I mean… it’s fine, I guess.

Today’s featured image: heatwave in Oostende. The water is pretty cold (about 65F/19C), but when it’s 95F/34C outside, that feels pretty good. This part of the world isn’t built for those temperatures though. As these extremes become more common, places like Belgium will need to start converting their buildings to be more like those once fit for Spain.


It has only been in the last few weeks that I’ve actually made the effort to clean the grimy surface of the small marble-topped table before I sit down. The rough layer of spilled sugar and cake crumbs can be distracting, but it’s the only cafe in town that serves a half-decent espresso. From the outside, the cafe looks like a sleek yet retro boutique. Large LED bulbs fashioned to look like antiques hang exposed from the ceiling, giving the off-white walls a warm glow. Classic photos of famous musicians and a healthy population of green plants give the space a bit of life, but the life from outside intrudes. Spiders hand in their webs in all of the corners. A small cloud of flies hangs about the brightest lights, occasionally pestering coffee-drinkers and taking tastes of the sugary residue on the marble-topped tables.

The owner is a friendly young man named Johan. He’s also the only employee, sitting at the counter six days a week. On Tuesdays, I occasionally run into him at the gym, working on his body-builder physique. We speak very little, but he’s happy to open up. Ashley’s natural inquisitiveness has cost her hours of lost studying when she doesn’t have the heart to interrupt one of Johan’s soliloquies on current affairs, local politics or his favorite roasteries. I’ve been more reserved, popping in my headphones and allowing him to return to his almost perpetual position, seated behind the counter, head lowered to his smartphone. He breaks that position only to make a coffee, hold vigorous debates with his two regulars, or light up a cigarette outside but not far enough from the door to prevent the smoke from wafting in.

He’s not the only one to make the oversight that is only perceived by us non-smokers. He seems to be a pretty typical Fleming. (I’ll speak here of Flemings instead of Belgians more generally because I’ve only had any experience with the Belgians living in the northern region called Flanders, who speak a dialect of Dutch called Flemish.) There is often a customer contributing to the never-empty ash tray on the table in the make-shift patio that takes up half the sidewalk in front of the cafe.

The floor-to-ceiling cafe window makes my seat just inside a perfect viewing location to observe the locals and tourists traversing the grey-brick street leading to the beach just a couple blocks away. Most are overweight but not in the way Americans are. Life in a city first laid out in the 12th century and rebuilt in the 19th century requires a good deal of walking. Despite the fact that most Flemish cities are like this, Flemings love their cars. Even with the daily ubiquitous traffic jams on the highways, it’s still often faster to drive than to take a train. It’s unpredictable though. Being an hour late to a meeting because of traffic is not uncommon, and being a few minutes late to everything is normal.

Oostende is a tourist city. In winter, it’s quiet. Only the geriatric locals remain. When I arrived in December, I was quickly convinced that my 28 years was at least a decade below the median age. It was far from exciting, but the sea kept the weather mild, the stone and cement buildings stayed warm, the limited traffic was reminiscent of a small town, and the handful of medieval buildings, grey under the winter clouds, gave the place an enchanted feel. As spring arrived, the weather warmed enough to sit on the jetty and listen to the waves. The walking path drew a few locals but not yet the tourists. The days grew refreshingly longer, and the anxiety of freezing my fingers to my handlebars subsided. But the joy of change was short-lived.

Where I grew up, spring meant budding trees on the sidewalks and the return of the songbirds. In Oostende, there is very little vegetation. The coast is an endless wall of vacation condominiums that slowly fill as the temperatures go from warm to hot. As the weeks pass, the beaches fill with tourists in the day. After they leave the waves, choking the paths I use on my evening commute, the seagulls have their turn at the ice cream, waffles, baguettes, prepackaged meats and cheeses, and bags of junk food strewn across the manufactured beach. The daily meals are supplemented by the weekly feast as the locals put their bags of waste on the sidewalks on Sunday night to be picked up Monday morning. The gulls take what the humans wouldn’t, tearing open the plastic bags, eating what they can, casting the rest across the sidewalks and streets, and fighting viciously over the tastiest prizes. With the mating season in the spring and the pressure to bring back food for the chicks throughout the summer, the birds grow more and more aggressive. More than once have I seen a gull with a three-foot wingspan collide with a tourist as it tries to swoop in to knock a wax-paper boat of french fries from their hand. Day and night, the birds shriek their calls of intimidation, screaming for attention for what purpose I have no idea. From my apartment, they are always audible, often loud enough that I need to shut my balcony door to hear the person on the other end of the phone conversation.

Most people in Oostende don’t seem to mind the avian pests. They drown out the noise with their own. In the shopping streets, 80’s American pop blasts from speakers, and pop up bars on the beaches compete with their own retro mix if they haven’t been outblasted by a weekend music festival, thumping until midnight or later. The wealthy (or heavily indebted) middle-aged tourists from France, Luxembourg or the Netherlands rumble along the narrow streets in their classic sports cars, the nouveau riche rev the engines of their brand new sports cars, thrashing them for the two seconds it takes to catch the ambling line of cars, held up by a horse-drawn carriage carrying tourists pretending not to mind the smell of horse piss. Packs of twenty-somethings from North Africa or the Middle East shout over each other in the Arabic dialects that to me always sound like they’re angry. Throngs of people, speaking a dozen tongues (and on their own behaving perfectly reasonably) coalesce into a mass of half-naked bodies, some with personal boomboxes, raising their voices just to be heard over the rumbling human mass.

