Swimming Upstream

imagesWhen it rains in Saigon the streets gradually empty of motorbikes.   They disappear like birds at night.   But in all but the monsoon season, the rains don’t last terribly long, and soon enough the motorbikes emerge again, one at a time, from the alleyways and the invisible niches that make this city magical.

 In full force, the motorbikes swarm through the streets, reflecting the tension of opposites that appears to be more present here than in many other places I have been. At once the motorbikes appear to reflect a society that huddles together, that moves within the protective membranes of family and ethnic identities, and yet there is the pronounced nudging and blistering off of the single motorbike driver; and it is rarely clear when some anonymous bike will dart away from the others in a random vector, rudely declaring its independence from the pack.

 And there are those few who dare to travel against the pack, weaving their way through the swollen mass directly toward you, like a lone salmon finding its way upstream.   The riders on the bikes in the pack somehow don’t appear to feel violated as they veer off to let the intruder through, don’t appear shaken, as if they are somehow recognizing that this is an ineluctable fact of life: that wherever you go and whatever you do there will be someone flinging an obstacle your way that must be dodged.

I wrote those few paragraphs a couple of years ago on a business trip to Saigon. On my first trip to Vietnam, I walked everywhere I went, the second I mostly took taxis and got lifts from associates, and by the third I graduated to motorbikes, the way the locals do it.   It is unreservedly a motorbike culture, although the last time I was there I was told there was a governmental move to ban them from the city.   One of the staff members at the company where I worked told me that you judge people’s social status by the motorbike they drive, which I suppose is no different from the U.S., although we do it here with cars.

It is frightening to ride your motorbike against the swarm of traffic.   In fact, it can be terrifying, but the motorbike riders of Vietnam take it in stride.  They are tough and resilient, and don’t appear to bat an eye at the danger coming toward them, if in fact they perceive a danger at all.

As often as I have happily ridden with the crowd in my life, I have also learned the value of riding toward and against it.   If you speak up against authority in an organization and they punish you for it, then you are in the wrong organization.   Better organizations value dissent.   Prior to starting my own company, in which I proudly welcomed criticism, I had a pretty stellar run in two non-profits.   In both of those organizations I started on a low rung and left on a high rung.   The pattern was simple: work with the pack, develop relationships with the leaders, and make constructive recommendations designed to further the mission even when that meant radical changes to the status quo.

Such an approach doesn’t always work. Staff rebellions took place in both organizations, and in one, those who complained vociferously were fired, and subsequent to their dismissal, almost as if in spite, administrators implemented their recommendations.   The staff were fired, I believe, because the constructive elements of their criticisms were buried beneath personal antipathies. They focused more intently on what was wrong with the organization than on intelligent solutions that met the needs of all stakeholders, and the leaders of the pack were more intent on punishing insurrection than in maintaining a pack of discontented employees.

It isn’t always fun to ride against the pack, yet while it can be hazardous, the rewards can be substantial.   Fortunately, in every instance where I stood up to authority and rebelled against the status quo, I was rewarded, whether it was getting a better night’s sleep due to an enhanced feeling of integrity or rapidly being promoted. But as bold as I may become, you won’t find me intentionally riding through a long pack of motorbikes in the opposite direction.   In an organization, pretty much the worst thing that can happen to you by insisting on going up the down staircase is that you will get pink-slipped.   On a motorbike, well, the pink may turn out to be blood and the slip may be more of a collision, and with all those bikes coming at you, that could end up being one singularly bad day.






American Diners

American diners are best experienced at about 5:45 in the morning, when the air is crisp and the underbelly that is America at its core reveals itself.   I imagine the rest of the world has its equivalents, but I haven’t seen anything quite like the counter culture in which locals and travelers find each other cohabiting among spinning cracked leather or plastic-covered stools, over-carbed locals waking for steaming black coffee meeting travelers along the veins of the great American westward expansion, highways and byways carrying the laissez faire, hyperactive souls of those intent on going somewhere, anywhere else, because in America you simply could.

The diners are still around, though harder to find, and I am as drawn to them today as I was when they were less fusty. The waitresses still call you “honey” or “sweetie,” and their faces if not weathered by a harder life than anyone should have, are overly smooth and naïve and primed for the etching that accompanies the trauma of what at first appears to be a good decision. Oh, the stories those waitresses could tell, I imagine, although I never heard any of them. With the exception of a couple of anachronistic coffee shops in my small town that don’t quite achieve true diner status, I am not, after all, ever a local.   I am always just passing through.

