oud & nieuw

The Dutch call New Year’s Eve, pragmatically, “Oud & Nieuw” (old and new, obvs.) I still haven’t figured out why they feel the need to fire off crazy amounts of fireworks to celebrate it (instead of, like the rest of the world, politely cramming themselves into public spaces to watch someone else do it for them), but I do enjoy the general lack of mysticism around this holiday in this country as opposed to many others. Nobody expects the night to be magical, or to suddenly bring about drastic change, nobody even seems to bother reflecting (much) on what they want to accomplish in the year ahead. They just say goodbye to the old, hello to the new.

Today I had to replace my iPhone, whose screen I dramatically, fantastically smashed yesterday afternoon. My ‘genius’ helper at the Apple Store was clearly at the end of a crazy shift, and mechanically went rapid-fire through all of Apple’s rituals surrounding old and new (ha) products.

Click, click, plop, plop, a signature, a swipe of my card, and suddenly I was holding a glistening new iPhone in my hands while my old one lay in a little white box, nestled in a perfectly iPhone 6-sized indentation, with a ‘MAKAGONOVA’ sticker across the side. My phone’s little grave.

It’s strange that as I looked at it, lying crumpled and broken in that silly box, I somehow felt a sense of loss, of having to let something go. Even though I had never felt particularly attached to my phone, nor anything it contained. Even though I was holding an identical, fresh new one and as soon as I connected it to a backup source the two would be indistinguishable. Still, I felt I had to say goodbye, and I watched it being whisked away with an undeniable melancholy.

Perhaps it’s a testament to Apple’s incredible ability to make their products an irreplaceable part of our lives, or perhaps it’s that pesky New Year’s Eve tradition of thinking a little too deeply about fresh starts and reminiscing about times past. But I feel like I’ve participated in a ritual today that pays due respect to ‘Oud & Nieuw’.

Happy holidays everyone.

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beginnings

There’s one quote from all of Mad Men that continues to haunt me, and it has nothing to do with advertising. It’s spoken by Faye Miller, the beautiful blonde Psychologist, to Don, when he dumps her because he has impulsively proposed to Megan on a trip to Disneyland. Understandably pissed off, Faye spits:

“I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things.”

Of course everyone to some degree or another would agree that the beginnings of certain things – e.g. relationships – are more ‘fun’ and ‘exciting’ than four or six or twenty years down the line. But I think this phrase isn’t about that. It’s about a personality trait. It’s the kind of statement that, if it applies to you, and you hear it, it sticks in your mind like an earworm.

To me, that one quote summarizes and explains all of Don Draper’s misadventures throughout the entire series. So often you watch him and wonder, in helpless frustration, why he doesn’t just not do the shitty thing you know he’s going to do: run away. Screw the secretary. Kiss someone else’s wife.

This is why. It doesn’t necessarily indicate (to me) a defect of character. More like a pathology. Like it’s something he can’t really help.

I am a notorious liker of ‘the beginnings of things’. Items of food. Jobs. Cities. Everything is best at the very beginning, and sharply drops off in its value and interest in my mind.

Gretchen Rubin (of The Happiness Project) categorizes people as ‘finishers’ and ‘openers’, meaning that there are those who derive great satisfaction out of finishing something (e.g. a shampoo bottle or a container of milk) to the very last drop, and then there are those who relish the experience of opening the fresh new one.

Guess which one I am. My bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen are littered with half-empty containers. Often I will buy an identical item to one that is running low and impatiently open the new one before I finish the last.

In my mind it’s obvious that these two concepts are very closely related, but I’m not sure how to generalize the thought. It’s certainly true that people I know to be ‘finishers’ (e.g. my housemates) seem to be more patient, more comfortable with staying put in one place, more likely to cook something time-consuming or to finish a book. Are they also more likely to successfully cohabitate with a romantic partner, or to weather the same job (same route to work, same office building, same people), or for that matter the same career, for longer than the Don Drapers of this world? My instinct says yes but I’d like to see more proof.

Any thoughts/studies on the matter, friends?

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on the kindness of strangers

I’ve always thought, despite my grim Eastern European upbringing, that people are generally kind and helpful when given the opportunity to be.

Except that in practice, I have never found this to be true.

Recently I was reading a thread on an online forum that consists mostly of young women from well-populated places in North America, where someone had asked the group: “When someone you don’t know asks to use your phone, do you let them?”

For me it was such an obvious and resounding ‘yes’, that I was shocked when the group’s answer came back as an unequivocal, equally resounding, ‘no’.

“Of course not,” some scoffed. “Only if it’s a woman and she looks like she’s in trouble,” others wrote.

I don’t know why I was shocked, since every time I’ve asked strangers for help I’ve been treated like I’m about to fleece them for all their money and belongings, while being covered in some sort of unsavoury substance.

Once I got stuck at Amsterdam Central Station without my wallet. I asked a stranger to buy me a 2 Euro train ticket so I could get back home and pick it up. He replied, with a lecherous grin, looking me up and down: “Only if you give me something in return”.

