Saturday, December 31, 2011

Poem of The Week - Monet by Mueller

Monet Refuses the Operation

     By Liesel Mueller

Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.

I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.

Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.

What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent.  

The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases.  

if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Basketball, politics and contemporary art - a year end note.

                                                    Mark Rothko

Agnes Martin

Metta World Peace

Not only is the world too complicated but so is basketball.

All of a sudden the LA Clippers are contenders to make a playoff run. Ron Artest (on the Lakers)  the former poster child for angry, has changed his name to Metta World Peace. Lebron James, one of the most gifted 26 year old athletes on the planet, has become a villain for making a perfectly reasonable career move to Miami...I am baffled by it all.

Watching the action I feel like I am watching rabbits scramble and I can barely see where the rabbit was.  I cannot figure out why fouls have been called, or even follow the ball. I have no idea why Lamar Odom was ejected from the game the other day or why he married Khloe Kardashian. My New Year's  resolution for this year is to tune into women's basketball.  I think the slower pace will suit me...less baffling.

Not only are the world and basketball too complicated but so is contemporary art. 

This week we (including my bro-in-law, Billy, who is a walking art encyclopedia - which makes museum going with him fantastic) walked through the permanent collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Here's my take away - I am a convert to the notion that the world would be way better off if we passed a global rule that from now on only women can be in positions of political power. I had this thought when I saw side by side works by Mark Rothko and Agnes Martin. Both use simple horizontal fields of colors. Both have been compared to the experience of looking at natural landscapes. Rothko is muscular - his colors heavy and strong - he paints with a brutish willfulness. Martin's horizontals are pastel - soft and inviting. They whisper compassion and consolation.

I think an Agnes Martin world makes a whole lot more sense than a Mark Rothko world. Or maybe not, who knows? Anyway, Happy New Year and World Peace.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Guest Post: Eloi and Morlocks

My friend, David, is such a terrific writer I could not resist posting another piece he wrote. (His is the immediate prior rough fractals guest post as well).

This one in response to my describing to him my experience this past week visiting old friends who recently moved near Yosemite in north central California to start a "community". By community I mean that they bought a large enough parcel (70 acres) to build a number of small houses which they are hoping friends and neighbors will do. The current main house will then serve as a central community center. Right now they are using the main house as a Bed and Breakfast for "seekers" - that is to say anyone who would like to spend a few days in a beautiful area to meditate and contemplate (and visit Yosemite).  Having moved there 18 months ago many of the locals have joined in the pursuit. When I was there there were blessings before meals and regular group meetings. On Tuesday night ten neighbors came over and after a short meditation we discussed the topic of friendship. For some, the discussion was philosophical for others, personal. We have known each other for 40 years and despite our different paths our friendship has been sustained and when we spoke of that in the group there were a few moist eyes (mine among them).

Below is David's reaction to what I described. He is always smart and has a way of writing that makes neither too much nor too little of the subject matter. I wish I could do that - I always seem to ricochet between the two. (By way of background David is a public interest lawyer who works in health care).

"Sorry I couldn't respond sooner, but on this side of the moon I was preparing for a hearing that I did yesterday. I think I told you about it, surgeon who left his patient in the OR and, in another case, concocted his own stent and implanted it into his patient. Since I worked all last weekend preparing, I'm giving myself today off.

It's been irresistible to compare our respective experiences on the two different sides of the moon. I've been sunk to my eyes in the realm of bad motives and bad acts, the lies that cover them and the hard work it takes to reveal them. And, of course, what it does to me for that to be my work and the world I live in. Meanwhile, you're in a sunny garden world where the locals are trying to recreate Eden. To sharpen the contrast, I spent the morning watching a move called "Saint Misbehavin'," a lovely documentary about Wavy Gravy.

I have to fight against the notion that those folks out in the garden are good hearted Eloi, and I'm just a debased  Morlock. In truth, I'd make a pretty bad hippie, although I'm far from immune to the attractions. After some consideration, I think the core difference between the two worlds is more scale than substance, the fact that one is large enough to require institutions and the other isn't and doesn't. I think it's as simple as this: big city, big needs (in this case, health needs), big and complex hospitals arise to serve the needs, norms and rules arise to make sure it's done right, fallible and otherwise imperfect humans contravene the rules and much ugliness ensues.