I don’t know how the waitresses do what they do, how they manage to crack convincing smiles while pouring the thousandth cup of coffee of the day.   But they do what they do efficiently, acrobatically carrying five plates or more at once, taking orders with charm and grace and a gritty grounding that would make a therapist blush. Somehow these heroines manage to instill hope among the hopeless, which is perhaps why they come, to see Flo or Rosie, Ali or Fran, and even from time to time perhaps ignite a small spark in the otherwise stale lives that greet them in the stiff of the morning.

The customers are, for some reason, mostly men.   Grizzled men, hard-scrabbled, calloused, simple with big opinions and broken hearts. They are, I imagine, Trump voters, because they are frightened, lost boys, and the Bloviator-in-Chief is someone they know, someone who breaks easily and gets feathers ruffled and calls his big brother to beat you up after school.   They know this guy.

One of the more corpulent customers, a man of about 50, or maybe 60, or maybe 40 going on 60, walks over to a booth where a family of three are sitting.   The youngest looks to be in her late teens, and the man recognizes them and asks the girl to stand and walk with him over to the counter.   She obliges, and he puts his arm around her in a proud, avuncular way, and announces loudly to the five or six other men at the counter that she has just received her degree in nursing from some college.   She corrects him, and says she is some sort of technician, but the men all applaud her and she smiles genuinely, recognizing that somehow becoming anything is something to be proud of. Slightly embarrassed, she walks back to her parents in the booth, and they resume their now cold breakfast, speaking in tones I cannot hear from my booth some 10 feet away.

When not threatened, there is a sweet vulnerability to these men, maybe to the species in its entirety. I feel uncomfortable thinking about them as the “other,” but there is a big divide in this country, and as a rule, I am not invited to their homes for dinner nor are they invited to mine.   That is a regrettable fact of current American life, one which I know I should work harder at rectifying, but it feels like the gap has become too large.

This all happened on my way to City of Hope, where I was about to receive an MRI to see if my cancer had returned.   I never saw myself belonging to that crowd in the diner. But the MRI technician reminded me, now mostly in retrospect, of the waitresses I have met over the years.   After being positioned on the table, lying flat on my back, she asked if I was ready, and when I nodded affirmatively she gently rubbed my leg for about two seconds, and that simple gesture calmed me down, like the easy smile of a waitress in an American diner who doesn’t know you from Adam, but calls you “honey” as she pours you another cup of coffee.

10,000 Noses

logbookI had a hard time learning how to read as a kid.   It seemed to elude me, and I remember feeling ashamed and incompetent that other kids were reading well before me.   I don’t think it really “took” until I was in third grade, and then I remember reading Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift books, such as “Tom Swift and the Megascope Space Prober.”   My other staple was MAD magazine, in which easy-to-read cartoons were plentiful.

Although not generally sycophantic, I bordered on being thrilled when, about 20 years ago now, I learned that MAD cartoonist Sergio Aragones lived in the same small town to which I had recently moved. I saw his unmistakable looming presence at a local coffee shop, and somehow we struck up a conversation. When I told him how much I admired his work, he invited me to his studio, which at the time was just about 20 yards from the coffee shop.

It was there that I was to add another entry to my long list of faux pas. When I asked Aragones if he would draw something for one of my son’s friends who I knew admired cartoonists (and grew up, by the way, to be an extraordinary artist himself), he happily obliged, but while he was drawing I mentioned that I couldn’t draw worth a damn and simply had no talent in that department at all.

I quickly realized I had stepped on a landmine when Aragones erupted that that kind of thinking was ridiculous.   He insisted that he had no inborn talent either, but had to practice and learn his craft through hard work.   He told me that he didn’t believe in the idea of talent. He then drew me a picture of a nose. “The first nose you draw is going to be awkward. It won’t look like a nose at all.   But by the time you draw ten thousand noses, you will have learned how to do it.”

Given that this occurred two decades ago, which is hard for me to fathom, I am not certain those were his precise words, or if the number was exactly ten thousand.   It could be a confabulation, because I do recall that Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers” happened to mention that in order to do anything well, it takes doing it about 10,000 times, or 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell, however, was not intending to dismiss the idea of inborn talent as stridently as Aragones.   Not even 10,000 hours of practice at chess, Gladwell asserts, could make him a master chess player.

For me, the nature-nurture question has become stale, but so have all the other big questions.   I used to think a lot about the nature of consciousness, i.e., how is it possible to form awareness out of the clay of neurons, what’s behind the sky, what time is it, and what is time, anyway? And the one, of course, that plagues me most these days, what is the nature of death? (Or, for that matter, what is a megascope space prober?) Perhaps it is characteristic of my age, or my tangling with cancer over the last couple of years, that have made these questions less pressing.   Maybe it just seems a fruitless expenditure of time and mental effort to try to solve the unsolvable, given the endless possibilities life has to offer and the limits that define mortality.   Why spend precious time and effort on unsolvable problems when I can build a birdhouse, and have something I can look at or give away and bring a sense of bewilderment to the recipient?

