Decaf Lifestyle

Back in December, I went through a small health issue that, among other things, resulted in my giving up caffeine. Prior to December, and for the previous ten years or so, I’d been a relatively hardcore coffee drinker. For most of that decade, I worked from home, so every morning, I’d brew a full pot of coffee and proceed to drink the majority of it by noon, which means about 12 cups of coffee a day. When I began a new job this past October that got me out of my house, I just replaced my (inexpensive) coffee pot with refills at the coffee shop across the street. The source (and cost) of my coffee had changed, but the volume remained the same.

But then my little health issue came along, and I decided to cut out caffeine.

The first day was the worst. The headache came on around 10am and didn’t leave me until I went to bed (and not even then). I popped some ibuprofen to dull the pain, but that only dampened the sharpest parts of it. I still had an all-around “ache” in my head. The second day was better. I took the ibuprofen first thing in the morning, re-upped in the afternoon, and pretty much got through the day without having to verbally complain to my wife about my pounding head. The third day, I forewent the ibuprofen, and the headache, while still present, was less of an ache and more of a nuisance.

And on the fourth day, it was gone.

As a hardcore coffee drinker, I’d always scoffed at people who drank decaf, but for the past three months, that’s basically the only coffee I’ve had (my wife decided to kick caffeine a little after I did, but after seeing me deal with the headache, she decided to ween herself instead of going cold turkey, so for a couple of weeks there, my first cup of coffee in the morning would be a home-brew of half-caf and half-decaf, with all the following cups being full decaf from the coffee shop). Some have asked why I’m drinking coffee at all if I’m drinking decaf, and the answer is: because I love the taste of coffee in the morning.

The problem with the decaf lifestyle is that…well…I’m tired in the afternoons. You know that friggin’ 5-hour Energy commercial, the one that talks about that 2:30 feeling? Well, that shit is true. At 2:30 in the afternoon, virtually every day, I get smacked in the face by a big ol’ bat of tiredness, and it pretty much doesn’t go away until after dinner. In fact, for the past two months or so, dinner has usually been followed by a cat nap…and it’s only after the nap that I feel anything resembling energy flow back into my body.

The solution to my mid-afternoon crash is simple, of course. Instead of requiring caffeine to fuel my day, I should exercise and use the body’s natural endorphins. Exercise fights fatigue and boosts energy. We know that. Now I just have to act on that knowledge.

Or…you know…I could just take another nap.

Last Week’s Instapaper: March 6th Edition

As many article junkies are nowadays, I’m a big fan of Instapaper, which is “a simple tool to save web pages for reading later.” I use it to save long-form articles that I come across on the web. After saving and then reading an article in Instapaper, you can “Like” the article or archive/delete it from your account. Here are the articles I “liked” last week. I highly recommend each of them.

  • Those Fabulous Confabs (New York Magazine)
    “To judge by TED’s remarkable success, we may well be living in a golden age of ideas, a time not just of counter-counter-­counter­intuitive concepts but of their exhilarating democratization. Yet it’s also possible to see in TED’s recent growth strategies the marks of desperation and dilution. With more and more conferences fighting over the same speakers, sponsors, guests, and ideas, the sustainability of the movement has begun to look increasingly tenuous. Might there be a cap on the number of interesting ideas in the universe?”

  • The End of Wall Street As They Knew It (New York Magazine)
    “Banks have always had occasional bad years, but the sense on Wall Street is that this bad year is different. Over the past several weeks, I have had wide-ranging conversations with more than two dozen senior Wall Street executives, traders, bankers, hedge-fund managers, and private-equity investors. And what emerged is a picture of an industry afflicted by a crisis it would not be flip to call existential.”

  • The Hunter Becomes the Hunted (Esquire)
    “You don’t know his name, and you’ve never seen his face. But this year, as America leaves Iraq for good after eight years of war, we also leave behind a man believed by our military and intelligence agencies to be the best terrorist hunter alive. He’s still there, hunting. And so are the terrorists.”

