You’re going to die anyway.

You’re going to die anyway.

“You know you’re going to die anyway, right?”

It was 1999 and I had just temporarily moved into my Uncle John’s studio apartment in New York City. He very generously let me stay with him while I found an apartment for my family. After several years of trying to break into the animation industry, I had just accepted my dream job at Nickelodeon. Jenni and our two babies were packing up our home in Phoenix and I had to find a place for us, fast.

My uncle and I were getting reacquainted after many years. He had just learned that I was a vegetarian, and was grilling me on the why’s and wherefore’s of abstaining from a carnivorous diet. In contrast, John was a lifelong chain smoker and loved rich meat dishes. We both hailed from Omaha, Nebraska, that gloriously flat land teaming with beef, corn and ham. I was the odd one in my family (in many ways, but we’ll stick to diet for now). It seemed that everyone on my father’s side started smoking young and couldn’t resist a juicy steak or burger. For John to learn that I no longer ate meat of any kind, it was hard to comprehend. In true pragmatic, midwestern fashion he assumed that I might be trying to achieve some sort of immortality.

To put this in better perspective, my grandfather died of a massive coronary in his early 40s. My own father has suffered several heart attacks, multiple bypasses, stents and, like many people over 40, takes blood thinners to keep the arteries from blocking. My Uncle John himself developed advanced heart disease, eventually required a heart transplant and sadly passed away a few years ago in his 60s.

With both sides of my family steeped in heart disease lore, my genetics say that if I follow the same path as my ancestors, I will suffer the same result. It’s guaranteed. So I work hard to go in the opposite direction. I haven’t eaten meat since 1993 and I haven’t touched dairy since 2001. I don’t smoke, either, but I do drive too fast and I love my bourbon (not at the same time, of course). I’ve been known to consume large quantities of French fries and chocolate. I’m not infallible to the lure of gastronomic decadence.

I am far from immortal and I have no desire to live in this form forever – especially sans chocolate. While I eat pretty well and get regular exercise, I have no illusions that I am making Death twiddle its thumbs waiting for me to kick.

Living to infinity is not the point.

See, I didn’t expect to feel this good in my 50s. My observations of older family members growing up is that “Getting old is hell!” – a direct quote from my grandmother in her 80s. I had always assumed that what happens to you after 30 is that you start sliding down a steep slope into decay. At some point I made a conscious decision that shuffling around the mall in support hose would not be my fate.

I know I’m going to die. I’m not afraid of dying. What strikes ugly fear into my hammering vegan heart is the prospect of suffering through preventable disease. I don’t want my kids (or my wife) to worry about how long I’ll be with them, or put aside their lives so they can care for me in my old age. Or my middle age, for that matter.

I’m going to do everything I can to avoid spending my later years farting in an overstuffed chair watching reruns of Friends. I want to do things, not watching them being done.

Yes, I’m going to die anyway. But I’m not going without a fight.


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The frustration and magic of being a slow thinker

I’m a slow thinker. Not slow in that I don’t understand what’s going on, but slow in that my thoughts tend to percolate a little longer than others’ do. I guess you could say I’m more of a pourover thinker than a Nespresso thinker.

I’ve always been a slow thinker. In school, I was never the one with their hand up first. I hated being put on the spot. Back of the room, that’s me. When a teacher would call on me for an answer, I would freeze up. Even if I knew the material well, I just couldn’t give it up right away.

Let’s just say the debate team was not going to miss me. Even debating friends on any subject wasn’t something I had any interest in at all. I could spout off a quick answer, but it was usually some kind of non sequitur-ish funny comment linked to the last movie we saw. Forced to comment on the actual subject at hand, I was typically at a loss.

It’s not that I don’t understand things, or think my own thoughts. Obviously, because here we are in this post together. No empty vessel, me. I just like to linger in my thoughts. When I read, hear or see something new, I go into processing mode. I’m not one for quick reactions to things, unless it’s on the freeway. I like to absorb things, let them soak into all my brain pockets before coming up with thoughts about them.

You might guess that this did not go over well during meetings in the corporate world. After taking in a slide presentation or an info dump about a new project, I was percolating. Unfortunately, bosses and clients don’t want percolating, they want fast answers and verbose dialogue. Whenever I heard the words “Let’s have a brainstorming session,” I started looking for the closest fire alarm to pull.

Brainstorming is not only not my forté, it’s my Kryptonite.

