Pockets of Blue

musings of my mind

Category: Life (page 1 of 2)

A New Focus

There have been a few recent changes in my life that has caused me to be increasingly interested in that ugly, hairy topic beneath all our noses: Will our luck run out and we end up all killing each other?

My wife gave birth to our daughter, Charlotte, almost two years ago. Soon thereafter we started attending Wasatch Presbyterian here in Salt Lake City each Sunday. Christianity is a somewhat divisive subject in the west, so I will lay out the caveat that I am not a Christian and have not been for a long time. But you don’t have to be a Christian to get a lot out of going to church. It of course depends on the church and community. We are fortunate to have a stellar Reverend who gives exceptionally uplifting and motivating sermons. These sermons have coalesced with my ongoing gratitude practice of the past few years to make me realize: So far I’ve had about as fairy-tale a life as a human being can have on this beautiful planet. It’s time to take advantage of that gift and give back to this world that has brought forth such beauty and wealth for so many people.

I’ve spent the last couple of years (and the past decade to a lesser extent) fairly immersed in Startup Culture. This has had its share of positives and negatives (for another post), but after watching yet another Andreessen Horowitz video about their predictions of some technology, it hit me: Why isn’t Silicon Valley taking on the issues that really matter? Why are the brightest minds in the world talking about a future of roaming self-driving fleet-owned cars, and not about the very real possibility of catastrophic climate change in the next 15 years? Or exponential technology increases causing ever more dangerous negative externalities to which we’re completely blind? Why wouldn’t we spend our time and money trying to avoid the sorts of risks that will lay to waste not only all these future developments, but everything human beings have ever done or will do? Surely even the tiniest of progress on this front would pay off handsomely even in the myopic arena of financial returns in our late-stage capitalist culture?

This has started me on quite a journey. I decided to take it upon myself to leverage this instant, infinite source of knowledge we all possess (hint: you’re using it now) and start to come to understand the state of the planet in 2018. This, of course, is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. I started with the current global environmental crisis and loss of biodiversity and quickly expanded to several topics heavily discussed in the excellent Future Thinkers podcast: Exponential technology development, Super-intelligent AI, isolationism in global politics, and the utter unsuitability of modern capitalism on a planet with eight billion people.

The goal is to gain some intuition about a path forward. A path that is unique to me. A path that utilizes my unique talents and broad-ranging interests and expertise. A path that allows for reasonable comfort for myself and my family while providing deep meaning and a profound commitment to a better future for humanity. I’ve been incredibly fortunate these thirty-some years on this planet, now how can I do my part to give back?

Emotional Vertigo

One of my earliest memories from childhood is lying on the couch, covered with a blanket, with an aching body from the flu. Sometimes, when especially out of it, I would enter a kind of hallucinatory state where the room would tip and shift, and I would daydream about cubes and spheres in the room expanding, contracting, and bouncing around. The empty space in the room would take on a life of its own, rotating and breathing as a single unit. Really weird stuff, and probably a by-product of my 103° temperature and various medications.

When you’re a kid you seem to be rather susceptible to various diseases, especially when being exposed to them on a daily basis at school. I haven’t gotten the flu in years, and the only instances of coming down with more than a mild cold have been when traveling. Yet I sometimes still experience vestiges of the visions from when I was a kid.

They’re most acute when engaged in an intense, emotional conversation or situation, usually with Katherine about our highly personal innate flaws and expectations. When she’s sitting across the dining table, or on the bed, at times it’s as if the space between us is expanding and contracting in that same breathing manner. At its worse she’s perceived to be yards away, and the table surface, walls, and ceiling between us stretch out three of four times, then condense again moments later. The more intense the conversation, the more space gets warped. It’s like the emotional part of my brain is disrupting the cerebellum.

For the years in between, I never experienced this. Probably because I would unconsciously shield myself from emotional experiences, avoiding deep relationships, and relating superficially with others. I doubt this vertigo had anything to do with it, but it was definitely not anything I would experience, save perhaps occasionally for the exceptionally low moments of undergrad. Now I embrace it, for it is proof of a richer existence. You’ll never learn anything about yourself when avoiding commitment, whether it’s in love, friendship, or work. Open up and be opened up.

