Heat Flow

Cirque de Flambe

Everyone loves to bitch about their jobs. But if you have a friend who works in the restaurant industry, you know that they can almost always one up you in the bitching department.

Steve, in marketing: Man, my day sucked. I have a huge project due on Friday and half of my team is out with the flu.

Emma, a cook: That’s nice. I can’t feel my left pinky because the oil burn from last week got cut open today while I was slicing lemons, and my girlfriend made me sleep on the couch last night because I couldn’t wash the smell of fish water from my hair even after a 40 minute shower.

Cooks are always on their feet, always cutting and burning themselves, and are always achy and exhausted from too much fast paced work and manual labor. Plus, kitchens are fatalistic environments, even compared to other modern American workplaces. Cooks brag about their injuries and horrid working conditions in a never ending zero-sum game of “whose job is shittier?”

When I look back at my decade in the restaurant industry, all I can really remember are the bad parts. All I remember telling my  friends about my work days were the chef screaming and throwing hamburger buns at me; the time I ruined a stack of baguettes by bleeding all over them before I noticed I had cut myself; the nights of working until 1 AM scrubbing out fish containers and then coming back at five hours later to start the veal stock. I told them of these things partially to gain sympathy. But that wasn’t the main reason.

I burnt out eventually, like so many cooks do. But while I was there I loved it. With passion. And this is true for so many cooks. They hate it, but they also love it? But why? Why do they love it when it is full of so much awfulness? I wondered about this for years. Cooks won’t tell you, because talking about enjoying their job isn’t part of cooking culture. But you can see it. In the middle of the dinner rush when flames are leaping off the grill and pans are being tossed around in a symphony of clangs and crashes. You can see it in the eyes of the five cooks who dance around and yell at each other and the servers, interweaving in desperate, adrenaline flavored elegance.

The answer is flow. That mind state where you are full and completely absorbed in a task, to the point that your movements are both entirely deliberate and utterly effortless. Where every thought and breath are infused with purpose and synchronized with function. Where every part of you works as a single unit, immersed in the moment, and distant from it. You are both the performer on stage and the audience drinking the performance in. It is the closest most of us ever get to transcendence. To, dare I say it, enlightenment.

When it’s good–when it works–professional cooking is non stop flow. At a busy restaurant, on a good night, with a good team, you can spend hours in flow. It’s why cooks can be drenched in sweat and barely notice or care. It’s why cooks and servers can scream at each other and go out for drinks afterwards like old friends. It’s how that saute cook can work on 12 dishes at the same time and not burn a single crab cake or put one chive out of place.

There’s a lot to hate about professional cooking, and really only one thing to love.

But damn. With love like that–with that kind of passion–who cares how terrible it is? Sensation in your fingers is overrated anyway.

An Early Morning Stroller

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Yesterday morning I woke up at an ungodly hour to drive my wife to the train station, as I have been doing since she went back to work after her surgery. We were running late because of a debacle with a power outage and an alarm clock. Because it is winter the sky had only the slightest hint of brightness to let the world know that it was thinking of waking up and becoming morning.

I was exhausted because I had only gone to sleep a few hours before. I was looking forward to dropping my wife off and then darting home and cuddling back into bed.

As we drove around the corner I saw something strange.

“Is that a stroller?” I asked.

“Yeah, I guess so,” said my wife. We were both sleepy, and she was tense because of the time crunch.

It was too dark to see if the stroller was empty or not. There was no one else around. But we didn’t have any time to waste, so I drove past and towards the train station. It is less than a mile away from our house, so it isn’t a long trip.

My wife got out of the car and we kissed and I wished her a good day. Then I turned around to drive home. And I thought about the stroller.

Was there a baby in there? Had there been a baby abandoned on the sidewalk a block away from our house? Should I stop and take a look, in case there was an abandoned baby and I needed to call the police? I didn’t see any baby, but then again it was dark. I didn’t hear any baby, but then again they don’t always make noise.