The supermarket nearest the beach can’t handle the volume; lines at the registers back up through the aisles of packaged sweets and cheap alcoholic beverages. I never seem to learn when to go to the store, hitting the flood every evening as tourists recede from the beach and other locals return from their day jobs.

I’ve welcomed the recent drop in temperatures and return of the grey drizzle that feels much more characteristic for the North Sea coast. The streets are noticeably quieter, and the flood of drivers seems just a touch thinner and more patient. I like to think that the summer is actually coming to an end. The tourist season was made enjoyable only by the fact that I had imported a friend. Had Ashley been unable to spend nine weeks in Europe this summer, I may have tried to flee even earlier than I did. I commented to a colleague one particularly muggy afternoon that I may have survived another winter in Belgium, but I would not have lasted another summer.

Being in Europe used to help me keep sight of the reasons I’ve embarked on this career in renewable energy. Especially in Scandinavia, it’s easy to see people trying to contribute to the cause of sustainability. Stockholm hosts dozens of Tesla taxis, many Scandinavian universities have degrees in sustainable energy or development, government officials clamor over each other to be the most “green”, it can be cheaper to own an electric car than one with an internal combustion engine, and we buy all of our wind turbines from Denmark. Most importantly, though, being in Scandinavia allows one to forget that the greatest challenge to sustainability is population.

The low countries are a stark reminder of what happens when you have fertile agricultural land. Most of the people here are, on balance, good people, just trying to live their lives free from suffering and if they’re lucky, to find a bit of meaning in the endeavor. But they crowd together, piled high in apartment buildings, spread densely across the countryside. Over the last few millennia, the forest gave way to farmland, and now the farmland has given way to housing developments to be reached by cars, mobile boxes of isolation carrying the commuters to work for their brief and cordial interactions before returning home to entertain their evenings away.

I have no lens into these lives. It was mostly my own fault, but I never made friends here. Too much time at home and too little effort to learn the language kept social interactions shallow and limited. As I sit and enjoy my final espresso at Fitzgerald Coffee, I can’t help but wonder how it might have been different.

A young woman sits in the low chair on the other side of the narrow boutique. Behind her thick-framed glasses, she wears an expression of impatient discontent, but she has been here longer than I have, slowly sipping her sparkling lemonade. She is constantly distracted by some silent conversation behind the smartphone screen that looks large in her small hands. Ashamedly, I take the opportunity to steal lengthy glances. Her open petticoat and tight-fitting jeans belie a fit physique on a petit yet womanly frame. Were I not already in a wonderful relationship, I hope I would have the courage to say hello. I feel a sort of connection, a sort of sympathy, sharing with this stranger the sense of being surrounded by people yet feeling alone. She’s clearly connected to someone on the other end of those messages, but my long looks catch no hint of joy from it. She waves away a fly from her sweet drink, puts down her phone and stares at the clock above my head. Is she waiting or just killing time? What would she rather be doing right now?

I’ll never know. She puts her phone away, grabs her wallet, and stands to pay and leave. As with almost everyone in this country, I’ll never see her again. It’s a common excuse to reserve the effort and anxiety required to make new friends, but I’m not sure it’s a valid one.

The cafe fills with groups. Two couples and two families of three. One couple settles at a small table against the wall when they receive their drinks. They chat amicably. They look into each other’s eyes as they explain their thoughts, often smiling, laughing to show their approval. They stop briefly to think and sip their coffee. I know that their marble-topped table is dirty, but they don’t set their hands on it. The flies go after their cookies, but they swat them away thoughtlessly. The floor is dirty, and Johan pays more attention to his phone than any customer, but neither of them seems to notice. Nor do they now seem bothered by the crowd of tourists or cigarette smoke wafting inside or the fact that the centerpiece of their town is a sleazy old casino or that their country is best known for beer, chocolate, and over-sugared waffles. They’re too distracted by each other to notice such trifles.

I’m often asked what I think of living in Belgium. I don’t have particularly strong feelings about it. It’s got all the basics: passable roads, decent public transit, modern medical services, and most everything you’d expect from Western grocery stores. But it’s not nearly as refined as other places I’ve lived. There’s an amateurishness about businesses that I couldn’t see past, and there really wasn’t anything attractive to see or do.

Maybe I didn’t see enough of the good things about Belgium, but maybe I just saw too much. I did see the nice craft coffee shops and the thick forest of the Ardennes and the warm sand of the beach and fairy tale alleyways of Bruges.

But for much of the time, I didn’t have anyone to distract me from seeing everything else that balances it out, so instead of really enjoying my time in Belgium, I didn’t think much of it.

It’s not that it’s a bad place. It’s alright. It’s just not great.

I mean… it’s fine, I guess.