Aragones aside, I do believe that most people who think about these things would agree that both some genetic endowment and a lot of practice are required to master anything.   We will certainly disagree about the proportions, and I for one will continue to grieve my lack of endowment in the DNA department.   But if there is such a thing as a genetic endowment for persistence (which I highly doubt), I will assent to the possibility that it is there where I excel.   I have chosen to employ that asset in other places: learning to fly airplanes, write blog posts, do psychotherapy, play the guitar and carry a tune (which, although there has reportedly been some improvement, even 10,000 attempts have failed to accomplish).

I have yet to test Aragones’ theory directly, having drawn less than a hundred of the requisite 10,000 noses.   I could, if I wanted to badly enough, but I lack the motivation, principally because I believe my deficit is just too big, and the nose I see in the mirror is, frankly, quite enough for a lifetime.

The FAA requires pilots to keep a logbook in which they are to enter basic information for each flight.   It is not out of braggadocio alone that a pilot will tell you that he or she has 15,000 hours of flight time; pilots are required to know that number.   But there is some pride that pilots take in the size of their log, because there is a prevailing view that the thicker you make it the better.   I have written here before about the myth of experience (or, if I haven’t, I will soon).   My thoughts can be summed up the same way I have tried to placate just a few significant others in my life: it isn’t how big you make it, but it’s how you make it big.

I do believe, however, that if you have flown 10,000 hours, traversed 10,000 miles, or drawn 10,000 noses, you are certainly more accomplished than the person just starting on the journey.   But whether or not you will ever become an Aragones, perhaps no one nose.










It’s a pilot’s job to fly, but the last thing you want is a flighty pilot.   To be flighty, according to Webster, is to be fickle, volatile, or capricious.   None of these are particularly good qualities when flying an airplane.   In fact, much pilot training is designed specifically to resist these tendencies.

It is true in all phases of flight, but most pertinent when landing. The key to a successful landing, it is said ad nauseum, is a stable approach.  Stability, not volatility, is what you want in an airplane, and by direct extension, its pilot.

Yet, airplanes can be too stable.   My Diamond is an example of an airplane designed for stability, with long wings and an oversized T-tail and rudder. It descends from gliders, which—having no internal source of thrust to bail it out of sudden wind shifts, must be designed to resist volatility.   The problem is that—sometimes, stability can work against you, as when you attempt to make a quick, sharp turn, or land in my home airport of Santa Paula, which many pilots have likened to getting in and out of a sardine can. My Austro-Canadian sardine really doesn’t want to make the sharp turns required of getting itself into the can, so it takes considerably more effort on the part of the pilot to fight the sardine’s tendency to swim straight ahead towards freedom.

To call someone flighty is usually not a compliment.   In fact, I don’t think I have ever heard it that way.   It isn’t a particularly valued trait, in this or any other culture I know of.   People want to know where they stand, and they don’t like fickleness or unpredictability, unless they can dictate the time and place.   In other words, we value unpredictability when we can predict it.   Safety, in humans, seems to trump adventure.

But life without unpredictability, of course, would not be a life much worth living. As humans are safety-seeking, we are also novelty-seeking, because it is through novelty that we learn and grow, and learning and growing in its wonderfully circular fashion eventually makes us safer. But ultimately, it is about landing safely.

Flighty is an adjective we usually hear attributed to women.   Men can be flighty as well, but they are usually called “silly” or “undependable.” “Silly” is okay if it happens briefly and doesn’t get out of control, but “undependable” is usually a deal-killer.   At the risk of over-generalizing, women often want men to keep them safe, and men just want women to keep them.

The chief complaint I hear from women who are trying to find a male partner is that they are boring. Stable is good, and very necessary, especially on approach. Confidence, I am told, is a big turn-on.   But too much stability in a relationship leads to the kind of stultifying ennui that motivates the other to find adventure in dodgy pastures.

Flying, unto itself, is a risky adventure, because humans were not designed for it, so we are fighting nature the whole way. To fly is to fight nature in the same way the philosopher Merleau-Ponty said that we owe our existence to our resistance to the world. It is not whether we fly or not, or whether we fight or flee, but rather how we do it that matters, and we can do it with too much stability, be boring, dependable, and fail to turn before the mountain hits us in the nose, or too much flightiness, and guarantee ourselves a trip on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.   As in all things, the trick to flying is to find a middle way, the right combination of gentle and firm.   And ultimately, that is the most likely path to a safe and fulfilled life.


