Saturday, February 25, 2017

On the insubstantial

New York, February 25th 2017.

Today's rambling is about the proliferation of the insubstantial. I've been reading about simplicity, minimalism, and status anxiety, and today I had one of those Eureka moments: I was able to see through life a bit and while it made me feel awkward, it lifted some weight off my shoulders.

It all started when I read The Strenuous Life, a speech by Theodore Roosevelt. It's an old piece that would generate heated debates today due to its conservative postures on gender roles and the importance of tradition. If we leave aside his opinions on what men and women should do at work and in the household, we can find true gems in the text. Its main take home is that embracing resilience and a good attitude towards the toilsome is, to a great extent, what makes life worthwhile. But it seems like we aren't necessarily in good terms with work, resilience, and consistency. We want to lie on a couch and tap on a phone application to buy food, pick what show to watch, take silly quizzes, find someone to have sex with and upload a 3-second video of whatever we're doing for the world to see.

While technology has significantly improved many aspects of life and should continue to do so, we are also inundated and overwhelmed by the flurry of choices presented to us by its latest advances. Then it comes as no surprise that even though everything is within our reach through the internet to make our lives more pleasant, we are often nervous, restless, depressed and lost. In 1869, George Miller coined the term 'neurasthenia' to collectively describe these symptoms of free-floating restlessness, lassitude, and emotional fatigue. This feeds on other factors that, as a whole, lower the quality of life in America. For instance, in a TED talk that went viral shortly after it was aired, social worker Brene Brown revealed that "we're the most in debt, obese, medicated, and addicted cohort in the history of the U.S". If the US is supposed to be one of the best nations on the planet, it's only reasonable to ask: what is going on?. I've come up with my own explanation: it's just hard to calibrate ourselves to know when enough is enough, and we can't simply step aside from the consumer-oriented mainstream for a second so that we can thoughtfully and responsibly assess the role of our material possessions in life. Motivated by this idea, I took a look at some of the products and services whose offerers consider me part of the target audience.

I went to a department store some time ago to buy some cheap shorts and t-shirts for the gym. One of the items captured my attention right away: it was a ready-to-go package called 'Men's Grab and Go': a closed, mesh bag that contained a t-shirt, socks and a pair of underwear for the man who 'has more important things to do'. Since it is a stereotype that men don't like to shop, this product was designed to save us from the arduous work of picking up a t-shirt and a pair of socks from the regular aisles. At the same time, the labeling 'for men' tries to validate some sense of masculinity in us-- especially in a society with frail egos that need reassurance all the time. In a broader sense, I noticed that the frailty of the masculine ego constitutes an unparalleled opportunity to make people buy insubstantial things they don't need -- one of the points I'm trying to make. Just consider another example: the 'Duke Cannon' soap. First, the name itself -- it's just soap, but it says 'cannon' -- a quick reference to the war de-feminizes the product and thus makes it more appealing to men. Second, it's a 'man-sized' soap (because we have a firmer grasp to hold a bigger soap - and nope, this soap won't get woman-sized when it gets smaller). For your own amusement, the soap description reads "He doesn't wear skinny jeans or listen to Coldplay. Duke Cannon could change a tire by the time he was three and was cleaning his own shotgun by the age of seven. He does more by 8 am than most men accomplish all day." Now, I want to point out that this is interesting and amusing at the same time. I'm not here to give a jeremiad in the style of George Carlin or to claim that there's some conspiracy going on (in the end, I tend to stick with Old Spice). But if we are able to unpack what's behind advertisement, we will know when we're going overboard with things we don't need.

The list goes on and on: subscriptions that deliver a monthly box to your door, and the ludicrous Amazon Dash buttons so you don't have to go to the store (or even order online!) to get fabric softener, condoms, or Gatorade. We also want Peapod or Amazon Fresh to bring groceries and GrubHub to deliver prepared meals. Also, we get two hot dogs when we ask for one at the movies, pay all our bills online, scan checks with a smartphone, have devices that can stream video and read out loud so we don't even have to look at the screen to read! Also available for our convenience: aloe-enriched toilet wipes carefully heated to 99F. Anything else we need? yes, this set of pillows, so that you, your neck, and your $500 tablet are comfortable at the same time.

Yet, we're still grouchy, bored, want to buy more things, and are constantly in a state of fear of missing out. A couple of weeks ago I was obsessed with the Jeep Compass and thought about how much I wanted that car and how shitty it was that most grad students can't get a new car with their stipend. Ironically, I was thinking about all this while taking a very pleasant walk across a forest on my way to work. I was taking for granted that nearly every day I could grab a cup of cocoa, have my smartphone play my favorite podcast, and simply walk to work while enjoying the view. In my desire of what I don't have, I was oblivious to the fact that it is probably nicer to walk or bike to work and see nature instead of being stuck in a traffic jam in a BMW.

