extra patience from friends and family. There were, and are, many incentives for people to claim high-risk status with respect to COVID-19.

Thus, it is not out of the question that many people who make these claims, and who make claims about "long covid" are, in fact, manifesting some form of Munchausen Syndrome, feigning illness for attention, sympathy, or personal benefit.

2021-03-23

Boys Don't Cry

A friend of mine on social media posted a web comic yesterday about "toxic masculinity." The gist of the web comic was that "toxic masculinity" was essentially the insistence that boys not cry or show any emotion or hint of struggle. When boys encounter pain or difficult, we should be strong, keep a stiff upper lip, hold our emotions in. The argument is that this insistence that men suppress their emotions is the essence of "toxic masculinity."

A few things are worth noting here.

First, I don't think this is quite what women have in mind when they complain about "toxic masculinity." Sure, women would prefer it if men were better communicating about their emotions, but compared to things like rape and rape culture, men's emotional intelligence is really a secondary concern. 

Second, it's true that men and boys are often encouraged to suppress their negative emotions, and it's undeniable that this takes a toll on our mental health.

But most importantly, I'd like to point out that there is an explanation for this that doesn't involve "the patriarchy." We know that among children, girls' emotional regulation is superior to that of boys. We also know that mothers of girls show better emotional regulation than mothers of boys. Taken together, what this implies is that young boys will tend toward more emotional outbreaks than young girls, and that the children's mothers will respond better to the girls than to the boys. "Stop crying!" isn't some nascent, diabolical, patriarchical social conditioning ingrained into us; it might simply be that children with worse emotional regulation are more often told to stop crying.

Once parents have practiced telling their boys to stop crying and suck it up long enough, it turns into a habit. Through that habituation, it becomes a mantra, and boys end up with more emotional repression than women do. 

Granted, some boys probably are told to stop crying for social reasons. In my family, we were all (boys and girls) socialized to be emotionally repressed, and that's caused a lot of problems for us. My point here is not that there is one, single, non-patriarchical cause for all male emotional repression. My point is merely that this phenomenon can happen even when it has nothing to do with the patriarchy

And, in general, we should resist and be skeptical of any intellectual framework that seeks to tie all social problems to a single, underlying cause. 

2021-03-16

Mindset

 After having gone through a year's worth of unexplained symptoms and puzzled doctors, in October of 2009, I finally received a frantic call from my primary care physician, telling me to go to the hospital as soon as I possibly could. I arrived at about two o'clock in the afternoon, and was rushed through a series of interviews I can barely remember now. There seem to have been a couple of triage points, several conversations with a nurse practitioner, a lot of waiting around, and then finally a rather anti-climactic visit from an endocrine specialist.

In her Irish accent, she told me, "I don't quite know how to tell you this, but you're diabetic, and..." She trailed off briefly, probably considering whether there was anything emotionally helpful she could provide for me in that moment. Then, apparently deciding that there wasn't, she continued, "We're going to give you an insulin shot today, and--and you're going to be on insulin for the rest of your life."

"What?!"

"Yeah..." she told me. Then she said something that I don't remember, which somewhat conveyed empathy, but which also conveyed the urgency with which she needed to inject insulin into me.

From there, I was led into another room, where another nurse introduced me to my first insulin pen. I hadn't had time to process what was happening to me. This had all happened within about 30 minutes, and the part where I found out that I was henceforth an insulin-dependent diabetic had only happened a couple of minutes ago. These people wouldn't let me catch my breath. I was being rushed from one end of the ward to the next, from room to room, person to person, each one hurrying through a set of instructions that I don't remember; that I never had any chance of ever remembering in the first place. 

The nurse who showed me the insulin pen quickly went through instructions on how to give myself an injection. The tutorial was over in less than a minute, at which point she sort of gestured toward all the paraphernalia in between us and said, "Do you want me to help you with your first shot?"

That was it.

The confusion in my mind suddenly melted away. Everything sort of melted away, everything except a sense of purpose. I said, "Well, I might as well get used to it now. I'll be doing it for the rest of my life." I took the needle and the insulin pen, pulled off the seal, screwed the needle onto the pen, dialed in my dose, jabbed it into my stomach, and pressed the button.

I've been a diabetic ever since.

*        *        *

While I didn't know everything there was to know about managing my diet as a type 1 diabetic, a similar shift happened to me when I got home that evening. One day, I was eating ice cream cake and jalapeno poppers, the next day I was meticulously counting my carbohydrates and denying myself anything that required an injection. 

