Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Concept Listening: A Dinner Party Idea

Cigars have scotch.  Peanut butter has chocolate.  Pizza has beer.  Connoisseurs everywhere recognize that by cleverly pairing pleasurable experiences both can be enhanced and blended into something exponentially greater.

While listening to music yesterday as I biked around DC, I realized that these same enhancing dynamics might apply to pairings between particular pieces of music and a particular ideas.  Of course, this is done all the time in movies and musicals where songs are composed for a specific moment in a story.  But these moments are highly structured.  They do not free the imagination because they impose a specific bounded vision.  They also tend to mold the music to fit the story, instead of the story to fit the music.  This is fine, but something is lost.  Something pure and abstract in the music is ignored.

I propose a fun activity to do with a small group of friends.  Each person is responsible to pair a chosen concept with a chosen song and articulate the concept to the group.  Then together the group quietly listens to the song and talks afterward about the experience.  This is a chance to get your artistic hats on.  Of course, the more creative pairings (that still work), the better.  And note, lyrics are not relevant.  This is about the mood and abstract meaning that the music offers and the relationship it develops  with the concept in the cinema of your imagination.  The key: focus only on this activity (dimming lights is good, multi-tasking is bad) and let your imagination run free.

I call this activity concept listening as it is analogous to the popular concept album, an album that crafts its songs to contribute to a theme or overall story.  In concept listening however, the listener picks the concept, which is more explicitly stated, and picks a single song.

Last night, Alicia and I tried concept listening.  We did the idea/song pairing below and enjoyed an amazing shared experience.  Though we have heard this song many times, the concept made the song seem completely fresh to us. I hope you enjoy it.

Is it?  

Yes it is coming.  

The captain orders the crew into action.  A grizzled, bearded man and a younger friend pull an oar on a tireme, an Athenian warship, as it struggles to outrun one of the Aegean’s dreaded winter storms.  They row mightily, land comes into sight, but the wind picks up, chaotically whistling through the sails, and they realize they are too late.  Though the crew is already weary, the captain turns the prow back out to sea.  Their only hope now is to wether the storm.

As two hundred crewmen row in unison, for all they are worth, against mammoth cresting waves, likely death brings a strangely vital and shared energy.  Waves pound.  Salt spray soaks their beards.  And they face the thrill of death together.

song (moulin rouge tango de Roxanne)

Let know what you think!  If you have pairing ideas please share.

Turner Reflection Snowstorm on the Sea, Turner, by Joe Scotland

Turner Reflection Snowstorm on the Sea, by Joe Scotland

Comfortable Estrangement on my Birthday

I have not lived in a very foreign country since I left Taiwan nine years ago (England doesn’t count as “very foreign”).  But walking down the street yesterday in Dehiwala, Sri Lanka I felt that I was home.  I did not fit in, I was white, I was wearing weird clothes, and I walked down the street completely chillax as people stared at me a little more than normal.  Here I ask stupid questions.  I constantly try new things.  I do not know what I am doing.  This was my life for years, and, after 9 years, the rediscovered feeling of estrangement was comforting.

In America, nobody stares at me, at least not usually.  I usually know what is going on, but not as much as people think.  I don’t like asking dumb questions.  I don’t stick out, even though I sometimes feel like I do.  Here, even though Sri Lanka is very different than Taiwan, I feel the way that I look: I am a foreigner.  There is no pretending.

So I felt very much at peace yesterday, even though it was my birthday, and nobody knew it within about 1,000 miles, my wife was in Houston, Texas, scared she might not make it to Sri Lanka this summer, and we are both worried about how to pay for grad school, finding jobs, getting my book published, and I am sad that Elinor Ostrom died that morning.  (My online community was very lavish in birthday affection though.  Thanks!)

In my newfound comfort, I enjoyed going to Viharamahadevi Park (formerly Victoria Park).  It is a public park next to the National Museum in Sri Lanka. It is the oldest and largest park in Colombo and situated in front of the colonial-style Town Hall building.  A caretaker gave me an impromptu tour.  He then asked for money, and I gave him less than a dollar.  He was not pleased with me : )

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I also had some videos, but apparently I have to upgrade my wordpress account to post those :  (

Musings in Sri Lanka

Naturally, I am not the type who likes travelling alone, but I also love doing my own thing.  So I suppose the only solutions is to have companions and be perpetually annoyed with them.

I woke up today at 4:45AM, which is fairly good for falling asleep at 6:15Pm.  I had spent the day buying toilet paper, exchanging money, etc.  I got to walk down to the beach, which is a block away.  I ate a lunch packet, which consisted of a bag of lightly seasoned rice and a bag of curry.  It was quite tasty.