Immigration

The air conditioning on the train still hadn’t turned on. Not only has it been a record-breakingly hot summer in Scandinavia, but the train to Gothenburg was full. With the late morning sun pouring in additional heat through the wide windows, we crawled along, already failing to make up time from our late departure. I sat still and tried to focus on my breath. The gnawing hunger of approaching noon and the increased heart rate of readjusting to strong Swedish coffee added additional layers of excitation that my body expressed as a thin layer of sweat that refused to evaporate in the painfully still air of the cabin. The heat I poured into the seat was now forming an unwanted blanket along my back. I had to stand up.

The dining car was not yet serving food, but it was mostly empty of warm bodies, and it seemed to be pulling cold air from somewhere. The high top dining counter added coolness that I could lean my forearms upon while I stood in relief that I had stopped sweating.

When the cashier opened, a line started to form. Two young men stood at the back of the line, close to me. One asked if we were in line. It was not obvious because we were both staring at our phones and leaning against opposite sides of the train car. Not having the Swedish words, I simply signaled for him to join the line with a polite smile. The other guy just moved into the line, saying something softly that I didn’t catch. The inquisitor, a shifty Swede of short and slim stature, asked another question. With one earbud in, I didn’t know if he was talking to me or the other guy. He asked again, looking at both of us with a kind but nervous smile, but the new end of the line was more interested in his phone than starting a conversation, so the answer fell to me.

“Forlåt?” I said, indicating that I didn’t understand. I’ve impressed myself with how much Swedish I’ve remembered, but I never got comfortable conversing in my strongest second language.

It was multiple seconds after he repeated the question yet again that I comprehended that he was asking if I was going to Gothenburg.

“Oh, uhh. yes,” I answered in English, feeling rushed and not wanting to add yet another delay as I thought how to indicate that I was continuing on to Oslo.

“Oh! You speak English!” He responded, switching languages effortlessly, as most Swedes do.

“Sorry. My Swedish is terrible,” I made an excuse.

“Ah. I was in prison,” he started. “Nobody in prison speaks Swedish. Nobody!”

I laughed nervously, not sure where to take this conversation.

“Not at all. Terrible. And bad English too,” he shook his head rapidly. Judging by his unkempt hair and constantly agitated motions, I wasn’t surprised that this guy had gotten swept up into activities of ill-repute. “Russian… Polish … “ He failed to find another example. “No Swedish. At all.”

I wanted to dig deeper, but I had no idea how to proceed from such a start to the conversation. It was an awkward situation as it was, so I found it acceptable to turn back to my podcast. He joined the slowly moving line and waited quietly and orderly with his fellow Swedes.

The exchange was exceptionally apropos. I was currently listening to a Sam Harris podcast in which he discussed with his guest Coleman Hughes the issue of racism in America. There seems to be a faction of the progressive activist community in the US that has fully gotten under Harris’s skin (and that of many others of the “intellectual dark web”), who have come to see many of the major social ills in the United States purely as a product of racist or sexist prejudice both among individuals and institutions. It is a view that I have long subscribed to. Indeed, in the American education system, there really isn’t any other explanation. But a close examination of the data just doesn’t support the theory.

Of course, the hangover of slavery and Jim Crow cannot be ignored, but there is a whole lot more to the story. Institutional measures of racial segregation have disadvantaged black Americans basically since the founding of the United States, a country whose original constitution made space for race-based slavery. But blacks are not the only group to have faced systemic discrimination. Throughout the country’s history, almost all immigrants have faced significant hurdles to success. Minorities including immigrants from Ireland, Russia, China, and Japan as well as stateless Jews have faced severe discrimination in both personal relations and legal limitations. However, all of these groups have been successful in integrating, and some of them tend to outperform the average American household in terms of income and educational attainment. Even within the black demographic, those from the West Indies (Caribbean islands) have had significantly more economic success than those whose ancestors were brought to mainland North America. Yet, they have faced all of the same racial prejudice. So, what accounts for this difference?

I could speculate, and Sam Harris only tentatively posits a few guesses, but the point of the conversation was that this conversation is not being had. The idea that blacks are disproportionately poor in America purely because the white man has kept them down is the accepted answer and to challenge it automatically signals one as racist, bigoted, and blind to their own white privilege. Fortunately for Hughes, he gets a pass because he’s black.

I am personally not privy to this ideological war going on because I have not been involved in American academia or in academia in the social sciences anywhere, but the fact that such issues are prevalent in the places where I’d expect the tough questions about race to be debated is a bit unsettling.

Race is a real thing. It is not a social construct. There are phenotypic differences between people whose families have spent many generations in different parts of the world. We humans, being so good at grouping things, recognize these general phenotypic categories instantly. I can guess with some certainty whether someone’s heritage is from Scandinavia, Germany, Iberia, or Poland. It’s even easier in more isolationist societies like Korea or Japan. The question that Sam Harris has recently gotten himself embroiled in is whether or not these differences are only skin deep. Do these differences apply to other biological functions? (by the way, the answer is yes; very few of the cycle cell anemia cases are people not of African descent.) But do these differences apply in psychology? This question only seems to be controversial outside of the field of psychology. I dug into this issue a bit when I was first introduced to the work of Charles Murray, who has spent an enormous amount of time (possibly too much) on the question of IQ and average differences between groups.

But what I want to bring up is the question of culture. Why do West Indian African-Americans do better in the US than native-born African-Americans? Even accepting the data on racial biological differences and the prejudices against blacks in America, there is a significant measurable difference.

