Archive for July, 2012

something vicious and very important

07/23/2012

“Is there some sort of perversion in what we’re taught, some error that’s vicious and very important?”
– Hank Rearden, Atlas Shrugged

We as a culture, slowly but inexorably, are realizing this a little bit more each day: that the stereotypical American Dream is full of false promise, sprinkled with hints of delusion. The white picket fence, the 2.5 kids, the comfy office with a view – while to want these things is not wrong, it is wrong to assume that they can bring us happiness.

But this is what we were taught. All the little girls got doll houses and dreamed of their wedding dress. All the boys got Matchbox cars and strove for the big time. To think that any of this will bring us happiness is in direct contradiction to what makes us human. To what makes us humane.

The quote above is from Ayn Rand’s greatest novel, Atlas Shrugged, uttered by an industrious industrialist trying to come to terms with what is happening in the world. The meaning of Rand’s quote may be different than what I have interpreted here, but the entire scene recreated for me the delusion that so many of us unwittingly cater to. That I, for years, unwittingly catered to.

Another quote from the same passage – in fact before the above quote – helps elucidate:

“They sit here, waiting for this place to give them meaning, not the other way around.”

No place can give us meaning. Even our interpretation of the concept is likely errant. Obtaining that white picket fence does not spell out happiness. Living in the four-bedroom colonial does not provide freedom. Rather it is the meaning we as individuals give to these places, through experiences, that makes it alight with meaning, with intent. That is why every beginner’s guide to meditation tells you to find a secluded place you can make sacred, that won’t be tampered with by anybody else – including your family.

Because if we take the power into our own hands, if we, as vibrant, willful individuals, give meaning to the places we go through our own conscious direct experience, well then that is an altogether different empowerment. An altogether different freedom.

one-year anniversary – why i quit my job

07/15/2012

On June 28, 2011, I walked into my boss’s office, filled with anxiety, the majority of my hairs standing on end. I said, “I think it would be in my best interests, and yours, if I put in my two weeks.”

One year later I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Hoboken, NJ, staring across the Hudson at the glow that is Manhattan.

I do not regret my decision for an instant.

But, if I could do it again, there are definitely things I would do differently.

reading between the lines

For those of you unfamiliar with that situation, here is my [poorly written] post from a year ago explaining it.

The past year, however, is slightly more complex than sitting in coffee shops in and around New York City. More than anything, this has been a year of self-discovery. It has been the kind of year I wish upon all my friends, and my enemies, though it’s not as glorious as I’ve likely made it sound.

This post is here to set the record straight.

By impulsively quitting my job, I was able to take a step back from my life and examine it as an objective observer. I allowed myself to ask the important questions, free of the cloud of responsibility and pressure.

  • What makes me happy?
  • What can I not live my life without?
  • What do I envision as my typical happy week?
  • How can I live my happy week 52 times a year?
  • Why do I associate hypocrisy with screw-top wine bottles?

Above all, I have finally been able to come to terms with my flaws (most of them). This may sound trite, but it is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I was able to embrace them, thereby becoming consciously aware of their presence, thereby minimizing their negative effects on my life. Here are my top flaws I identified:

  • I over-promise and under-deliver
  • I lack discipline
  • I am inconsistent (case and point, this blog)
  • I am easily distracted, primarily on the interwebz
  • I am selfish

On the flip side of this, I have also been able to identify what I believe to be my strong points:

  • I am authentic – I say what I mean and I mean what I say
  • I am driven to produce the best work possible
  • I am always learning
  • Yeah, short list…

All in all, quitting my job was one of the best things I have ever done with my life. But there are some distinct shades of gray to that deed as well.

For those of you looking to quit your job, for those of you looking to start doing work you love, for those of you unsure as to where you want your path to take you, let the juvenile lessons learned by yours truly help you get started on the right foot.

Because I certainly didn’t.

shattering the illusionsi quit my job

The easiest part of quitting our jobs to pursue our passions is the actual quitting. While nerve-wracking at the time, it is overshadowed by an exhilaration that cannot be replicated. For me, this made it an easy choice. But once I came down off that high, I knew it was time to get to work.

The hardest part, by far, has been the financial strain from not having that nice regular paycheck. I went from a bi-weekly paycheck with a coveted comma to a bi-weekly paycheck that rarely rose above $400.

In light of this, my #1 piece of advice is this:

1. Have some money put away before you quit your job

I altered my lifestyle but, granted, it didn’t keep me from experiencing life. I was still able to go skydiving for the first time, whitewater raft the fifth most dangerous rafting river in the world, and have my first Central American adventure in Nicaragua. But once those adventures were over, the reality of my financial situation set in and I’ve been severely restricted in what I have been able to do since then.