Currently I have a writing gig with a media company. Once a month, we have a writer’s meeting where we share our ideas for articles and talk about our writing processes. I enjoy them because I genuinely like the people I work with there, but the big clouds of dread start to roll in as soon as we start discussing ideas. I love listening to everyone’s ideas. It just takes me a bit longer to jump in with helpful insights or feedback. Because everyone can’t hang out on a video call for two days while I percolate, I’m usually quiet during those portions of the meeting. Two days later, I’m full of thoughts and feedback on what I heard.

The flip side to this personality quirk feature is that I can also be very quickly witty in certain situations. When there’s any room to comment in a way that links the current topic with an absurdly weird observation, I slide right in like my brain was coated in grease. It’s usually funny to someone. And yes, it’s a coping mechanism because it draws attention away from the fact that I have nothing solid to contribute, yet it seems that I’ve somehow contributed something of value. It’s not actually a conscious tactic, I just drew that conclusion retroactively. Insert witticism = Take that, farty old brainstorming session.

I’ve learned to adapt my slow thinking ways to be a mostly functioning member of society. I’m also not as freaked out or bothered by the way my brain processes information as I used to be. When I’m working with clients I’ve become very adept at saying things like, “Tell me more about that,” or “Hmm, yeah. That will require some focused thought and I will get back to you.” It works most of the time. The other times I probably look stupid, but I’m becoming more okay with that, too.

While I sometimes envy people who can jump in and provide ideas or feedback seemingly without effort, I also think my percolating nature is kind of a super power. I think slow, but I think deep.

I’ll leave you with two quotes on this.

“If I look confused it is because I am thinking.” — Samuel Goldwyn

Did you ever stop to think, and forget to start again?” — Winnie the Pooh

Coding Journey Update

I first started learning to code in grade school – which is not that strange these days but in 1982 it was pretty groundbreaking. I wrote more about that on my dj-codes site.

I started coding again in the early days of the web. I created sites from scratch and tinkered with HTML wherever I could. I didn’t really do much more, except for adding some ActionScript to my Flash animations (another relic of a bygone era).

After I started using WordPress to build websites around 2009, I didn’t really move beyond HTML tinkering. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always thought I would go back to learning to code so I could create applications or make robots move. Someday…

Last year, I decided to start learning to code again for real. Partly because I’m just a geek and partly because as a software developer, I can build really cool things that may actually be fun or useful. I would also make a lot more money than in any of my current freelance gigs or screen printing business. And of course, I just like to learn new things.

So far I’ve been learning on my own through Udemy courses, YouTube, books and other developers who know more than I do. It’s slower to learn that way, but I think I’m getting more depth of knowledge than if I did a quick-start bootcamp kind of thing. Nothing against bootcamps, I just know how I learn best.

I’m going to start documenting my journey into coding here and I may also start a YouTube channel. I’ll try to stay more on the journey side and less on the code side. I don’t want your eyes to glaze over in case you operate heavy machinery while you read my posts.

The last six months has been really fun. I’ve loved every minute of my learning, even if sometimes it makes me want to scream (looking at you, PHP). I’m learning to fail more often and pick myself up more quickly. I don’t really have a set deadline for when I’m supposed to be “done,” I’m not thinking of it that way. I’m just doing what I can, as much as I can and building projects that might be fun and useful.

Earlier this week, I got my certificate in Responsive Web Design. It represents about 300 hours of course work in HTML and CSS. Now I’m moving onto JavaScript, where the rubber meets the road.

Free code camp certificate

I hope you’ll follow my journey. I need all the encouragement I can get. And if you’re on a similar journey, I’d love to hear about it.

Get off my lawn

A pair of feet jumping off a lush, green lawn. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon.

Phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst-phsst…

On one of my morning walks in our suburban Los Angeles neighborhood, I took a detour around a home where a mass of sprinklers was dousing the lawn in little arcs. The lawn was green, lush and beautiful. If I played golf, I probably would have been tempted to tee up. Instead, I skirted the yard and went into the street to avoid getting my ankles splashed and my feet wet. Puddles formed on the sidewalk and the excess water not soaked up by the grass and dirt ran down the street in little streams.

Rather than pause to revel in the splendorous high pile of Kentucky blue grass, I thought about the fact that Southern California is in the middle of another drought year. As I watched the water run down the gutter, I imagined how much of it could have been used for drinking, cooking or bathing. Like the two expensive SUVs parked in the driveway, the lawn seemed like just another upper middle class trophy. Look! the lawn seemed to boast, they are doing so well they can even let their water run down the street!