Another time – while carrying a cat in a box! – I asked to borrow a woman’s phone so I could let the person I was meant to be meeting know that I was running late. The woman gave me the aforementioned look – one you would give a urine-soaked mugger – and coldly replied: “Uh, no.” as if she couldn’t believe I had had the audacity to ask.

I suppose it is extremely naive of me to continue to assume that people want to be helpful when they so rarely are. But what concerns me more is not the way they behave, but the abject fear with which I, a fairly harmless-looking (I think) person, have been treated on multiple occasions.

Why are we so scared to lend a hand, or a phone, to a stranger?

Is it the fact that we live in cities, where we generally do not even know our neighbors, let alone anyone in our block or other general vicinity? Even in 1970, Stanley Milgram wrote* about an experiment that showed that people living in urban areas were far less likely to let a stranger into their house to use the phone than people who lived in the suburbs. When I read this study I scoffed at it, and yet reading a bunch of New Yorkers answering “no” to the same question without a second thought 45 years later, I did start to wonder whether there might not be something to it.

Is the problem in the fact that the news, in covering horrible events (which are by definition out of the ordinary) makes them seem commonplace and like they could happen to us any minute?

Is this a microcosm of the bystander effect, whereby people are so hard-wired to assume that ‘someone else will help’ that they are unable to force themselves to give a crap?

Or maybe the very phones which started this conversation are tearing us so far away from reality that we struggle with an unscripted interaction with a strange human being that does not take place through a screen?

Are we regressing back into narrower tribes as our world (supposedly) opens up beyond our wildest imaginations?

I don’t know what’s causing this – but I know that it’s a problem.

So for whoever reads this, I have a request. I know that it’s the 26th of December and the festive season is nearly over. But I implore you to think a little longer about whether or not you can do something the next time you encounter a stranger who needs help. And if it’s something that will cost you little effort (and you’re not genuinely afraid for your life) – maybe consider helping. I’m not saying I do all the time – and I’m not saying nobody ever does – just that I know that for many, the instinctive reaction is to close our eyes and walk on by. And I just want to say how big of a difference it can make in someone’s life to have kindness shown to them by a stranger. I know I still tell the stories of the people who were assholes (see above) and the ones who were amazing to me (another time). Which one would you rather be?

*Milgram, S. (1970). The experience of living in cities. Science, Vol. 167.
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line in the sand

It’s been 1 year since I smoked my last cigarette.*

Up until June 26th of last year, I did not think this was possible.
But it was. Through a strenuous mental effort, it turned out that it was. (And some acupuncture and hypnosis and a whole lot of wine.)

And holy shit, I am so, so grateful.

Let’s be real. I’ve packed on some pounds as a result. I’ve gotten some gray hairs as I was forced to process stressful shit instead of smoking it away. I’ve gotten some extra wrinkles as my face released its formaldehyde stores.

But every time I take a deep breath of fresh, cool, calming air, I am so, eternally, grateful that I was able to win this battle (for the moment).

It’s a pretty decent metaphor for the entire past year. (Surprise surprise.)

25 was a year for inwardness. Seeming physical stagnation (or sometimes decline) on the surface, but huge internal activity and growth.

This has been the year that I learned that I have a say about what happens in my mind.

Whereas until now, I’ve always thought my mental state to be at the mercy of my brain and circumstances, this year I learned that I can have some impact on it. I’m not saying I’ve learned to control my mind. But I’ve learned that I can. And that, to me, is huge. Beyond huge. It’s game-changing.

I now know that I’m at the beginning of a long learning process, and I’m so excited for what’s to come. I hope that the next year I will be able to slowly build this newfound feeing of mental control outward – first from the mental to the physical body, and then to the things that happen “to me” which I’ve until now have also very much felt to be at the hands of “fate”.

I can’t control everything that happens to me. But I can control a) the way I perceive it b) what I do in response and c) the situations I put myself in thereafter to try to prevent or perpetuate the same kind of experience.

Building outward. Mental. Mental to physical. Physical to creative. That’s 26. (I hope.)

*(And my birthday is in 13 days.)

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on transience and the meaning of life (or lack thereof): waking up by sam harris

Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires are gratified, in spite of life’s difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease and death?

I’m fairly new to the meditation game, but in the short few months that I’ve been doing it I’ve been astonished by its effects. However, I tend to keep this fairly quiet, and dodge any and all questions about “what kind of meditation?” / “how do you do it?” / “don’t you go crazy” etc. People tend to either want to talk about vipassana vs kundalini vs Dzogchen, or they want to talk about how meditation makes them go crazy and they hate it, but I don’t really want to have either discussion. To me, meditation is an extremely personal thing – both in the sense that it is a private matter and in that it’s unique to every individual.

That’s why I loved Waking Up by Sam Harris. The subtitle is “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”, which captures exactly how I see the practice. It’s a form of spirituality that has nothing to do with angels or heavenly fathers. It’s (as Neil Strauss puts it) a way of figuring out how you personally are connected to the world around you.