One place to look is culture. People tend to group together with people who look, act, and speak like them, especially in immigrant communities. This means that ethnic groups tend to have some measure of isolation that generates their own culture. Could these aspects of culture have an effect on the proclivity of the members of that group to succeed?

Think about the stereotypical East Asian immigrant family. They’re extremely frugal, their kids are studying all the time (or else), they are vehemently self-reliant, and they hold in high esteem those in the professions of law, medicine, or science. Yes, it’s a stereotype and doesn’t apply to all, but stereotypes have some basis in truth. On average, East Asian immigrants tend toward these qualities. These preferences and habits are a product of their culture. The result? Asian-Americans have the highest median family income of any demographic.

Now think of the stereotypical black family. How do they handle their money? What do their kids aspire to? How do they view academic performance? Based on the data that Hughes provided, it’s just the opposite of Asian families. Sure, this may be a result of the learned helplessness of generations being in de jure or de facto slavery and having no motivation to pursue life improvement, but now that those restrictions have the lifted, the cultural chains continue to hold back the next generation of black kids.

Having relocated to Europe, I am interested in the question as it applies here. There is no history of race-based slavery in Europe, but racial tensions certainly exist and are growing. The number of African and Middle Eastern immigrants in Europe continues to grow rapidly. These immigrants bring with them not only their bodies. They bring ideas, and en masse, these ideas constitute a culture. What aspects of African or Middle Eastern culture are clashing with those that have developed in Europe over the past several hundred years?

The next book on my reading list is Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe in which he explores what is happening to Europe as its demographics shift not only in the racial makeup but in cultural shifts and culture clashes. As I try to make my home here, I’ll be curious to see how these groups and those who have their roots here in Europe learn (or fail to learn) to adapt to their new neighbors.

Regret

Today’s featured image: A pea farm west of Uppsala, Sweden. I’ve talked down the natural beauty of Sweden to a few of my friends who have been visiting Scandinavia, but I’ve done so because I’m constantly comparing it to Norway. Compared to just about anywhere else, Sweden really is a beautiful country. And when it looks like this at 5:00 am, it’s easy to get up early.


I’m already regretting everything, every recent decision. I’ve made so many mistakes. Someone recently told me not to regret anything because whatever decision I made was the best I could have made at that time. Bullshit. Complete and total bullshit. I’ve made a lot of decisions that I knew were not in the best interest of my future self, whether a few minutes or months in the future. Regret. Fatigue. Frustration. Contempt. Fear. Doubt. It’s all here, but it’s in no way inevitable.

None of this bothered me three weeks ago. Even with the heat, the filthy living conditions, the malnourishment, and the sedentariness. It was just the way things were, and my mind had no aversion to it. There was no disappointment of the poor organization of the program I had traveled halfway around the world to participate in. There was no frustration with my inability to sit properly, focus consistently, or motivate myself to exercise sufficiently. No, there was only the understanding that such things had happened and that I wanted to alter what was reasonable and possible to affect. But those things that could not be affected were what they were, and that they would remain with no judgment.

What was the difference? I was present. When one lives in the present moment, they accept it. When we live constantly in the future or the past, we are constantly frustrated by the fact that were are not actually in either of those imaginary worlds. The present world is the only one that exists, but we are humans. We don’t want what we have; we want what we don’t have. We don’t have a future different from the present. We don’t have the past that we had no way of holding onto. We don’t have the comfort, the thrill, the pleasure, the [whatever] that we think we will have if we could just fix something about our current situation.

The modern technological world all but demands that we exist in this state. Feeling lonely? See who liked my latest Instagram photo. Feeling bored? Scroll Twitter for an interesting idea. Feeling curious? Google something. Has all this task switching left you feeling too tired to think? Go down a YouTube rabbit hole. And every time we indulge, we reinforce the behavior. We train our brains to be averse to boredom, to stillness, to silence, to the present.

And that is exactly what happened. I am addicted to my phone. I am addicted to being connected. And since I’ve had almost constant internet access since I left Wat Khao Tahm, I have undone all of my practice. Each impulsive unlocking of the phone, checking of another app, or playing of another podcast, or reviewing of another photo satisfies only that instantaneous need. And the satisfaction is as fleeting as the craving that it addresses. But if it were only this, it would be an equally satisfactory way of life. I’m so often connected that it’s completely sustainable to do this consistently. If the present moment is all that exists, why not just continue to satisfy the present needs?

It doesn’t actually work. Each repetition results in a lower high followed by a lower baseline. In between distractions, there is a level of experience at some “neutral” position. When living from dopamine hit to dopamine hit, I find that this neutral baseline is less and less likely to be even moderately pleasant. When the cycle is broken, however, I find this state comfortable. There’s little disturbance, little grasping for change. Stillness becomes acceptable, and whatever action I am doing is the right action. It makes doing unpleasant things far less unpleasant. It makes the act of resisting known ephemeral pleasures far more satisfying. It makes having discipline easier.

It is, however, a bit of a catch-22. In order to live in our modern world while steering clear of the distractions that incessantly scream for our attention, we must exhibit discipline. It’s a feedback loop. As discipline is cultivated, it becomes stronger. As discipline is shirked, it becomes weaker. It is a practice just like any other skill, just like training the physical body.

