J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Month: May 2010

Working Abroad Adventure: Week 2

This particular neighbor is, fortunately, a vegan.

When I last left the dear reader I was in a black mood, heading to the storage shed to fetch a machete.  A thought had entered my mind; the remedy to my grumpiness was in doing something I could only do here in the jungle.  I roamed our large yard, filled with towering tropical plants, gigantic flowers, and insects as big as my hand, until I found what I was looking for — a fallen green coconut.  I hacked at my victim with abandon.  My sword was dull and my foe was tough; only a series of full-strength overhead blows removed the outer shell.  I pierced the inner fruit with a smaller knife and was shocked by the loud popping noise and spray of liquid.  I poured the coconut water over ice and shared it with Kia (Tesla Rose declined).  Slightly sweet, a little sour, and refreshing.

Big bug.

Soon after the air cooled and it began to rain.  With the change in temperature, all three of us felt a sense of relief.  Things weren’t so bad.  We had food and a roof over our heads.  We were in tropical paradise.  The mosquitoes were letting up a bit, and our problems were starting to feel solvable.

Manufacturing Happiness

Happiness comes in two flavors — the kind you feel when you get what you want, and the kind you make up when you don’t.  Psychologists, with their clever tests, have determined that the two varieties are indistinguishable in quality (you can tell I’ve been watching TED videos — I actually logged on to watch the penultimate episode of LOST, but discovered the joys of Hulu don’t extend to Costa Rica).

If you, like me, are only semi (and not fully) enlightened, you’ll sometimes forget you know the trick of manufacturing happiness in spite of your circumstances.  Bug-bitten, hot, foggy-headed, bike-less, in an unfamiliar place, with only the wire-from-the-jungle connecting me to civilization, I briefly forgot that the secret to happiness is (more or less) deciding to be happy.  That, and doing whatever you can to influence your own fate.  Of course it’s not an instantaneous switch, but I’m convinced the greater part of happiness is intention.

We've got wheels!

The next morning — Sunday — we walked to Eric Haller’s house. He made us delicious coffee — incredibly smooth — and we took a taxi into Puerto Viejo. We stopped at Gallo’s bike shop on Eric’s recommendation and bought a used mountain bike for 40,000 colones (about US$75) and attached Tesla Rose’s “iBert” bike seat. Gallo’s place only had one bike for sale, so we rented a beater for the day — transportation problem half solved!

While buying the bike, we ran into our old friend Matt Grinnell who we’d known in San Francisco, back in the dot-com boom days.  Turns out he’s been living twenty minutes up the road for the last three years.  We picked up some Toña beer (not great, but better than the watery Imperial) and stopped by the beautiful beachside Caracola Hotel (managed by a friend of Matt).

On the beach, with warm water on my feet, a cool breeze on my face, and a beer in my hand, I suddenly lost my need to synthesize happiness.

Actually Working?

The concept for this experiment was to work abroad, as opposed to “go on vacation.”  Kia and I both brought work (and deadlines) with us.  With no childcare, productivity is currently on the low side.  A good chunk of time is also dedicated to learning how to feel comfortable in the tropics (three or four cool showers a day, at least until we adjust, endless applying of various creams/repellents/antihistamines, arranging the fan to drive off the most mosquitoes, etc.).  I’m really selling this, aren’t I?  On the other hand there has been no shortage of sublime encounters with the local fauna; four types of lizards, two types of frogs, the howler monkeys (still only heard, but hearing them is thrilling), and of course the giant insects, which include enormous blue butterflies, 1000-watt lightening bugs, and the above-pictured Godzilla roach.  I’m especially excited for Tesla Rose — it’s not everyday that a city kid needs to coax a large frog to leave their bedroom before going to bed.


We are getting some work done and delivered though, and that in itself is kind of a thrill.  I’m getting paid, from the jungle.  Take that, cubicle man.

I shouldn’t boast though, because my creative output has taken a hit.  I’ve been prioritizing my time and willpower towards the needs of my clients, and also just getting basic stuff dealt with (buying food, buying a bike — as of today we have two).  No fiction writing and no music composition for at least a week now, and I’m feeling it.  I hope to give you some good news on that front by my next post.