Don’t get me wrong, I love grass. I love trees and thick, green forests. I grew up partially in the midwest, where lawns were ubiquitous. Unlike in the Southwestern desert, they didn’t need much tending to keep them going. They got plenty of rain and shade from the tall, mature trees in the neighborhood. It was a rare occurrence for my parents to put out the sprinkler on a scorching summer day to water the yellowing patches in the yard. For us kids, running through the sprinklers was an exciting rite of passage, a signal that school was still months away. It was also likely defeating the purpose as we trampled the grass on every pass. Somehow it always grew back anyway.

When I was ten, we moved from Chicago to Phoenix and I was full of questions. If it’s a desert, where will we get water? Will we have water? What if we run out? My vision of the desert at the time was taken from old TV and movies, where someone was always dying of thirst or covered in dust. I was surprised and relieved to find that our new home was in a suburb not unlike the one we just left. We had showers, sinks, toilets, running water and eventually even a pool. We were going to be okay.

Our yard, however, was a completely different story. It was covered in little rocks. There was a small tree and some bushes, but the ground cover was definitely not play-friendly. In fact, we were lectured not to ever walk or run through the yard because we would disturb the black plastic sheeting underneath that was keeping the weeds from growing. Because I was bad at listening, or following rules, or maybe just because I was ten, one of my favorite pastimes was running at full speed and seeing if I could clear the bush in the middle of the yard. Once my activity was discovered, I was given the job of pulling the weeds that were now popping up all over the place. If pulling weeds out of grass is annoying, digging your knuckles into sharp rocks is torturous.

A house in suburban Phoenix with rocks in the front yard.
A recent photo of the house where I grew up in suburban Phoenix. It looked almost exactly like this in 1980.

It didn’t take long for me to stop worrying about where our water came from. I splashed around in our pool without a care of water sources. I was satisfied after I learned that we had plenty of water because it was piped in from the Salt and Verde rivers, as well as the Colorado River. Plenty!

That’s still the case today. Phoenix largely gets its water from outside sources. Similarly, Los Angeles gets the majority of its water from the Owens River Valley, which in turn depends on snow melt from the Sierra Nevadas. If there’s little to no snow pack in the winter, there’s a drought in the spring and summer.

These systems worked okay when there weren’t almost 4 million people needing fresh water. It’s getting increasingly hard to serve such a huge (and growing) population. It’s fascinating to me that a majority of people seem to live as if the supply is endless. I don’t know if it’s willful ignorance or a genuine misunderstanding of the environment in which we live. It’s also both amusing and maddening that we blame avocado and almond crops for greedily sucking up all the water, when my own observations have shown me:

  1. Several cars waiting in line at the local car wash, all of them without a speck of dirt
  2. The aforementioned over watering and maintenance of golf-course level lawns
  3. The massively wasteful animal agriculture industry. If you’ve ever driven on I-5 through central California and held your nose for several miles, that’s what you smelled. But sure, almonds are evil.
  4. Overshowering, when George Carlin’s “four key areas” method works just fine.

Aside from just being cranky about the water waste from lawn maintenance, I am fascinated by the fact that in spite of all the gorgeous green carpet I see in our neighborhood, I notice one odd thing. I never see anyone actually using the lawn. No one ever sits on them, naps on them, or plays on them. They are purely decorative.

When we moved into our current home, the lawn had been very carefully built and maintained so as to attract renters like us. I admit that it worked. However, my just-spent-four-years-in-Oregon sensibility changed when I realized how much water we were losing every time the sprinklers came on. We slowly dialed it back until our landlord started complaining about how some of the grass was dying. To appease him, we dialed it back up until we started noticing mushrooms growing in the yard. So back down it went. We wondered how the trees and bushes could thrive without much water, but the grass could not. Our neighbors have beautiful rose bushes and other plants but they never water their yard at all. I started looking at my favorite yards, the ones with dirt and colorful desert plants, and decided that was really the way to go. Over the years our landlord has softened on the grass issue. We water the plants in the front yard with a hose a couple times per week, but I even wonder if maybe they’re getting enough water from the ground anyway.

Sometimes I miss the “accidental” green lawns of Germany, Chicago, or Oregon. I also miss the desert of Arizona. When I think about missing those things, I realize that what I miss is experiencing them for exactly what they are. I’m starting to understand what I used to hear people say about Los Angeles being fake. It’s not the people and it’s not Hollywood. It’s the day-to-day manufacturing of a different environment instead of experiencing the one we’re in at the moment.

How I choose to link my reading list

If you’ve ever checked out my Now page, you’ve seen my monthly reading list. Sometimes everything changes and other times it looks like I take months to read the same book. That’s because sometimes it does. Sometimes I give up on a book that’s not really happening for me. No guilt. I read for pleasure, mostly, so if it’s not pleasing, why torture myself?