Finding Beauty

I recently arrived home from Norway, and in retrospect it certainly has earned its ranking as the world’s happiest place.   When I was there, I found nearly everything I did to be relatively pleasurable.   Rambling around Bergen, Norway’s second largest city (with a population of about 260,000—about a quarter of that in Bergen County, New Jersey), I had my choice of which coffee shop in which to sit and write unburdened by phone calls, all within walking distances over cobblestone streets set in patterns to channel the soft bursts of cleansing rain away and onto a path toward reunification.   I stood on the bow of a ferry cruising quietly down a fjord, surrounded by mountains on three sides inhabited by wisps of human civilization, perfectly chilled by a light drizzle, the experience vitalized by my own chosen soundtrack from my outmoded but capable iPod.

When the iPod’s charge ran out (neither it nor I are capable of holding much of a charge these days), and therefore left momentarily with my thoughts, I wondered if those few people living on the mountainside overlooking the fjord’s stunning depth and placidity took it for granted.   Beauty, by definition, is fugue-like and ephemeral. It is as though each time it is encountered there is a sense of it being the first time.   When it ceases its fugitive quality beauty transmogrifies into wallpaper and becomes merely part of the décor.

Living in a place for any length of time tends to diminish the attention we pay to its natural beauty, as we get caught up in our meandering thoughts on the drive to and from home.   But it doesn’t necessarily make it disappear, aided sometimes by nature’s reminders. Nature at its most beautiful calls to itself, as seasons change, hay is cut, and poppies pop.   So it is that the few miles’ drive between my home and the closest town to which I live still manages to cause a slight shallowness in my breath and rapidity in my heart rate.   But in that I think I am lucky, and grateful that the slings and arrows of my particular fortune haven’t completely deadened my senses.

Having yet to unpack the resin troll I ashamedly bought in Norway as a souvenir, there is nothing here at home that knows that I have been gone.   I know this place fairly well, having lived here now longer than anywhere else, but other than the clutter and the scarring of the landscape that inhabitation brings, it doesn’t know me at all.   In fact, after I am gone, if left alone to its own devices, it will return to itself, likely outliving me for longer than any amount of time I can begin to comprehend.

Even the people whose lives ordinarily connect with mine won’t know, or barely care, that I have been gone or how, if at all, it has changed me.   I am reminded of the first trip I ever took abroad, after graduating college.   I backpacked around Europe for 7 weeks, and when I returned home my parents didn’t ask a single question about the trip.   I always believed that I mattered to them, my health and general well-being, but whether or not I had been to the arctic circle, seen the northern lights, or was abducted by aliens in the Gobi desert held little interest.   If I had told them I met a nice Jewish girl (I met a shiksa, so I didn’t tell them anything at the time), or was accepted to law school, perhaps that might have rung some bells, but even then I would have had to volunteer the information.

Perhaps they knew, or at least believed, that places don’t change people.   As a teenager, when I told my father that I had a desire to travel, he remarked unforgettably, “Why would you want to do that?   People are the same all over.”

I really didn’t believe my father then, and I don’t now, and I thought that his comment was a way to dismiss or reduce his own shame that at that time he could not afford to send me to college as other middle class families did, let alone support me on a trip anywhere.   I wasn’t asking for a handout, but I knew well that much of his life was consumed with breaking out of poverty, and he likely thought that my wish to travel was an extravagance.

Whether or not we are grateful for where we have come to reside, or if the various textures of our domestic life fit us like a finely tailored suit probably matters considerably less than the landscapes of our human connections.   Whether we are recognized for the hard work we do by our slave masters, worry about our children, or get along with a significant other will likely dictate to a greater extent the degree to which we appreciate the landscape around us.

No, dad, people are not the same everywhere you go.   And, of course, they are.   As was probably always the case when we disagreed, we were likely both right and both wrong—except, perhaps, when you went through your (thankfully brief) Republican phase.   Whether or not people are the same everywhere, places are certainly not, but the degree to which our connection to place changes us is just as disputable.   I suspect it does, which is why some of us seek it, though to a lesser degree than the connections we make of the human variety.   But then, there’s the monastic life to consider….


from “The Art of Travel”

Rarely, if ever, do I allow someone else to write my blog post, but here, without consent and possibly in violation of copyright laws, I quote from Alain de Botton’s “The Art of Travel”:

…Nowhere is the appeal of the airport more concentrated than in the television screens which hang in rows from terminal ceilings announcing the departure and arrival of flights and whose absence of aesthetic sef-consciousness, whose workmanlike casing and pedestrian typefaces, do nothing to disguise their emotional charge or imaginative allure.  Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul.  Warsaw, Seattle, Rio.  The screens bear all the poetic resonance of the last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses: at once a record of where the novel was written and, no less importantly, a symbol of the cosmopolitan spirit behind its composition: ‘Trieste, Zurich,Paris.’  The constant calls of the screens, some accompanied by the impatient pulsing of a cursor, suggest with what ease our seemingly entrenched lives might be altered, were we to walk down a corridor and on to a craft that in a few hours would land us in a place of which we had no memories and where no one knew our names. How pleasant to hold in mind, through the crevasses of our moods, at three in the afternoon when lassitude and despair threaten, that there is always a plane taking off for somewhere, for Baudelaire’s “Anywhere! Anywhere!’: Trieste, Zurich, Paris.

Ups and Downs

I had some trouble sleeping last night, so I took the advice I usually give to others and got out of bed.   That is why I am writing these words at 5:30 in the morning, after waking at 4– a cruel hour if there ever was one.   Sleep may be one of the only occasions this life offers in which—finding oneself unable to get down, one should just get up.

It happens sometimes in aviation, when an airplane’s wings begin to collect ice, and warmer air might be found at higher altitudes.   Then, going down might be more hazardous than climbing, so sometimes you have to temporarily go up in order to eventually land safely. Usually, however, what goes up must come down, and what comes down need never go up.

One of my day jobs is to teach a class at UCLA Medical School (now sadly named after David Geffen), where each week a new “case”– as physicians are trained to refer to humans in order to see them as less human– is presented and discussed.   The other week we presented the case of someone who was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mood disorder in which a person swings between periods of mania and depression (hence the outmoded term “manic-depression”).

Bipolar disorder is fairly common, affecting about 6 million Americans a year, but when I was seeing 30 clients a week I found it one of the easiest diagnoses to miss.   That is because when a person shows up in front of you who might be suffering from a bipolar disorder and isn’t in the midst of either a manic or depressive episode, there is nothing in their manner that would lead one to believe there is anything to diagnose. The diagnosis resides in the history (or herstory).

The psychiatric nomenclature (as codified in its “bible,” the DSM) reflects Newton’s law in that what goes up must come down, while the opposite doesn’t apply. One can be diagnosed with either a bipolar disorder or severe depression, but if you are severely manic then you must also be bipolar.   You just can’t stay manic forever. (You can, however, according to DSM, be “hypomanic,” which means you can go on a shopping spree and charge up all your credit cards as long as you don’t go over the credit limit.)

Mania, though, has been around a long time, although I suspect it has generally been viewed as less pathological than depression. Emil Kraepelin, the prolific German psychiatrist often cited as the founder of scientific (as opposed to Freudian, which seemed to emanate more from Freud’s imagination than empirical data) psychiatry, described mania this way over a hundred years ago:

The patient feels the need to get out of himself, to be on more intimate terms with his surroundings, to play a part. As he is a stranger to fatigue, his activity goes on day and night; work becomes very easy to him; ideas flow to him. He cannot stay long in bed; early in the morning, even at four o’clock he gets up, he clears out lumber rooms, discharges business that was in arrears, undertakes morning walks, excursions. He begins to take part in social entertainments, to write many long letters, to keep a diary, to go in a great deal for music and authorship. Especially the tendency of rhyming … is usually very conspicuous. … His pressure of activity causes the patient to change about his furniture, to visit distant acquaintances, to take himself up with all possible things and circumstances, which formerly he never thought about.

One of the first things I did when I awoke at 4 was try to rhyme some words (it’s a song lyric, and it’s not bad but needs a lot of work). On the other hand, I like my furniture exactly where it is and although I love many of my acquaintances, I will be happy today to stay home and clear out my lumber room. And not only am I no stranger to fatigue, she is my constant companion.   No, this is just simple anxiety-driven insomnia, probably about a scan I have coming up.   No mania for me.

It could be that one of the reasons I tend to miss the diagnosis of bipolar disorder is that it is one of those labels I have never applied to myself.   Surely I have had my bouts of depression, a few of which have immured me, but the idea of having boundless energy is as foreign to my nature as waking up one day being able to speak Russian.   Not likely in this lifetime.