I didn’t want to. I was exhausted and parts of my brain weren’t on. I wanted to go back to sleep, not wait for the cops to show up. And what if there was someone waiting in the (nonexistent) bushes, ready to grab whoever came to investigate the trailer. Besides, there were plenty of cars driving around. Chances were someone would stop and find out if something was wrong, right?

That’s when I froze. That’s when I knew that I had to be the one to make sure there wasn’t a baby in there, and deal with the consequences if there was. Not because I am a good person. Not because of a need for heroism or a sense of civic responsibility. Those might drive someone to do it. But the only reason I did is that I recognized that I was in the grip of the bystander effect.

Many experiments have demonstrated that people are less likely to help a stranger when there are other people around, or in a well populated area where other people are likely to show up shortly. Everyone considers helping, but decides that they don’t need to because someone else will do it.

Statistically, you will receive help more quickly if your car breaks down on a lonely country road than a well-traveled city road. The city drivers will drive right on by, confident that help is one the way.

I know about the bystander effect. For that reason alone, I feel obligated to act when I am under its thrall.

So when I got back to the corner I pulled over and took a good long look inside the stroller. The car behind me honked. It made me tense, but I ignored it. Because that’s another component of the bystander effect. Social pressure actually makes us less likely to help, because we assume that if everyone else is ignoring something then there isn’t really a problem. The social cues of others have an enormous effect on what we consider normal.

The stroller was empty. I made sure I was certain of that before I drove on by. There was a pile of cars behind my by the time I pulled away. There was no baby in there.

I still have no idea why there was an empty stroller on the corner of the sidewalk. It was gone by the time I passed there again later in the day. Maybe I should have called the cops anyway. Something strange was definitely going on. But I really wanted to go back to sleep. And like I said, I’m not a hero.

I just read a lot of psychology books.

Social Convention Dissolving Spray®

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I carry around a bottle of Social Convention Dissolving Spray®. It’s useful stuff. When I come up against a social convention I don’t want to deal with I hit it with a few spritzes of the spray. Then I can say and do whatever I want.

You can make it yourself if you have the ingredients. You take one part resistance to awkwardness, two parts lust for attention, and one part ignorance to potential consequences, and dissolve them to 12% in an aqueous solution. Let it age for a week or two, and bam. Your own Social Convention Dissolving Spray®.

My friends think I do this naturally. I don’t, although it strokes my ego—and therefore makes my supply of lust-for-attention more potent—that they think that. But I don’t just do it. When I want to experience the power and freedom that comes from making a deliberate ass out of myself in public I have to open up my skull, reach into my brain, and pull out the spray.

Some people do it as naturally as they breathe. Some people produce the spray in their sweat glands. Like pheremones. It weird and crazy when you see it in the wild. But I saw it today.

Mamacat—my elderly mobility and internal-monologue challenged mother-in-law—offered to take me out to breakfast this morning. I agreed because I like free breakfast, even though outings with Mamacat are trying. Getting out of the house with Mamacat is like pulling teeth from your breakfast cereal. Strictly speaking it’s easy, but by the time you are done you’re not sure you still want to eat the cereal.

We went to a local diner that I quite like. It’s full of jars of jam on window sills and the kind of totem polls that would somehow fit in at a Denny’s. The host sat us down, and a moment later he sat another mother-and-son duo in the booth across from ours. The mother was younger than Mamacat, and the son older than me. This isn’t unusual given that Mamacat has 40 years on me. Plus she’s British. That ages you.

The mother wore a wool scarf and a knit hat. The son looked like he could play Jerry Seinfeld in a low-budget Lifetime movie about the drama behind the comedy. A few minutes after they opened their menus Jerry stopped an old man who was walking by and engaged him in a five minute conversation about whether or not he was from New York. I don’t know if they knew each other.

About ten minutes into the meal Mamacat finally finished her salad and got ready to eat her turkey burger. Her fingers were covered in honey mustard, and she fished around on and around the table for her napkin. It was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile I also needed a napkin, because I forgot to take my alergy meds today and my first napkin subbed in for tissue duty.

“I should have asked for more napkins when I had the chance,” I said to Mamacat. Mamacat hmmed in agreement.