I don't know how it works for other people, but that's how it worked for me. There was no use crying about every meal I was going to eat from then on. There was no use complaining about it. There was no use comparing my new diet to the freedom and decadence I had enjoyed as a normal, healthy twenty-something only a few hours before. Once my mind had absorbed the fact that I was a type 1 diabetic, my behavior followed. 

Adjusting to a new chronic condition isn't easy, especially if you really enjoyed the life you had lead up to that point. But my thinking was, what other choice do I have? It wasn't as if I could go back to living in a world in which I wasn't diabetic. The task at that point was to figure out how to thrive under my current set of conditions, not despair over what those conditions were. It did take me a long time to fully emotionally accept my condition, but that was a grieving process, not a struggle against reality.

Grief itself is a natural part of human existence. We all grieve. For most people, grief - however emotionally significant it is - does not put a halt to the other aspects of our lives. Grief makes us sad, and causes us to think carefully about the present state of our lives. It isn't a denial of reality, but rather an acknowledgement of it: the person we loved is now gone, the life we led is now impossible, the precious thing we had is now lost. Whatever the cause, grief is a transition from one set of circumstances to another. If someone fails to make the transition, that failure isn't caused by the grief, but by our own refusal to evolve.

*        *        *

Granted, some transitions are easier than others. When a man becomes a diabetic, he transitions from a general identity, like "I am a man," to a new identity that involves the condition: "I am a diabetic man." Seeking out that new identity and discovering what it means on a personal level is a large part of the journey itself. Strange as it may sound to some, I consider this to be an easier transition than when we lose a loved one. I can become a diabetic man, but a man who loses a father cannot become a man without a father. Once you have a father, you are always a person with a father, even after you lose him. 

So, I do understand that some transitions are harder than others, that some grief is more uniquely difficult to overcome, and that one person's struggles don't always map with parity to another person's struggles.

Even so, grief is a transition. No matter how difficult, and no matter how long it takes to fully process, grief is a doorway into another room, a next chapter of life. (Luckily for us, not every new chapter of life requires that we grieve to make the transition!) What some struggle with is acknowledging that the previous chapter has already ended; that room no longer exists. Either we step through our grief, into the new room, or we try to exist in a nothing-space, an emotional nether-region.

What we can't do is go backwards.

*        *        *

A friend of mine recently committed to making a positive change toward better health and fitness. He made his commitment public in a bid to keep himself accountable. I congratulated him and made myself available to him; after all, I do happen to know a few things about health and fitness. He confessed that he felt a little intimidated by me, and said, "Anyone who has run 30+ miles has a different set of mental skills than me."

This is a good friend, but clearly he doesn't read my blog, ha ha...

I wanted to tell him about the power of mindset. I wanted to tell him about my firm belief, confirmed again and again in a variety of different experiences, that everyone has all the same stuff. After all, we are all human beings. While our genetics all differ slightly, none of us is so different that he has a completely different mental skill set. 

I also wanted to explain to him that this very notion, the idea that something immutable between us has caused me to pursue a lifetime of fitness while causing him to pursue something else entirely, is the belief that limits his progress. The worst thing we can ever tell ourselves as we pursue a goal is that we are fundamentally incapable of being the kind of person who excels at such goals. 

No, the first step toward achieving any goal is acknowledging the reality that such a goal is achievable by people like us. Why pursue something if, by definition, you're not the kind of person who can attain it? Instead, we must reach for our aspirations under the belief that, truly, we can do it. That doesn't mean for certain that we will, but isn't it nice to know that it's possible? Indeed, isn't it necessary to know that it's possible? Has anyone ever achieved the impossible?

I don't recall ever hearing an Olympian explain in an interview, "I knew all along that everyone else was faster than I am and that I didn't have the right stuff to win an Olympic gold medal, but by the end of the race - gee whiz! - I had won!"

*        *        *

Of course, mindset isn't merely about achieving something. The reason that sorting out your mindset has the effect of helping you achieve something is because if we fixate on our limiting beliefs or on transitions we haven't been able to make, then new things we want to do are just off the table. In a way, it's less about having a "positive mindset" than it is about not having a negative one. 

Any pessimist realist will tell you that positive thinking isn't enough to get you where you want to be. You also have to put in all the hard work, and get a few lucky breaks along the way, and eventually serendipity happens. However, negative thinking will definitely screw you over before you even get started. 