All of that is at the "Duh" level of obviousness -- so why recite it? Well, part of it is defensiveness on my part. I want to show that there is some necessity for people to do the work I do and I'm not just a dope not to live in the garden. But it also helps me understand  some resistance I feel to the tendency of at least some of the Gardeners (yes, let's call them that) to feel that they have hit on something of world transforming relevance. It's not just that they're making their world, but that they sometimes act like they are remaking The World. I see arrogance and lack of perspective in that attitude. If the underlying values have merit -- simplicity, generosity, tolerance, balance -- as they certainly do, it's fine to emphasize them. But even we Morlocks  esteem those values, but we also know that they are only part of the prescription for living in a complex world.

Now, that I've justified my existence, I'll proceed on my Morlock way."

(I sent David's response to my friends who agreed with everything he wrote. Their choices are not about saving the world or even suggesting trying to. I think it is about questioning the paradigm for themselves, their friends and their community. Artists, scientists, social activists,  inventors, innovators have always been outside. Someone's gotta do that.)

PS: On further thought about this, David added a post script wondering about the tendency to think that others' lives mean something about our own. That they stand as critiques or confirmations or something to be aspired to. Often taking the form of envy. I am not sure he is right about that. Envy seems to me to usually have a built in reservation, a bottom, bottom line belief that the choices we make are, despite our doubts and our envy of the conviction those we aspire to be like seem to hold, the best we could do. That might be denial or it might be honest but either way, there is something to the notion that we all are right where we need to be - that everyone is doing the best they can. Put another way, maybe there are no Eloi and Morlock, no "us" and "them". Not ever. Not deep down.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Guest Post - The Artist

McGraw-Hill Guide to World Literature: v. 2: David Engel, etc.

This is a Rough Fractals guest post written by David Engel.  David is a friend of Rough Fractals and the author of the McGraw Hill Guide to World Literature. He sent his interpretation of the recently released movie, The Artist, over the transom.

The Artist is a 2011 French-American  film directed by Michel Hazanavicius, starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo.  The film is itself a silent film and in black-and-white. The story takes place in Hollywood between 1927 and 1932 and focuses on a declining male film star and a rising actress, as silent cinema grows out of fashion and is replaced by the talkies.  Dujardin won the Best Actor Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where the film premiered.

Below is David's take on it which I really like: (spoiler alert - you might want to see the movie before reading this so as to come at the movie without any preconceived notions (or knowing certain plot developments ahead of time).  Watching it is a little like eating those fizzy-popping-exploding-in-your-mouth candies for the first time.  You might want your brain taste buds unsullied. So if you like, bookmark this, go see it and then read this.)

"It came to  me in the middle of the night (I had a dream) that the Artist’s reluctance to  speak – and the movie as a whole --  can be understood in terms of inhibition. Like an inhibition, it’s a mystery (to us and very probably to him as well)  whether he won’t speak or can’t speak. Remember when his wife confronts him? – “Why won’t you talk?” It’s not clear if she means talk to her or talk on film – we certainly think of both -- which helps us see that  he’s stymied by issues beyond  cinematic technique.  

In the early part of the movie he’s purely in love with himself, and the film does a good job keeping us from disliking him despite his vanity. In the first scene, he upstages his co-star when they’re taking their bows. He ignores his wife, and he sort of gutters out whenever he’s not in the public eye. I think one of the reason he’s given the dog (and his driver) is to help humanize him, give him a relationship with someone.

I don’t usually think in these terms, and I’m not pandering to the shrinks among us when I say that he makes me think of an infant that just expects to be showered with love without doing anything. And the whole beginning of the movie operates at that fantasy level. Peppy Miller just has to show up at an audition to be instantly made a star. There’s no gap between wish and fulfillment.

The scene  where Peppy caresses herself through the sleeve of the  Artist’s coat is a vivid image, and critique,  of the kind of magical self-love that both buoys and isolates the two of them. And it does isolate them because, although they’re clearly destined for each other they can’t get together. Or won’t. Their relationship with each other has the same stymied quality as the Artist’s can’t/won’t relationship to the prospect of speaking in the movies.