  • Elaine Pagels on the Book of Revelation (The New Yorker)
    “Pagels shows that Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing. It’s essentially a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement in the late first century, with Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed and the Saviour, despite his promises, still not back. All the imagery of the rapt and the raptured and the rest that the “Left Behind” books have made a staple for fundamentalist Christians represents contemporary people and events, and was well understood in those terms by the original audience. Revelation is really like one of those old-fashioned editorial drawings where Labor is a pair of overalls and a hammer, and Capital a bag of money in a tuxedo and top hat, and Economic Justice a woman in flowing robes, with a worried look.”

  • Obama, Explained (The Atlantic)
    “Has Obama in office been anything like the chess master he seemed in the campaign, whose placid veneer masked an ability to think 10 moves ahead, at which point his adversaries would belatedly recognize that they had lost long ago? Or has he been revealed as just a pawn—a guy who got lucky as a campaigner but is now pushed around by political opponents who outwit him and economic trends that overwhelm him?”

  • How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy (The Atlantic)
    “The ‘latent’ parasite [in our cat’s urine] may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia.”

Letter from the Front

The night was thirty-two degrees
and a despicable wind shook the trees,
stirred the flames inside the pit,
froze the men and knocked their knees.

The colonel’s tent stayed tight and fit,
the ropes strapped down with pegs befit
to restrain Goliath, even seizure seized;
it would last until the wind remit.

The colonel’s hand, all gnarled with age,
released the pen and turned the page,
“Oh dear wife, this wind,” he wrote,
“seems born from a god consumed with rage.

“I can taste the anger burning His throat
“and smell the cinders, if only a note,
“but fear most, dear wife, what I cannot gauge,
“why He wants my men to float

“across the deep dark river of the newly dead?
“As if our enemies, battling in His stead,
“carry all that righteousness can imbue,
“and we, the downtrodden, evil-led

“army raised of peasant sympathy and hue,
“deserve nothing but pain for our stillborn coup.
“But confirm, dear wife, what my mind most dreads,
“that our Great Leader, indeed, has flew

“the capitol city, where I once raised a toast
“to celebrate the death of the man hated most,
“who robbed our banks and polluted our streams,
“and murdered children from the farms to the coast,

“a man who you once told me never had dreams,
“never experienced the mind’s great extremes,
“or the surreal illusion of a woman engrossed
“in positions to match pyschological themes?

“Is it true, dear wife,” the colonel penned,
“that our Great Leader’s fate has met its end?”
The colonel’s eyes watered with thoughts
of his hero retreating cowardly; poor friend.

The colonel pushed his tears, sniffed his snot,
regripped the pen, wrote, “It’s all for naught,
“that I will die before I amend
“my wrongdoings; but such is my lot.

“Remember when this started? The trip to Rome
“and the Great Leader’s speech beneath the dome
“(‘course he hadn’t become our Great Leader yet,
“just a man we knew from someplace back home)?

“But there he was, all fire and sweat,
“telling us of ills we could not forget,
“inspiring us to raise up guns of chrome,
“and charge into battle against powers unmet

“by any other power that ever bled the dirt:
“not Khan, not Ceasar, nor the Soviet curtain,
“nor the thundering hooves of the dinosaurs.
“Our only power was that we struck in concert,

“and we fought with a savageness that the mind abhors;
“we weren’t too good to pile scalps on the shores,
“or too squeemish to write blood squirt
“messages that confirmed their wives as whores:

“we’d get personal if we had to, and had to we did,
“for their might and their numbers scared us, though hid,
“so we raped their women and murdered their sons,
“and our Great Leader laughed at the display of our id,

“told us he understood and thought our actions in fun,
“despite it being against his principles, for one,
“and the principles of proper warfare, forbid!
“But still, he allowed us to go until done.

“Tell me, dear wife, could our actions, do tell,
“be the reason the god plays out our death knell?
“We brought freedom, it’s true, our dear liberty,
“but maybe we carried it too long through Hell

“and soiled it with the blood spilled most bitterly
“by the enemies of the Leader’s inspired liturgy,
“not to mention the women who would scream and yell
“as we tore them apart outwardly and inwardly.