Edit (5/28/12): Here’s a very powerful talk exploring this: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

Americans’ Dysfunctional Relationship With Food

It should be easy, right? You’re hungry, so you eat. A few hours pass. Repeat, et cetera.

But no. It hasn’t been this easy in decades. Probably right around when we were able to eat anything grown anywhere in the world, and all kinds of foods recently invented. If I want a banana, I can eat a banana, even if the nearest banana tree is in Jamaica. Pretty much anything I can imagine eating can be found in minutes in any decent-sized city in the US.

So why do between six and eleven million Americans suffer from an eating disorder? Why do we refuse to eat, habitually binge, or binge and purge? Why have up to half of all high schoolers practiced unhealthy weight control methods? How did 28 million Americans contract Diabetes, the vast majority being Type Two? It’s this country’s elephant in the room.


It must be the parents, right? I mean, kids learn eating habits from somewhere. Without boundaries, they’ll gobble up all the sugar in sight. Growing up, we had a bowl of salad every single day at dinnertime. I despised it. But if I didn’t eat it, I didn’t get dessert, so I resolved to the gambit more often than not. I don’t eat a whole lot of salad anymore. I remember lashing out as a freshman in college, buying Pizza Rolls for dinner and Lucky Charms for breakfast, gorging on all the things I wasn’t permitted growing up. It didn’t last long before I realized that Cocoa Puffs for breakfast were kinda gross, and ice cream every day gets old.

I consider myself lucky, both to have such strong boundaries growing up, and being exposed to so much gourmet food as a kid. My father would cook fairly extravagant dinners 3-4 times a week. I was eating capers and scalloped potatoes before most kids could pronounce them. Yet the sweet tooth is still exceptionally strong, and I have to be very disciplined to refrain from candy bars at the checkout aisle, ice cream for dessert, a whole pan of brownies for myself. Even after 18 years of fairly draconian food discipline, it’s really hard. I can’t imagine how it’d be for someone else.

What about the supermarkets? After all, they’re the ones displaying candy bars at perfect toddler eye height in the checkout aisles. Or dressing up pastries, cakes and donuts in fancy tins and 360-degree stands. Well, they sell. What sells, wins. It’s not their responsibility to mandate our nutritional choices. Or is it?

The industrialized food system! They’re the bad guys. Multinational corporations thriving on subsidized corn and tax breaks. Injecting corn or soy into every processed food item in the supermarket. Breeding chickens to have breasts so huge they can’t even walk without toppling over. Then turning the pristine, shrink-wrapped pieces over to us for three bucks a pound. How couldn’t you buy it at that price!

No, no, no…it’s not any of these things. It’s all of them, and then some. The system is really, really broken. And it’s slowly killing us.

I don’t have the answers. Others have explored this topic in much more detail. You should do the same. I posit that, like most things in life, keeping it simple is the way to go. Or if not simple, than perhaps old-fashioned. Food has not been much of a beneficiary of the modern technological world. Perhaps being a luddite is the way to go.

The Great Democratization

It’s been creeping up on us for a while. You may not have even noticed it. It’s been eleven years since Napster changed the rules, forever. Nine since the most comprehensive encyclopedia the world has ever known changed the nature of research. You don’t even have to leave the house anymore to find out anything about anything.

The Information Age, it’s been called. It took a while for us to realize the power inherent. But I believe it’s enabling a sea change in transparency, accountability and communication. Sites like Yelp, GlassDoor, and countless others are giving us a voice. A really, really influential voice. For better or worse, many stores and restaurants live and die by their Yelp reviews, especially in tech-loving areas like San Francisco. Naturally, though, the best rise to the top, as in any efficient market. Sure, there are ways to game the system, but when aren’t there? (Just look at our political system. Yikes…) Offer a valued service, keep your customers happy, and you’ll thrive. And what’s a more valued influence on your day-to-day decisions, a radio ad or two hundred positive reviews by people just like you?