The Mind-Blowing Bit

As I sit here in my hammock, looking out at the black night and listening to the rain and the din of a million insects, I’m shocked by how easy it was to “change it up a bit.”  It was only a couple months ago that we decided to temporarily relocate to Costa Rica, almost on a whim.  It makes we wonder what else I should just decide to do (on a whim).  I realize that not everyone has the flexibility to do their work remotely, but are you taking advantage of whatever flexibility you do have?  For the most part, I wasn’t.

Possible Glitch

So … a client just emailed requesting a face-to-face meeting.  They don’t know I’m in Costa Rica for the next five weeks or so.  Not quite sure how I’m going to handle this …

Working Abroad Adventure: Week 1

View from the second story.

Kia and I have been talking, for years, about the possibility of living and working abroad for a period of time.  We love living in Oakland — the Bay Area has an amazingly high quality of life, and most of our friends and family live nearby — but the world is a big beautiful place and it doesn’t make sense to experience just one corner of it.

We bounced around quite a few ideas.  We considered living three months in the south of Spain — close enough to my Dad’s place in France to visit him there — but the high cost of living and exorbitant cost of flying to Europe these days scared us off.  We finally decided to live in Costa Rica for six weeks.  My friend Eric Haller lives near the town of Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean side, and I’d been following his photo-stream for some time.  Life in a tropical paradise looked tempting.

Kia and I have been trying to find our “vacation groove” for years.  We’ve enjoyed some trips, but often find ourselves feeling restless and unsatisfied, even in the midst of spectacular beauty.  The thing is, we both like to work.  We like to be engaged and productive.  Sightseeing and delicious meals — nothing wrong with that — but if there’s nothing to balance it with, it feels a little hollow.  We decided to give up on the vacation concept and try something else: working abroad.  Bring our work with us, and really settle in for awhile — that was our plan.

Logistics — It’s All Going to Work!

No need to wash the windows.

Once we had committed to the idea, the planning came together fairly easily.  We booked our flights, and found a beautiful house to rent via craigstlist.  We also rented out our own house for the duration to someone we like and trust (Facebook came in handy on that front).  Our folks were a little upset about the prospect of being separated from their granddaughter for six weeks, so two of them decided to visit us in Costa Rica (my mom arrives next week).  Everyone else we promised to keep in touch with via Skype.

Our rental house promised a DSL connection; this was a must if we were going to get any work done.  I knew I could do my Loöq Records work remotely, especially with Spesh handling any local business in San Francisco.  In terms of my freelance clients, I figured they didn’t even need to know I was working from the jungle.  The vast majority of my programming/database work I could do and deliver remotely.  I’m not keeping it a secret that I’m here (obviously — I’m blogging about it) but there are some clients I only plan to tell if they ask.  Kia is also able to do her freelance work — motion graphics production — remotely.    Since we were unsure about the speed and reliability of our internet connection, she negotiated the outsourcing of some of her larger renders (the idea being to avoid having to upload gigantic files).

Why hello there.

For phone communication, we went 100% Skype.  We each purchased a local 510 area code Skype number, Skype voicemail, and Skype credits for a total cost of about $30 each.  We then forwarded our regular mobile phones to the Skype number.  Anyone calling us locally then goes to Skype; if we’re online we answer, if not it goes to Skype voicemail.  When we call from Skype, it appears as a 510 number.  For local Costa Rica calls, we rented a cell phone from our landlord for $25.

Week 1 — Reality Sets In

Getting to our jungle house was a  smooth journey, with only a few stressful moments.  This is amazing considering how heavily we packed.  Among our possessions: a car seat and a bike seat for our two-year-old, and warm clothes that we won’t wear at all while we’re here.  We knew it would be warm, but we didn’t realize how warm.

We flew in to San Jose (in Costa Rica — there’s also a San Francisco in Costa Rica, as well as a Liverpool — this proved confusing to Tesla Rose who fully expected to see her beloved Auntie Lorelei when we arrived in San Jose), and stayed the night at the Hemingway Inn.  Eric had some business to do in San Jose and met us there.  The next day we all took the four hour bus ride to Puerto Viejo.  I was half-expecting a cramped ride on a rickety bus along terrifying roads, with live poultry as co-passengers.  In fact the bus was modern, spacious, and cool, and the road was newly paved with large shoulders.  At this point I realized I need to reevaluate some of my thinking regarding “first-world” vs. “developing” countries.  Last night I watched this TED talk from Hans Rosling that pretty much nails the problem in my thinking.