In fact, I think kids should be allowed to be more honest about the literature in their school curriculum, rather than be trained to believe that just because someone like Twain or Hemingway wrote it, it’s automatically good or entertaining (I love both authors, by the way). While it can be good to understand why society as a whole has declared a book to be great literature, it’s not necessary to agree.

I list almost everything I’m currently reading, even if I’m not really getting into it. So if you see something on my list and are curious what I thought about it, you can check out my Goodreads page. It probably needs updating, so you can also just ask me.

I like to link to the books I’m reading. I’m just nice that way. Most of the time I link to books in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. Mostly because I live here, but also because I believe that our local libraries are one of the most important public institutions we have. I grew up in the library, my wife and our kids grew up in the library. It’s an amazing, free resource. I want to see more people taking advantage of them.

While I love our library, I do also like to buy books and keep them in my own collection, or give them as gifts. For books to be bought, it’s probably easiest to link to them on Amazon. That way, almost anyone, almost anywhere in the world can find the book quickly and buy it on the spot.

I’m not going to do that. I have two reasons:

  1. I don’t think things always need to be so easy. Yes, you can get a book delivered to your home or office sometimes the same day. But when you consider the cost of the human and environmental resources it takes to make that happen, it’s a luxury that we can easily do without. Sure, I order things from Amazon, I won’t lie. But usually it’s something that I can’t get locally very easily without driving all over town – another waste of resources.
  2. I want to support small, local bookstores. I think the days of the behemoth bookstore are going to be over soon – because… Amazon – and I want to see small, independently-owned shops become the go-to source for book-buying. Many times I link to Skylight Books here in L.A., but if you have a local bookstore you love just let me know and I’ll link to it when I can.

That’s about it. That’s my great linking manifesto. I love sharing what I’m reading here and I hope you find some juicy books to check out. If you have some to share, get in touch. I always love to hear about new (or old) titles!

The Catastrophic Boba Shortage of 2021

No, not that Boba.

I read the headline, then I read it again. Yep, it really does say that, I thought. It’s not just that it’s 3:00 am and I’m sitting on the toilet in the dark. I’m mostly awake and it’s right there: “Boba Shortage to Last Throughout Summer.”

There was nothing I could do in that moment but take slow, deep breaths and try to process the horrific news.

Wait a minute. What am I saying? I don’t even drink boba. In fact, it kind of grosses me out. All those little gelatinous orbs floating around in a drink make me think of eyeballs and I don’t even want to contemplate what it would be like to bite down on – ugh. “Excuse me, Waiter, there’s an eye in my soup.”

I’m not usually squeamish about these things; no, wait. Yes, I am. I’m very squeamish. I still do a side eye at baked goods with raisins in them. Don’t even get me started on foods inappropriately described as “gooey.” Can we just say “melty?” Similarly, boba really makes my tummy rumble, and not like I’m hungry.

This news headline, with its dire prediction of the coming Bobacolypse, gave me an odd sense of relief. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely weep for the rest of the population that loves their boba tea. If I saw one of those behemoth pickups driving down the freeway filled with boba and toilet paper, I would call 911 and pursue them until the fiend was captured. So no, I wasn’t relieved about the drastic boba shortage itself, but at the headline.

I was relieved because the fact that these are the stories making the news ticker means a short break from stories about mass shootings and uber-conservative political nuttiness. Maybe it’s only a tiny break, but it helps. The more headlines I see like “Do Squirrels Damage Power Lines More Than Weather?,” the easier it is to scroll past the doom.

You might be thinking (because I just did) why don’t you just stop reading the news? And you would be smart to think that. I do take occasional breaks from reading news, but the truth is that I am addicted to knowing what’s going on in the world. In some ways, even gloomy news can be comforting to me – and sometimes the more ridiculously doom-ridden, the better. I realize it’s weird, but hear me out. Take a headline like “Solar Wind Traveling 1,118,468 mph Due to Hit Earth Sunday.” That sounds dangerous, as if by Monday the entire Western hemisphere will be a gooey mess. I mean, melty mess. It also sounds very science fiction-ey, like it’s just ridiculous enough to be the premise of a Netflix series. Since I can’t do anything about it and I clearly can’t take it seriously, it doesn’t affect me emotionally. I can handle it. So I keep reading the news and mentally separate the hard stuff from the laughable stuff.

Here’s another headline to consider: “North Korea warns of ‘crisis beyond control’ in heated statements aimed at US and South Korea.” Okay, let’s quickly brainstorm here. What are we going to do about this? How can we make Kim Jong Un feel less attacked? We could get on a plane to North Korea, sit down with him and help him understand about the old saying “sticks and stones.” If I thought we would come back alive, much less even get there, it might be something to consider. It would be something to do, rather than just sit here and worry about it. So, I won’t worry about it.