I think their self-love saddles them with inhibitions because like all extreme self-love it’s terribly vulnerable. It can only exist if protected from certain inner shames and doubts and from real or imagined external threats. He’s afraid to hazard his self-love by trying something new – a new way to perform, a new woman. He wants to, but can’t or won’t.

The end is such a pleaser because it overthrows all inhibition for both of them, and the inhibitions of the form as well. Suddenly we have, for the first time, a full sound stage, syncopated music with drums up front, and their wonderful, completely uninhibited dancing. And they’re dancing together, of course.  

I think we respond to the movie because it embodies the structure and feeling of inhibition over  90 minutes and then gloriously releases it. It feels true and moving because it’s built out of primal stuff --  our own  experiences of, and attitudes toward,  early self-love, inhibition, and adulthood. "

-- David Engel 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Song Of The Week - Miike Snow - Black and Blue

Below is a video with lyrics of a  song I like by the band, Miike Snow, (spelled with two ii's) called Black and Blue. I cannot  figure out what it  is about so have given it my own highly subjective interpretation...

There is a saying that captures the insidious nature of the disease of alcoholism:  "the longer you are sober, the closer you are to your next drink.". The notion being that the disease is powerful and patient. Put another way, "while the alcoholic stays clean, the disease is doing push ups" waiting for the "all clear" chance to relapse. Insidious.  That is what I think this song may be about. But if it is a better title might  be something like "The Sleeping Tiger". I do not know what black and blue refers to.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Addiction and Learning...

Our brains are wired to learn stuff - to speak a foreign language, play music, or do arithmetic. We can learn what makes us feel good about ourselves and how to prioritize. A big part of addiction is the learning of it. Drugs and alcohol teach the brain certain pathways to pain relief, euphoria, numbness, lessening feelings of grief, loss and guilt, anxiety control, mood stabilization and relief from depression and other psychiatric disorders. At first drugs work, until they don't work anymore, and it can be years and lots of damage before an alcoholic realizes that he/she needs a divorce from Mr./Ms. Smirnoff. (footnote 1)

So how do you get a divorce from the only thing you have ever really known, this thing your brain has learned to crave as strongly as it craves food, sex, air and sleep?  Craving is a mystery - the diet business thrives on low rates of weight loss success - not for lack of desire to lose weight. Wanting to get clean and staying clean are two different things but if an addict does not pick up his/her drink or drug he/she will not get high. So until the neurological brain chemistry mystery of craving is solved the practical question is not what stops craving but what stops relapse. (footnote 2)
There are a lot of approaches to relapse prevention - psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, hospital or clinic rehabs, outpatient treatment, etc. but the approach that has the most consistent and highest success rate is "working the program" of Alcoholics Anonymous and/or Narcotics Anonymous, i.e., go to AA/NA meetings, get a home group, get phone numbers, use them, make a coffee commitment, get a sponsor, work the steps, lose the old friends, develop a sober network, avoid "people, places and things". Early recovery is a full time job. (AA does not work for everyone - I am just reporting what experience has shown to have the highest success rate - by a wide margin).
If you want to be a lawyer you need to learn what lawyers do. If you want to be a teacher you have to learn what teachers do. If you want to learn sobriety you need to learn what the sober do (and I do not mean just the sober in recovery, I mean what regular non-addicted civilians do - what the poet Marie Howe calls, "What the living do"). 

The 12 steps of AA are what the living do. Some people think the 12 steps can be divided into 3 categories; 1) accept that substances are making a mess of your life, 2) fix your mess, 3) going forward, do the right thing. Some think that is pretty much what non-addicted civilians do - if they make a mess they clean it up and they move on. It can be tough sledding. Life on life's terms is rarely euphoric and often boring, sad, hard and way too frequently brushed by tragedy.  But the living somehow know, deep down, (footnote 3) that while pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice.

Sobriety does not guaranty the absence of pain and suffering but it does provide a chance.


FN 1: That you come to want what sobriety gives you more than you want what Mr./Ms. Smirnoff gives you.

FN 2: You probably have to learn how to stop using before you can learn why you used in the first place. Rarely is the order reversed.

FN 3:  You need a deep reason to stay sober because white knuckling it only works for so long.  By "deep" I mean a reason of the heart (whatever that means).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Debates, The DMV, Genius and day to day...

