#MAGA and Me

Yesterday I picked up my newly cruise control-enabled car at the car modification shop. I needed a way to get to my car, so naturally I ordered a Lyft. What did I see in the back of my Lyft, but a Make America Great Again hat? American flags were on full display throughout the vehicle. So I asked my driver, “I take it you’re pretty happy with the president?”

He was. John, as I will call him, said he was happy with the president’s actions cutting taxes to help the middle class. He said he was pleased with the efforts to secure our borders, and he even said the president was making great strides on environmental issues. I asked for more detail on that point, and he told me that his family in California were going to benefit from rules allowing them to use their water supplies how they saw fit. I hadn’t heard of any such decisions, so I didn’t press on that one.

Eventually, John asked me, “what do you think of our president?” I didn’t want to upset him and make him clam up, so I said there were certain things the president had done with which I disagreed. He asked like what, and I said that I don’t believe the tax cut is going to benefit the middle class as much as the very wealthy. This set him off. Not in an angry way, just an energetic one. He told me all about how he was going to benefit as the owner of a small business and how already several companies had given raises to their employees. It was about then that we missed a turn.

The next thirty minutes were spent John telling me all about how keeping out the illegal immigrants would reduce the unskilled labor pool and increase employment and wages for real Americans while he made apparently random turns and took me on a tour of the lesser known parts of Raleigh. Repeatedly he would stop and try to ask me where we should be going, but I would ask him something like “what if the people you’re calling junk are the same people the Statue of Liberty calls ‘poor, huddled masses?'” and he would start driving around randomly again while he explained how great strict merit-based refugee restrictions would be for the American economy. We had both become so involved in our surreal discussion that we just couldn’t seem to find the shop where my car was. We just kept taking U-turn after U-turn. I briefly toned the conversation down after I had to shout at John not to turn into oncoming traffic.

It was in the midst of trying to argue that cutting taxes on corporations forever so some of them would give their employees a one-time bonus wasn’t a good move when the shop appeared in my vision and I shouted “there it is!”  John swerved into the parking lot and started telling me about how he liked the tax cut because really what we should have is not a tax on income but a tax on wealth. I was floored – this guy wanted a wealth tax? When he said “yeah, just charge 30% tax when people make purchases.” I sat in the car another fifteen minutes trying to explain to him that what he was talking about was just a very high sales tax and it would discourage spending and disproportionately affect the poor. He kept saying “who knows what one guy with a billion dollars will do with it” as if there were a 50% chance that he would give it all to a private charity that would immediately put it to use solving the country’s problems better than government ever could.

John asked me “you’re telling me you wouldn’t be happy if I gave you $1,000 right now?” and I said I would be sad because it wouldn’t cover my $20,000 of medical debt when my medicaid gets cut. He asked if I really had $20,000 of medical debt. I asked if he really was going to give me $1,000. He told me I shouldn’t lie to him. When we got honked at for the third time by the line of cars forming behind us in the middle of the parking lot, I realized I had to leave. I don’t think I changed or even opened anyone’s minds that night, but um, changing the world one conversation at a time?

Yeah, let’s go with that. I’m changing the world one conversation at a time. Also I’m very happy with my new cruise control. I do a lot of highway driving.


Happiness is a skill

When people say they choose not to worry or they choose to be happy, I think it’s misleading. It trivializes the difficulties many people have with happiness. On the other hand, with some exceptions, I also have trouble believing that happiness is an innate talent inert to efforts to cultivate it.

I consider happiness like a skill. It’s very common for people to confuse skills with innate talents, just consider the last time someone told you they “can’t do art” or said how lucky you were that you could do math. It’s less common to hear people going the other way – telling each other to “be better” at something as if for some inscrutable reason they simply hadn’t considered the possibility of having skill, but I can admit that at times I have been tempted to say things like that.

There are a number of external factors that make happiness easier.

  • Low stress
  • Strong social support
  • Natural light

There are also actions we can take that tend to make us happier.

  • Regular sleep
  • Exercise
  • Diet

None of these are exactly building up happiness like a skill, though. They are indirect practices – like lifting weights to be better at wrestling. However, I have a personal approach to mindfulness that is, in my personal experience, the practice of happiness. To practice happiness, at any time of day, whatever you’re doing, take your attention and see if it’s on something making you happy. If there’s anything about what you’re doing that makes you happy, train your attention on that. Practice forgetting what upsets you and thinking instead about what makes you happy.

For instance, if your friends upset you, consider what has led them to make the upsetting decision and how good you will feel if you can rise above it. Think about how much you like your friends and how much better your relationship will be if you handle this situation well. If it’s hard in the moment, try to remember something in the past you liked about them. If your work is frustrating, think about the people you’re helping or think about the money you’re making, or even just focus on doing your job as well as you can. You’ll be surprised how hard all this can be, but if you keep at it, you may be surprised by how much it can help.

For more thoughts on depression and dealing with it, see the excellent blog by my friend Laura – http://www.lauravslaura.com/

Image Credit: http://thefairgo.com/road-to-happiness/

A crime against coffee

I am a coffee drinker. I am not a coffee connoisseur. I take pride in this fact, much in the way that many people take pride in not being able to name bubblegum brands, sports teams, or all 151 original Pokemon.

When I started drinking coffee, I bought my first grounds from Amazon, picking the lowest price per ounce I could find. Then I bought a cheap coffee maker and made five cups at a time. I would store them in a Mason jar in my refrigerator and drink a little when I needed a boost in the morning.

I figured I would enjoy seeing the looks on people’s faces when I told them my clever sacrilege against coffee. I tried it at a recent party and it went something like this.