I wrote a few months ago about Jocko Willink’s motivational rhetoric on “discipline equals freedom“. It is a cycle that feeds on itself, whether upward or downward. But it is not entirely self-propelling. It takes some effort to continue guiding it in the right direction. It takes resolve to resist the daily temptations of social media, junk food, gossip, and general comfort. It takes effort to work toward our goals, to exercise, and to focus on the task at hand. When energy is low and feelings are strong (oh, ya know, how you feel after crashing from too much caffeine, staying up late because of a red-eye flight, not sleeping well on said flight, eating garbage food before and during said flight, and trying to reset your body clock in a new time zone), I do not have the strength for such effort.

I will not rise to the level of my expectations; I will sink to the level of my training. Have I been training my mind through meditation? Or indulgence? Have I been training my habit of exercising? Or lounging? The answer to those questions will determine my next move. Do I continue to train for a better life? Or a worse one? Do I continue to train in such a manner that makes things better for my future self? Or worse? As Jordan Peterson said, “If you have any sense, you’re going to insist that at the end of the day you’re not in worse shape than you were at the beginning of the day because that’s a stupid day!” I essence, do my habits make for good days or stupid days?

I left Singapore thinking about what it means to “progress”. What ought we be progressing toward? It’s probably most useful to start thinking about what that means for me individually. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be formulating the personal moral code that I started reworking at Wat Khao Tahm. That’s something I’ll be progressing toward, but one doesn’t need a moral code to know that if you end the day feeling shittier than you did at the beginning of the day, that’s a stupid day. I’ve had a lot of stupid days over the past year, and training my mind with distraction and negative self-talk is a downward spiral to more stupid days.

Moral of the story: it’s good to have my computer back. I can type faster than I can write so I can keep up with my thoughts. Working out these thoughts helps me stay sane, stay motivated, stay disciplined, stay focused on where I’m going, and stay out of the cycle of regret.

Yes, I feel regret over how I have trained my mind of the past couple weeks. The poor training has left me with feelings of regret over having eaten so poorly on the road, having not kept up with my fitness regimen, and having made stupid mistakes that are costing me money that I would have preferred to spend on other things. And now that I’m back in Uppsala, I’m feeling the regret of having not prepared to the best of my ability for that Ph.D. interview, which could have led to my long-term stay in this lovely city with an income to support actually experiencing what it has to offer. Yet all of this regret gets me no closer to even my poorly defined goals.

If I have any sense, I’ll make a damn schedule and stick to it.

Nihilism

I was sitting on a bench in the park – a very nice thing to do – but I had some things that I wanted to accomplish. We have all wrestled with that lack of motivation to break out of a comfortable position to go do something slightly less pleasant, but my to do list wasn’t exactly demanding. I just wanted to review some Polish vocabulary and stop at the grocery store before going home. It should have been pretty simple, but I couldn’t make myself do it. It wasn’t the first time that my body wouldn’t respond to what I thought I was willing it to do. For the past few weeks, basically since I finished my thesis, I’ve been struggling mightily with mustering the motivation to do just about anything. I literally said it out loud: “Ok, I’m getting up…. now” and nothing happened. I just sat there, sometimes in a catatonic state, staring off into space like a lobotomy victim. Sometimes, this is a very relaxing state, but when I don’t feel like I’ve chosen to enter into it, it’s rather unsettling.

Several times over the last few weeks, my rational mind would decide to do something, and then the rest of my brain would just give my prefrontal cortex the finger and do exactly the opposite. Or in the case of what happened yesterday, just nothing.

I had sat down on the bench to continue reading Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek, in which he lays out a bunch of steps to help people design an ideal lifestyle. I actually really like a lot of his tips. I was trying to work through an exercise he calls “dreamlining” in which you’re supposed to outline a bunch of things you want to have, do, and become over the next 6-12 months, a pretty solid exercise for someone just about to jump into the job market and start a new life.

But I couldn’t come up with anything. I just didn’t give a shit. There was nothing I really wanted to have, do, or become. I was fine just existing. The end state of this whole quest for enlightenment or adherence to stoic values or whatever you want to call it is to accept what we have, want what we have, and be happy with our situation. So why should I pursue anything? Ferriss opens the book with a story of this multimillionaire and all his uber-rich friends who have everything a person could want but are totally miserable. So why should I pursue any of it? Why not just prolong the feeling of comfort as long as possible, and then when I’m forced to move, just accept my new situation and readjust?

And thus, I learned what nihilism feels like. So I turned the whole exercise around (I think Ferriss suggests this at some point in the book), and I decided to think about things that I DON’T want to have, do, or become. Of course, the mental exercise went equally nowhere. So, I took the advice of a close friend seriously: sometimes we have to hit a low to remind us of what we’re actually doing. I’ve already learned my lesson with alcohol (it’s been six days now since a pretty rough night, and the thought of alcohol still makes me a little nauseous), so went after everything else, especially my eternal vice: food.