It’s gotten really easy to build software that connects people. All you need is some (OK, a lot of) programming expertise, a laptop and fast internet and you’re off to the races. We’re going to have more and more ways to express ourselves and our opinions, and I think this is a very good thing for our society. May the good guys win!

Retirement, Redefined

Imagine you’re a 44 year old male. You’ve spent the last 15 years consistently working 40-45 hours a week for your company. You have a nice, large 401k that you’ve been diligently adding to each paycheck, with help from your employer’s six percent match. You’ve even convinced your loving wife to be just as disciplined with hers. In as few as ten, perhaps nine, years, you calculate that you’ll finally hit that magic number and retire.

But things have changed of late. You haven’t taken a vacation in two years, instead cashing the days out to add to your retirement account. You used to enjoy the job, but the routine is getting old and you find yourself increasingly ornery and ill-tempered. Just a few more years, you think, and you will finally be able to break free.

Then, BAM! You’re hit by a bus.

I’m not suggesting cashing out your 401k and buying an Audi R8. First of all, a good chunk would be taken out by Uncle Sam in penalties, not to mention the even bigger chunk in taxes (assuming it’s not a Roth). It’s important to be disciplined with your finances, and a 401k helps with that.

As usual, this post was inspired by an article. I’d heard of Timothy Ferriss’ book The Four-Hour Workweek before, but only in the context of Virtual Assistance, which seemed a dubious concept at the least. However, this time it struck a very personal chord. A few years ago, with my roommates shortly before moving to Utah from Rochester, NY, I had proposed a similar idea:

“I think I’m just going to work for a year at a time, save some money, then quit and travel for a few months. When I get bored, I’ll come back and get another job, and repeat.”

Hmm. I didn’t really take myself seriously, as I was more concerned at the time with finding a job to pay rent next month. But this “mini-retirement” idea is very, very powerful, and could help answer some very deep questions about the nature of work, society, and their roles in personal happiness. Why squander the best years of your life at a job you’re not passionate about? Why put off all your hopes, dreams, and desires for thirty years until you’re too old to take advantage of them? (Ironically, my parents are excellent examples of having happy, fulfilling lifestyles funded through traditional retirement savings.)

Which brings me to my point. Saving for the future (or anything, really) is never a bad thing, unless it negatively impacts your happiness now. Live (and love) your life while you can. If you feel stuck, change something. There are always alternatives to the lifestyle you’re living; you just have to be brave enough to step outside of the societal norms.

Thank You

Most of these posts incubate in my brain for days, weeks or even years before finally seeing light.

I just got done watching American Beauty for the umpteenth time. Perhaps, as the theme of this post weaved its way through my mind like mycelium, the film became the final piece of inspiration to bring it to fruition. Or maybe it was the recent conversation with my wonderful girlfriend, and my appreciation of her unyielding gratitude. She gets it.

You are lucky. If you have family and friends that love you. If you have always had the resources to support yourself. If opportunities fall from the sky into your lap.

I am lucky. I have all these things. Throughout my life, I have been supported by those I love and motivated in ways they’ll never understand. Brandon. Dennis. Evan. Only three of so many.

Thank you.

Six signs that you should probably be spending less time in the office and more climbing

  1. You often find yourself at your desk making clove hitches and slipknots in your headphone cable
  2. You keep getting comments about white marks on your work clothes, especially on casual Fridays
  3. You’ve brought climbing shoes to work
  4. You’ve traversed, stemmed or laybacked the office I-Beams
  5. You’ve gone up or down office floors without use of the stairs OR elevator
  6. You constantly find rolled-up, discarded medical tape in your desk, car, etc.

Cold Winter Love

There aren’t many moments from my childhood I can still recall. One, however, remains illuminated fifteen years later. I was sitting in the back of a classroom with the rest of my 4th-grade classmates in a group discussion with my teacher, Mrs. Bingle. I forget the discussion, but I do remember the question: What’s your favorite season?