The idea that what goes up must come down is echoed in the notion that one can go through life getting stronger or weaker.   Freud (who happened to be born a couple of months apart from Kraepelin but outlived him by 13 years) had a rather bleak view, and having been a military man saw life as a battlefield in which each battle leaves fewer troops surviving to fight the next.   Nietsche, from whom Freud undoubtedly stole the notion of an unconscious (and who, by the way, may have known Kraepelin as they both spent time in Leipzig) is famously quoted as having said that “Whatever you don’t die from makes you stronger.”   I don’t know if he ever really said that, but a friend once tried to console me by telling me that Nietsche said that.   No good friend should waste precious breath with consolation when confrontation could suffice.   There are just too many examples of things that happen, from divorces to lawsuits to car wrecks to marriages to chronic, debilitating illnesses that wear us down and from which recovery just doesn’t happen. Surely, what comes down often just keeps coming down.

On the bright side, however, I am reminded that in order to safely return to earth, one must safely leave it.   And I am convinced that home is made more soothing after having flown far from it and fought a few dragons along the way.   It is simply a matter of fact that one’s wings can collect ice at just about any altitude, and it is never entirely clear whether warmer air can be found above or below you. And in that sense, it may matter less whether one is going up or down than whether one is going at all.





Street in Bergen

Street in Bergen

My family moved from New York to Orange County, California toward the beginning of my junior year in high school.   We lived only a few miles from Disneyland, which billed itself as the “happiest place on earth.”   I did love going to Disneyland.   My next-door neighbor’s sister worked there, and I was able to use her pass to get in for free. This was back in the days when you needed tickets to get on the rides, but I would go there at night and settle myself in New Orleans Square, where a “real” New Orleans jazz band would play and I could sit back, drink a non-alcoholic mint julep, and just take in the music. It was obvious that the happy world Disney created was two-dimensional—mostly facades held up by scaffolding, and while New Orleans Square itself was also faux, the jazz musicians were the real things. Those solitary nights represented brief moments of happiness, something I didn’t experience too often in high school. But it was the brevity of those moments that, I suppose, made them precious.

I am thinking about happiness because I am writing this in the place that the most recent “World Happiness Report” ranked as the actual happiest place on earth—Norway. What makes this the happiest place, according to the committee chaired by the noted economist and likely distant relative John Helliwell, is that it is rich not with money, but with all of the factors empirically found to correlate with happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance. Okay, income is on the list, but not at the top and not necessarily because it is plentiful, but because its distribution is more equitable. I love the notion, as quoted in the summary of Helliwell’s report, that “It is sometimes said that Norway achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it.” The U.S., by the way, came in 19th, down from 3rd a decade ago, primarily due to declining social support and increased corruption.   And these data were taken before Trump’s ascendancy, so I can only imagine how much further the U.S. has sunk.

I have only been here a few days now, but I admit there are many things that make me happy when I see them.   People have faith in their government, which seems to act prudently and on behalf of its citizens and not in the oligarchical fashion I see in the U.S. now and nearly everywhere else I go.   In spite of drastically falling oil prices its economic forecast is excellent according to the financial posts I read, because of the government strategy to develop slowly and plan for the long-term.

I am happy too about the single payor health system, the fact that women are paid and treated equally (the heads of both armed forces are women!), that women receive 100% of their pay while taking 10 months of leave for pregnancy (or 80% if they take a year), that the trains are so quiet and have “family cars” with playrooms where kids can play and mothers can nurse, that I rarely see a police officer and the ones I do see do not wear guns, that there is a general air of safety here, that there is virtually no traffic, multiple options of public transport, babies and young lovers everywhere, that the mentality of the place has caused Norway to take in a large percentage of Syrian and other refugees (1% of its population compared to 0.3% in the U.S.), and yes, no matter which direction you turn there is something natural and beautiful to look at.

The Norwegian attitude, in which humility is considered one of the highest virtues, is a refreshing counterpoint to the narcissism and self-aggrandizement that is now represented on the nightly news as the chief symbol of my native country, as well as the fact that no one expects you to tell them what you are feeling but you are expected to be direct and honest about what you are thinking.

Of course not all is pleasant in Pleasanton. For some reason they speak Norwegian here, which I imagine sounds a lot like English to people who don’t speak English. It should be an easy language to learn for an English-speaker, given its shared Germanic roots and similar grammatical structure, but local variations in pronunciation are so profound that even Norwegian language TV shows have Norwegian subtitles. (They might claim this is for the deaf, but I don’t buy it.) There is a dearth of available real estate, so what is here is beyond the price range of most rapacious Americans. Food is expensive, even for Norwegians who trek to much-despised Sweden to get good deals. And most gringos find the weather here miserable, although I confess that after living in drought-ravaged California most of my life I find the occasional unpredictable downpour quite refreshing.