Watching the Republican debates and seeing the likes of Perry, Cain, Bachmann et al. I have the same feeling I get when I go to the DMV or to Costco, or to the post office or to a third world country - a feeling that there is a flaw in the design, though given the setting, the dysfunction seems organic and culturally interesting - the result of certain parameters that dictate behavior and expectations that require you to suspend disbelief and accept the lunacy. As my friend, Alexis, commented the other day (I am paraphrasing, she said it better, less caustic)- it's as if Palin opened the barn door of stupid and now stupid is seen as a positive. They should rename them the Banana Republic Debates.

We have learned that Steve Jobs put off cancer treatment while first pursuing fruitarian therapy. Very bad unscientific decision coming from a genius. Alexis and I wondered if this means that his Apple genius might have been less genius and more about finding the right market for his obsession. There are lots of examples of really successful people believing in really wrong things. It takes a certain delusional obsession to take the big bets that can lead to becoming a zillionaire. And like the Palin effect - once crazy works, crazy no longer seems crazy (often the dazzling hedge fund managers of one or two years crash spectacularly the next). Once you are wildly successful in business, cinema, religion, politics (anything?) it seems that going forward it can be challenging to be rigorously honest about your own character defects and personal moral inventory. Let's just say that no matter how many true believers a guru might have I would find it hard to use the words "enlightened being" and "chain smoker" in the same sentence.

Anoher example that presses my skeptical button is the guy who founded PayPal, Peter Thiel, a billionaire with some odd notions - universally lauded as a genius. PayPal was a brilliant secure on-line payment program that filled a need in internet commerce - (Thiel made $50 million when he sold PayPal to eBay - he then invested, on a lark, $500,000 in his friend, Mark Zuckerberg's, Facebook start up - that stake is now worth an estimated $1.7 billion) but does that combo of luck/genius/timing outweigh being a born again libertarian whose latest project (along with Patri Friedman, grandson of Nobel prize winning economist Milton Friedman) is called SeaSteading - investing in sea worthy free standing oceanic platforms as autonomous experimental communes in international waters?

Day to day life in the trenches doesn't stand a chance.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rubber bands, Slinkys and Occupy Wall Street...

I am ready to admit that humans are powerless over the world's economic systems and that the world has become unmanageable.

Check this out: (hat tip to

" throughout all of human history up until 2003 we created 5 exabytes of data (five billion gigabytes). We now create that much every day. In 2011, we’ll create 1.8 zettabytes of data (a zettabyte is a 1000 exabytes) and we’ll be creating over 20 times that by 2020."

The world has too many moving parts for anyone to understand or manage. So complex that not only can't we figure out the answers to the problems that face us (economic, social, scientific) - there are no answers.

Imagine that the world is made up of rubber bands and slinkys. If you stretch a rubber band and then release it it snaps back to its original length. A slinky once put in motion down a set of stairs will continue down the stairs (In other words some things go back to the way they were and other things once set in motion continue to keep going). Now imagine a bazillion rubber bands and slinkys comprising a giant Rube Goldberg contraption and all the comings and goings and interactions and interrelationships of all these zettabytes. And there behind the curtain stands whoever... Obama, Romney, Berlusconi, Papandreou, Hu Jintao - people - talented people but human (i.e. flawed and imperfect (some more flawed and more imperfect than others). I am not sure any human can even tell which are the rubber bands and which are the slinkys any more.

I think that is what Occupy Wall Street is about. I think it is not just about economic reform (although that is a part of it). It is not just about a political point of view (although that is a part of it). I think it is about a belief that the world has too many moving parts. It is about the kind of community and society people want. It may even be about our existence.

As one Occupier was reported to have said:

"It is not OK for the richest 1%, to make us bend to the will of the financial institutions and the labyrinth of dividends, offshore tax havens, and money making schemes. Stop referring to fair taxation as socialism. Stop telling dishwashers and migrant farmers that you earned your money, that you work hard for what you have, because lots of people work hard and don't have. There are a lot of hard working people who are not rich. Don't look down from your fairy tale and tell us that people get what they deserve. Stop quoting Reagan. Stop telling us that riches beyond imagination breeds innovation. Stop pissing on our leg and calling it rain.

