Dancing: I’m not good at it yet

I hope that all of you who can think of something that someday you may have to do that you’re confident you’re terrible at and that will be a nightmare will consider this story.

Last Tuesday, I went to take mambo lessons. I was pretty confident I would be terrible at it and that I would stick out like a sore thumb. You know what? I was right.

I was so bad at mambo that people started telling me “good job” when I got something remotely correct. One woman I danced with asked me if I was a software engineer, I said pretty much and she said “you have the look.” One woman said “I like your special spin on that move” and I said “Uh, yeah. Yep. That was intentional.” What really took the cake was when the instructor himself used a sword as a metaphor to describe a dance move, and he gestured to me and said, so everyone could hear, “or lightsaber.”

After the first fifteen minutes or so, though, it wasn’t a nightmare. I just had a mantra that I was not here to be already good at dancing, but to learn. Even though it’s stressful to be remedial at something, the idea was to practice until I had at least the minimum skill that would be expected at my wedding. The next time I go I’ll be better, and the time after that better still.

After we had returned home from the wedding, I asked my fiancee to dance. One moment in, she tried to stop the dance to give me tips how to do it better. I told her, “no, no. Let’s just dance.”

So we did a little mambo together, and we had a great time.

Travel Silverware

This is a brief summary of my experiences with reusable travel silverware to help people considering investing in some themselves.

Wooden Silverware Pack

Photo from Amazon.com

Found on Amazon

Pros:

  • Fork, Spoon, Knife, and chopsticks all present
  • Convenient carrying case
  • Will not be confiscated by airport security

Cons:

  • The knife is not very sharp
  • The spoon is rather shallow
  • My fork broke relatively quickly
  • Wood is less easy to convincingly clean

Note:

A set of these is sitting unused in my office.

Disembodied Head Spork

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Photo taken by me

Found in Portland, Maine

Pros:

  • Small and stackable
  • Easy to clean
  • Durable
  • Tines are sharp
  • Spoon is deep

Cons:

  • Your hands will get dirty if you want to use both the spoon and the fork sides
  • No convenient grip. May be uncomfortable for extended use
  • No knife. Fork functions effectively as knife for soft foods, but is rather short, making the
  • Looks a little like a spoon died and is haunting you. Maybe this is a positive.

Note:

My father found eating with this so hard that he opted not to accept the one I offered him for free.

Regular Silverware in a Small Bag

silver spoon near silver kitchen knife
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Found anywhere

Pros:

  • No need to learn a new kind of silverware
  • Includes whatever silverware you want

Cons:

  • Silverware can be expensive
  • Less convenience
  • If you frequently lose silverware and replenish from your home supply, you may find that you do not have enough silverware at home for regular use
  • Some knives may be confiscated by airport security

 

I hope that this has been helpful. Good luck in your travel silverware adventures!

Always with you

If you have heard that someone will “always be with you” after they’re gone and thought that was a bunch of nonsense, here is something for you to consider.

As social animals we include social predictions among those that we must be able to do effectively to survive. Our ancestors needed to know what mushrooms to eat, the trajectory a spear would take through the air flung at a particular angle, and how their tribes, their families, and individuals would respond to their behaviors.

To make these predictions, we evolved to simulate outcomes of our behaviors. A certain mushroom might have a simple simulation where we eat it and die or eat it and feel comfortable and satiated. A physical simulation of a hurtling spear is more complex, but handled deep inside the brain without any need for explicit understanding of calculus or mechanical physics. What we are particularly good at, though, although it may not seem that way sometimes, is understanding other people, and that involves its own simulation.

You have a simulation stored in your brain of everyone you know. The people you love you have had many experiences with over a long time, and you have developed a complex simulation for each of them. When they’re gone, they really do live on inside you, they just live inside your brain rather than in your heart. Their voice in your head is your own incredible mind estimating their likely words.

Some might say that understanding where these sensations come from makes them feel less real. For me it makes them more real. I can actively seek to understand and spend time with the people I love, knowing that as I do I’m storing little bits of them in my brain as keepsakes. Just as well as any mystical contact from beyond the grave, these patterns in my mind can move me and comfort me when I remember the ones I love. As long as I remember them, they will always be with me.

Love your work

I gave my first public presentation of my fiction since college the other day. Those twenty-five hundred words, on a per-word basis, probably went through more time and revisions than any other work of fiction I’ve written. I even practiced running through it all several times, honing my dramatic delivery. In the end, I stood up in front of an audience of about twenty, and did pretty well. A few folks came to me and said they appreciated my performance.

Why do I feel so empty, then? Well, that’s just it. They basically said they appreciated my performance and left it at that. I didn’t spark any interesting thoughts or conversations. I didn’t evoke any emotions or personal recollections. I didn’t even inspire a thoughtful and incisive criticism. I was hoping for a deep validation, exploration, and celebration of my work, and presenting to this audience was only marginally better than presenting to a brick wall.

Maybe I’ve set you up for this next paragraph. “Of course that was too much to hope for” you may be thinking. Of course you are right. As tiny individuals on a colossal world stage, we put our lives into works that mean the world to us and very little to everyone else. When I play a video game I enjoy myself during and then when it is finished I feel briefly bereft, no longer enjoying my mastery of the fictional world and knowing that now that it’s done, as far as the real world is concerned I may as well have done nothing at all. I had assumed that spending time on a “productive” activity would be different, but naturally it is not. My estimated twelve hours writing a story is the audience’s five minutes, so I’ll always get back a tiny fraction of what I give. This is the plight probably of all artists, also of the frustrated political activist, and the friend who gives too much and receives too little in return.

