Thoughts on Meaning and Writing

I was once at a dinner party and someone was telling me about her recent trip to Arizona. One of the highlights was visiting a biodome project where scientists had attempted to achieve a totally self-sustained structure in preparation for the colonization of other planets. I told her that Steve Bannon used to run that place. She didn’t believe me. I obnoxiously pulled out my phone and showed her Bannon’s Wikipedia page.

Steve Bannon has lived a fascinating life. That’s not an evaluation of his politics or morality, it’s a statement of fact. Witness Bannon’s life in bullet points:

  • Born in 1953 in Norfolk, Virginia to a telephone lineman and a housewife
  • Attended military prep school and then Virginia Tech for a degree in Urban Planning, was elected president of the student body, worked in a junk yard
  • Served in the navy for seven years in the Pacific fleet
  • While in the navy, earned a Masters in National Security Studies from Georgetown
  • After leaving the navy, earned an MBA from Harvard
  • Got a job at Goldman Sachs as an investment banker in the mergers & acquisitions division, worked way up to a Vice President position
  • Left Goldman Sachs with some colleagues to launch Bannon & Co., a boutique investment bank specializing in media, nabbed a small slice of syndication rights to mega-hit tv show Seinfeld, still receives residual payments from the show to this day
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Notes on Spain

Bypassing numerous international restrictions, I traveled from America to Spain for a month-long trip in July.  Most of the month was spent in and around Madrid, but I took a brief trip north to Galicia, specifically Vigo and Santiago de Compostela. It’s a beautiful country, great culture, fun people. Here I will compile my notes on Spain and some assorted thoughts about the country and Europe as a whole. For reasons that will soon become relevant, I want to say upfront:

  • I really enjoyed my time in Spain
  • I spent much of my time with young, politically lefty, artsy types
  • I’m going to make a bunch of generalizations about Spaniards and Europeans off of my experience both with this trip and living abroad in Asia for many years. My confidence interval on most of these claims is fairly low.

With that said, here are my notes on things I found interesting during my time in Spain alongside pictures I took on the trip:

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How Much Would You Need to be Paid to Live on a Deserted Island for 1.5 Years and Do Nothing but Kill Seals?

I read and reviewed Oliver Platt’s Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age over a year ago, and I haven’t been able to get one small story from the book out of my head.

In 1793, the British government launched the Macartney Embassy, the nation’s first formal diplomatic mission to China. A few ships led by statesman George Macartney set sail from Portsmouth, England, traveled down to Rio de Janeiro, then around the southern tip of Africa, across the bottom of the Indian Ocean, up through Indonesia, along the Chinese coast, to finally arrive at Beijing. The whole journey took ten months, and the diplomats played cards, drunk tea, looked out for exotic wildlife, and watched crew whippings to forget about being bored out of their minds.

While in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the crew spotted a tiny volcanic island. To their surprise, there were two men on the land desperately waving a makeshift flag in the air to get the crew’s attention. Macartney assumed the men were shipwrecked sailors, and he quickly ordered the ships to stop to lend assistance.

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On the island, the crew found five men – three Frenchmen and two Americans (from Boston). Surprisingly, they were not shipwrecked, but were living on the island voluntarily under contract with a French merchant company. Their jobs were to harvest seal pelts to sell in Canton, China. They had been alone on the island for six months and had wracked up 8,000 seal pelts, and they still had another year to go on the contract before the merchant company picked them up.

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Against Dog Ownership

Image result for dogs

I don’t know if I believe what I’ve written here. This isn’t a manifesto, it’s more like a bunch of random thoughts I can’t get out of my head. I could be convinced they’re all wrong, or that I’m not going far enough. I don’t hate dogs and I don’t hate dog owners, but part of me hates everything about dog ownership.

I grew up with a cat, but no dog. I have always liked animals, and thought dogs were particularly adorable with their playfulness and enthusiasm. But I never really understood what it meant to own a dog until just recently when I dog-sat a cockapoo for a family member.

I had seen this cockapoo a few times before and it was always just as happy and bounding as you’d expect any well-kept dog to be. When I arrived at the family member’s apartment, the dog jumped all over me and eagerly accepted my pets, even rolling over on its back to get some belly rubs. My family member told me that I’d have to feed the dog this expensive dry food with tasty treats on top, and that I’d have to walk her four times per day (which seemed excessive, but whatever), but that was about it. She was a great dog and would be easy to deal with.