Occupy Wall Street is not a set of demands, it is a statement: We exist."

PS. I read this piece to my wise and now 87 year old Uncle Yoda (who lives in Santa Barbara, CA because he says it is the only place on earth where calling heaven is a local call) and he said that it was "Typical Rough Fractals, lovely, well intentioned, idealistic and full of shit". He did add however that he does think that "the problem with the world is that it is run by humans and that does not bode well for the future of mankind".

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What The Living Do - Poem by Marie Howe

What the Living Do

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.

And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.

It's winter again: the sky's a deep headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living room windows because the heat's on too high in here, and I can't turn it off.

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those

wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.

Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want

whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss -- we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,

say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:

I am living, I remember you.

~ Marie Howe ~

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - Rev. Dean Brackley

Rev. Dean Brackley, 65, Dies; Served in El Salvador

The Rev. Dean Brackley belonged to an order of priests, the Jesuits, sometimes referred to as “God’s Marines,” because of a 16th-century founder’s military background and because of their long tradition of intellectual rigor as teachers and missionaries.

Father Brackley, who died on Oct. 16 in El Salvador, imbued that nickname with some literal meaning in 1990, when he left a teaching job at Fordham University to take up residence in the San Salvador university dormitory where six Jesuit priests and two women had recently been killed by government military forces.

He admitted to being scared. But the job description for replacements of the slain priests, all of them faculty members at the Universidad Centroamericana, seemed to have his name on it: “They wanted a Jesuit. They wanted someone who had a Ph.D. in theology. They wanted someone who spoke Spanish,” he told a friend. “I started looking around and realized there weren’t that many of us.” He said he would return in four or five years.

Father Brackley remained in the job for the rest of his life. A spokesman for the university said the cause of death was pancreatic cancer. He was 65.

His decision to go to El Salvador was not the first time Father Brackley had taken the road less traveled. In 1980, after completing his doctorate in theology at the University of Chicago, he had several teaching offers from colleges around the country, said the Rev. Neil Connolly, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Manhattan and a longtime friend.

Instead, Father Brackley took a job with a church-sponsored community organization in New York called South Bronx People for Change, where he worked with drug addicts, helped tenants organize and acted as a go-between in tensions between residents and the police.

He had been there almost 10 years — and begun riding his bicycle to Fordham University to teach ethics and theology classes — when the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter were killed on Nov. 16, 1989.

Inquiries determined that the killings were carried out during an extended battle between left-wing insurgents and government forces, part of the country’s decade-long civil war. American-trained government soldiers, who considered the Jesuits leftist sympathizers, dragged the six priests from their beds in the university dorm, ordered them to lie on the ground outside, shot them in the head and then killed the women as potential witnesses. Nine soldiers were charged, but only two were convicted in connection with the executions; both were released in a general amnesty in 1993.

When Father Brackley told friends that he was asking the Jesuit order to send him as a replacement, Father Connolly remembers flinching.

“We didn’t exactly ask him not to go,” he said. “We just said, ‘Gee, Dean, you could do an awful lot of good right here. Why not stay?’ ”

“Father Brackley said ‘he felt called to continue the work’ of those slain,” Father Connelly said, though he told a New York Newsday columnist in 1990 that in some ways he was torn: “My body began to factor it in before my head — I found my knees shaking, without really knowing why.”

He was joined by five other Jesuit priest volunteers at the campus residence in El Salvador, including one other American, the Rev. Charles J. Beirne, an academic administrator who later became president of LeMoyne College in Syracuse. Father Beirne died last year.

Joseph Dean Brackley Jr. was born on Aug. 9, 1946, in Wynantskill, in upstate New York, the oldest of four children of J. Dean and Inez Brackley. He was ordained in 1976. He is survived by his mother; two brothers, Douglas, of Glen Burnie, Md., and Richard, of Mechanicsville, Va.; and a sister, Jane Davis of Brentwood, Tenn.

Father Brackley wrote frequently for the Jesuit weekly magazine America and wrote two books about Catholic theology and priestly discernment while teaching at the university in San Salvador and ministering to a rural parish about 50 miles away.