I’ve been taking some pictures, but alas, Alicia has the camera cord with her.  So I have nothing to post.  Maybe I’ll take some with my ipod : (

I came across these two quotes right before I left, and they have been welcome companions on the journey so far.

Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste, that they hurry past it. –Kierkegaard

If we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time. —Edith Wharton


Pandas – Epic Fail

I recently read a short story about pandas, watched 2 documentaries on pandas, and enjoyed Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 .  In my newfound expertise, have come to the conclusion that pandas are entirely pathetic creatures. First off, 99% of their diet is bamboo–delicious and not at all nutritious.  A true bear, they have carnivore specific genes, carnivore teeth, and a carnivore digestive system, so they derive even less energy and protein from their food.  They can’t hibernate for the winter because there is no way for them to store up enough fat.  They don’t like moving around much.  And they avoid mountains because it takes too much energy to climb.  Males weigh up to 350 lbs.  Females up to 280.  They eat 20-30 lbs of bamboo shoots a day and can poop, with all that good roughage, up to 40 times a day.  The rest of the Panda’s diet, the 1%, is other grasses, wild tubers, small birds, rodents, or carrion.

Pandas have very short life spans and sexually productive periods.  They lose interest in mating once captured.  Even in the wild they can’t raise more than one cub at a time–if more than one cub is born one is left to die–because their milk is so low in nutrition.  And the cubs need nutrition.  They start out pink, blind and furless, at a whopping 3.5-4.6 ounces.

In contrast, black bears weigh around 300 lbs and will eat nearly anything.  Polar bears eat almost nothing but meat and weigh up to 1500 lbs.  Grizzly bears also weigh up to 1500 lbs.


When my brother was in ninth grade he told me something that has stuck with me.  The best stories are those in which normal everyday people discover something about themselves, something special, some heritage, special skill, or destiny, that launches them into a life of adventure, excellence, and self-fulfillment.

I guess I am waiting for the Giant Panda to remember it’s a kickass bear.

Captain Abraham Lincoln: An Invitation to Story

While reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln recently, I saw this little tidbit that seemed worth sharing.  It reminds me of a similar story from my own family’s history.  

Thomas Lincoln named his son “Abraham” after the boy’s grandfather, Captain Abraham Lincoln, who fought in the Revolutionary War.  Once little Abe was old enough, Thomas told the story of how his namesake died.

After the War for Independence, Captain Lincoln moved his family to Kentucky, where they lived on disputed Indian lands.  One warm day in May, 1786, Thomas recounts, when he was just six, he went out with his brothers Josiah, age 8, and Mordecai, age 14, and their father to work the fields.  Suddenly a shot rang out from the woods nearby and Father collapsed.

Thomas stood transfixed in the crackling calm of shock–staring at his father.  Josiah took off sprinting to Hughes Station, where settlers gathered in the event of Indian attack, calling for help as he ran.  Mordecai hustled to the cabin where the family kept a loaded musket.  A figure emerged from the forest and moved towards Captain Lincoln’s body, towards Thomas.

Mordecai, quick to the cabin, grabbed the musket next to the door, turned, and saw the figure for the first time, an Indian, standing above his Father.  Gasping, Mordecai yelled and stumbled towards his Father and Thomas, the heavy rifle causing him to lose his balance and fall.  Thomas, still in shock, turned to the Indian, who was now reaching towards Thomas, who Mordecai thought was about to be killed or carried off.

In that second, 14 year old Mordecai rose to his feet, took aim, and fired, hitting the Indian in the chest and killing him instantly.  Bathsheba Lincoln, Abraham’s grandmother, was left a widow with five underage children.

Thomas Lincoln’s story had a powerful affect on young Abraham.  “The story of his death by the Indians,” President Lincoln later wrote, “and of Uncle Mordecai, then fourteen years old, killing one of the Indians, is the legend more strongly than all others imprinted on my mind and memory.”

I started loving history when I realized that the figures of history are just as real as you or I.  I started feeling socially responsible when I realized the future, though unknown, is still infinitely more real than the best fiction.  Connecting the past, the present, and the future, are stories–stories that formed us before we were born, and, through the telling, continue to form us today.  For Lincoln, his Father’s account of his grandfather’s death was such a story.  For me, my Father has told me a family story with similar effect.  I have invited him to re-tell it on my blog.  I also invite any of my readers, if you have a family legend, a connection to the past, which strongly imprinted itself on “mind and memory,” please share it on my blog.  The door is open.