From Puerto Viejo, a taxi took us to nearby Cocles (not quite a town, a collection of a few homes and businesses near the beach), and up a very rough dirt/rock road to our house in the jungle.  At this point we started to have some misgivings.  There was no way we were going to be able to bike up this road (especially with a kid on a bike seat attached); it was too steep and too rough.

Our internet wire comes from ... the jungle.

As you can see, the house is beautiful.  The “DSL”, however, turned out to be a 100+ foot ethernet cable strung through a long plastic tube which disappeared into the jungle.  “The internet,” explained the house instructions, “is from the neighbors.  The cable is quite fragile, and can easily be damaged.”  Uh-oh.

As evening fell, the mosquitoes set in.  We also received a few stinging bites from ants, of which we immediately observed at least three varieties.  The largest has the nickname of “bullet ant” because being bitten by one feels like being hit by a bullet.  Fortunately I’ve yet to experience either, so I can’t confirm or deny the similarity.

We cooked our dinner from food we’d picked up from the market in Puerto Viejo, and went to bed soon after dark.  That night there was a terrific rainstorm, with the most thundery thunder I’ve ever heard, answered with raucous defiance by the howler monkeys.  Kia speculated as to the origins of religion — obviously, to the howler monkeys, there must be a big bad howler monkey in the sky making tons of noise and pissing on everyone.

Some happy times ...

The first few days were mixed.  All three of us found the daytime heat to be oppressive (Tesla Rose got a bad heat rash), the mosquitoes were biting us, and it was difficult to get anything done (ever tried to concentrate while being dive-bombed by blood-suckers?).  On the other hand, we were surrounded by incredible beauty, and the house had a fair number of amenities.  Eric came over for dinner and we cooked up some steaks.  Both Kia and I managed to get a little work done.  We plugged our spare Airport Extreme into the infinitely long jungle ethernet cable, and miraculously, we had wi-fi.  Twenty minutes later it went down, but then ten minutes after that it came up again.

On the afternoon of Day 3 we hit a low point.  We were all hot, tired, and itchy.  The mobile phone we had rented had a dead battery, and no configuration of the universal charger would give it any juice.  The internet was down about a third of the time.  Our only transportation was on foot, with the nearest market being twenty minutes away.  Safe to say we were all grumpy and miserable.

... some grumpy times.

A clear intention started to form in my mind.  I went into the storage room and grabbed a machete.

To be continued …

Exposing Yourself to Positive Black Swans

It'll never happen (until it does)

If you haven’t yet read it, I would recommend Nassim Taleb’s book The Black Swan.  Taleb defines a “black swan event” as something both unlikely and unpredictable that has a huge impact within whatever area it occurs.  Part of the impact is due to the way we think about extremely unlikely events; most of us tend to equate “extremely unlikely” with “it will never happen.”  Thus, we fail to adequately prepare for extreme events, and the negative impact of the event is magnified.  We build levees strong enough to withstand 50 year storms, and a 100 year storm comes along.  We think we have an adequately balanced portfolio, and one bad month in the market wipes out half of our net worth.

One reason human beings have an optimistic bias (we tend to underestimate the chances of very bad things happening. and overestimate the chances of good things happening) is because it’s a drag to behave in any other way.  Taleb describes his own experience of taking bear positions in the market on behalf of his clients, and suffering chronic long-term stress as his positions are whittled away day after day.  Ultimately Taleb and his clients win big (the market crashes, they all get rich, and Taleb gets to say “I told you so”) but in the end Taleb concludes the stress isn’t worth it.  There have to be easier ways to make a living (Taleb seems to be doing fine as a writer/philosopher/tweeter these days).

Taleb also describes “positive black swans” — unlikely bouts of extreme good fortune.  He suggests a few ways we can increase our exposure to such events.  One suggestion is “dumbbell investing”; investing the bulk of your money in very secure investments and a good chunk in very speculative investments that have a chance of paying off handsomely (and avoiding more “middle of the road” investments like the S&P 500).  Another Taleb suggestion is “go to parties” (so you can meet new people, expose yourself to new ideas, create more connections in your life, etc.).

These are great suggestions.  I’d like to share a few more that have worked in my own life.