On the way home, I decided to start with a big one for me: meat. Although I’ve eaten plenty of meat recently, it’s all been leftovers. I haven’t bought meat in quite a while. But I went full awkward and bought myself a nasty kebab roll at some overcrowded joint in the mall. I didn’t even try to order it in Polish; I was just the typical ignorant and hungry American tourist. While eating, I plugged in my headphones and remained in a state of multitask overload with cynical political commentary podcasts in my ears and mindless flipping through articles on my screen. After finishing the completely unsatisfying meat wrap, I had a few minutes before my train left, so I grabbed a hot dog for the ride. When I got home, I went to the store to dig up whatever junk I haven’t touched in months. I even made a trip to KFC for a box of wings and stopped off for an ice cream cone on the way back.

For the last 24 hours, I have done everything wrong. (well, damn near everything; I didn’t let the dog die). I just tossed my clothes on the floor haphazardly, allowed a pile of dishes to stack up in the sink, stayed up late watching movies after eating a frozen pizza and drinking half a liter of Coke, slept in, went to McDonald’s for breakfast, just threw my quarter-full paper cup of stale coffee on the ground on my way to get a Subway sandwich for brunch and picked up a chocolate chip cookie, a bag of Lays, and an energy drink on the way. I slouched all day, didn’t exercise, avoided as much human contact as possible, and I puked my guts out because my body had forgotten how to digest sausage (now thinking about it; it’s a miracle I could ever eat that garbage).

And all the while, I had my journal open on my desk with the headline “Things I hate about the ‘EASY’ life”. “Easy” being the undisciplined, reactive, and self-indulgent life controlled by the Sisyphean pursuit of dopamine hits. By the end of my experiment early this afternoon, I had twenty things on there about who I don’t want to be. Some examples:

1. Being monolingual.

2. Being impulsive and emotional

5. Being fat and weak.

7. Being immobilized by anxiety.

10. Being lonely.

13. Hearing about extremely successful people and accepting I can never be one of them.

15. Not being able to find my clothes. 

20. Feeling sick and tired because my diet is akin to fueling a jet engine with crude oil.

The past day has been the logical extreme of what would happen if I were to let my standards slip, and the person I was yesterday is someone whom I never ever EVER want to take even a step on the path toward becoming.

I know that the things I’m proud of – my ability to focus, my ability to learn, my physical fitness, my social aptitude, my reliability; all of which depend upon my discipline – take constant practice, and even these aspects of who I am are still far from where I want them to be.

Even before my 24 hours was up, I was totally cured of my inability to act. As soon as I decided I was going to get up and do something, I did it. When the time was up, I gave myself a five-second countdown and immediately got my act together, cleaned the apartment, got outside, and got productive. Physically, I’m still recovering from the gastrointestinal abuse (and an illness, which is mostly gone), but I think I’m back on track. I will spend much of the rest of the evening laying out some positive character traits that I’m working to cultivate, but I now have an excessively clear picture of whom I don’t want to be. And without an externally mandated assignment, that is exactly the fire I need to have under my ass.

Habits

Today’s featured image: Except for a duffel bag of clothes and a guitar at my parents’ house and the clothes I’m wearing, everything I own is in this photo. I’m not trying to brag, but it’s a reaffirmation of a lifestyle that I enjoy. I don’t get too attached to things. I have no need to own a houseful of stuff. I have what I need and little more. It’s a frame of mind, and it makes me feel free.


I’ve (almost) done it. It has been 30 days of writing. I’ve not written my full quota every day, and several days’ posts are still in my journal, but I have written something every day. Though it has not been my most successful 30-day challenge, it has accomplished its mission: I have a new habit.

The habit is not only the daily urge to write, but it’s also a new mindset. My brain is now in the habit of looking for a way to turn some event or idea I have encountered each day into a 500-word story. I look specifically for details of my environment and consider the words I would need to describe it most accurately and in a way that best reflects the feeling of the moment.  I’m not always successful, but such skills come with practice.

Tomorrow, the habit will take on a new form. I will begin work in earnest on stitching together my travels during November and December 2015 into a coherent story that I hope will one day be published as a book. I will have about six weeks to generate the content, but I expect I’ll need to do some significant editing after I leave Poland. I’ll try to keep posting occasionally on the blog as I explore Krakow and the surrounding areas. I may make a couple jaunts out to Slovakia Hungary, or other cities around Poland, but I have no plans yet. Staying put for a few weeks actually sounds pretty nice right now.

It will be nice to build some other habits. My fitness and diet routines have been rubbish for the past month, so that will definitely need to change. I’d also like to start building some other habits, ones that can help me go a little deeper into my own mind.

Just as this habit of writing has started to train my brain to think in a certain way, other habits can have similar effects on our intellectual minds. For example, building the habit of meditating every day can have noticeable effects on the ability to concentrate throughout the rest of the day. I’m sure there are deeper benefits to meditation, but I have not yet experienced them.

I’d also like to rebuild the habit of eating a plant-based diet. I stayed with a guy last night who has explored the philosophical ideas that have come up on this blog much more deeply than I have, and a particularly interesting insight was that he actually started eating a fully “vegan” diet before he had the ethical impetus to do so. It was a rational decision not to support the animal agriculture industry even via egg/dairy consumption, but his ceasing of eating these products allowed him to open up to his connection to the rest of the animal world. Now, eating any animal products just feels wrong because it depends on the causing harm to sentient beings that are not just anonymous unseen animals in some distant farm, but another feature of the universal self. To participate in such harm is harming oneself, which is not only terrible but unnatural and irrational.