And if that's what negative thinking does to your attempts at achieving something, think about what it does for your daily life. We don't always want to get up and get ready for work in the morning, but who do you think is going to have a better day: the man who groans and grumbles and frowns and complains the whole time, or the man who focuses his attention on whatever he has to look forward to that day? 

I can tell you from experience that my days pass a lot more quickly when I get to drive my daughter to her ballet class once a week. Those are simply wonderful days. We hurry to get ready, and then we drive together, just the two of us, to her class; we listen to our favorite music as we drive, or else we have a nice conversation together. Then she goes to class, and I go for a walk around the scenic neighborhoods surrounding her dance studio. When it's over, we drive home, she tells me about her class, and then we get takeout from a favorite restaurant and everybody sits upstairs eating and watching our favorite TV shows. It's become a whole ritual, one that we all look forward to, and one that we all find very satisfying. 

Not every day can be that fun, but simply by virtue of the fact that my Wednesday evenings are so nice, my Wednesday work days pass by quickly and happily. That's a positive mindset for you.

You might have had a "divorced friend," a friend who went through a particularly bad break-up, and it soured his or her perspective on everything. So every time you talk with your friend about your own spouse or partner, your comments are met with derision, or sarcasm, or else steered toward a rant about your friend's ex and how bad they made everything. How much fun is it to spend time with these people? 

A few days ago, I wrote about how, after going through my own break up, I decided to turn myself into the kind of person who my ideal partner would want to date; unlike other people I knew, who allowed their break-ups to make them cynical. I think the results speak for themselves.

*        *        *

All of these things come down to having the right mindset. Whether you're trying to overcome a bad situation, trying to achieve something remarkable, trying to lose weight, trying to find the love of your life, or just trying to make it through Wednesday, having the right mindset is the power that will carry you through.

And if it doesn't? You're still not out anything, because you will have spent most of the day thinking positive things and being happy, rather than thinking negative things and being sad. I'm not a fan of Pascal's Wager, but in this case I think it works. If you maintain a positive mindset, and things don't go your way, then you haven't really lost anything. If you maintain a negative mindset, things still might not go your way, but what you've lost is the happiness you could have felt if you had a better attitude. And in the meantime, that positive thinking really could end up paying off, and then you have both the happiness your attitude brought you, along with whatever victory you were hoping for at the end of the day. 

2021-03-10

Individuality And Getting Rich

I was talking about standards of living with a friend of mine. His position - one that you've probably heard repeated in the media multiple times - is that people are worse off now than they were 20 years ago. I produced data to show otherwise: Disposable income and the wage cost index have both out-paced the consumer price index. I know that's not the whole story, but the point is that the prima facie evidence suggests that people are much better off now than they used to be; moreover, in order to make the opposite case, you have to get into a rather complex analysis of the economic indicators, and with that complexity comes additional nuance and additional debate. All said and done, it's incredibly difficult to argue that people are worse off now than they were 20 years ago. Meanwhile, it's rather easy to argue that we're better off now. So, that's what I believe.

Another friend of ours joined the conversation by asking: If disposable income is so far up, why do Millennials have such high rates of debt and low rates of home ownership? The answer to that question is that Millennials have high rates of student debt; in other words, Millennials prefer taking on debt for their schooling, rather than taking on debt for their housing. Others might disagree with their preferences, but that's beside the point. The prefer what they prefer - that's not a problem with disposable income. (Besides, as anyone with a mortgage or a student loan knows, it's possible to have both debt and disposable income at the same time.)

Well, this conversation got me thinking about wealth, and about the choices I've made in my own life. I'm not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm more comfortable than others. What did I do that other people couldn't, wouldn't, or didn't?

I was still maintaining this blog back in 2012, when my wife and I moved from Canada to the United States. We deliberately moved to a place with a low cost of living and low housing prices. On one income and zero credit history, we were able to purchase a duplex within the year at a pretty low price; but keep in mind that we bought less than what we could afford. We lived in one half of the duplex and rented out the other half. We paid the mortgage off early, bought a detached home, and rented out both sides of the duplex. We now had two incomes along with the rental income from the duplex. That's when life started to feel really comfortable for us.

This is not a revolutionary way of living. Thousands if not millions of young couples get started in just the same way. All it requires having little to no debt (so, don't buy anything that requires debt - including an expensive college education) and the willingness to postpone your "forever home" for a little while (live in a cheap duplex instead of your dream home for as long as you can stand it).