Sam: I just started drinking coffee, and I don’t take it seriously at all. You see, I take this Mason jar –

Person A: What brand of coffee?

Sam: Uh, just the cheapest Amazon brand, Folgers, I think. Anyway, I fill a Mason –

Person B: Folgers!?

Person A: Really? That’s like saying you drink tea, and it’s Lipton’s.

Sam: No, no, you don’t understand. I’m a coffee unsophisticate, but in a cool way that actually makes me more sophisticated. Let me tell you about my Mason Jar.

Person B: Folgers is a crime against coffee. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Then I was sentenced to death and thrown into a boiling hot pot of fresh-ground Doma Coffee “The Chronic – Super Dank” Dark Roasted Fair Trade Organic Whole Bean Coffee. Or some kind of coffee anyway. I don’t keep track.

Image Credit: https://www.isabellabannerman.com/licensing-and-merchandise/

I’m dreaming of a -4 degree Christmas

My family traveled to Maine to visit our extended family this year and we were treated to a white Christmas. We were treated to spinning car wheels, to literally digging our cars out of the driveway, to shambling through frigid snow to the beach, turning around early when our feet started to get frostbite.

Our holiday cheer involved hiding in the house from the cold. When we did go out, we enjoyed a series of mini-hydroplanes on the icy highway. When we drove more slowly we were nearly run over by an impatient tractor trailer.

Every move between indoors and outdoors took ten minutes of donning and doffing our coats and gloves. Thus, we did very little.

We got to spend time with beloved family members old and new. We cooked and ate hearty meals, played games, and watched movies in the warmth of each other’s company, and I’m glad we did.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I need another white Christmas for a decade.

Image Credit: http://www.westernplows.com/qbin/files/pro-plus-snowplow-tv-spot.jpg

Cornmeal Pancakes

These were popular for Christmas breakfast, so here’s a simple recipe.


1 Cup whole wheat flour

1 Cup yellow cornmeal

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 1/3 cups milk

1/4 cup butter


Mix dry ingredients

Beat eggs, melt butter, add wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Mix.

Melt a little more butter on pan before you cook for each pancake.


What’s the secret to happiness? I’ve just started a book that’s about that question. It’s called “Search Inside Yourself” and it’s by a Google employee. Its first claim, based on the foreword, appears to be that Google is the secret to happiness. It literally points to the happiest man in the world and says that he would have gone to Google if he could have but he had to go to the monastery as a second choice.

Nevertheless, wisdom can come from the most unexpected of places. Wisdom has not yet come from this book, mostly because I haven’t gotten very far. I think I’m still in the foreword, actually. In the meantime let me share with you some of my own wisdom.

I used to think of life as one big optimization problem. At any given moment what action should I take to make my life overall as good as possible? This seems straightforward, but just like in machine learning, it turns out that trying to find the globally optimal direction for each step in one’s life is not feasible. Life is just too complex, especially since we humans appear to have multiple hardwired objective functions that do not combine in a consistent manner.

Also, the thing about spending your life optimizing is that once you’re done you don’t get to enjoy it. Also, happiness in humans is self-regulating. The “hedonic treadmill” so to speak takes us back to our baseline happiness no matter how much we improve our external condition.

Thus, the solution may be to have a series of positive experiences, not worrying about the future more than in basic terms. What is a positive experience though?

For me, I like accomplishments. From the right perspective, one can find accomplishments everywhere. Big accomplishments like promotions, marriages etcetera, but also small accomplishments. Writing a blog every week, completing a yoga or exercise session, cooking pancakes for your family. Accomplishments are everywhere if you can accept them.

If the big accomplishments are far away, split them into small accomplishments and ride a train of good cheer to your eventual goal. Remember life has no eventual goal, so appreciate your successes along the way. Be mindful of your good works and you’ll have the energy for more good works.

That’s what I’m working on now. It’s been working pretty well for me so far. Maybe for now, so far is all that matters.

A Philistine’s Guide to The Nutcracker

The other day, I saw The Nutcracker at the Cary Arts Center. My friend, an absurdist comedy writer and ex-marine, played Drosselmeyer, the cycloptic magician who ferries the protagonist in and out of the fantastical dream world that makes up the majority of the performance. I enjoyed the ballet, but there was a certain amount that surprised me, given my limited experience with the genre. Let me offer a few heads-up to my fellow ignorati.

The first thing you should know about this performance is that there is no dialogue. All of the story is communicated in dance and music. Also, there is not much story. Don’t be confused by the enormous amount that appears to be going on, in fact the narrative is very simple.

If you have any expectations of a typical story structure, check them at the door. Even though the protagonist murders the rat queen in the heat of a climactic battle between nutcracker soldiers and human-sized rats in the first act, there is in fact another act after that one. The plot of the second act may be summarized as follows – there were toys there from the middle east. They did a dance. There were toys there from China. They did a dance. Etcetera. All the toys from around the world danced in a way that reflected the racial sensitivity of 19th century Russia.

In the real end of the ballet, if you saw the version I did, the protagonist is shuttled off the stage at the close of the dream sequence. Since it’s physically impossible for the same actress to be in two places at once, a different little girl awakens with the wooden toy nutcracker in her arms. Usually, the director told me, they can find someone who looks more like the girl in the dream.

In short, what you should expect to get from The Nutcracker is energetic ballet, fanciful costume design, which this particular group continues to refine each time they give the performance, and beautiful music which has stood the test of time. I heartily recommend The Nutcracker to fans of ballet and people dating, in a relationship with, or parent to fans of ballet alike. The latter will be pleased to hear – it’s only two hours long.


It's about whatever I say it's about