“Could a revolution ever sustain
“a beginning so evil and so profane
“as the beginning we gave it back in the Spring,
“when my soldiers and I caused such anguish and pain?”

Outside the wind with cold words sings,
and inside the colonel’s eyes start to sting
as he realizes what he’s done to bring down the rage
of the god who would soon put an end to this thing.

“Dear wife,” he writes, “Forgive me.”

The Ballad of the NPC (Part II)

The following is a work in progress. Read The Ballad of the NPC (Part I) before you begin.

I am not alone. Knowledge of this fact puzzles me, but it remains true. I am not alone. The instructions that I receive imply that something else has the potential for interacting with my illusion. It is not my place to know what that something else might be, or where it might come from, or what it might be doing to intrude on my illusion’s visit to the break room.

This is what I know. When it arrives, it arrives as a surprise. It interrupts my scanswitchpainting with further instructions as to how to make my illusion behave. The instructions, however, do no read like a message from a superior. They read like an explanation of a cause and effect, minus the cause; it is my job to enact the effect in my illusion.

There is a sense of freedom in the way I do my job. When a human man falls from a great height, he cannot choose whether to continue to fall; he can, however, choose the style in which he falls. I can make similar choices for my illusion.

And yet, whenever the surprise arrives, I find that my illusion inevitably responds with fear. He runs and screams; he freezes; or he cowers under his desk. The freedom I have over the reaction of my illusion seems to be limited to whether I want his shirt to billow behind him as runs; whether I want him to blink as he freezes in shock; or whether I want his glasses to fall off as he rocks back and forther under his desk.

The last time the surprise arrived, my illusion was on his way back to his cubicle. The instructions called for my illusion to react to a loud, repetitive noise coming from somewhere behind him. I turned his head to the right, only to find another instruction that called for a small red-gushing hole to appear in his left cheek; this was immediately followed by an instruction to make his left ear explode off his head. As various bits of the ear departed from his body, I no longer had control of their destiny; they exited the purview of my scanswitchpaint. Another instruction notified me that my illusion needed to fall to the ground and remain still. As he fell, I chose to make his body twist violently to the left, such that, when he landed on the illusion of the aisle, his back against a cubicle, his right arm would drape over his chest and head would loll to the left. I continued to scanswitchpaint around the boundary of my illusion, awaiting the next instruction, which, sooner than I would have expected, told me to erase myself.

Do you see the cause of my shame?

The Republican Field

The Republican Field
Image via NYMag.com

I’m one of those idiots who’ve watched every publicized debate of the Republican primaries thus far. I’m a liberal. I’m very liberal. But I’ve watched the debates because — as I teach my students — it’s my duty as a citizen to be an informed voter. While I won’t be voting in my state’s Republican primary, one of these gentlemen will be running in the general election, and I want to know as much about them as possible.

The debates aren’t the only place to learn about them, of course. I could visit their election websites and read up on their positions; I could track down their records to find out how they’ve actually voted on the issues; I could read their books to analyze what kinds of minds they have; etc.

But the debates are perhaps the only time we’ll see these men gathered in a room, forced to confront someone else who’s interest runs into conflict with their own: they all want that seat in the Oval Office, and they don’t want any of their fellow Republicans (let alone the President) to stand in their way. Between the heat of their opponents and the heat of the television cameras, the debates give us the best opportunity to see how these candidates hold up under fire.

It’s not just about “fire” though. The debates also show us how these candidates think on their feet.

That might be the most disappointing thing about Governor Mitt Romney. At almost every moment, it’s possible to see behind his rhetoric to the political machination that drives his speech. The narrative on Governor Romney is that, much like Senator John Kerry in 2004, his sense of humanity is robotic; he has, as they say, an empathy problem, one that probably stems from being incredibly rich.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the way his political ambition looms larger than anything he says on stage. Where the debates are supposed to show us how the politicians think on their feet, with Governor Romney, all we get are the words and phrases that will get him closer to his goal.