Create/Invent Exactly What You Want

If you can envision something that doesn’t yet exist, something you have a distinct need for, then you may be on to something.  If you can create it — whatever it is — and use it to positive effect (enjoyment, efficiency, whatever) then you might have something that could really take off.

Paul Graham discusses how this idea relates to technology startups in this essay, but there are ways to apply it beyond starting a company, or creating a product or service.  Following your own taste, rather than what you imagine other people will like, is also the best way to proceed in artistic pursuits.  This might sound obvious, but most entrepreneurs and artists don’t apply this principle.  Instead, they pander to what they believe the public wants, or what they believe will be a commercial success.  This strategy might slightly increase the odds of mild success in the short-term, but it will squash any chance of wild, break-out success (black swan success).  For that, you need to invent (or create) for yourself.

I'll DJ when I damn well please.

My music and business partner Spesh invented the concept for a party called Qoöl — an after-work electronic music happy hour.  Pounding club music at 5pm, really?  He chose a weekly time slot of Wednesday, 5-9pm, because it was personally convenient for him (he had a 9-5 job at the time, and wanted to have a weeknight when he could DJ immediately after work, somewhere close by in downtown San Francisco).  We partnered with the forward-thinking 111 Minna Gallery, and within a year we had a wild success on our hands.  Lines around the block every week, all via word-of-mouth.  Our weekly event at 111 Minna continued for fifteen years, and over that time we raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity (mostly The SETI Institute — we have our name on a telescope at the Allen Telescope Array), hosted hundreds of talented local and international DJ’s, and created the Qoöl event brand which continues to this day (these days we’ve been throwing the occasional party at the Project One Gallery).

Some people thought Spesh and I were “brilliant promoters.”  For a long time I thought we were just incredibly lucky.  Now, with hindsight, I think most of our success came from Spesh inventing an event that perfectly suited his own needs.  It turned out there were a lot of people who wanted to party right after work, without going home and changing their clothes.  A few hours of clubbing, mid-week, in a convenient, beautiful location, was something that thousands of young people in San Francisco turned out to want.

Invest In What You Enjoy Doing

“Follow Your Bliss” — you hear that often enough.  But what does it mean?  Some jump off the cliff, quitting their jobs and relying on personal savings and income from their fledgling business or artistic career (often to see the former evaporate quickly and the latter grow slowly).  There’s something to be said for that approach — committing 100% from the beginning — and once in awhile it succeeds.  And if it doesn’t, that’s not the end of the world — you can usually get back into the job market.

Another approach is to proceed gradually, consistently investing time and resources into whatever it is you enjoy doing, building skills, resources, connections, etc.  With this steady, gradual approach you might lose the fear-induced intensity that jumping into the deep end brings.  I’ve tried both approaches at various times in my life, with mixed results on both the cliff-jumping side and the more gradual approach.  While I haven’t yet reached the level of artistic success I aspire to (does anyone?) I do know that whatever time or money I’ve invested into music production and writing has paid off (in terms of enjoyment, financially, broadening of experience, and self-identity and self-worth).

1st keyboard, Roland D-70

In college I bought a $2500 keyboard (95% of my net worth at that time).  It sat, unused, in my dorm room for a few months until I learned to connect it to my Mac Plus (dating myself, I know).  My roommates thought I was crazy, or at least foolish.  I had no musical training beyond learning to play “Good King Wenceslas” on the recorder in elementary school.  Within a year I signed my first dance track (to Megatech records) and released my first EP (as “DJ JD”).  The record didn’t sell very well, but it was the start of a bootstrap music career (see Albums).  I got lucky, but I set myself up for luck by making a go of it.

What’s the takeaway?  If you’re lucky enough to have an activity that excites and inspires you, then put in the time and put in the money.  There’s zero risk if you enjoy the activity itself (the means is the end), and you expose yourself to the possibility of luck and success.  Success comes unevenly, so 99% of  your efforts might yield zero rewards.  But that 1% — the black swan event — can make it all worth it.

A special note on financial rewards; don’t underestimate the amount of money you can make by consistently investing in your “enjoyed activity” over time, and at the same time don’t underestimate how long it will take.  I often receive unexpected royalty and licensing revenue from tracks published five or ten years ago.  If you manage to create something of decent or above quality, but don’t have a high-powered international marketing campaign behind your product, it can take a long time to get noticed or yield any kind of tangible result.