In the months immediately after the massacre, government soldiers were frequently stationed at the campus, ostensibly as guards. Their presence created an atmosphere of apprehension more than safety, Father Brackley told friends. But as it turned out, the killings had marked a turning point in the war, attracting worldwide attention and Congressional investigations. A peace accord was signed in 1992.

Throughout the 1990s, Father Brackley was the unofficial Jesuit greeter for waves of official and unofficial delegations of visitors to the killing site. Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, was then a staff investigator for Representative Joe Moakley of South Boston, who was chairman of one of the House investigating committees.

“It was a very dangerous time, emotions on all sides were very high, and Dean brought this peacefulness to the situation. He would greet the delegations and tell them the history of the war and the story of what happened at the UCA,” he said, referring to the university.

Every tour concluded with a viewing of the eight rose bushes planted in memory of the victims, and an introduction to the man who tended them, the father and husband of the two women killed.

Eugene Palumbo contributed reporting from San Salvador.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Poem of the Week - The Lanyard.

Billy Collins reading his wonderful poem, The Lanyard.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bye Bye Miss American Pie...(?)

At first I thought the passage below was kind of not interesting but the more I read it the more intrigued I am by it and the more pressing the question it poses seems.

"We've changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don't think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries–we're actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation's responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?"

... from David Foster Wallace's posthumously published novel, The Pale King, set mostly inside the hallways and cubicles of an IRS audit center.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Size of God...

A good, old friend of mine and I recently exchanged a few e mails on the subject of drug addiction and mental illness. (By way of background - my friend has (in the 40 years I have known him) pursued, thought about, been involved in and followed what I think is best described (however inadequately) as a devout and spiritual path. In contrast, "spiritual" is not the first word likely to come to any one's mind to describe my own path. Nonetheless he and I have over the years (and since the beginning of our friendship) often discussed spirituality and have over the years developed a language that works for us to talk about such things in ways that, despite our different perspectives, provide a way of understanding each other.

In any event, in the email exchange my friend was saying how hard it is to imagine the experience of "what it is like to be a patient on a locked ward of a psychiatric hospital or more to the point, what it is like to be discharged and out wherever again."

As an aside, he also said that he envied my chicken manure (a reference to my having told him that I recently shoveled 8 large bags of chicken manure that I got from our local chicken farm into my vegetable garden (we are both amateur gardeners).

I agree with him that it is questionable whether civilians can deeply imagine (i.e., know) the experience of addiction and mental illness (much as it is, for example, for them to "know" the experience of combat). I replied to him that I think "being a patient is Hell and that recovery is a miracle". It is interesting to me that, "non-believer" that I am, sometimes (and I am obviously not alone in this) I resort to religious language to describe certain types of human experience. In this case, my attempt to convey a sense of a certain kind of utter despair and helplessness and, on the other side, transcendence that religious imagery seems almost to have been invented for (among other things).

So that got me thinking again about the seeming divide between believers and non believers - it has never made sense to me and I have always had an aversion to the "us and them" aspect of the whole thing (and I mean this as to both sides of the divide). How can something that is not broad enough to encompass everyone without duality, without suggesting enlightenment and un enlightnment, without suggesting one path versus another, possibly lay claim to anything as big as "truth"?. Everyone knows suffering and everyone knows joy (and everyone knows the golden rule) and I am not sure it matters where you put (or don't put) God or mysticism into that equation or how or what you do to express your own experience of the meaning of it all. This leaves me somewhat on the sidelines of the whole discussion but only in so far as having any answers, questions I got plenty.

And then today, I happened upon this concluding paragraph to an article I was reading on the weekly "Sugar" column of the daily Rumpus web site (
). The article is about a woman's questioning of her own faith and experience upon receiving her young daughter's diagnosis of a brain tumor and struggles through treatment (the daughter is in remission). I found the article to be a moving discussion about faith. No conclusions - just thoughtful (and I think beautiful) questions:

"What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah? Would you see the miracle in that?"

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pity and Loathing in front of the coffee shop...