But back to boba. We are clearly in a crisis here. And even though there’s probably nothing I can do about it, and it doesn’t affect me due to my revulsion at the very thought of consuming it, in the back of my mind I wonder. Maybe I can do something? Just because I’m not a boba drinker doesn’t mean I can’t help those who love their bubble tea. Maybe I can start cultivating cassava in my yard. And maybe I can gather my neighbors to do the same. Together, we could turn this planetary tapioca ball shortage around.

Still, maybe this will all just be okay. I’ll be okay. We’ll be okay. We will learn to live in a world without boba. I think it’s best summed up in the words of Denise Giraldo-Gordon of Brooklyn, NY:

“I didn’t miss it at all. I just needed to prepare mentally.”

We all do, Denise. We all do.

Fractured

You’ve probably stubbed your toe a few times in your life, amiright? Sure you have. Sadly, you will likely never get to the championship-level toe stubbing that I have attained. You need to practice every day. Most people don’t have that kind of drive. I don’t mean to be dismissive, but I am just extremely adept at smashing my feet.

If there’s a box, I will kick it. If there’s a door frame, I will hit it. If there’s something heavy, I will drop it on myself.

I’m not what I would consider a clutz, per se. I just have magnets in my feet that attract injury. They’re average sized feet. They don’t turn out so that snagging them on objects would be easier. Nope. They just get themselves in situations on a regular basis that defy explanation.

I’m a good healer, so typically I’m back up and running (literally) in a week or two. Recently, however, I stubbed my pinky toe so well that I actually broke it.

Back in February (the 3rd to be precise, according to my bullet journal), I kicked a box of t-shirts as I was walking by; the box was minding its own business. Again, these are not things I do on purpose, it’s a natural talent I have developed. I’m not angry, or frustrated, nor do I have anything against boxes or cardboard. Simple happenstance, or what some might call not looking where I’m going. But yes, I jabbed my pinky toe into that box like I was playing in the World Cup. Or at least it felt that way.

Several expletives later, it bruised and swelled up like a hot dog in a microwave.

I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be running any time soon. I did do some power walking and hiking, but that’s only because I’m stubborn and kind of dumb. Suffice to say it didn’t get any better under that kind of care. After a couple months of this, Jenni suggested that maybe, just maybe I might want to get it checked out. Okay, sure, fine.

Turns out it’s broken this time. For real. Thankfully, I squeaked by without needing surgery, but it was close. The only thing I have to do now is… wait. Apparently I can even run on it if I want, as long as there’s no pain. But I’m not going to do that (again – yes, I tried it once). I will (sigh) let it heal like a normal person would.

I wish I could say something about lessons being learned, or offer up some kind of zen wisdom about feet. Alas, I only have this dumb story about my toe.

The offending phalange, as seen from the outside. Hey, that would be a good name for a bar.

Easing Off the Pressure

I made two promises to myself in the last couple of years that I have been failing to keep. The first was that I would only write blog posts or newsletters when I really felt like I had something to say. The second was that I would publish on a regular schedule.

Maybe you can see how those two promises are like peanut butter and pickles. They were never meant to go together. So I’ve been over here flailing around, desperately trying to stick to a schedule and also write super meaningful things.

Lately, when the little reminder thingy pops up in my calendar that tells me I need to publish something, I’ve started asking myself, okay, but what? And the more important question, okay, but why? And a more existential question, who is doing all this scheduling in my calendar?

I mean, obviously it’s me. But the overly (annoyingly) optimistic me who creates the schedule and the lazy, easily distracted, pessimistic me who reads the calendar are not on speaking terms. And while I can’t change these two mes very easily, maybe I can get them in a room and help them work out their issues. Maybe the first thing to work on is easing up on all the pressure.

I already have a writing gig where I’m obligated to publish new content each month, and there are other people depending on me. And that’s fine – no, it’s awesome. I have a great editor and other writers who help me with my content, keep me on track and hold me accountable.

Here it’s just me. Or mes. Us? More existential questions and I’m getting off track here.

At one time or another (maybe always), we put so much pressure on ourselves to accomplish goals, be something great, get to a perfect place in our lives. Sometimes I think it’s necessary and good. Otherwise, we would sit around all day in our underwear eating whatever we could easily reach in the cupboard (peanut butter and pickles come to mind). Other times I think we can afford to ease up a little bit on ourselves.