There was movement next to me, and I turned to see that Wool Scarf Lady had leaned over and was handing me her napkin. A second later son Jerry did the same.

“Thank you!” I said, laughing as I took the napkins. As soon as I took the first one, Wool Scarf reached over and grabbed another one to hand me.

“You bet,” she said.

I almost made a comment about how sometimes evesdropping can be helpful, but I held my tongue. You never know how someone will take something like that. Fifteen seconds later the server showed up with yet another pile of fresh new napkins. Apparently I said my request in a loud tone.

“Wow,” I said to Mamacat, “it’s amazing how well that worked. I wonder if it would work for other things.”

“Could be,” said Mamacat.”

“Gee!” I said so everyone around could hear, “I sure wish we could afford this meal! I could really use a pile of cash right about now!”

Wool Scarf and her faux-Emmy-winning son laughed.

“Yeah,” I said, “maybe that was asking for too much.”

“Well,” said Wool Scarf, still laughing, “you’re no Jerry Seinfeld.”

I didn’t know what to make of that. Did that happen in a Seinfeld episode, or was she just criticizing my attempts at comedy? Maybe she’d been trying for years to tell her son that he looked like Seinfeld, but didn’t want to come out and say it. I wanted to respond, “I made you laugh, didn’t I?” But I didn’t. Because I’m not a psycho. I went back to my meal.

After we finished eating Mamacat paid the bill and I told her I was going to the bathroom. I went inside and sat down. A minute later someone else walked into the bathroom. I sneezed and blew my nose for the five thousandth time today.

“Is that you, sneezy?” said a voice from the other side of the stall. It was Jerry Not-Quite-Seinfeld.

I didn’t say what I wanted to, which was, “Um…can you not talk to me while I’m sitting on the toilet? That’s violating social convention and it makes me uncomfortable.”

Instead I hit myself with a little Social Convention Dissolving Spray®, and answered the question. “Yep.”

“What you got there? A cold?”

“Allergies.”

“In winter?” he said, in a tone that implied that I was lying. Because of the obvious advantage that would give me.

“I have alergies all year,” I said. “Indoor and out door.”

“Well isn’t that something?”

“Yep,” I said. By this time I was out of the stall and washing my hands, and he was using the urinal. But he never stopped talking. We continued to make small talk.

As I left the room he said, “Merry Christmas,” in a tone that sounded like it might be testing to see if I might screw up and say “Happy Holidays.” Or perhaps “There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet.” I said Merry Christmas back, and left.

I got to the table and helped Mamacat up and prepared to leave.

“Bye,” said Wool Scarf.

“Bye,” I said, grinning. “And thanks again.”

“You got it,” she said. “What you got there? A cold?”

“Allergies,” I said.

“What are you allergic to?”

I laughed. “Everything.”

“That must be hard on your marriage,” she said.

I shrugged. “It’s worked out the last 10 years.”

“Are you allergic to your wife?” she asked. I couldn’t help the feeling that our friendly banter had morphed into an Epee match, and she was determined to score a point by hitting me in the toe.

“No,” I said.

“Well, then, you’re not allergic to everything, are you?”

“It’s a paradox,” I said, instead of dropping it like a sane person. I think I still had some spray on me. “Think about it all day. Some time around midnight it’ll hit you, and you’ll wake up and say ‘aha!’”

She smiled and narrowed her eyes. “You’re a man of mystery.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I laughed.

It took Mamacat long enough to get her things together that by the time we got to the front door of the restaurant the Seinfelds were already there. They were chatting with the old man who may or may not have been from New York and his wife. All of them greeted Mamacat and I like old friends who haven’t seen each other in years because they never got along that well in the first place.

We all left together. I ended up holding the door for the entire party. As Jerry disappeared into his car half way across the lot, he pointed at me with one finger and gave me a wink.

Using Social Convention Dissolving Spray® sometimes has awkward consequences. But the nice thing about it is that you can use it only when you want to. The rest of the time you get to leave it in your brain and be a more or less normal person. Plus, it wears off.

Unlike pheremones.