The family member left the next morning and the cockapoo immediately fell into a depression. I say this as someone who is usually baffled when I hear that a dog is “anxious” or “eager” or “scared,” because honestly dogs always just look happy or sad to me. But even I could tell the cockapoo was miserable. She wouldn’t eat, she didn’t want to walk more than a block, she cried sporadically, and she slept pretty much every minute of the day I wasn’t taking her for four walks.

After two days of this, I texted my relative to ask what to do. In a massive block paragraph, she basically told me to cheer the dog up.

To which I thought – how the fuck do I do that?

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Examining 1999’s Culture Through Its Best Movies

Image result for the matrix 1999

In college, I had this class where we were supposed to learn about 19th century upper-class British culture by analyzing hundreds of paintings commissioned and hung in wealthy British estates during that time period. Some insights are surface level, like British people loved to hunt foxes. Other potential insights were hotly debated in class, like whether the presentation of women tended towards subservience or maternalism, or both, or neither, etc.

Either way, it was surprisingly fun, and I enjoyed sort of doing it again with Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen, by Brian Raftery.

The book examines dozens of 1999’s best movies, ranging from entire chapters dedicated to Blair Witch ProjectFight Club, and Sixth Sense, to brief interludes on American Pie, The Mummy, and Varsity Blues, to passing mentions of many more films. Between the stories, Raftery offers his own nuggets of speculations on the cultural, filmmaking, and business trends that caused 1999 to be such an incredible movie year.

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The New Epidemic – My Experience of Losing a Friend to Heroin

Note – This is a true story based on my own experiences and what I’ve heard from the people involved, but for privacy, all of the names have been changed.

I grew up in a “hamlet” (the administrative level below “town”) in the Northeastern US, with a population of just over 3,000. It’s not so much a community as a bunch of scattered homes in the middle of the woods barely connected by two one-lane highways and a network of mostly dirt roads. The closest thing to a “center” it has is a church, middle/elementary school, deli, and gas station on one stretch of road. I attended that school from kindergarten through 8th grade, and graduated from it 13 years ago from a class of 30 students.

So far, 2 of those 30 have died from heroin overdoses, along with one other student from two grades below me, and a dozen individuals from the adjacent school district within the same age range. All were male.

One of those two from my graduating class was Jack, my childhood best friend. He died at age 23.

His death was entirely unexpected to me, but seemingly everyone else in his life knew he had been addicted to heroin for five years. During and after the wake, funeral, and mourning period, I did my best to figure out what happened to him. From a broad sociological standpoint, Jack is a case study in how a white, middle-class teenager with good parents growing up in a fairly affluent place somehow ends up dying from a drug addiction. From a personal standpoint, I just wanted to know how this happened without me knowing about it.

The following is my attempt at putting everything together. I’m going to do my best to not just write another “sad addiction story.” I want to try to find useful take-aways from the experience that have some sort of relevance for how we do/should look at addiction, mental illness, and treatment.

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Disaster Artist – Insanity is No Shortcut to Inspiration

Image result for tommy wiseau and greg sestero

I read Disaster Artist on a whim when the movie came out. I’ve since gone through the audiobook 3.5 times and can confidently say it’s one of my favorite books of all time. I expected just to hear funny anecdotes about the making of a famously awful movie and the man behind it, but I found so much more depth. In my eyes, Disaster Artist is an examination of insanity (which I am defining as “the inability to perceive reality to the degree of low or non-functionality in regular life”). The book is a pushback against a subtle cultural norm that sees crazy people as having some sort of gift or potential or insight that everyone else doesn’t.

This message hit me especially hard because I had my first real experience with a crazy person only a few months before I read Disaster Artist. I don’t want to give too many details about my personal life, but in brief:

I used to run an education business. Six months into operations, we hired an employee whose credentials seemed too good to be true. He was in his 40s, an ex-marine, an industry veteran with an incredible track record. He claimed to have countless connections which would make him invaluable to our customers. In person, he was fast-talking, enthusiastic, a little disorganized, but highly affable – a born salesman. I checked a few of his references, though not as deeply as I should have, and it all seemed fine. We quickly hired him, not wanting to let this opportunity pass.

We fired him 25 days later.

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The Philosophy of Tyler Durden

Image result for tyler durden

I just finished reading Fight Club for the first time in over a decade, so I’m going to break its first rule.

It’s a cliché by this point, but Fight Club really was amazingly prophetic in identifying a few particular social trends/neuroses of the following decades. It was written in 1996, and the more-famous movie came out in 1999, but its core themes were more strongly felt from 2010-today than during the 90s. Some of it is a bit out there, but I think the core themes are still very much alive today.

Here is the philosophy of Fight Club, or at least of Tyler Durden, in a nutshell –

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