Everything that we did 10 years ago was pretty much the opposite of what was popular, normal, and expected at the time. My wife and I had good jobs in Ottawa and were making pretty good money. We were on the verge of sinking $300,000 or more into a home in the Ottawa area, paying 14% sales tax on everything, spending lots of money on winter accessories every year, paying Canadian tax rates, and so on. When people found out we intended to move, they were surprised; but when they found out we wanted to move to Texas, they tried to talk us out of it. They made fun of us for it. We were doing the "wrong" thing.

There were obvious reasons to move to Texas, however. Texas has no state income tax, which saves us a lot of money every year. Even now, home prices and real estate prices are far below the national average, making it a great place to invest in income properties. With year-round warmish weather, I'd be able to run outside all year long, keeping my diabetes in check, and thus saving a lot on future medical expenses. Food is cheap here, too. 

So all of the arguments against moving to Texas involved the fact that Texas isn't particularly cool, while all the arguments in favor of moving to Texas involved minimizing expenses and maximizing potential revenues. Economically, the choice was plain as day. We simply had to sacrifice our X-factor. I think it was a fair trade.

When we became landlords, people made fun of us then, too. They called us "slumlords" and talked about how they'd never want to have to "deal with" tenants. Some people told me that the idea was "lame," which I guess just means that it's an uncool idea. But economically, it enabled us to afford a home, food, clothing, and living expenses on just one person's income, while my wife waited for just the right job opportunity to come along. Eventually it did, and she parlayed that opportunity into quite a great career. For a while, however, she had to be the uncool one being supported by a white man husband while she stayed at home without a job. 

When you get down to brass tacks, the secret of our success, to the extent that we are successful, is that we didn't allow social trends to dictate our behavior. In order to be successful, in order to make a really comfortable living and expand your horizons a bit, you have to be willing to do the uncool thing. You have to do really "lame" things like:
  • Moving to an uncool place
  • Taking an uncool job
  • Taking an uncool risk
  • Starting an uncool business
  • Not listening to all your cool friends
There might still be an opportunity for you, dear reader, to come to Texas, buy cheap land, and do what I did; but every passing year makes it slightly more difficult for you. The next generation of "people like me" will need to look at even more "uncool" places to repeat a similar pattern. You might have to move to Mississippi or Kansas. You might have to live in a small town. You might have to delay going to college until after you've set yourself up with a good income property or two. Heck, you might even have to go to trade school instead.

I mean, who knows? I don't know how to "make it" in the future, I only know how to "make it" in the past, and perhaps the present.

What I do know is that in order to "make it," you're going to have to do things that are different from everyone else, different to the point of being uncool, different to the point where your friends tease you relentlessly and your family thinks you've become a crazy Republican who moved to Texas to fight abortions and socialism. (Yep, that's what my family thinks.)

Getting rich mostly means being able to recognize things that will be cool before they are actually cool. A lot of people will criticize you along the way, but that's how it goes. If doing what everyone else does was the way to get rich then everyone else would be rich. If they're not, then you have good evidence that what they all choose to do is probably not going to make you rich, either. 

So, don't be afraid to be uncool, take a risk, and be different. You might find out that that's what works in the end.

2021-03-03

How To Meet The Love Of Your Life

When I was fresh out of college, I was working at a place where lots of young people my age worked. It was a lot of fun, because we all liked to laugh and hang out together. Every day at work was like spending time with a big group of friends. Those are always the best workplaces, at least when you're young.

One of my fellow coworkers - let's call her S - was something of a workplace stereotype: she was young, very beautiful, had recently been through a breakup, and had thus started to sleep around a lot, and consequently a lot of the young men in the workplace had started to pay a lot of extra attention to her. She enjoyed the attention, and they enjoyed giving it to her, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

At the time, I didn't fully understand this dynamic. It wasn't until a few years later, after I had worked for a few different employers and observed the same phenomenon again and again that I finally wrapped my head around it. I remember working in a big office in Ottawa, and there was one very attractive and newly hired young woman there. Let's call her L. L spent half her time joking innocently with the men in the office and the other half of the time talking about her boyfriend. But she was 22 years old and fresh out of college, and all the creepy old men in the office knew she was going to soon break up with her boyfriend and inevitably start sleeping around. They were hanging on for their chance, when it inevitably happened. And it did. 

