Optimistic Cynic

Choosing to be happy sounds so corny, but I am convinced it’s the only way not to get crushed under the weight of this hard, fallen world.

How one become happy in a world filled with imperfect human beings, and while being one yourself, will differ from person to person. Some use religion. Some decide to ignore negative information. Others find that dwelling on the bad helps them cope. Still others might drown the tragedy of being alive with distractions, either electronic or chemical.

I get that. I really do. A lot of what people do depends on their fundamental views of human nature. This deep stuff, but so much of one’s world-view depends on their answer to the following question: are human beings intrinsically good, or intrinsically bad?

Note well that I did not say “evil,” but “bad.”

People can either be perfected here on Earth and it is society that corrupts us, or we are born broken somehow and need to structure society, as well as work on structuring ourselves, to mitigate these tendencies.

In other words, society has to improve, or you have to improve.

This is really a simplified version, but it helps see how each of these basic assumptions about the nature of being can influence nearly everything, from political affiliations to religious beliefs to the very kind of art one creates and enjoys.

I am clearly in the second camp–that human beings are fundamentally bad and have to be trained to be good–and yet I find this a pretty empowering view of things. In fact, gaining a greater understanding of this view, and treating others and myself in accordance with it, has helped me become happier over time:

  • We are all imperfect, but we can all improve;
  • There will never be a Utopia or a heaven on Earth;
  • We all need to be kind to each other and ourselves because we’re all broken; and
  • I’m never surprised or disappointed when people, from the individual to the species level, makes the wrong choice.

Human beings will never learn the hard lessons from history. That is a fact. This is pessimistic, but pessimism about human nature doesn’t have to translate into being a miserable person.

I have come to consider myself as an optimistic cynic. I have no illusions about humanity’s ability to navigate terrible crises before the happen and head things off. This isn’t how the overwhelming majority of us operate, personally or societally. We have a massive inborn self-destructive streak, and we’re really good at sharing this dark tendency with society at large.

But, and here’s the weird part, we’re still here. We haven’t annihilated each other from the face of the planet, despite our best efforts. Yes, many peoples have been extincted through deliberate genocide, or by being conquered and breeded out of existence, or even inadvertently through diseases. Evil stuff like this still happens, and that’s the tendency we see among those people who can’t cope with the burden of being alive: they lash out at existence itself, whether they’re a mass shooter in a movie theater or school, or a dictator directing their anger at “those people over there.”

And yet, civilization exists in many parts of the world. And it’s actually quite nice. Believe it or not, lots and lots of human beings frown upon destructive, evil behaviors. This would not be possible for as long as its been going on (albeit, in a still woefully low proportion of the global human population) if this fallen nature of humanity couldn’t be mitigated.

Our rules don’t perfect us. They keep us free, from the harmful actions of the government, from the harmful actions of our fellow citizens, and often from the harmful actions of ourselves. Laws aren’t magic, but they do express the values of a society. And I’m much happier living in a society where things like rape and murder are punishable by life imprisonment or even death than a world that tries to legislate these dark impulses from our basic nature.

Because that is never going to happen. Continue reading “Optimistic Cynic”

Fasting to Feasting: An Ode to Delayed Gratification

Christos Anesti!

That is Greek for “Christ is Risen,” what we say as a greeting during Easter Sunday and for forty days after.

But this post isn’t about Easter per se. Easter comes into it because it also represented the ending of the Lenten fast. For 40 days, I did not eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy, oil, or wine, aside from designated feast days (and the occasions when there was nothing else fast-friendly to eat save for things that had been cooked with dairy, eggs, or oil.

I also stayed away from sweets and other forms of alcohol. Now, the real reason for fasting during Lent is to fast from sin, but the self-denial of certain foods is an important part.

Anyway, yesterday, let me tell you, I went to town on this little guy:

And let me also tell you: it tasted so damn good.