Then it hit me. "Shit" was all I uttered. How many times I actually do this? If there is something that terrifies me beyond measure is to not value what I have and find out when it's too late.

I can't tell people what they should or should not buy. But I'm reconsidering everything. I've gotten rid of bags and bags of things I don't use, clothes I was not wearing, appliances that were in a box. I even got rid of my turntable because it was there just to 'represent my style' (what style?), plus it was gathering dust. I'm giving this a shot -- more simplicity, less clutter. First at home, then in the head. I'm down for this quest.  

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The drive for money

Something I was discussing the other day with a friend is: what drives the relentless drive for more? It's sickening and misleading. But some people do it because they are afraid of coming across as flaky and incapable: an unfortunate amount of pressure they put on themselves.

A couple of months ago my father came up with a comment like 'There's no money in this country (Colombia) for you'. He believes I should get something akin to a presidential salary given the time I have invested in higher education. But he fails to realize that salary follows the basic dynamics of supply and demand and not meritocracy. But the point is that his opinion was based on the assumption of 'the more the merrier' —a well established one. But why is it so hard to challenge this assumption? I think: what would I do with that much money anyway? The answer isn't straightforward. One might of course give a quick answer and say something generic like travel the world, help the poor and whatnot. And it's particularly amusing to see some self-proclaimed humble people (often religious but sometimes borderline zealots) claim they prefer to remain poor because of easier access to the heavens — a rhetoric that vanishes with their fiery desire to win the juiciest lottery available. I just roll my eyes in disbelief when people tell me they are confident in that what they want -more than anything else- is money. I'd be curious to see how a large bank account can bring them actual joy in the long term. Also consider how quick they are to assume they have, by default, the skill to administer such money -- and that there are no privacy and red-tape issues involved in this managerial task.

But I see where the fuzzy line is. Money can buy things we associate with positive people experiences. A whiskey commercial in which several people are drinking isn't about the liquor itself but about love or friendship. Or consider some of the last Super Bowl commercials: most of the times the advertised product or service had nothing to do with the video, which focused more on values, experiences or emotions. There is a point when money stops making our lives better, and most of us aren't good at figuring out what that limit is in a world that tells us every day we should get more. A conservative value is $75,000 - but that is probably open for debate given different needs and lifestyles.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Changes in the brain circuitry

Don't have much time now to write a wall of text but these are some important changes in my internal circuitry:

  • Travel is no longer my main goal. It's still ok but not the priority anymore. 
  • I spend way more time thinking about furniture, home improvement, style, healthy food, hobbies and Benjamin Franklin's virtues than on where I'm going to travel next. 
  • I would, in fact, make a good husband and a dad even though right now I'm not ready for it. But thinking of myself as a 'dad' is no longer scary. So I'm likely adding wife and kid to my mid 30's timeline by the time I'm a doctor! My advisor did the same and it turned out just fine.  
  • That I am motivated by relevance, not by fame
  • More living, less explaining
  • Plan has it that I will have a bachelor's, master's and PhD degrees at the age of thirty one.
  • My overall debt is $0 
  • I do excercise everyday

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

On reading Fiction

Nonfiction English writing in a professional setting is one of my unrealized dreams. It is not with bitterness that I say it, though, but certainly with longing and regret. On the bright side my future in science will involve a significant amount of writing, but I'm afraid it will never come close to the carefully crafted, entertaining and provocative prose like that of Ben Yagoda, Bill Deresiweicz or Mario Vargas Llosa. Even more so knowing that scientific writing in the natural sciences has become, in the light of climate and environmental pressures, a new form of marketing campaign.

Long story short: I like reading and writing in English— and look forward to exploring new venues to improve such skills. What I know is that both reading and writing take a lot of work. In particular, reading is a very demanding activity. I don't think someone can make the most out of reading unless they develop the skill of finding patterns between the lines.

I know some people who consume podcasts, read books from cover to cover, and are happy to recite to you, in vivid detail, what they have learned. My case is often the opposite: I don't finish the book because I find a tangent so early in the reading that I lose track of the rest of the story or the argument. In reading the 2015 essay Notes on the Death of Culture by Vargas-Llosa, for example, I could not help taking a leap towards the work of George Steiner who is heavily cited in the book. Then, after briefly skimming Steiner's The Lessons of the Masters, I leaped on to re-read essays by Bill Deresiewicz on education in search of patterns both in content and style. "Reading [just] one book," wrote Diane Duane, "is like eating one potato chip". But my habit of riffling through titles without actually delving in the material —an activity one can grow deft at in graduate school— suggests that I don't get any of the chips, or rather, that I wasn't even looking for chips in the first place. Then comes the question on whether the 'reader' label I like to carry on like a canvas backpack is actually accurate or an overstatement. Being a good reader, I imagined, consisted in making it to the last page and being able to recall —to recite— all the major points. This definition, though arguably flawed and outdated, lets me arrive at the same conclusion: I am not much of a reader but a networker, a researcher.