If you have no problem living the lifestyle of the starving artist – constantly – then this does not apply to you. To everyone else, I recommend having a little cushion before you go Bohemian.

My second lesson is this:

2. Know what you want

This sounds simple, but it’s harder than we realize. When I quit my job I knew I wanted to be a novelist. That was good direction, but the more I learned the more I realized the difficulties involved with going the straight novel route. A novel is not written in a month, unless you’re Stephen King. That first novel, especially – Carrie was denied a number of times before he got it published. So I needed other income streams in the meantime, and I needed to improve my writing tenfold before I put anything as substantial as a novel on the market that wouldn’t get torn apart and push a potential audience away.

So I made it my primary goal – and it still is to this day – to always improve my writing. To always experiment with different styles, with different voices, with different structures. That being said, my third lesson is this:

3. Never be stagnant

In December and January I experienced a period of overwhelming stagnation, resulting in my first – and hopefully last – anxiety attack. I was barely writing and had let life get in the way of my creative endeavors. In order to achieve any kind of growth as human beings, we must always be learning, always seeking knowledge. If we feel stagnant in our job, it’s likely because we feel we aren’t learning anything new, that we aren’t growing.

If we want this to change, we have two options: 1.) We can wait for an opportunity to come along and seize it, or 2.) We can create the opportunity ourselves. Robert Greene’s The 50th Law has a very motivating chapter on how to do the latter of these two. He titles it “Turn Shit Into Sugar.”

final reflection

Ultimately, as I said earlier, I would not change what I did one year ago for anything.

  • I experienced more rapid personal growth than I had in the past eight years
  • I am a better writer than I was 365 days ago, although there is still quite a ways to go
  • I have become more aware of those important questions
  • I am happier
  • And, of course, as my best friend so poignantly told me, for the first time in seven years I finally lived up to the title of this blog

Now if that isn’t worth impulsively quitting one’s job and living in poverty for the next year, I don’t know what is.

top 5 books of 2012 – first edition

07/11/2012

Last December I posted my first Top 10 Books list. Nearly instantaneously I received heaps of praise on my choices and my startlingly revealing criticism and insight. The post received in-depth coverage in The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, and I was interviewed on Good Morning America and The View.

Oprah even called back in December and said she was sorry she had waylaid her book club, due the poignancy of my analyses. “Jeff,” she said, “I just talked with my people and we’ve decided that, because we don’t want to miss another opportunity like this, we’re going to launch a digital book club next year.” I said, “Cool Opey, hit me up when you do.”

She hit me up.

Thus, without further ado, and among much clamoring from the masses – and Opey – I present to you the “Top 5 Books of 2012 – First Edition.” These are the top five books from among the books I’ve read over the past six months. Expect another five this coming December!

top 5 books of 2012 – first edition

5. Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

catching fire suzanne collinsGenre: Fiction

I tend to stay away from wildly popular books published in today’s day and age. My thought is that a book is like a fine wine – it tastes better after other people have told me how it’s supposed to taste. Unless of course it’s Vladimir Nabokov – that shit is torture no matter what day and age you read it.

With the second book in Suzanne Collins’ now world-famous Hunger Games series, I thought it would be impossible for her to write a second book that was as good as the first.

I was completely wrong.

This second book set a new standard for the series, pulling the reader along with each cliffhanger so that we continually say, “Just one more chapter…” An intriguing aspect of Collins’ dramatis personae is her central character’s simultaneous likability and, well, hate-ability. Katniss was a selfish bitch who can’t see past her own petty desires and frustrations. Granted, she is continually put in extremely harrowing situations, and who knows how the rest of us would act when faced with the political tumult and life-threatening dilemmas she finds herself continually embroiled in.

You can read this book in just a few hours and it will be a few hours well-spent, carried along by an original and compelling storyline and by a cast of secondary characters with their own colorful backgrounds and personalities.

My only regret with reading this book is that I then read Mockingjay.

4. Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck

tortilla flat john steinbeckGenre: Literature

Favorite line: “…while her knees, her hands, and her lips did penance for an old sin, her modest and provocative eyes, flashing under drawn lashes, laid the foundation for a new one.”

Tortilla Flat is likely one of the funniest books I have ever read, portraying a group of drunk 1920s paisanos (a mix of Spanish, Mexican, Indian and Caucasian bloods) on the coast of California in a similar light with King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The characters want nothing more than a carefree existence, which they find through their best friend Danny, a roof over their heads, and lots and lots of wine.

The “adventures” of Danny and his Knights are not what your modern-day novelist would call adventures, but I think that is what elevates Steinbeck’s originality. Their selfishness is their primary motivator, coupled closely with a strong desire for wine, although they are continually able to justify and rationalize their immorality in incredibly humorous ways.