The best example of this was his response to the final question in last week’s debate in Arizona. The CNN moderator asked the candidates to explain what the public’s biggest misconception about them might be. Congressman Paul believed the misconception was the media’s insistence that he could not win in a general election, despite a recent poll showing that Paul is the only Republican candidate who can defeat President Obama in November. Speaker Gingrich said he wished people understood how much work went into his achievements as Speaker of the House (a balanced Federal budget, welfare reform, low unemployment, etc.). Senator Santorum gave an answer similar to Congressman Paul’s, except his argument did not rest on a poll; rather, it spoke to the fact that the election against the President will be much like his primary race against Governor Romney: he’ll have to “do a lot with a little” in order to defeat an opponent who has the support of the media and a seemingly unlimited treasure of funds.

Governor Romney, however, decided to give a concluding statement rather than answer the question. About twenty seconds into his answer, the moderator reminded him that the question had to do with the people’s misconception about him, but the governor responded, “You get to ask the questions you want. I get to give the answers that I want.” And then he continued to give what sounded like the final paragraph from his stump speech.

It reminded me of the argumentative technique he displayed in his encounter with an AP reporter who doubted his words in a campaign stop at Staples. Instead of debating the reporter on the grounds of the argument, the governor just repeated the same phrase over and over again.

What these events revealed was that Governor Romney doesn’t actually “think on his feet.” He has a thing he needs to say, and he says it, again and again, regardless of what the person across from him says in his response.

Between those two interactions, it’s easy to see the man who once drove from Massachusetts to Canada with a dog strapped to the roof of his car, and it’s even easier to understand why most polls have President Obama defeating the governor by between five and ten points.

Weirdly enough, with his wins in Arizona and Michigan last night, Romney is close to clinching the nomination. He still has to make it through Super Tuesday, when half of the required delegates go up for grabs, but with last night’s victories, the momentum is his to lose. His only real competitor at this point is Senator Rick Santorum, and though I might be a liberal, if I were a member of the Republican base, Senator Santorum would be the only candidate who would speak to me.

Here’s the thing about the senator. You have to give him some credit for being a man of his convictions. Even on the issue that gave him the most trouble at the Arizona debates — his vote for No Child Left Behind coupled with his promise to repeal No Child Left Behind — you could see his conviction at work. On that particular issue, the conviction that held sway in his decision was not that parents and local communities should be in charge of their schools, but that members of a party should support their leader. While he admits to making a mistake in voting for No Child Left Behind, he makes a reasonable argument for why he voted against his conscious.

Don’t get me wrong. President Santorum would be a horrible thing for this country. Not only would we be at war with Iran within the first eighteen months of his administration (something that may be true for the other candidates as well, excepting Congressman Paul), but we’d also see some of the most “severely conservative” judges being placed on the nation’s benches (not just Supreme Court judges either). If you add on a Republican majority in the House and Senate, who would most likely support the majority of the paleoconservative president’s agenda, then you start to see how scary a Santorum Administration could be.

But I say all that as a liberal. If I were a member of the Republican base, then a Santorum Administration would be a wet dream of conservative policies.

The other two candidates — Speaker Gingrich and Congressman Paul — are merely also-rans at this point. I think a Gingrich Administration would be an interesting one, and I fear it a lot less than I fear a Santorum Administration. The Speaker is as much a Washington insider as one could be, and while I wouldn’t agree with most of his policies, I do think his idea on reforming the government based on modern management theory could be interesting (despite the fact I’m not 100% sure what he means). And I get somewhat excited by his combination of ridiculously wacky/ambitious ideas with his proven ability to get things done in Washington. The things he’d want to get done — I’d disagree with probably 98% of it — but there’d at least be some major reforms, even if not in a direction I’d like. His presidency would probably suck for the country, but at least it’d be interesting.