I was an exceedingly shy kid growing up (surprise surprise). Rarely would I raise my hand to answer a question or participate in a discussion. My quarterly report card would be immaculate save for a few demerits concerning “needs to participate more” or the like. This time was different, though.

“Winter!” I exclaimed without hesitation before anyone else.

We took a vote, tallied the results, and lo and behold — winter had twice that of any other season.

“I would’ve thought for sure it’d be summer!” Mrs. Bingle said after the tally. “You don’t even have to go to school then!”

Perhaps my rare enthusiasm influenced the vote. It doesn’t matter. As soon as those first flakes start flying, I’m as giddy as a fourth-grader. For the past few days, there has been snow in the forecast for the mountains, and today it came. I awoke to 40-degree temperatures and a cold misty rain over the valley. Sometime around mid-day the fog lifted enough to reveal a snowy blanket on the foothills. I looked out my third-floor window and smiled.

Lately I’ve been basing my ranking of the seasons based on the outdoor activities tied to each. Winter means ice climbing, skiing and mountaineering. How you can go wrong? So what if it’s dark by five? So what if you have to bundle under two extra layers just to go to work? There’s snow!

I’m getting ahead of myself, of course. The snow in the mountains will be gone in weeks, if not days, and the first real snowstorm likely won’t be til November. But these winter teases are all it takes to get me fired up. I’m sick of 85 degrees. It’s been too damn sunny. So bring on the cold and bring on the snow, I’m ready. The rest of Northern Utah sure as hell isn’t, but I sure am. Bring it!

It’s really not about you. Sorry.

Today I stumbled upon another fantastic blog post by the inimitable Kathy Sierra. It may contain the single best piece of advice for teachers of any kind: center the experience around the students, not yourself. Check it out.

But the concept doesn’t just apply to teaching. I often find myself, likely due to my personality, in situations where I’m thinking “are you really still talking about that? This conversation should’ve ended 15 minutes ago.” This is especially apparent in business settings, where underlying political agendas can so easily derail (or make interminable) the original topic of discussion. Does what so-and-so said really need to be repeated slightly paraphrased by half the meeting’s participants? What benefit is your contribution providing to your audience? Why should anyone care? Everybody’s busy. Perhaps the most effective means of paying respect is by respecting one’s time.

Why stop with teaching and conversing? The best writing employs the same techniques: conciseness and a central focus on a target audience. This blog is probably not the best example, since it was originally a way to let people know of my travels abroad. It’s since had to morph into something different, but I’ve been noticing recently an inverse relationship between a post’s popularity and how much it’s about me. Shouldn’t have really come as a surprise, but strangely, it did. Not that I’ll stop discussing my adventures, of course, but I’ll try to make each more relevant to my (miniscule) audience.

Paying close attention to your audience and their desires is essential. It’s not about you. It’s about them.

The Quarterlife Crisis

Really? Seriously? Give me a break.

I stumbled upon this article the other day. It’s a fairly in-depth definition of the “quarterlife crisis,” or to put it more bluntly, the “plight of the white middle-class well-educated twenty-something.”

Let’s take a step back and look at this from another perspective. It’s 2009. We have experienced six decades of exponential economic and cultural growth, reaching a level of wealth never before seen on this planet. We’re still mired in a fairly deep recession but the bottom has clearly been reached and we’ll soon be rallying back. Opportunities abound: you’re in your twenties, well-educated, and socially adept; not to mention a native speaker of the bona fide lingua franca of the world. You could live anywhere on the planet and prosper immediately. Travel is cheap and your currency is the world’s standard.

Quarterlife crisis? Get real. It’s another feel-good term for the mopey, spoiled, urban, white-collar twenty-something struggling with their own identity. Spend some time alone for once. Reconnect with yourself. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, for God’s sake. You are blessed and lucky beyond all imagination. Your problems are dwarfed by those of the vast majority of the developing world. Your family and friends love you and will stand by your every decision, good or bad.

Cheer yourself up. Think positive. Stop absorbing whiny existential ramblings online, go outside, take a deep breath and soak in the sunshine. The world is your oyster. Go get it!

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