Be Good To People

Obvious, but worth mentioning.  A near universal human trait is the desire to punish cheaters and assholes, matched by an equally strong desire to reward people who treat you decently.  This doesn’t mean you have to be nice all the time, or always be friendly (that sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?).  It just means you have to treat people fairly, and not be a dick.  The Golden Rule is the ultimate positive black swan generator.

How you treat others, not just your family and friends but everyone you have any kind of interaction with, is a source of black swan events, both negative and positive.  You never know when someone you’ve just met once or twice might put in a good word for you to the right person, thus leading to a great job, new relationship, or other major life event.  It can happen the other way too — nobody wants to date a bad tipper.

Have you heard the story about the guy that stopped to help a limo with a flat tire, and it turned out to be Donald Trump, and Trump paid the guy’s mortgage?  Well, according to snopes, it never happened — the story was a media stunt on the part of Trump’s PR team.  That’s too bad, because otherwise it would be a great anecdote to illustrate my point.

Low-Hanging Fruit Part III (Quality of Life)

Full speed ahead towards all possible fantasy futures.

All of us, to different degrees, engage in imaginary narratives regarding our futures.  Imagination takes work, and most people (myself included) tend towards laziness, so these narratives are often fuzzy.  We have vague ideas about what we’ll do, where we’ll go, who we’ll meet, and so forth.  Sometimes these vague narratives lead us into action and fulfillment; other times they continue indefinitely, running parallel to the inertia of the reality of our lives.

Fear (of death, injury, disease, poverty, failure, loneliness, shame, or change itself) holds us back.  We postpone action for fear of what that action will cost us.  On the other hand, fear can also propel us; considering our own impermanence and limited time on this planet can kick us into gear.  Fear of where our current life trajectory will lead us, if we don’t change our direction, can be equally motivating.  To get to where we want to be, it’s usually necessary to take some risks, to put it on the line, to face our fears, and really go for it.

That’s not what this post is about.

There are other changes we can make in our lives — small changes — that can enormously influence our quality of life.  These changes often have zero (or close to zero) associated cost or risk.  How can we more easily identify these possible changes?  Simple, low-effort actions that result in big positive change are the low-hanging fruit of life (also see Low-Hanging Fruit Part I – Charity and Low-Hanging Fruit Part II – Health).  Implementing positive change can become a habit in itself; small changes can cascade into big changes.  If you’re not feeling geared up enough to turn your life upside down in your quest for greater satisfaction and happiness, you can always start small.

Immediately Actualizing Your Most Accessible Dreams

View from my flat in Paris.

Do you have any expensive fantasies?  Maybe you’d like to own a flat in Paris; you could jet in, stay for a week or two, reconnect with your French lover, and drink crates of obscenely expensive wine.  Maybe you’d like to own a baseball team.  Or perhaps you’re the private island type, or maybe you fancy yourself a space pilot or hot-air balloon circumnavigator, Richard Branson style.  Personally I would like to build a massive prehistoric garden, with Jurassic-era plants, fossil replicas, and maybe animatronic dinosaurs.

Aside from the prehistoric garden, lack of money usually isn’t what’s stopping me.  There are lots of things that we might fantasize about doing for years, or even decades, but keep putting off for no good reason.  We can afford it, we can make the time, and yet for some reason we don’t start.  I’m not sure why this is, but I know that when I can break through the inertia and just do the things I want to do, it’s immensely satisfying and results in a big quality of life jump.  For example:

  • The $2 espresso cup — I’ve always enjoyed drinking coffee out of an espresso cup, but I prefer the taste of drip coffee to espresso.  I bought myself a couple small espresso cups at IKEA for about $2 each, and I get immense pleasure every morning drinking drip coffee out of my little espresso cup.  The coffee stays hot, and I can drink an impressive six to eight cups each morning without feeling overcaffeinated.
  • Ferns — we bought some ferns and planted them.  I love ferns.  It’s not my dream garden yet, but $15 at the nursery went a long way towards helping me imagine my grandiose prehistoric garden.  Ancient plants — essentially unchanged for millions of years.  I love looking at those things.

    Just add dinosaurs.