There is a certain magic to delayed gratification. I’ve written about this concept before as it relates to music, but it would be folly not to highlight the importance of delayed gratification to life.

If you can put off immediate reward after the performance of some kind of duty, you will enjoy and appreciate the reward far more . . . and you will likely get far more stuff done in life. Continue reading “Fasting to Feasting: An Ode to Delayed Gratification”

When Dreams Are Dead and You Just Don’t Care

You know what’s a real pain in the neck?

Starting a band. No, not just that. Being in a band!

First, you need to find other musicians who have the same tastes and ambitions as you. Then you need to find out if they can actually play. Third, you need to determine whether they’re reliable (you’ll soon discover this as rehearsals begin). A practice space is nice, too, If you can actually solve for these parts of the equation, then you need material. And in the untrained world of amateur rock bands, everyone wants the glory but never wants to do the work. And they hate the guy who does.

When you do get gigs, they’re late at night at some dive with awful parking and you’re probably third or fourth on the bill, near closing time, when nobody is there because all of your friends who nodded and smiled and said they’d “totally make it” when you told them about your show bailed on you because of “work” or something, and so you end up playing to another empty room.

What a hassle.

It’s a funny thought to have, though, because for a good fifteen years of my life music was the most important thing to me. I had always been fascinated by the way these vibrations my air molecules can be organized into shapes and sounds and structures. Composition and performance were my passions in equal measure, and I always thought I would have slides into orchestral composition and teaching after some years of performing in various ways.

Not my picture, but I’ve stood on an awful lot of stages like this.

The thing was, I didn’t finish music school. Nope. On some incredibly bad advice, I switched majors and ended up you-know-where. This was also, mostly, my own fault though. Lack of confidence, no real experience dealing with adversity, and growing up in a cage of safety really took their toll on my psyche and resiliency.

Fast-forward to the present. Some years ago, while I was back in school, I had to sell all of my instruments to pay bills. It was crushing, and still stings. But it was necessary, and stings less over time. And while I make rumblings about wanting to buy another bass eventually and maybe even play in a band, the drive just isn’t there like it used to be.

In hindsight, and this is weird to say, selling all my guitars might have been a symbolic letting go of the past, of dreams that won’t come to fruition.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Corinthians 13:11

Perhaps I’ve just moved on. And this is natural. Continue reading “When Dreams Are Dead and You Just Don’t Care”

The Liberating Power of the Trashcan

After careful mathematical analysis, I have come to the conclusion that a good 50% to 75% of what we own is junk.

Want me to show my work? Here:

This is box one of three of old law school textbooks. I graduated law school in 2009 and kept these books, figuring that they would be handy for reference. Maybe I’d have a sweet legal office like you see on TV shows, with shelves full of impressive-looking, imitation leather-bound tomes of legality.

But alas! Legal research this past decade tends to be done on this amazing new thing called the Internet. And the law is constantly changing, so while the historical stuff in my old Constitutional Law textbook might still hold some value, those cases are called “settled” for a reason.

(Also, it is my contention that “constitutional law” as an area of legal philosophy is a joke, since it doesn’t depend on what the words on the document actually say and mean, but whatever “penumbras and emanations” five un-elected judges in black robes decide they mean on any given day. But I digress.)

And check out the textbook from my interesting “History of Anglo-American Law” class.

Cool stuff.

I have looked in these books zero times sine graduating law school. So into the trash they go.

Moving really forces you to assess what is important to keep and what is not. There are also, of course, considerations of space, but that’s a topic for another day. Here we’re talking about the stuff itself.

“Important” is, of course, subjective. I love books and music, so I retained several banker’s boxes of books and music.

I also like old video games, board games, and jigsaw puzzles, so those things were spared the trash. I’ve sold enough things that I later regretted selling, so I’ve learned my lesson (to be fair, I went back to school and had a mortgage and other bills that need paying, but the principle remains).

Clothes? Very important. But if I haven’t worn them in several months, I chucked or donated them.