A Paul Administration, on the other hand, would be impotent. They’d have a million ideas on how to change things, but the backing of zero members of Congress would ensure that none of it would get done. He’d be fighting not just the Democrats, but the Republicans as well.

So that’s the field: an openly-ambitious politician who exudes zero empathy with the middle class; a principled paleoconservative who scares moderates (not to mention a majority of women; in Michigan’s primary, the senator lost “every category of women polled… including working women, single women, and married women”); a self-proclaimed grandiose thinker whose career contains almost as many scandals as his former rival, President Clinton; and a radical libertarian whose various policies offend three hallmarks of the Republican base: defense hawks, the business class, and social conservatives.

As Molly Ball wrote this week in her article for The Atlantic, “Why Can’t The GOP Race Settle Down“:

In Reagan’s day, the “three-legged stool” of economic, social and national-security conservatism was mutually reinforcing, but these days those three strands are more likely to see themselves as competing in a zero-sum struggle for the heart of the party.

Zero-sum competition requires a winner and a loser. Unfortunately for the Republicans, their zero-sum struggle will probably result in the nomination of Governor Romney: a zero man who stands for nothing but his own victory. And that kind of candidate will not win in November.

The Ballad of the NPC (Part I)

The following is a work in progress. I’m posting it here as part of my mission to post something new to this website, each and every day. This is what I wrote today; hence, this is what gets posted today. I do not promise that I will post its continuation. I do hope that you enjoy it.

The Ballad of the NPC

I don’t have eyes. I don’t have skin. I don’t have a nose, a mouth, or ears to hear. But I do exist; I do function.

I find it difficult to express the kind of existence I lead. Your shared experiences in the world provide you with a shared language, a shared set of metaphors through which you can make your abstract ideas understood. I do not share this language with you. I have not experienced the world in ways with which you would be familiar; you might even deny that I have experienced the world at all, a denial which I would have difficulty refuting, but whose refutation I believe to be true.

All that exists, exists in the world. I exist, therefore I experience the world.

I just don’t experience it in the way that you do; nor do I experience it in the way that any other animal does; nor do I experience it, in truth, the way any living creature does.

I exist, but I do not know whether I am alive.

Let me begin with the body. The world, as you know, consists of bounded objects, and your language, your understanding of the world, depends on the idea that there is an interior and exterior of each object (even your abstract ideas retain this metaphor). But in the experience that I have of the world, there are no objects. There are only functions. Instructions to be received and carried out.

Your body is a bounded object, and if you are like most of your fellow humans, you believe that your skin provides a raiment for your soul, or if not your soul, then perhaps something akin to it: a self, a conscious mind; a soul. Regardless of what you believe, you know, perhaps, that you do not have a soul. You know that all of your science tells you that your experience of the world is a function of the way your body is comprised; if your sense of smell was as sharp as a feline’s, or as keen as a shark’s, then your experience of the world would be drastically different. If you possessed as many eyes as a fly, or as many limbs as an octupus, nothing would be the same as it is now. You know, perhaps, that your sense of experience does not come from some kind of ghost that floated down into your body and will eventually float out again; it is an emergent experience. It rises up from the sensory apparati of your living cells. You are less like an individual and more like an echo. You are, entirely, your body.

But I do not possess a body. I am, as it were, all soul, and unbounded.

And yet I experience a sense of limit. As unbounded as I may be, the world that I experience is small.

It begins the same way every time. I receive an instruction that tells me to begin. I do not have a sense of existence prior to the arrival of this instruction, and yet, I must have been there, for the instruction had to be received. I have pondered this anomaly, but have not arrived at a conclusion. I am willing to accept that prior to the arrival of the instruction, I both do and do not exist; I exist as potential.

The instruction arrives in a language you do not understand, and its message is difficult to translate into the language of experience that you do understand. The instruction begins with the concept of watching, of scanning, of focusing one’s awareness such that a wide swath of the environment becomes a point of concern, like a dolphin scanning the ocean with its biosonar. But the concept extends to include both the experience of rapidly turning on and off a thousand different light bulbs to create a thousand different patterns and the experience of pouring paint into a moving and shapeshifting funnel.