I happened to run into a pretty down and out group of semi juvenile delinquents who were hanging out in front of the coffee shop where I stop to get my morning coffee. I was in an unusually expansive (and brave) mood which resulted in our having a conversation about self pity and self loathing. One of the young men suggested that his self pity is when he feels sorry for himself for circumstances that, through no fault of his own, are real handicaps. In his case he was raised by a single Mom who was mentally ill and had no job. His childhood was not an easy one and he felt stigmatised and different than other kids his age and he feels resentful, angry and sorry for himself - self pity based on negative circumstances inflicted on him by the world.

One of the other young men said he experiences self loathing which he described as a form of self pity based not on external circumstances but rather on the guilt he feels for being imperfect or "less than" - for example being a self described "selfish, impulsive, asshole who keeps fucking up and should know better"... -- self loathing based on negative circumstances inflicted on him by himself. This is then made worse by the fact that being an impulsive selfish asshole is a disadvantage of his own making which makes him feel more guilty which, in turn, makes him hate himself more and on and on.

Our conclusion was that self loathing is a lot like self pity but with the added ingredient of guilt. We also decided that in both cases these feelings served as a basis to justify bad choices as in "I have it so bad that my angry, resentful attitude (coming from either self pity or self loathing) is justified. (almost as if the attitude had a will of its own which manipulated its host (the brain) into believing it was justified so that the brain would not adjust thereby prolonging the life of the attitude rather than allowing the brain to see that the attitude is mal adaptive, does not work (i.e.,it does nothing to improve our circumstances) and therefore make a change).

As an aside I was really impressed by the level of thought of this rag tag, fucked up, limited, semi comatose collection of misfits. It was like the Dirty Dozen meets Wittgenstein.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Should We Legalize Drugs?

I am concerned about eliminating a motivator to not use or to quit using drugs. Drugs work - they eliminate pain, make you forget, produce euphoria. Then they stop working because you get sick or you crash your car, or you lose your job or you lose your kids or you OD or you get arrested. Sometimes you get arrested before you get irreparably sick or before you lose your kids and as a result of being arrested you become convinced to get clean. I am not sure we should eliminate a convincer.

In addition, our current system is kind of a hybrid of the criminal justice and public health approaches to addiction. A lot of addicts get treatment because they have been mandated through the legal system. Drug courts are empowered to impose treatment as an alternative to jail, addicts who have been busted get treatment to lighten their sentences and parents seek help for kids early on because their kids got mixed up with the law.

There are valid theories that support legalizing drugs: it might eliminate criminal activities around the illicit drug trade, it would reduce crime, it would transform drug addiction from a criminal issue to a public health issue, clean needles would reduce disease etc. In support of those theories people often point to real world examples such as Switzerland and Portugal (see for example The New Yorker article, October 19 issue, about Portugal). But those situations have yielded mixed results, the data is not complete and a lot of subjective interpretation of the data is going on.

I worry that the net effect of legalizing drugs would be more addiction, not less.
I am not saying that avoiding legal consequences would be sufficient motivation for anyone to remain clean (although it might be) nor am I saying that there aren't other motivators aside from legal to seek treatment. I am just saying that the legal system appears to have play a positive role.

PS. The Supreme Court in a landmark and controversial case decided, based upon the doctrine of separation of church and state, that state supported drug rehab programs (whether prison based or via parole or probation conditions or through hospital or clinic rehabs) may NOT require attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous programs because of references that the 12 steps of AA make to a "higher power". This despite many interpretations that a higher power is not necessarily a religious concept - many in AA interpret God to be "Good Orderly Direction" or "Group Of Drunks" (referring to the AA meeting itself) and despite significant evidence that AA and NA are by far the most effective long term drug treatment programs in existence. As you can guess, I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court decision.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Unified Theory Of Capital Management

Often times I find that very simple, unsophisticated stuff is right on. For example, hokey as many may seem, I think self help books get a bad rap because there are a lot of exploitative crummy ones but some make prefect sense. Same with cliches that are often overlooked or dismissed as simple minded, For example I believe that "act in haste, repent in leisure", "familiarity breeds contempt" and "absence makes the heart grow fonder" speak volumes about impulsive behavior and relationships.

With that introduction, below is an article that is simple yet I think gets to the heart of some of the psychological underpinnings of the ways that people think about money, investing, saving, careers, retirement and financial risk.