Next question, “So why bother?” This is a question, perhaps ironically, that I explore in my writing. One theme of The Sympathetic Universe is that the gods have the opposite problem. Rather than being unable to affect any meaningful difference on their world, they are so powerful that everything they accomplish is inherently trivial. They struggle with the fact that, when you are free from all limitations, nothing fundamentally means anything. This is why they hide from their empty divinity in brief human lives fraught with struggle, significance, and purpose. Every time they die and get their immortal memories back they realize again that their exciting, often tragic life was just an insignificant speck in a grand game to distract themselves from the void. The best drama so far in my opinion has come from Ta, the god who refused to admit that the life she experienced meant nothing, and used her near-omnipotent powers to go back in time and illegally alter the universe in which she had lived to better satisfy the needs of the human she had once been. Seem petty? Yeah, when you’re a divine entity, there’s not much else to do.

Ultimately, in The Sympathetic Universe, the gods always go back to being humans because pretending that things matter is addictive in a way that divinity can’t match. The gods envy humanity’s passion just as we envy their ability. We are happiest when we care about things and believe that what we do matters, even if in the end, in a cosmic sense, it will all be for nothing. Just make the most out of your time on this Earth, do what you love, and love what you do. The universe isn’t going to love it for you.

Good Critiquing

I mentioned a while back that I had to stop posting my story revisions in order to comply with the rules of a competition to which I was submitting. The final title of my story is “The Strength of the Spirit Lifter,” and I still can’t share it because it will be included in the Rhine Center’s short story collection. That is to say, I won. Specifically, I won second place, which is quite a bit more than nothing out of thirty applicants.

I consider this an example of what one can accomplish with a creative vision backed by a demanding writing group. If you look over my old revisions, you may notice the huge leap that my story takes after the first time I manage to get my writing group to look at it. One of my critics, author of the Natalie McMasters series Tom Burns, literally responded to the first draft with “yawn, who cares?” He pretty much said the same thing about the last of the drafts that I posted online. Although I cannot share it with you, my real final draft, the competition winner, departs significantly from what you all have seen. Yes, this time he finally didn’t say “who cares?”

I can’t recommend enough seeking out serious criticism. If your readers all think your work is great and can’t think of anything meriting significant rework but you still have aspirations to do better, find more serious people to read your work. Tom doesn’t shy away from telling me when he would have put my story down and never picked it up again if he didn’t have an obligation to review it, which is most of the time.

That’s not to say you should seek out people who hate your writing. If your critic sets your submission on fire right there in the Starbucks, that’s on you for giving him a hard copy. No, a good critic seeks to improve rather than tear down. Even through his most blunt critiques, Tom manages to maintain the impression that he thinks the creative vision behind my writing is very much worth the effort of putting together a compelling story to bring it to audiences.

Actually, when the shoe is on the other foot and I review his work, if I start to get pushy about his decisions, Tom’s not shy about saying “who cares” to that, too. “Who cares” is an important concept in fiction, since its worth derives entirely from getting people to care enough about what you’re writing to keep reading. That said, as a critic you may or may not fall in the author’s intended audience. Tom wastes no time reminding me that as the critic my role is only to advise, and that it’s silly to try to do anything else. It’s a lesson I have a strangely hard time learning with some of my other writing friends.

If you’re into sexy, violent mystery serials and a strong female protagonist who doesn’t always exercise common sense, consider the first book in Tom’s series, Stripper!.

Sam at the SAAM

For my birthday I went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, or the SAAM. The museum explicitly encourages the taking and sharing of pictures. Here I am in a tranquil glade. SPOILER: It’s actually a painting.

img_20191011_165107477This next image is from outside the museum. If you look closely you’ll see something wild is going on with the buildings on the street across from me.

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My fiance and I in front of a megalodon. They have gone extinct, unfortunately, and do not exist outside hanging from the ceiling of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
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My fiance forgave me for not putting this crystal we found in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on her engagement ring.img_20191010_160342580

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My favorite section of the museum was the folk art section. These were pieces made with the help of no classical training or particular tradition, and they are as weird as one might expect. The stories are particularly helpful in bringing some of them to life, so I’ve included them where applicable.img_20191011_180808269img_20191011_180745098img_20191011_180626165img_20191011_180506403img_20191011_180948949

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This piece was made by a blind man.img_20191011_181101831img_20191011_181118347img_20191011_181400393img_20191011_181415431img_20191011_181425024

How to tolerate a commute with a limited data plan

My first rule of a commute: don’t have one. Sometimes that’s not an option. Here are a couple recommendations for how to make the most out of all that time where your eyes and hands are busy and you can’t connect to the wifi.

Audiobooks

Audiobooks are good to download on wifi and listen to on the road. You can get a free audiobook from Audible, and you can get audiobooks from your library as well. You can even up the speed of the reading and get through books fast, although listening at 3x normal speed can be challenging. I have been listening at 1.5x myself, lately.

Podcasts

Podcasts can be trickier to keep from eating up your data. Many services will let you download episodes ahead of time, but I have not seen it systematized well such that you don’t need to manually download each episode and manually clear out the ones you have heard. For short podcasts it can get especially tiresome.

Pocket

Try this app. The trick to this service is being diligent about collecting reading material and turning the high-quality voice off. To save an article to your pocket, on Firefox you can tap the logo between the ellipsis and the star on your URL bar. On your phone you can select the share icon and then select Pocket. Once you’ve pocketed an article, you can read it without an internet connection, but it will also read it to you. Pocket will even make a playlist of your recently saved articles so you’ll stay entertained and informed your whole drive. Do disable the high-quality voice, which has no option to turn on only in WiFi, and will eat your data.

It's about whatever I say it's about