As I have written in these virtual pages before, I am not a big fan of happiness.   In my humble opinion, it is a greatly over-rated emotion. It is, I believe, a gateway drug and must be consumed accordingly.   If not consumed sparingly it can lead to elation, which is a dreadful state of vacuous inauthenticity. I’ve encountered it before, and it’s a tough addiction to crack.

Whether or not the people of Norway are any happier than the rest of us is not something I would trust to a bunch of researchers to tell me, nor frankly do I care that much.   Happiness is not something that you have or earn.   It has you.   Perhaps Jefferson knew that well when he declared that humans had an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.   We have no right to happiness, only the right to pursue it.   Or, perhaps William Blake said it more poetically when he wrote that famous four-liner          more than 200 years ago:

He who binds himself to a joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

As a teenager in Orange County every once in a while I kissed that joy as it flew past me in the mirage of New Orleans Square, in the shadow of a papier maché Matterhorn, and now, as it gently rains outside the very real “Godt Brod” bakery and coffee shop in Bergen, I can feel it hovering about in the air.


The Big Sky Theory

mathOn any given day, there are about 87,000 flights undertaken, and at any single moment, there are between 5 and 10 thousand airplanes (commercial and private) in the skies over the United States alone. According to the FAA, on an average day, controllers handle 28,537 commercial flights, 27,178 private flights, 24,548 “for hire” flights, 5,260 military flights, and 2,148 cargo flights.   And these numbers don’t include private pilots who choose not to talk to ATC, as I often do when out cruising the neighborhood or when flying around non-towered airports.

There’s so many airplanes up there at once it’s a wonder they don’t bump into each other more often.   They don’t, it seems, because relative to the sheer volume of atmosphere in which they fly, all those airplanes actually don’t take up a lot of space.   The relative volume of airplane to the volume of sky in which they fly being the reason that they don’t bump into each other more often is called the “big sky theory.”     And statistically, given the ratio, the chances of one airplane bumping into another should be close to zero.

But although it is happening less and less, it does happen, roughly a dozen times a year, especially in crowded airspace (such as busy airports) where airplanes are more likely to converge. The big sky theory, it appears, doesn’t work that well, because the statistical probability of it ever happening is very close to zero.

Once, at a party in the living room of the Victorian house I was renting as a student with several roommates in Santa Cruz, California the math instructor and brilliant folk music satirist Tom Lehrer entertained us by demonstrating statistically that it was impossible to get wet when walking through the rain.   Perhaps it was the blackberry brandy that mysteriously found its way from a bottle in my back pocket to my tummy that prohibited me from understanding the arithmetic, but his statistics appeared impeccable and his argument was compelling.

Now, I may not be able to tell you the formula for chi-square off the top of my head, but I can work my way around ANOVAs, MANOVAs, and one of my favorite statistics (and Russian movie stars)—ANACOVAs, with fluency. Compared to highly trained academic statisticians, I still sit at the kid’s table, but I retain some perhaps egoistic pride in my ability to do discriminant function analyses, and I can work my way around most research articles I read.

The big sky theory doesn’t work for similar reasons that you really can’t wet when walking through the rain.   It is very easy to misunderstand (to be generous) or deceive (to be cynical) with statistics.   (I am fond of “proving” to kids that I have 11 fingers by counting down from 10 on one hand and then adding five when I get to the other.)

That is why Joel Best’s book “Damned Lies and Statistics” and its subsequent editions should be required reading for anyone who reads anything, pretends to know something, and hasn’t studied statistics. It should also be required reading for journalists, with whom I have particular antipathy for perpetrating the most heinous of statistical misstatements.

Theories can be extremely convincing, especially when backed by statistics.   As an autism “expert,” I once described in detail the theory behind how the preservative thimerosal, used in the MMR vaccine, can cause autism.   I had a room full of family practice residents convinced, possibly because I sprinkled the explanation with statistics. (The proportion of thimerosal in vaccines, the multiples of mercury based on the FDA’s own limits of safety, the correlation between mercury poisoning and autism symptoms, etc.)   The theory can be made to look rather compelling, but it’s just wrong. These residents were smart cookies, but I could have just as easily convinced them that I had 11 fingers.

One of the many problems with statistics is that it is a very poor method for predicting low-frequency events, such as rain in California, earthquakes, violent behavior, or midair collisions. It is nearly impossible to account for all the variables required for a low-frequency (or extremely complex) event to occur.