It’s a bit of a tough concept to grasp, but our rationalizing minds are very good at finding ways to justify our current behaviors. Our mind doesn’t want to believe that our current habits are self-destructive. If we cease the habit, perhaps our mind will open up to the idea that those behaviors were wrong.


sidenote: I’m really trying to get into this whole tolerance and oneness thing, but there is one type of person whom I don’t think I will ever be able to relate to, tolerate, or have one iota of respect for: loud eaters.

What I want.

With the sails full and the seas calm, we could talk easily as the boat cut across the shallow waters between the characteristically eastern Norwegian islands. Nina and I sat on the bow while the others crowded in the open stern around the wheel. The light breeze left a deepening chill, but the cool evening air was refreshing enough that we didn’t care. We watched the brightly lit islands float slowly and peacefully by as we shared a moment of silence to revel in the view.

“So you really don’t want to stay here?” Nina asked to break the silence.

I smiled silently and hung my head. I’ve gotten the same question half a dozen times since I returned to Tønsberg for WindSim’s annual user meeting. “I never said I didn’t want to stay here. I would love to. But I know I need to go back,” I tried to explain courteously.

“But how can you go back if you want to stay here?” She pressed, confused by my contradictory answer.

I paused for a moment as I considered the most concise way to explain my confused position. “I would absolutely love to stay here, and I definitely will be back, but right now, I just wouldn’t be comfortable hiding out in my little Scandinavian paradise while there’s so much work to be done back in the US.”


Tomorrow ends my stay in Norway for what will probably be a period best measured in years. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit sad. I have absolutely loved my time here, and unless I discover some new part of the world that attracts me more (and there’s plenty left to explore), I will find a way to be in Norway more permanently at some point in the future.

However, that future is not yet here because the truth is that I want to go back more than I want to stay. I don’t want the uncomfortable reintegration into my home state. I don’t want the ultra conservatism that permeates so much of American culture. I don’t want the automobile infrastructure that defines American cities. I don’t want the ignorance, the cockiness, or the laziness that I find so hard to escape.

But I also don’t want the guilt. I don’t want the weight hanging over my head of the knowledge that I could be doing more. I don’t want the shame of having abdicated yet another responsibility.

I do want the opportunity to make a difference. I do want the feeling that I’m contributing to the best of my ability to the solution to a problem that will define the future of our species.

Every time I face the question, “Why don’t you want to stay here?”, the ceasefire of the war inside me breaks down again. However, despite the continually recurring opportunities to make an excuse to stay, my rational mind wins out with the argument that I won’t be truly happy here. At least not yet.

Desire

It still smells like an ashtray in here. It’s distracting. I certainly can’t say that it’s clean, but at least it seems sanitary. It’s not disgusting, but it wouldn’t be acceptable if I were staying longer than two nights.

I’m only a few meters from the room that I was a bit sad to leave almost a month ago. I’m so close, my computer can still pick up the internet signal. That’s also distracting. It’s electronic misery. It creates a desire. It reminds me that I have had better, that life has been better, that I can do better. It insists that the past is a real place where things were different, where they were desirable. Compared to this moment, it seems like paradise.

And that train of thought leads only to misery. The incredible human ability to remember creates an entire universe that does not exist. Neither future not past exist, but we can imagine that they do, and the desire for the present to transform into that image leaves a wish unfulfilled and leads only to anxiety, frustration, and anger.

Yet this seems to be the default human condition. How much unrest is caused by a longing for a past that can never be retrieved or a future that is unlikely to come? All of it. Why do citizens complain about their governments? Why do people march in the streets? Why do extremists start revolutions? Why do politicians send their men and women to war? Why does anyone fight?

They want something they don’t have. They can’t accept the fact that their present situation is as it is. They want to bring into reality an imagined world.

We all do, don’t we? We honor those who have fought for a belief, and idea – a fiction. We follow those who dedicate their lives to causing change. We admire those with the courage stand up. We envy those with something to stand for. If we don’t, those who do call us complacent and defeatist.

But why should we fight? Why should we want “hope and change”? Hope only brings us the misery of realizing that things are not different. Change only brings us something different to hope for. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we just accepted the way things were? Wouldn’t we all be happy if we understood that the past will never return, and the future can’t be controlled?

Of course not. That’s silly. That’s impossible (for the vast majority of us, anyway). We do remember, dream, hope, and desire. It’s the human condition.

As hard as I try to focus only on the present moment – on what is, what really exists – that damn smell is too distracting. We all suffer from this affliction. We can certainly lessen the amount we suffer, but it can never fully be cured. In many ways, we don’t want it to be. There will always be some circumstance that breaks the meditative will of even the most practiced monk. Pain, fear, hunger, or thirst are beyond our control, and to fight for a world in which these feelings are minimized is honorable, admirable, enviable, and worthy of pursuit.

Positive frame of mind

Though midnight approaches, the cracked and weathered bark high on the sparse evergreens glows like the flames of towering candles flickering slowly in the breeze. Rhythmically, the cool summer air pushes and recedes, swishing through the swaying needles. The distant cawing of a gull breaks the calm, but it quickly quiets as if embarrassed for intruding on the peace. The dark purple leaves of the weeping tree on the far side of my pleasant, yet temporary, patio, rustles to call for attention but competes with the surging laughter of the trio inside the house behind me. They pass the bright evening hours fully absorbed in each others’ unexpected company, unconcerned with the impending tasks of tomorrow. For the moment, a careless laugh and the voice of someone new are enough, and the future and past are not.