  • Become a writer — a lifelong dream that I’ve only pursued in earnest since becoming a father.  What’s involved?  Writing every day, or at least most days.  That’s it.  Outside of pens and notebooks, costs are nonexistent.  I’d like to eventually find an agent and get published, but for the moment I’m happy writing and blogging (the latter counts as self-publishing, and the blog only took an hour or so to set up).  Why did I wait so long to start?
  • Live and work abroad — both Kia and I have wanted to do this for years, but it took us awhile to take the plunge.  We’re going to live and work in Costa Rica for six weeks.  We’re renting a house in the jungle, bringing our kid and our laptops, and getting on a plane.  How’s it all going to work out?  I have no idea — I’ll let you know.  But so far it looks like the cost of the trip will be similar to the cost of staying at home.  We don’t have to sell our house, uproot our lives, etc. — we’re just picking up and going for awhile.  If it works out well then maybe we’ll experiment with longer trips.  Reading The Four Hour Workweek definitely encouraged us to take the leap.

None of these changes involved any more risk than I would otherwise experience in daily life (in terms of safety, I live in Oakland and drive a car — is riding a bicycle in Costa Rica going to be more dangerous?).  What I lose in billable hours to writing, traveling, staring at my ferns, and drinking excessive amounts of coffee out of my little espresso cup will hopefully be made up by new ideas, new relationships, and passive income from royalties down the road (that may sound optimistic, but it has worked out that way for time I’ve spent writing and producing music, and I’m no musical genius).

What’s your easily accessible dream that you can immediately implement?  I’d like to know — please comment below.  I once asked an acquaintance what she would do if she won $20 million in the lottery.  She said she’d like to produce an off-Broadway production of the musical Hair.  What would that cost, $20K?  She didn’t mention what she’d do with the remaining $19,980,000.

Identify High Stress Areas — Reduce 10%

What’s the most stressful part of your week?  What activity, person, or place makes you tense your shoulders or gives you that uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach.  Is it traffic or your commute?  A co-worker?  Dealing with your financial accounts?

Is there a course of action you can take that can reduce the stress level by 10%?  This might not sound like much, but if you think about it in terms of a 10% quality-of-life improvement, it’s worth thinking about the problem.

For example, can you:

  • change your commute time to avoid traffic
  • negotiate a swap of tasks or chores with you co-workers or co-habitators so that you don’t have to do that job you hate (and vice-versa)
  • limit communication with your most high maintenance client/co-worker/customer
  • complete a task online instead of in-person (DMV, filing forms, etc.)
  • change your mode of communication around a contentious issue
  • become more accepting of other people’s behavior, and ask for more acceptance of your own behavior

In relationships (marriage, work, whatever) people have different stress levels around different topics.  Discussing some topics (money, future plans, child-rearing practices, etc.) might be easy for one person but stressful for the other.  The more sensitive party will find their heart rate increasing, their body tensing up, and other physical manifestations of stress when the topic is raised.  It’s important to not corner someone and force them into a conversation when they’re not ready, or allow yourself to be cornered when you’re not ready.  It’s acceptable to say “I don’t want to discuss this right now — can we discuss it at x time instead?”  Ambush conversations are a significant source of stress, and they’re easily avoidable.

In my own life, the demands of fatherhood can sometimes be a source of stress.  Like all parents, Kia and I have been forced to find ways to deal with the demands of small, vocal primate with limited table manners and even more limited self-sufficiency.  I in particular had a hard time adjusting to the absence of vast expanses of free time that used to dominate the landscape of my life and consciousness.  I’d chosen to make a living as a freelancer, forgoing the 9-to-5 lifestyle, mainly because it afforded me opportunities to read books in the middle of the day, stare at the trees for hours on end, and generally avoid people telling me what to do and when and how to do it.  Now a young creature, partly of my own making, charming but also demanding, was making mincemeat of my free time, peaceful sleep, and hard-won lounging about lifestyle.  Worse than a tyrannical boss!

I’ve managed to reclaim aspects of my preferred vacation-like existence, enough so that I’m generally quite happy.  The solution was straightforward; pay for and use more outside childcare than we actually needed.  This, combined with help from my daughter’s enthusiastic grandparents, allows me not only to maintain my sanity but to have enough free “space out” time so that I can spend time with my daughter without any feelings of resentment.  The extra expense requires more financial discipline in other areas, but buying myself more free time feels like money well spent.