What the Brains Are Saying

BRAIN HUE Collection by Emilio Garcia

  • Criminals who are physically attractive are twice as likely to be acquitted for violent crimes.
  • Judges are more likely to deny parole to inmates right before they eat lunch, when they are hungry.
  • A first impression of a politician’s “likabilty,” before they ever state their views, is an accurate predictor of whether they will win a given election.
  • Charging parents $5 if they are late to pick their children up from daycare makes them more likely to be late than if they are charged nothing.
  • People on diets are statistically more likely to cheat on their spouses.

What does it all mean? I’ve spent the last few years in pursuit of that question. At some point that I can’t identify I became obsessed with human behavior, human interaction, and the human brain. I make no claims to be an expert, just an enthusiastic amateur. I’ve read a number of books on the subject, and I’ll put the rough reading list at the end of this post.

These issues have been studied from many different directions, and some of the findings are little understood or contradictory. However, the evidence mounts up for certain conclusion. One in particular has changed the way I look at the world, and my own functionality within it. It is the following:

Human actions and decisions are determined by a combination of character—encompassing qualities such as personality, temperament, beliefs, and morality—and external circumstances. Of the two, external circumstances are by far the larger factor.

In other words, we do have free well—or at least the compatibilist version of it—but it has much less influence on what we do and what we become than factors outside of ourselves of which we are unaware and over which we have little control. This truth cuts down to the deepest level, from how successful you are at your career to what you had for lunch this afternoon.

Society, it seems, has some serious thinking to do.

Reading List:

The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
Super Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
The Why Axis by Uri Gneezy and John List
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Switch, How to Change When Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton
Brain Rules by John Medina

Shredded Thoughts

155/365: Cheese Grater

If you see the Buddha in the road, put him through a cheese grater.
–A Meditation

Inhale

So I’m meditating now, and I think that it’s…

Exhale

wonder if my timer is going to go off, because I’ve never…

Inhale

thinking too much? I’m probably thinking too…

Exhale

the moss arrows in Thief are pretty green. I guess moss is green, so…

Inhale

really not sure about that timer; what if two hours pass and I haven’t…

Exhale

I come up with my most creative ideas while walking. Or while in the shower. According to both researchers and friends of mine this is a very common occurrence. I think it has to do with the fact that the universe is perverse, and these are two situations in which very few people carry a pen. If creativity is the chocolate of the mental world, its cascading fountains seem most likely to appear whenever you are on a low-carb diet.

Meditation is a great example. If I have an intractable problem or creative tangle, there’s no way to catalyze my brain into actively trying to solve it than sitting down to meditate. The desire for no-thought is apparently really an invitation for every thought in a 5 trillion neuron radius to show up for the part. And they seem so productive. So interesting!

But you shouldn’t believe it. They only seem that way because they’re taboo. Unwanted but still desired. The forbidden fruit in the cognitive garden. And because you only see part of them. Because while meditation may appear encourage thinking, it’s an illusion. A trap. The thoughts are only there because meditation wants them to be there. Because meditation is hungry. Hungry for thoughts. In its advance stages, the meditative mind resists thoughts.

In its more primitive stages, however, it shreds them.

I can feel it happening. I can almost see it. Guides on meditation almost always instruct the seeker to watch thoughts as they form and let them pass. But you can’t just let a thought pass. Not really. All you can do is hack it off at the source. Thoughts only exist to the extent that you form them. They are like pasta coming out of an extrusion machine. They keep going until you pull the lever and make the noodle-guillotine hack its way right through them. Then you boil them and eat them with red sauce.

It’s not a perfect metaphor.

To meditated imperfectly—and the vast, vast majority of all meditation done is imperfect—is to take a knife to your thoughts and slice them into tiny little pieces, so they fall through the grating in your mind and don’t pile up and consume you. We spend a lot of our time consumed. Practice, then, is the art of sharpening your knife, to cut your thoughts into finer and less jagged pieces. Maybe, if you keep going, and if you’re lucky, you’ll eventually have a knife so sharp it will split thoughts from all the way across the room.

Is that enlightenment? I don’t know. I’ll let you know when I get there.

An Egg in the Hand

Day 088/365 - Fenced off football

I’ve always hated football.