I won’t lie, if you have never drank wine out of a fruit jar, you will have a burning desire to do so at about page 115. DK “Coach” put it well in his review: “No one’s going to make this part of a college reading list. But there is something wholy American about John Steinbeck.”

3. The Burning Land – Bernard Cornwell

the burning land bernard cornwellGenre: Historical Fiction

Favorite line: “For a moment everything is as you imagined it, then it changes, and the details stand out so stark. Details of irrelevant things. Perhaps it is the knowledge that these small things may be the last you will ever see in this life that makes them so memorable.”

Uhtred Uhtredson, the central character of this series, is somewhat akin to Katniss from The Hunger Games. Caught unwillingly in extremely stressful situations, he is quick to anger and tends to let his emotions rule him. However, he differs from Katniss in that he wants nothing more out of life than to fuck and fight. The only thing that keeps him in check, besides his love for his wife, is his oath to Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, and the ruler who in the ninth century laid the foundation for what we now know as modern England.

But Uhtred, after a life-altering event, decides to go Viking in this fifth volume of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles. Uhtred, to clarify, was born a Saxon, raised a Dane (when the Vikings took him captive), and is sworn by oath to serve Alfred, a Saxon king. His loyalties are continually tested between the established Saxons and invading Danes, most notably in The Burning Land.

My favorite aspect of Cornwell’s novels is his startlingly accurate portrayal of battle. Reminiscent of Red Badge of Courage in its fog-of-war mentality, Cornwell instills details in all the right places, never being too descriptive and never glazing over too much. His balance of detail and action is impeccable. The favorite line above is from the beginning of the climactic battle that defines the fate of Uhtred in The Burning Land.

2. Life of Pi – Yann Martel

life of pi yann martelGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

One of the most well-written and effectively structured books I’ve ever read. Brilliant without being lofty, Life of Pi, using prose as the carving knife, cuts away at the stigma surrounding the all-important questions of life, primarily centered around the veracity of religion and the struggle for meaning in a world of seemingly meaningless trials – at least they seem meaningless when you’re stuck at sea for close to a year – alone.

One would think that a story about a boy surviving on his own in a lifeboat lost at sea would get boring at some point. Not so with Life of Pi. Yann Martel did an incredible job keeping the reader hooked and interested where other writers might lose the reader to monotony and dolorous humor. Granted, it helps when he throws a hyena, an orangutan and an enormous Bengal tiger into the same lifeboat.

My only beef with this wonderful novel is the disconnect between the first part, which dealt solely with the protagonist’s quandary regarding religion – he develops keen interests and loves for Christianity, Islam and Hinduism – and the second part which dealt solely with him being lost at sea. There was very little connection between the two – they could have been two different novellas and no one would have noticed. In the second half, the protagonist only mentions religion and God a few times, whereas the entire first third of the book dealt with the existence of God (or gods). I kept waiting for a tie-in that never surfaced.

Regardless, this is a book for readers of all types and levels.

1. Rosie – Anne Lamott

rosie anne lamottGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “She panicked frequently at how quickly the time flew and yet how every day loomed before her like a dragon, waiting to be slain.”

This is the first Anne Lamott book I’ve read. As soon as I finished  I berated myself for not having read her sooner.

I never thought I would read about the “growing pains of motherhood” and decide it was one of the best books I have ever read. Anne Lamott shattered that illusion with Rosie, a story about an alcoholic widowed mother trying to raise her daughter Rosie and find meaning in her own life in the process.

Comprised of a small but effective cast of characters, Rosie reveals life truths we all know but refuse to acknowledge regarding self-respect, self-deceit, fear and love. It’s a little darker in that most of it is told from the point of view of the weak-spirited alcoholic mother who just can’t seem to kick the addiction, but I think that was kind of the point. This book is about real life, and what many children go through when they have alcoholic parents.

Rosie is the epitome of Lamott’s attention to being conscious. And not simply the consciousness we all experience in mundane living, but a consciousness akin to satori, or Buddhist enlightenment. She is aware. The pictures Lamott paints are vivid and descriptive, revealing details of life I would never have thought to even notice. Her depiction of her two protagonists, Rosie and Elizabeth, cuts to the core of what it means to be human, battered by our own worst enemy: our mind.

This may not be a book for everyone – there is no action, nay there is barely even a plot. But it is wonderfully written and very insightful. We can all discover something about ourselves by reading Rosie.

top 5 books – second edition

The second edition will be revealed in December after I get back from my round-the-world smartphone tour, where I will travel around the world and, instead of signing books, seeing as I have nothing in print, I will sign people’s smartphones, tablets and laptops. This is a real thing.