Implementing this plan required some acceptance from Kia, which I asked for and she has generously given.  She has mentioned that she didn’t realize how important my “down time” (for entertainment, spacing out, doing nothing, etc.) was for my psychological well-being until there was real pressure on that time (and I turned into a miserable sod, for a while).

The alternative to analyzing and reducing your stress is lower quality of life, and eventually “Id Rebellion.”  If the landscape of your life is weighted too much towards what you experience as drudgery and toil, your subconscious mind will eventually grab the reins; you’ll find yourself acting out (drugs, excess drinking, shutting down emotionally, isolating yourself, gambling … insert your own variety of “bad behavior”).  This happens to everyone at one point or another, and we may or may not emerge unscathed.  I think a measured, analytical approach to stress reduction can mitigate episodes of Id Rebellion.

Internal Entitlement (not Enlightenment)

I’m not suggesting that we should live small; that we should be satisfied with eking out small pleasures in life.  If you hate your job, or if you have big relationship problems, then big change is a prerequisite to happiness.  And if you have big dreams then you should pursue them.  But small changes lead to big changes.  When we’re proactive, and take 100% responsibility for our own actions and experience of life (regardless of how much we can actually control), then positive change becomes habitual.  More and more we feel entitled to complete enjoyment of life.

This sense of internal entitlement — an allegiance to our own preferences — is different than expecting that the world owes us a living.  And it’s not the same as steamrolling people and insisting that we always get our way.  It is about finding out what makes you happy, and what doesn’t, and doing more of the former and less of the latter.

This simple way of living can be threatening to people that defer their own enjoyment of life for no good reason.  You might become a positive threat; your proactive attitude might be interpreted as a criticism of their own way of life.

However I think that’s probably the exception — most people in your life who notice you making changes will be inspired to make positive changes of their own (and those changes may then inspire you in turn, thus creating a positive feedback loop).

I’d love to hear about your own experiences in either of these areas — stress reduction and dream implementation.  What actions did you take and how did it affect your quality of life?

The Paradox of Entitlement

Proud to be an American (dog).

The United States as a nation is going through a kind of identity crisis, attempting to reconcile our sense of being a hard-working, family-oriented, religious (or at least spiritual), and tolerant people on the one hand, weighed against the evidence that we are in fact financially overdrawn, somewhat xenophobic, materialistic, individualistic, and possibly a bit lazy (or at least in love of shortcuts and get-rich-quick schemes).  Part of this national narrative is the discussion of entitlement, both in the sense of the government programs that constitute the social safety net, and in the personal sense that we are individually deserving of a sense of dignity, safety, and other basic human rights including food, shelter, healthcare, right to work, and education.

The political Right frames this discussion with phrases like “nobody owes you a living.”  The Right, in its eternal quest to create a society of perfect individuals, is chiefly concerned with personal character.  Even the avuncular Mr. Rogers is not safe, FOX “News” recently accused him of corrupting an entire generation via the overgenerous doling out of praise and the encouragement of unconditional self-esteem.

Does the Right have a point?  Maybe they do.  Some child psychologists suggest that parents are better off praising the actions and efforts, rather than qualities, of their children.  In other words don’t say “You’re a good artist,” instead say “You worked very hard on that drawing and it came out nicely.”  Too much of the former leads to timidity and risk-averse behavior; the child become focused on protecting their reputation of being “smart” or “artistic” and thus avoids taking risks and taking on difficult tasks.  And we’ve all heard stories of how children of recent immigrants work harder and more willingly than other kids, probably due to parental encouragement.  Do we, as a nation, give our children too much praise, and let them off the hook too easily when it comes to hard work and discipline?

The other side of the coin is that nations that have the greatest sense of collective entitlement often have the highest standard of living.  Take France, for example.  As is quoted in the Michael Moore film Sicko, “In the U.S. the people are scared of the government, in France the government is scared of the people.”  A democracy born of the guillotine.  The French enjoy entitlements that put our own to shame, and they get them because they clamor for them, initiating country-closing general strikes to get their way, as necessary.  These are people who strongly feel they deserve a fair shake from their government.