Not the garden variety brussels sprouts kind of hatred. It’s deeper than that. I’ve always identified with hating football. As a geek growing up in the U.S., hating football is in a category with appreciating the works of Tolkien. It’s what you’re supposed to do.

During my childhood football was hours of awkward silence while beer-addled relatives yelled “that’s what I’m talking about” at a television with which, as far as I could tell, they hadn’t been speaking at all. It was the soft green lighting that illuminated the aftermath of the always uncomfortable and drama-heavy Thanksgivings at my uncle’s house. It was the unending Sunday night slog that was as likely as not to run long and slice off the first half of the new Simpson’s episode.

It was what the kids who weren’t into djinn battles and rune-etched spaceships enjoyed. It was an arbitrary competition between entitled, testosterone soaked hot shots, smashing into each other under bright lights in front of mindless fans in inglorious tribute to tribalism. I felt this, even when I was too young to know what half of those words meant.

My parents fought about it. My dad’s love of football grew slowly and unseen over the years, like a Phylloxera infestation in the vineyard. Sometimes, in a fit a irritation-driven oversimplification, my mom claimed that she married dad because he didn’t like football.

My father tried to get me to like it. I think it was more about bonding than football. And I tried right back. I really did. But it didn’t stick. The game was just too dull. I believed him that it had tactical nuance. At least, part of me did. But I don’t think he understood that if you don’t understand those nuances, football looks like a series of jerky moments of human collision interspersed by long stretches of inactivity. That’s the entire experience.

The ball snaps, a bunch of padded guys run, and maybe the situation advances. The action lasts only a few seconds, and then it resets back to nothing. Players stand around a lot. Commentators draw arrows on the screen. Sometimes the momentum breaks and something dramatic happens, like an interception or a break-away touchdown. In those moments, hopped up on social a thirst for mainstream social belonging paternal affection, I felt a spark of excitement.

But they never lasted long. And the excitement was always sucked dry by the fact that it was replayed over and over. The more interesting and important the play, the more they ran the footage it and talked and dissected it into desiccation. As if Indiana Jones had leapt under that boulder again and again and again, while John Madden droned clichés about his choice of leap.

Plus, I had my geek pride to worry about. I had my identity. I was the kid who carried D&D books in my backpack. I was the kid who tried to steer sports conversations with other middle schoolers into long-winded monologues about how hiccups worked or Einstein’s fantasies about light beams.

But I never stopped wanting to like football. Because I was always a bundle of contradictions. And because I wanted to like everything. Not every instance of everything, mind you. But you can either be a person who says “I don’t like rap music,” or you can be the one who says he doesn’t listen to a lot of rap but can still name his favorite Wu Tang release. It’s always appealed to me to be the latter type.

I no longer have much in the way of identity issues. The desire to be into everything blossomed throughout my 20s into a wholesale rejection of identity-based opinions. On the other hand, my wife married me because I don’t like football.

She has nothing to worry about. I’m never going to like football. It doesn’t matter that watching Friday Night Lights has exposed to me on an emotional level how much football is a game of tactical bluff and counter-bluff played out in frenzied moments of activity. It doesn’t matter that some of the books I’m reading on deliberate practice and habit formation have made me feel that the game has an ocean of depth with regards to approach and execution just below its brightly lit surface. It doesn’t matter that even since the Seahawks turned competitive this town I love and identify with has had an alluring and distinctly Seattle-flavored passion for the sport. Or that I now recognize that when the ball snaps, the simplicity of the padded guys smashing into each other belies a scene that displays both a precise interchange of sophisticated and precisely executed stratagems colliding in real-time and also a physically manifest cascade of poetic intensity and athleticism that bursts into being in an instant, then is gone.

Maybe, just maybe, I’m forced to admit there’s something to this game. Maybe I have to ditch the decades-long opinion that people only watch football because they are indoctrinated by groupthink and the brain altering properties of buffalo sauce, and would drop this interest if they were clever enough to appreciate literature or roleplaying games.

On the other hand, maybe I don’t. I do, after all, own a Gandalf t-shirt.