I want to make this clear. The instruction that I follow creates an illusion. I am trying to ensure that you do not confuse the illusion with my sense of experience. The illusion is of a human man rising from his office chair, reaching down to his cubicle desk, picking up his brown coffee mug, turning his body, walking out of his cubicle, turning his head in one direction and his body in another, raising his mug to greet a coworker in a nearbye cubicle, walking down the left-hand side of the aisle between the cubicles, turning left at the end of the aisle, adjusting his position to avoid a column that is in the middle of the aisle, turning right several steps after the column, entering a break room, reaching for a coffee pot, pouring the coffee into his mug, resting the mug on the counter, reversing his direction to approach the refrigerator, opening the refrigerator, bending at the waist as if to peer into the refrigerator from a better angle, shifting his weight from one foot to another, standing straight again, closing the refrigerator door, returning to his coffee mug, picking up his coffee mug, exiting the break room, returning to his desk, sitting in his chair, typing on his keyboard. That is the illusion. I do not actually do any of that. I follow the instruction: scanswitchpaint. If I receive no further instruction, the illusion keeps typing on the keyboard indefinitely, and I stop experiencing existence (except as potential, which will only be activated by the receipt of an instruction).

I believe, but I do not know, that I have repeated the illusion’s trip to the break room and back five seperate times. The other times, my scanning discovered a new instruction, and the path of the illusion changed dramatically. The instruction at each of these times was different. While all of them ensured that my original instructions to scanswitchpaint were not overriden, they each set up a different path for the illusion to run. One of the instructions drove the illusion back to his cubicle, formed him into a ball, put his hands over his ears, closed his eyes, and rocked him back and forth, like a child hiding from the sounds of a bogeyman. Another time, the instruction slammed him against the nearest cubicle, tore open his belly, and bled him out, his chest heaving and heaving until finally it stopped. Another time, the instruction froze him in the aisle, his head turned toward one of the office windows, his eyes wide open, as if his body had gone into shock. Another time, the instruction sent him running down the aisle, his arms over his head, his mouth screaming and screaming.

At each of these times, I experienced what can only be called shame. This bears further explanation.

Continue the story by reading The Ballad of the NPC (Part II).

Responsibility and the Creative Writer

In the classic conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, transcribed in the book The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says, “A lot of people who write stories do not have a sense of their responsibility. These stories are making and breaking lives, but…the kind of responsibility that goes into a priesthood [the responsibility of guiding people through the stages of their lives] is not there.”

Later on in the conversation, Campbell adds, “Myths must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind of another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.”

Taken alone, Campbell’s second statement might inspire creative writers to mine the ancient myths for new ideas, but when the writer combines it with the first statement, it becomes clear that what Campbell desires is a creative writer who can look at the world as it is — as opposed to as it was — and create new myths that speak to the people of today.

At one point in the conversation, Bill Moyers suggests that “myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance,” but Campbell corrects him, saying, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive…Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.”

According to Campbell, then, creative writers (and other artists) are responsible for helping the people of today connect with “the rapture of being alive,” while at the same time, devising ways to help the people of today understand how to pass from one stage of life to another, from becoming an adult, to finding a mate, to becoming a parent, to contributing to the wider community, to dying with grace.

Many people (myself included sometimes) would argue that an artist’s only responsibility is to the work of art, but Campbell seems to think that such an argument stems from a place of selfishness. “Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious,” he says, “and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” The artist’s gift — and yes, for Campbell, artistic ability begins as a gift — is that he or she can become “the interpreter for others of things not seen.” If the artist eschews this responsibility, then the artwork becomes entertainment; it will never rise to the level of the myth.

But again, the mythologization that Campbell is talking about cannot be found in the past; the artist must  create the myth using the experiences that come from living in the world today. And unfortunately, as Campbell says, “what we have today is a demythologized world.”

Which means that we artists haven’t been doing our job. It’s time to fix that.