Inspiration Oak

In 1492, the day before Christopher Columbus stepped onto the wet sandy beach of a new world he thought was India, a very insignificant event took place.   If Columbus would have kept going east, past the bahamas, over the gulf stream, and around the Florida peninsula, he might have discovered it–a fresh, tiny, young shoot that had just broken through the topsoil of an entirely pre-european continent.   Of course, Columbus, or anyone really, would not have cared, and would have easily and indifferently trampled it underfoot.  But, over the next few years, this shoot managed to avoid getting trampled or blown over by storms.  It grew in that little piece of what is today Alabama that juts down to the sea between Florida and Mississippi.  The plants there suffer through hurricanes at least once every few years.  But this little live oak survived.

In its youth, the world around it likely changed little, but in fact it had been claimed by a Spanish king.  It grew into a sturdy tree and endured more hurricanes, droughts, and fires, and Native Americans would stop and rest in its shade.

In its 27th year, in 1519, Cortez landed in Mexico.

In its 129th year, not too far away, Pilgrims and Native Americans shared the first Thanksgiving feast.

In its 284th year, in 1776, some self-evident truths were declared.

In its 327th year, in 1819, its ownership was transferred by the Spanish King to a young United States of America, and it became part of the new state of Alabama.

In its 373rd year, General Robert E. Lee surrendered in an obscure courthouse.

In its 453rd year, on V-J Day, August 14th, 1945, this picture was taken: 

Twenty two years later, in the oak’s 485th year, this picture was taken of the live oak itself:

At this point the Oak, now called Inspiration Oak, had become famous and a hallmark of Baldwin County.  Though it was owned privately, Baldwin County was going through the process of buying the land for the use as a public park.  The owner was outraged at how little the County offered for the property, and purportedly was the one who, late one night, took a chain saw, and cut a ring through the bark all the way around the tree.   The community was devastated, but A Save the Tree committee was formed, thousands of doallars were raised, foresters were brought in to attempt to graft bark across the gash, AmeriCorps members organized the community, Tibetan monks came and blessed the live oak, and 15,000 visitors came a month to watch the ongoing effort to save the tree.  But it was no use.  The tree was dying.

In the Oak’s 509th year, around 9/11/2001 when our country was the victim of international terrorism, the tree died.

Two years later, in 2003, in the oak’s 511th year, the tree had become too much of a safety hazard, and it was cut down:

What’s my point?  I am not sure.  History is cool…and I like big trees…and I like old things.

JRR Tolkien loved trees. Anyone who loves history, age, myth, and all things ancient has to adore trees.  I love how they are so incredibly tied to their communities.  They are 100% committed.  They cannot move.  In the Silmarillion, the god of the trees makes Ents to protect these huge, ancient, and helpless creatures.  In the real world, Ents do not exist, and even if they did, they would be ineffective.  Humans are incredibly powerful, and can destory so much so quickly, with war, hijacked planes, or chainsaws.  We must do what we can to protect all valuable and helpless things.  Many of those valuable objects are that which connect us to our past.

I stumbled upon the Inspiration Oak story as I was looking through some of Habitat’s old National Service files a few months ago, and, for me, it immediately became a precious, rare connection to a pre-european America.  Its passing feels something like hearing that a WWI veteran died.   It strikes me in the face; so much of the past was not so long ago, and so much of what was not so long ago lives today in our homes for Seniors, our forests, and everywhere we look.  We really need to just keep our eyes open.

Beauty, specifically really cool history stuff, is everywhere.

Am I Sexist?

I am not sexist.  Really, I am not.  Also, I have never google-image searched naked pictures of the T-Mobile girl and/or tried to friend her on facebook.  But denials have a curious way of making people wonder why they are necessary.  Indeed, some have expressed concern over my alleged sexism, especially after watching my Fox5 interview.  Towards the end I make this unfortunate statement which, quite understandably, I have been asked to explain: “I also think I’m not special in this [this pulling people off the third rail business].  I think there are tons of men and boys out there that would have done the exact same thing.”

Yup.  Men and boys.  Exactly.  Good thing they did not include the rest of the interview, cause I go on to expound on how all women and girls are worthless cowards.  No.  That is not a true story.  The host, Angelique Proctor, understood what I meant when she said, “Jeremy…believes any of us would have had a similar reaction.”  So why did I say “men and boys”?

Obviously, cause I was a tad stupid.  I cringe when I hear the line.  Alicia cringed too while watching the interview from the other side of our living room.  This was my first interview, and my worst.  I was clueless.  This experience makes me extremely patient with celebrities and politicians who get in trouble because of sound bites.  I have been saying for years that if I was a celebrity I would get caught saying idiotic things all the time.  And, in my fifteen minutes of fame, I proved myself prescient.