And it’s kind of liberating! The healing power of the trashcan is something not to be taken lightly, or trifled with. If you’re judicious in what you throw away, you’ll find peace of mind and space you never thought you’d have. Continue reading “The Liberating Power of the Trashcan”

Get Obsessed and Stay Obsessed

The only way to ever get anything done, and done well, is to have ruthless focus.

That’s the truth. If you disagree, you’re wrong.

I’ll use Leonardo da Vinci as an example. The man was a genius, sure, but he seemed too scattershot in his doings to really make that much of a lasting impact in any one field. He’s know for doing a lot of things really well, but he didn’t paint and sculpt like Michelangelo or compose like Beethoven.

Speaking of Beethoven, the man lived music. That’s all he did. Even when deaf, he still composed. Talk about obsession.

It’s not just the arts. Look at what Arnold Schwarzenegger did with his body. Look at what Henry Ford did regarding automobiles. Look at what Bruce Lee did with marital arts.

The problem as I see it is this: We live in a society that discourages the pursuit of excellence by turning leisure for leisure’s sake into a worthy goal in and of itself.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying a movie or a drink or a trip to Vegas or video games of whatever. I argue that there is something wrong with filling every angstrom of free time with entertainment.

There’s not much culture other than pop culture, true. And it’s good to get out of reality from time to time. But it’s more worthy to create something, even if nobody else will see it.

Keeping minds active and inspired is one of the greatest things one human being can accomplish for another.

Continue reading “Get Obsessed and Stay Obsessed”

Learn Or Die: Criticism, Setbacks, and Process

If you’re not learning, you’re dying. If you’re not willing to seek out and take criticism, you’re not learning.

And if you take criticism personally, you’ll never learn.

It’s a lesson I wish I learned fifteen years ago. Who knows where I would be? Instead I let my ego get in the way, imagining that I already knew everything, and thereby stagnating. Hey, at least I felt good about myself!

This lesson hit home when I got edits back from Brian Niemeier on one of my many works in progress, The Rust Man.

Brian, an author I greatly admire, was brutally honest, frank, and helpful. You can tell he wants to help.

Anyway, after reading his edits and his notes, I’m going back to the drawing board on the book. The funny thing is that I stared writing The Rust Man (name subject to change) before I started getting into the PulpRev and it’s ethos.

What ethos? How about clarity over cleverness and short and punchy beats “epic” and bloated. A lot of his suggestions, I’d say 85% or so, are things I was planning on doing anyway as I thought about the book in the months since I wrote it, edited it myself, and sent it to him. My goal is getting it down to 450 or so pages from its current 850.

This also ties into process, which we’ll get to later.

See, I was weaned on epic fantasy, brick-sized tomes by authors like Robert Jordan, Tad Williams (a highly underrated author) and George R. R. Martin. Sure I loved Tolkien and Lewis and even enjoyed Lloyd Alexander, but Big was where it was at. More = better.

But you know something? People generally aren’t buying doorstop-sized books, especially on Kindles and other devices, and especially not in fantasy and sci-fi. And if you want to sell books and build an audience, you do have to give them what they want. There is no shame in this. Continue reading “Learn Or Die: Criticism, Setbacks, and Process”

Axiometry, Part V: “If It Seems Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is.”

"If it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

All of this talk about free stuff has got me thinking about another saying that lots of people seem to live by:

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Now, in my post as an optimistic cynic, the impulse behind this saying is spot-on. But as with anything we take as a bit of conventional wisdom, it’s worth unpacking this particular maxim to see if it really makes sense as a guide for how to live one’s life.

And so without further review, it’s time for more axiometry!

A refresher for what it is that we are doing:

Axiom: “A rule or principle that many people accept as true.”

-metry: “Art, process, or science of measuring.”

I want to measure these axioms to determine whether we should accept them as true.

Here we go.

Continue reading “Axiometry, Part V: “If It Seems Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is.””