I don't fault anyone for "shooting their shot," but it bothered me a lot that many of the guys surrounding L all the time were twenty years older than she was, and married. They were creeps. L couldn't see it, because she was young, naive, and convinced that all these creeps were just fun guys to hang out with at work. It was a path to being used.

That was years after I met S, but S was in a similar situation. S had a lot of other issues going on with her, as well: she had unresolved parental baggage, had experienced a certain amount of abuse, was possibly bisexual in an extremely conservative community, and so on. But she was also a very nice young lady with a terrific sense of humor, and she made great conversation. So she and I became fast friends.

One time, S and I were talking. She mentioned that she gets lonely, and that was one of the reasons she got attached to so many guys. I suggested that she try hanging out with friends instead. I told her that she had lots of friends, and she should spend her time with them if she felt lonely.

When she heard this, she laughed, and said, "And what if I feel like having sex? Should I call up my friend Breanne and say, 'Hey, can you help me out with this?'"

I laughed, too. But I didn't reply.

*        *        *

Although S and I were good friends and very compatible at the time, we never got together. I ended up in a relationship with a very different kind of woman. Let's call that woman M. M was funny, smart, and one of the most terrific friends I ever had.

M was also depressed, a fact I didn't initially notice or understand about her. Being with M gradually slid into a very difficult relationship. Prozac Nation is one of the most accurate portrayals of depression I have ever seen on film; being in a relationship with M often times felt a lot like being a character in Prozac Nation. Perhaps a better man could have persevered in a relationship like that. As for me, I didn't have the right stuff. M and I went our separate ways.

Building a life together with someone involves creating a trajectory for yourself. Your mutual aspirations fuse together into a coherent plan forward, and everything you do becomes a march toward your aspirational goal. Or, one of you is crushingly depressed and neither of you can see beyond the fog descending all around you. A bad relationship - even between good people - will rob you of your sense of self and steal from you any kind of trajectory you once had. You become a very different person than you are used to being, a very different person than the one you always wanted to be. Your life becomes a game of perpetuating the relationship, of always trying to save it from the inevitable.

Truly, you can live your whole life that way. What happened to me, however, was that I made a sort of rational realization one day: If I fight this hard in a relationship this bad, imagine what I might be able to achieve if I fought that hard for a relationship that was even just a little bit better. I knew what kind of effort I was capable of; I had been putting in that effort for years. What if there was someone out there who was capable of putting in even a fraction of that effort... for me?

*        *        *

Like many people who go through break-ups, I had spent months breaking up with M and not even realizing it. I got out of a dead-end public service job and into a really exciting consulting job. I stopped shaving my head. I started training hard as a runner again. I wrote a dozen really good songs. I even changed what soap I was using. It was a metamorphosis I simply didn't recognize until M and I called things off, and I moved out. Moving out even entailed getting a new apartment, and buying a new car. And of course that new job required a new wardrobe. An outside observer might have said that I had become a completely different person, but the truth is that I had become more of myself. 

That in itself is a whole story that needs telling, but what matters here is that I had stripped myself of the pieces of my identity that weren't actually mine to begin with. Those pieces belonged to the relationship I was in, and the identity that went along with it. The new pieces were the ones I put there by choice, deliberately, based on my own beliefs about who I really am.

This was my crossroads. At this point, I could go the way of S or L. I was young, gainfully employed, fit, attractive, and surrounded by beautiful people who also didn't mind being surrounded by me. 

*        *        *

I had already undergone a significant metamorphosis. It occurred to me that I might take it further. What if, instead of just becoming a better person, I decided to shoot for the moon? What if, instead of living a better life, I aimed to live an ideal life? 

I thought about what an ideal life might actually be like. If I could be doing anything with myself, what would that be? What is the kind of thing I've always dreamed of, but which I've never dared to attempt?

Well, people have all kinds of dreams. Some dream of being rich and famous, others dream of being captains of industry or CEOs; some want to become artists and undertake the Bohemian life, others have wanderlust and set out to see the world. Some have simple dreams, like being parents or living in an old farmhouse; others hatch complex schemes of achieving a list of accomplishments at specified points in their lives.