The driveway to my domicile is located a half-mile up from a highway.   Although I typically drive that half-mile slowly, the other day I had to swerve to avoid a squirrel that decided to dart in front of my car.   Sadly for both me and the squirrel (but mostly the squirrel), we collided. If I had to create a statistical model that would attempt to predict the likelihood of me colliding with a squirrel down that half-mile stretch of road, I can assure you that it would reveal that colliding with a squirrel could not happen in thousands of lifetimes.   Statistics, it seems, cannot take into consideration the notion that squirrels appear to have a robust death wish, or have a secret ritual in which the transition to adult squirrelhood is marked by darting across a road in front of Lexus crossovers with balding drivers.

So, you see, it isn’t that difficult to prove, statistically, that it is nearly impossible to get wet when walking in the rain.   And really, it should never be necessary to look out your window when piloting an aircraft because the chances of bumping into another airplane are infinitesimal.   If you believe the statistics, that is.


Dubliners in Trieste

James Joyce wrote most of the Dubliners in Trieste.   The images he saw were projected not through the inward projector of his eyes, but instead outward from his amygdala.  The Italian city throbbed around him, while he managed to populate rural roads and city streets and pubs of Ireland from somewhere inside of him.

I accompanied my wife once to her high school reunion, I believe it was the 25th.   25 years later, it amazed us both how few people left the confines of the villages they called home.  How on earth, I wondered, did they find themselves?   Or, perhaps, they never felt lost to begin with.

I find myself uncomfortably judging those others, the Ones Who Never Left Home, as if that is a thing.   I see them, pretentiously, as once-born elves living in a forest from which I do not want to return.    But that is unfair.    As I once overheard at a coffee shop, we are all water balloons submerged in the ocean, our skins getting thinner as we age, until we burst and what was once separate is no longer.  The name of the person who spoke those words was Ocean Oracle.  Yup, that coffee shop was in California.  How did you guess?

I am probably as wrong about this as I am about most things, but I have always believed that it was necessary to leave a place in order to find one’s place in it. That is because if you are a Sequoia tree growing in a grove of Sequoias, you grow up believing that all trees are Sequoias.  Or, to torture both you and the metaphor further, all redwoods look the same until you live among the redwoods.

I wrote in a long ago blog post that I thought that one reason baseball is so popular (or once was), at least in the U.S., is that the object, against terrific odds, is to leave home just so you can eventually return to it.  No one I know has ever given a passing thought to the idea that a home run is pointless because it merely takes you back to where you started.

My wife and I went to Trieste not to sightsee, but to write.   We certainly could write at home, and we do, but it has its drawbacks.   We are surrounded there by the typical distractions of our daily lives.   We have our day jobs, our kids with whom we are blessed to love spending our time, dogs and friends, and other gardens that need tending.

Neither my wife nor I speak Italian, and along with writing we were struggling to figure out what my body was capable of doing shortly after chemotherapy, so we made no deep friendships while we were there.  But that was not the reason we went there.  We were there, ultimately, because in being in the unfamiliar there we were not in the familiar here.   There were new sounds that we never heard.   American music playing at the cafes, but not the music we ever would have chosen.    Different sirens, the beautiful prosody of the Italian language around us, different birds and birdsong.   In the unfamiliar there, the visual sensations were different.   Men in tight pants, hair buzz-cut on the sides, straight-backed women with sharp facial features and soft skin.  And if it hadn’t been for my allergies, I imagine the smells around me would have been different.    And if it weren’t for the cancer that dulled and sullied my taste buds, I am sure the food would have tasted better than whatever they call Italian food at home.

I can’t help but wonder if Joyce writing the Dubliners and other tales located on the streets and houses of Ireland took him away from feeling the sensations of the city that actually surrounded him.   I don’t think so.   There is life that happens when one isn’t writing.   For Joyce, there were the English lessons he gave while trying to support himself, the women he met and seduced before coming back to his apartment and his wife and young children, the cafes in which he sat, the food he ate and the friends he made.

That is the thing about writing.   It doesn’t happen without the writer, and the writer never really leaves home because he takes it with him wherever he goes.   Until or unless dementia grabs hold of our memories, we carry our histories wherever we go, and can’t escape it.

Perhaps it is the contrast between the world around us in the present moment and the worlds we carry in the baskets of our memory that even enhances our ability to write about that which defines us.   The trick can even work in both directions.  An acquaintance of mine wrote wonderful novels that took place in a foreign city to which she had never been—except for the virtual exploration she did through Google Earth.

For Joyce, writing about Dublin and rural Ireland from Trieste may have been just the ticket he needed.   He could see the forest better when he wasn’t in the trees, but instead from the top of a metaphorical mountain located in an actual place a thousand miles away.