I’ve found myself in this situation at the end of a string of unfortunate events. Having ended the day exhausted and impatient for sleep, I entered the small student room Pablo and I were to share for the week. Immediately recognizing the stale odor of cigarette smoke, I knew something wasn’t right. As I crossed the inner threshold, my uneasiness swelled to anger. Dirt and a suspicious white powder scattered the countertop, cigarette butts and an array of party filth littered the floor. As disgust and frustration welled toward fury, I focused on my breath and the thought that the emotion was only a thought. Rationality kicked in, and I knew that there was nothing that could be done at this hour. However, at Pablo’s insistence, I called the number on the welcome sheet left on the counter. As expected, we would not be getting a new room, but the phone call led us to call our supervisor, who had arranged for the room and who promptly offered to pick us up and host us in her home.

As we stood in the parking lot, waiting for her to arrive, we giggled childishly at our misfortune.

“Eventually, we’ll tell this story and laugh about it,” Pablo commented.

“Eventually? Like tomorrow at lunch,” I corrected.

“After lunch!” Pablo insisted.

“Right, at least no pictures during lunch.”

But we were already laughing. There was nothing else we could do. Indeed, that’s why we laugh. There’s nothing we can do about the constant curveballs that life throws us.

All we can do is smile, laugh, and move on. There is always something brighter on the other side.

And now, I sit here scribbling in this sanctuary while Palo chats with our hosts. In the end, the night turned out quite alright.

Unplugged

Today’s featured image: Uppsala. It’s good to be back.


Bare skin littered the thick grass, brilliantly green in the afternoon sun. From the other side of the park, a salsa dance class laid a tropical background theme to the shouts and calls from the soccer fields. The heat of the sun brightened the transporting music, and I could hardly believe that this was Stockholm. The park bustled with the smiling faces and chatty groups of friends out for a Sunday stroll. The abundance of sunshine was not taken for granted.

I sat between my friends who had treated me to a delicious brunch at a classy little joint that allowed us to begin our day outside, and we had continued to soak up as much of sun as possible. Our conversation often lapsed both because of their severe jetlag and because of my frequent mental departure, my mind drawn away to the soothing sensation of the sun’s warmth and the shining beauty of the park’s colors.

Then Alex said something that brought a sudden realization. “They pick the sunniest day to sit in the shadow.”

“Huh? Who?” I asked, trying to figure out whom he was referring to.

“That couple,” he answered, nodding toward a couple that had huddled together behind a thick tree on the low cement wall.

“They wouldn’t be able to see their phones in the sun,” Gabriella chided. “They need to do their social media.”

My obligatory laugh came from the self-satisfying habit of mocking the social media addicts always glued to their phones. Though I often fall prey to my devices, I reserve a bit of superiority when I spot a group of friends ignoring each other to browse the lives of others. My train of thought sent me looking for another of these groups.

I didn’t see any.

Of the dozens of sunbathers, walkers, and diners of dripping ice cream, only a small handful was plugged into their mobile device. Almost all who were sat alone. Only one other pair stared at their phones instead of each other, and I couldn’t even be sure that they were, in fact, sitting together or if the angle just made it look that way.

“They’re all unplugged,” I muttered in disbelief. “For the first time in a while, I actually have a bit of hope for humanity.”


Just last week, I had discussed with my host in Malmö the topic of our technological infancy. We have only had these newfangled devices that keep us incessantly connected to the world of not-here for perhaps a decade. Can we really expect that people are just going to figure out how to harness this technology for their own benefit without falling into destructive habits? Of course not. But the constant chatter in many media circles about the perils of over-connectedness and the rapid rise of mindfulness indicate to me that the trend away from self-destructive social media consumption is reaching a broader swathe of the population.

Today, I found more evidence of my hypothesis. Droves of unplugged Swedes flooded the natural areas of the city to disconnect from their digital lives and experience the real world with real friends.

Occasionally, I see glimmers of hope for our species.

An ode to shoes

And now it is time to say goodbye to yet another generation of shoes. These runners have carried me up and down trails, streets, and open fields across the soil of five different nations. They’ve topped mountains and splashed through muddy streams. They’ve stomped through soggy cornfields and summited stunning peaks. They’ve carried me through sunny primeval forests and snowy side streets. They’ve stumbled through the Wild West and glided along the Baltic coast. They’ve padded through the darkness of silent Medieval towns and weaved through the throngs of bustling metropolises. They’ve witnessed some of my greatest highs and most embarrassing lows. They’ve been with me for every one of the most painful and most euphoric steps of my training for nearly a year, and now it’s time to send them off with an inglorious demise. The difficulty of saying goodbye to a couple bundles of cloth, rubber, and foam remind me of what keeps me attached to my possessions. It is not the objects themselves. Indeed, these shoes have already been replaced. It is the utility they serve, the activity they enable, and the feelings they catalyze that bring a second thought to my mind as I lift the lid of the waste bin and hesitate for just a moment before tossing them onto the pile marked for incineration.

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