When I thought about the kind of life I dreamed of living, I thought about a peaceful little beach I saw in Central America. I thought about the humble but beautiful coffee estates in the mountains of El Salvador. I imagined a life in which I could live in one of those nice, small little open-air villas, drinking coffee, picking up groceries on a motorcycle, and spending my days strumming my guitar on the beach. It's not for everyone, but it's what I wanted. Maybe, while I was there, I would meet a local woman who wanted to spend her time similarly. 

With this thought in mind, I started taking small steps toward my dream. What would it take to accomplish something like that? I knew I needed a lot more money, and so I started working on my professional development. I started practicing my Spanish daily, and listening to Spanish language music and radio programs. I got rid of my TV and spent that time reading books and bettering myself. 

For a while, that became my life. I worked hard all day, put in overtime, went home and worked out, ate dinner, and then read and studied. In a way, it was lonely, but it was also extremely productive. I felt optimistic for the future, and each small thing I did in a day seemed like a tiny step I was taking in the direction of my dreams.

That was when I discovered the secret.

*        *        *

I had a vision of the future and a small amount of momentum taking me toward it. What I soon discovered is that people gravitate toward these kinds of vectors. In the dating market and the market for friendship, people are attracted to those who know where they're going, even if that destination is different from what they themselves prefer.

You could think of it like this: millions of other 28-year-old men in the world had good jobs and a reasonably sunny disposition; only a few knew what they wanted out of life.

Of course, here I must pause to point out that many 28-year-old men know what they want out of life, and what they want is lots of casual sex and some good times. That's not a vision for a lifetime, that's a vision for next Saturday night. People aren't attracted to a great vision of next Saturday night - at least, not the kind of people you want to spend your life with. People are attracted to a great vision for a lifetime. 

I met many women during this period of my life, and more to the point, many women met me. That is, I suddenly found myself the center of a great deal of positive attention. That was great. Although I met many women, I did not date many women. This is where my path diverged from that of S and L.

I had another friend we'll call A. A lived thousands of miles away, and was in a similar situation as I was. We both had our own chosen visions of the future and wanted to achieve them. We were both interested in finding a person to share it with. But, while I was searching for the kind of woman I definitely knew wouldn't hurt me like M did, A was not being as deliberate in her search.

Then, one day, we were IM-ing about our respective dating lives. While I was working my way closer and closer toward the kind of women I felt really good about dating, A had been on a string of dates and was casually having sex with a number of men, with no serious prospects on the horizon.

I started telling A about my philosophy, about how I had devised a vision of the future that I wanted, and about how the women I wanted to date were all people who respected that vision and wanted to be a part of it, people who could nurture me as a person as I nurtured them, people I could fall in love with. And the more I held that in mind as my ideal, the closer I seemed to get.

Then my friend A said, "I have physical needs, and I need to get those met." She sounded just like S. And just like S, A was taking herself further and further away from positive, nurturing relationships, positioning herself to be used by opportunistic partners who were not interested in her long-term vision.

And the kicker is: A was willing to give it all up to get her physical needs met. I've been horny, too, but Jesus Christ.

*        *        *

Flash forward some thirteen years.

I am married to a wonderful woman I met during that phase of my life. We moved somewhere warm and pleasant, and possibly temporary. We still share that vision of the future that I developed long ago, but we also recognize that if we achieve the same headspace in a different location, that will be okay, too. But we are still taking steps toward it. Meanwhile, we have two beautiful children, a comfortable living situation, all of our basic needs are met, and we have a wonderful, loving relationship.

A is doing okay. She could be doing better. Her ambition is a shadow of what it once was, and she went through a long period of very mentally difficult years.

S is also doing okay, but she never went anywhere in life. She's a single mother. She's still beautiful, but she lives a hard life.

I didn't keep up with L.

I also didn't keep up with M, but by all accounts, she is doing okay, too, and I'm happy about that.

It's easy to compare myself to people who are doing a lot worse than I am, and of course that isn't really the point. At the same time, I also can't deny that my life is going really well, and my choices and philosophies have played a direct role in achieving that result. I'm still on a positive trajectory, and I'm the one who put myself on that trajectory. Life is good for me in large part because I chose a good path.

And I met and married the love of my life. I achieved this by arriving at a vision of what kind of person I wanted to be in an ideal state, and taking consistent steps toward that goal. In doing so, I instantly became a more attractive person to the people around me. People are hungry for positive directions, they want to be a part of a good thing. Even if they don't want to be a part of it, they want to spectate.

So, developing a dream of what kind of good person you want to be, and attempting to become that good person, is how you meet the love of your life.