The book was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be an exploration of various approaches to spirituality, but instead Harris quickly stripped away the legitimacy of any other option for spirituality except meditation. Waking Up is actually a scientific treatise on the purpose of meditation.

Until I read it, I didn’t know that I didn’t know the purpose of meditation. Surely, I thought, it must just be to be calm and peaceful. I was never that interested in the Buddhist ideas of ‘enlightenment’.

But Harris makes a pretty compelling case, backed by neuroscience and (strong) psychology, that the purpose of meditation is to dispel the illusion of the self and realise what it’s like to exist in pure consciousness.

In my view, the realistic goal to be attained through spiritual practice is not some permanent state of enlightenment that admits no further efforts but a capacity to be free in this moment, in the midst of whatever is happening. If you can do that, you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.

This feels realistic to me. This feels true. This feels much more correct than any Buddhist spiel about “forever freeing yourself of all suffering through the practice of non-attachment”. I mean, that may be exactly what it is but the way the Buddhists teach it is nevertheless disturbingly dogmatic. The way Harris writes it just makes total, perfect sense.

So what would a spiritual master be a master of? At minimum, she will no longer … feel identical to her thoughts. … She would no longer succumb to the primary confusion that thoughts produce in most of us: She would no longer feel that there is an inner self who is a thinker of these thoughts. Such a person will naturally maintain an openness and serenity of mind that is available to most of us only for brief moments, even after years of practice.

I’ll admit, it’s difficult to imagine what Harris is talking about, even after a few months of meditation practice and after having read his very convincing, scarily rational book that logically dispels the illusion of the self. But the point is that the book sets the path: it has indicated to me how and where to look. And I’m immensely looking forward to the journey.

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frequencies

There’s a lot of pain in the world today.

I didn’t intend to spend the day reading about the various awful shit happening in people’s lives.

But I just finished Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, and by the time I finished it, her raw openness meant that I felt like I intimately knew, and loved, her friend Anthony who was dying.

So I visited her blog this morning. I didn’t find any up-to-date information about Anthony. But I found a post detailing a bunch of people she knew who died in a short period of time. Then I went to her Twitter page. Anthony is on his deathbed. Her husband wrote a beautiful blog post about it. I read that too.

Then a friend of mine posted a gut-wrenching story about her break-up on Facebook. I read it. I stopped to offer kind words and virtual pats on the head.

I haven’t been able to focus on work at all today, wrecked by the weight of all of this pain. Even though things worse than this, closer to home, have happened and are happening every day. Somehow today is the day that my mind is tuned to ‘pain’.

It never fails to amaze me how the brain can latch onto something and make that something the theme for your whole day – or longer. It’s like the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon but for types of occurrences.

My brain is on the frequency of other people’s pain, and it makes my heart hurt, and my stomach hurt, and somehow makes me want to curl myself up in a ball and shut everything out, and at the same time reach out to everyone I know in a desperate, grasping attempt to pull myself back into the world of the living. ‘I am still here. I am alive. Other people are alive, and can talk to me about something other than pain. There is happiness out there.’

I’m thankful for smartphones today so I can both curl and text at the same time.

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a little bit of prague

At the beginning of the year I set myself the goal to travel once per month this year. It’s actually been working so far, even though around March I realized that it costs a lot of money to do monthly trips (since I tend to plan everything at the last minute) and that actually it’s not what I’d rather spend my money on at the moment as I’m in a saving mode. But anyway, I did manage to do a few and they were quite lovely. So here are some impressions from my solo trip to Prague, in February!

A note: It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this blog that I love to, and often prefer to, travel alone. I’m an “independent spirit”, aka I’m stubborn and don’t love to compromise. I’m obviously capable of being easygoing and enjoying traveling with others, but I tend to have more fun when I don’t have to worry about someone else’s satisfaction on the trip as well as my own, so there are only very few people that I can travel with 100% comfortably – because their interests overlap closely with my own.

On to Prague!

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This is probably one of the top 10 traveler statements in the English language but: Prague is so beautiful. I spent a large portion of time wandering around just looking at it.

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On Friday night I saw an incredible, jazzy, bluesy, folksy band with a beautiful powerhouse female lead that I found on couchsurfing called Yo Soy Indigo. Highly recommended!!

(Seriously, listen to at least two minutes of this. She really sounds like this. This was in a smoky bar. I’m somewhere in that crowd :D)

On Saturday night I went to a Couchsurfing meetup, which was unfortunately full of quite socially awkward people. Those things are very hit and miss, and at least it was a cool dive bar with cheap drinks, and I did manage to meet a few gems.

I went to the Charles Bridge, but even on a random, cold February weekend it was packed to the brim with tourists, so it wasn’t as charming as it could have been.

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I have a bit of an obsession with climbing things on holiday (stairs, hills) so I did both in Prague and climbed up to the castle on my first day:

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And up the big hill / “park” on the second day:

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Followed by some more staring and wandering to round out the trip.

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P.S. I’ve just launched an English Literature newsletter! I talk about my favourite classic books and why they’re great. Subscribe here if you’re into that.

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