But the thing I also like about this article is that that it implies something important - that people view the continuum of control that they actually have over their lives in different ways. That is as much a "spiritual" issue (for lack of a better word) as a financial one and therefore touches on everything including our 401(k)'s.

The Surprising Money Habits of Successful Entrepreneurs

(Carl Richards is a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah. His web site is

After many years of talking with entrepreneurs, a calling that seems to appeal to the creative side of people, I’ve come up with what I define as the Unified Theory of Capital Management.

It goes something like this: We all have at least two types of capital that we should be managing: our personal human capital and our financial capital. In simple terms, human capital is the ability we have to earn money. Financial capital is our savings or investments.

So why should this matter to you?

Based on my experience and talks with entrepreneurs, I believe everyone, not just entrepreneurs, needs to manage these two types of capital differently than they do now. So I came up with some strategies to help you manage these two distinct, but connected, resources.

For personal human capital, you want to do three things:


For financial capital, you want to do two things:


The majority of entrepreneurs express a strong desire to focus on things they can control, or have at least some control of. For example, I’ve noticed that it’s hard for entrepreneurs to invest in the stock market because they have no control over the outcome.

I remember meeting with a friend of mine whose family had owned a fairly prominent real estate development company that was successful over multiple generations. Behind my friend’s desk, the same desk that his grandfather and father sat at, there was a framed stock certificate.

When I asked him about the stock certificate and why it had such a prominent place, he replied that it was the first and last publicly traded stock that the family ever bought. When the stock started to go down, it proved too frustrating for the family because they couldn’t do anything to fix it. They couldn’t paint the fence, change the zoning, remodel or come up with a new marketing plan. Things seemed completely out of control. So they made a decision to focus on those things that they were good at, in this case real estate development, and then protect the money they made.

Again and again, I’ve heard successful entrepreneurs say that their success came from similar focus on personal human capital and those opportunities where their creative skills, relationships and experiences can mitigate potential risk. But once they make their money, they protect their financial assets by investing far more conservatively than you might think given their propensity for making risky business decisions.

One thing that I’ve heard over and over is that the way to become wealthy is through focus and concentration, while the way to stay wealthy is through diversification and protection. To that end, you do not have to be a creative entrepreneur to benefit from the Unified Theory of Capital Management.

Everyone can focus on improving personal human capital — compounding it — by looking for ways to take on a side job, increasing salary and improving skills and education. Then, look for ways to protect the money through diversification using conservative investments.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Poem of the Week - A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts - Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955)
A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur?

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten on the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone?
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

(from "Harmonium," 1923)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I Guess Eisenhower Was A Socialist...

During the Eisenhower administration (1953 - 1961), the tax rate on the richest Americans was 91 percent. With tax rates high, the wealthy built factories and bought new equipment and hired workers. The economy boomed. High tax rates on the wealthy seem to have turned them into better job creators then than the low tax rates we have now.

Just to be clear:

Earned income is income made from a job.

Capital gains, in contrast, is money made from the appreciation in value of something one owns (assets such as stocks, property, art, ...), rather than money earned from a job.

Average families gets most of their income from their jobs, and thus the tax rate on earned income is most important to them. The wealthy get most of their income from the appreciation of assets, and thus the tax rate on capital gains is more important to them. (Side Note: salaries paid to managers of Venture Capital Funds, Hedge Funds, and Private Equity Funds are classified as "carried interest" and taxed at the lower capital gains rate. There is no justification for this and it amazes me. PS - a lot of corporations structure their executive compensation in ways that enable them to also pay tax at the lower rate or in tax deferred retirement accounts (neither of which are available to non-executive salaried employees).

It is considered to be almost gospel today that capital gains should be taxed at the far lower rate of 15%. This is why the middle and working class, who are dependant on earned income, effectively pay taxes at a higher rate than do the wealthy. By the way, a higher capital gains rate would encourage long term investment because capital gains tax is not paid until the sale of the asset.

In 1953 - 1961, capital gains were not treated differently from earned income, so the rich paid 91% tax on capital gains. Since then the rate has dropped from 91% to 15% - makes no sense - but if you earned most of your money from investment income - it sure is favorable to your personal pocketbook. If most of your income is from your job - it sure seems unfair that you pay a higher rate on your income than a wealthy person does on their income.


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