Part of such 'research activities' (read: perusing nonfiction and avoiding fiction) are founded in my own sheer pragmatism: I often read to find something I, in advance, desire to learn. This of course isn't the right mindset to read fiction because you never know what you're going to find. So what happens is that I read a book on English style (like Ben Yagoda's The Sound on the Page) and he shows examples of style, or voice, across a number of genres. Then that's when I want to read fiction - but the pragmatic focus never faded away: I am now looking for different styles, structure, syntax, grammar. And that may well be a good excuse to bring myself closer to a vast world of books I didn't even consider.

Friday, October 23, 2015

It's that time of the year (when I write)

Not that many people read my ramblings here-- but I have been posting here at a glacial frequency.

Anyway, I guess that the time to write again has come. First, it always surprises me how things have changed since I started this blog. But I don't want to do a comparison of different locations on a timeline right now or write about my work, or whine about how different I am or about how society pushes me in one direction or the other. No bureaucracy, no countries, no complaints.

At this point there's honestly no red tape to worry about, my job is on track and secure, nobody is pushing me and I am comfortable where I live right now. I make sure to stop every now and then to be grateful for all this - like really meaning that gratitude.

I do want to write (read: ruminate) about other stuff I have been thinking about, which involves more of my non-work being. Removing myself from the pressure of family and country has helped me get to know myself a little better, especially in terms of who I am and what I really want. Here is what I found:

-I needed to do some serious work with my boundaries. This helped me move from apparently helpless, uncomfortable situations to being comfortable with my own choices. Therefore I have become more confident in doing what I need to do to better take care of myself. In other words, I started to operate more like: I'm ok, you're ok -- we can be together but I have these limits. We teach people how to treat us. Saying no and not feel guilty about is is pretty fucking fabulous.

-Stopped believing that the world must operate in a certain, idealized way. I did a lot of resilience work for this one and the result is that I stopped ranting.

-I was a bit of your overachiever, somewhat entitled golden millenial: it never occurred to me that I was putting a lot of pressure on myself by expecting to have 'all figured out' by 25 - and with 'all' I mean literally 'all': Education: zero loans, full rides and a PhD in the northeastern United States. Relationships? Yep, a smooth, lead-by-example, long-term one with a smart, beautiful woman. Travel? Indeed, to Europe, Central America and United States. Family? All going smoothly. My own self: passion found, work I loved, volunteering, exotic hobbies, healthy, independent, assertive, etc. Wow, what the fuck?. Only when I really detached from that insane train of thought I realized that it was ridiculous pressure for no reason. And in this one I have no one to blame - at this point the only pressure I have is the one I put on myself. So I had to loosen up a little bit, take a whole new perspective and just try to live in the moment. This took many self help books (I believe in those), many advice from friends (often online friends) and lots of emotional work, group support and the eventual therapy. It was hectic on my brain and heart, but so worth it.

-I consciously started to think about relationships from the very scratch, which is great when the pressure is no longer there. I had never really done this. All I knew was that I was some sort of prince who could be entitled to things, and that I had to pursue what people thought made sense. No wonder I was always angry or stuck. I went out with women who were too intense, unavailable or crazy only to confirm my bias that dating sucked. But even though I was considered successful and accomplished, I was not sure why a more serious and responsible woman would be interested in me. Oh, I was wrong in so many levels and believed that I had to be in one to prove that I was, in fact, a decent man. In other words, I was what some people call 'A nice guy'. Now I'm not much more of that, which is great. But even though this is a good thing, dating still goes very slowly. I asked someone out and by the second time I saw her, I noticed that things were not going anywhere. Some time ago I would have freaked out - it never occurred to me that it's ok for things not to work and that I needed to date more in order to see what holds water in the long term. So I expected to be in a state of pure bliss on every date and this high expectation sort of killed me every time. On the other side the meaningless way or the casual sex way didn't quite work for me either, so I'm looking for the real deal now. I think this is the rockiest part of life at this point.

-Whether I should go back to being catholic or not. Oh boy that's a good question. It's not that I gave up on being a catholic - I just sort of branched out, focused on what I could or couldn't do without the rituals and the like. I used to be very religious in the past until it changed in college. Key point here is that I still have some if not all of the values which have shaped the man I've become today. I need to think more about this.