2021-01-25

Life In A Global Pandemic, Part 12

I received the Moderrna COVID-19 vaccine.

Instead of selling it on the open market, the world's largest capitalist economy has decided to use central planning to distribute the vaccines. I wish I could say I didn't see that coming, but the global response to this virus has been a disaster of central planning from the very beginning. It stands to reason that the "end" (?) of the pandemic should unfold the same way.

Tarrant County provided a website, distributed mainly by word-of-mouth as far as I can tell, through which residents could register to receive the vaccine. It is not first come, first served. Instead, patients were linked to an electronic form, in which we disclosed our age, race, sex, and so on, along with any "preexisting conditions" we might have. This is to ensure that the vaccine goes first to the sick and the weak, rather than to the young, strong, socially active people who are probably responsible for transmitting the virus so widely. That said, I do think the old and the at-risk ought to have first crack at the vaccine.

"Luckily" for me, I acquired type 1 diabetes more than a decade ago. (Tempus fugit!) The county's electronic form doesn't differentiate between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and of course it is only type 2 diabetes that is listed as the kind of "preexisting condition" that puts one at risk of death from COVID-19. Since I can't go on the open market and buy myself a shot, though, I didn't feel too badly about answering truthfully that I have "diabetes" and letting the health department sort out the details. Within a week, I had my appointment for receiving the vaccine scheduled.

The health department called me three times on Friday. I didn't recognize the number, so I let it go to voicemail. In any case, it was an automated call all three times. They also sent me three identical emails the text of which was verbatim to the phone calls I received. The emails contained a link to confirm my appointment, and so I did. The appointment was scheduled for the following day "between 9 AM and 11 AM."

I showed up at about 8:45 AM, and there was already a long lineup of cars waiting to park. Police split traffic up into four separate queues, which eventually merged back into two separate lines. Once we found a parking space, we lined up again inside the building - two separate lines this time. I waited in line for perhaps 40 minutes, during which time volunteers checked my paperwork no less than five times. Finally, I arrived at a registration table, where my paperwork was checked again, my driver's license and insurance information were taken down, and then I was directed into an all-new queue. This queue happened to split into two lines for about 20 yards, before merging back into one queue again. Central planning is wonderful, isn't it?

At last, I was allowed inside a conference room, where I sat at a table and someone administered the vaccine. I was then directed to a second person who gave me my "vaccine card," along with a memorized set of instructions that I will never be able to remember. The gist of it was that I needed my "vaccine card" to get my second vaccine dose, which I will be able to receive in four weeks' time. She also told me, despite CDC information to the contrary, that I cannot mix vaccines, meaning that since I received the Moderna vaccine, I should only get the Moderna vaccine for my second dose, otherwise it won't work. Finally, she gave me a sticky-note with a time written on it: 10:14 AM, the time when I would be allowed to leave the building. Apparently they make people wait in the conference room for 20 minutes to ensure that nobody has an adverse reaction to the vaccine.

Then I went home.

My sister had received the Moderna vaccine a few weeks before I did. By her account, the vaccine causes muscle cramps, tiredness, feverishness, and so on. I expected to have a similar experience, so I quickly went for a nice, hard run when I got home. I figured that if I was going to be out of commission for a day or two, I should get a good workout in before I started feeling down.

None of those adverse reactions happened for me. The injection site became about as sore as it would be for a tetanus or DTAP vaccine. I did not experience tiredness, pain, fever, or anything else. I feel perfectly fine.

I would recommend the vaccine to others. Hopefully, most everyone will eventually receive an effective vaccine, and the spread of this disease can be minimized as much as possible. I understand that this is one of the first widely used mRNA vaccines ever made. I was curious about it for that reason. This is a new mechanism of action, one that has not previously received widespread federal approval. (According to a handout I received when I was given my vaccine, the Moderna vaccine is "not FDA-approved." They want everyone to know that they are getting an unapproved vaccine, presumably so that no one will ever think to blame the FDA if something goes wrong. Nothing says "accountability" quite like government.) I think now that the concept has essentially been proven, we can expect to see more mRNA vaccines in the future. This could mean a cure for the common cold, to say nothing about all the other, more serious, diseases we might be able to cure with new vaccine technology. 

If there is anything positive about any of this, that's it. It's exciting to be a part of medical history. I'll let you know if I grow a demonic hand or something, but at this point I am expecting it to be smooth-sailing from here.