Is that the crux of it?  Fairness?  As citizens of a nation, when we hold up our side of the social contract, what do we expect in return?  In the United States we expect safety (even though we have rarely suffered invasion, and never occupation), and cheap gasoline.  Personally I think we should expand our sense of entitlement to include universal healthcare, public education (including university), well-funded scientific and medical government research programs, complete support for the mentally and physically disabled (including the infirm elderly), modern efficient infrastructure (water, energy, transportation), protection and conservation of the environment, reasonable regulation of the private sector, and so on and so forth (the classic wish-list of the political Left, more or less).  If the free market has already tried and failed (as it has in each of these areas) then our only realistic option is biggish government.  Or does anyone want to go back to a private firefighting service?

Private-sector thugs paid for by your tax dollars.

What’s the downside of a high sense of entitlement?  The obvious answer is higher taxes.  There’s no way around it; public services cost money.  But even at our current tax rates, there seems to be room for improvement, and even the possibility of paying down some of our scarily gigantic national debt.  I would like to see less pork in the budget, and a smaller portion of my tax dollars going to private mercs like Halliburton, KBR, and Blackwater.  Depending on how you look at it, up to 55% of our national budget goes toward military spending.  There really is room to cut, especially if we limit our military adventurism (occupying other countries) in the future.  But that’s another blog post …

Ultimately I think citizens (in relation to their government), and children (in relation to their parents) should have a high sense of entitlement.  What goes along with entitlements is responsibility; a willingness to uphold your side of the bargain.  For citizens in a democracy this means a willingness to pay your fair share of taxes (unlike the Greeks), a willingness to participate in the democratic process (thus hopefully curtailing the extent to which that process is hijacked by private/corporate interests), and a willingness to extend tolerance and respect (and charity when needed) to your neighbors.

The Power Elite

The Power Elite (the filthy rich, the captains of industry, the manipulators of democracy) fear an entitled citizenry.  Should we, as citizens, start to demand a reasonable return on our tax dollars (in the form of social services, and turning off the gushing money spigot that feeds private military contractors) as well as a reasonable return on our dollars spent in the private sector (in the form of reasonably safe, durable, high-quality products, competent services, decent customer service, social responsibility, and non-predatory behavior), then profit margins might suffer.  The Power Elite want to keep our sense of entitlement down; they want us to swallow whole the idea that our fate depends on hard work, deferred gratification, self-reliance, and other forms of bootstrapping (despite the fact that their own wealth comes mostly, with the exception of a few scrappy entrepreneurs, from inheritance, nepotism, dividends, and government pork).  This is why the interests of the Power Elite align so closely with the political Right, who elevate the idea of a more perfect (or at least more efficient) individual over the idea of a more perfect (or at least more fair) society.

Paradoxically, our individual fate does depend, to a great extent, on the personal values and attributes that the Right holds so dear (self-reliance, hard work, deferred gratification, and so forth).  In practice, however, if we model our society on the assumption that these traits should or do universally exist, then the end result is the exploitation of the working class.  Nobody owes you a living.  Work hard and don’t complain.  In other words, don’t demand that you have a right to healthcare, education, civil rights, and everything else you pay for with your tax dollars, law-abiding behavior, and other forms of loyalty to your country (and are thus entitled to).

Ayn Rand, we gave it a go.  Your champion of champions, Alan Greenspan, took it all the way.  We learned what an unregulated free market looks like.  Greenspan admitted he was wrong.  The failure of the idealistic Right was not as spectacular as the failure of the idealistic Left, but it was still spectacular.

The Conversation Going Forward

Freedom fries -- yum!

I’m not suggesting that be more like France is some sort of national panacea.  But I am in favor of removing the stigma from the word entitlement, instead coupling it with responsibility.  I think David Brooks has thought carefully about this topic, and I agree with his assertion that instilling middle-class values is an important element of narrowing the achievement gap (both between low-income and middle-class U.S. kids, and U.S. kids in general vs. kids from countries with higher levels of academic achievement).  I also agree with Michael Moore on most points — we should demand public healthcare, fair treatment from corporations, and so on.

One problem is that there is very little intelligent conversation between those with Right-leaning values (self-reliance, hard work, a robust and relatively unencumbered free market, fiscal conservatism in government, strong national defense) and Left-leaning values (social equality, public healthcare and education, protection of the environment, worker’s rights, and corporate accountability).  These sets of values are not always in conflict, and there are many solutions and courses of action that we can pursue, as a nation, that satisfy all of them.

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