Fortunately context saves me.  Often it will not.  I do, in fact, consistently say dumb things.  But this time context saves me.  At the beginning of the interview Angeligue had asked me why I grabbed the guy.  In my answer, I talked, among other things, about how I had been an adventurous, daydreaming boy, who often imagined the day I would rescue damsels in distress on a semi-weekly basis.  As I grew older and started lifting and working out, ostensibly for sports, I knew it was in fact secret superhero training.  Though overstated, I think this rings true for many other boys who, like me, grow up to be men but never quite lost those specific daydreams.  There are lots and lots of us out there.

The “men and boys” comment was meant to bring this context to bear in order to support the broader point that there are many others who would have acted similarly.  Some of these people would be, I think, the people who had developed the silly and noble psychosis that I had.  So I was in fact making fun of men and boys a bit, and my comment was inclusive, not meant to exclude others from being brave, but to note that one of the groups that would be brave in these sorts of situations is a group I have already mentioned.  Of course, none of this was clear from the interview.

There are those who had concerns before the “men and boys” comment.  I certainly hold beliefs and ideas that some find sexist-ish and I espouse them liberally (or conservatively?).  I do not think they are sexist, and Alicia does not think they are sexist either, at least not usually.  I plan on blogging about them and the reader can decide for his or her self.  In the meantime, please accept my apologies if you were offended by my comment on Fox5.  I assure you, in this case at least, I was not sexist, but merely dumb.

Armrest Wars

I extend my duffel bag awkwardly in front of me, shuffle my feet, and focus on making myself as narrow as possible.  Still, I bump at least two shoulders as I walk down the aisle.  I see my seat, stuff my bag in the overhead bin, and plop down next to an expressionless, somewhat girthy, but still middling middle-aged man whose chest hair protrudes out the stretched neck of a faded blue polo.  He does not move.

Normally I love flying seated next to transfixed automatons.  I am even cool with a little drooling.  No big deal.  But this man is not situated as a man should be when accommodating another paying passenger.  He stares straight ahead, his body centered in the seat, his legs splay wide, his weight forward, his elbows out, his radius and ulna hugging the top of the armrest, and his hand curling over and gripping its end.  He had claimed the land and was not budging.  I lean towards my other armrest.  This was going to be a long flight.

We trundle down the runway, and I get a little angrier.  We take off, and I get even angrier.  He reaches with his far hand to get a bag of Cheetos from his suitcase, opens the bag with one hand, eats it with one hand, wipes his fat face with one hand, stuffs the empty bag into the seat pocket in front of him with one hand, and I feel my blood pressure threatening to blow a hole in my brain.  And what kind of person keeps bags of Cheetos in their briefcase anyway?

I get out a book and try to distract myself, but I immediately notice my elbow grazing his hairy forearm.  I relax my shoulder and our skin touches.  Interesting.  I push down gently.  Nothing happens.  A little more.  Nothing happens.  Over the next 10 minutes I pretend to read while digging increasingly deeper at 30-second intervals.  But the bastard does not move.  Harder, deeper, and into the flesh of his forearm.  I am starting to hurt myself now.  How can he stand this?

I give up, on that tactic at least, and put my book away without finishing a paragraph.  “Bring it on,” I think to myself, “let’s make this real uncomfortable.”  Slowly, I start laying my arm down on his.  It gets weird really quick.  There we are, two strange men staring at the seat backs in front of us, practically holding hands.  I hold out as long as I can before I give up and make for the lavatory.  As I wash my hands vigorously I look in the mirror.  What is up with this guy?

I poke my head out of the bathroom and immediately spy him looking out the window with both arms folded across his chest!  I race towards the seat, but I am too late.  He turns, sees me coming, and re-stakes his claim on the armrest.

I almost lose it.  I almost scream.  I almost grab his neck and break it like a pencil.

Instead I sit, awed at my anger.  Have I ever been this angry?  But why is he doing it?  What a jerk!  I am entitled to the armrest just as much as he is!  Why can’t he just fold his arms like he obviously wants to?  He must enjoy depriving me.  But why do I care?  Why does this man exert so much power over my emotions?  Is my anger simply due to my discomfort?  Probably not.  I had been a missionary kid.  Uncomfortable travelling was my life.  Air conditioning vents had dripped on me for whole flights and then doused me with a cold and muddy liter upon landing.  I had been packed into truck beds under windowless tin covers with dozens of Filipinos in the middle of July.  I had lived in airports for over a day in the eternal limbo of rescheduling.  And I had never been this angry.  Afterall, I could sit in a much narrower seat with no armrest, smashed up against the wall of the plane on one side and a horde of people on the other, with smelly air conditioner water dripping on my head every two seconds, and I know it would not bother me nearly as much as this does.  The problem, I realize, is that somebody else is involved in a specific way; he is selfishly, knowingly, needlessly, and continually, treating me unfairly.

And then something snaps inside of me.  I give up on justice.  What’s the use of it?  It is just stressing me out.  For the rest of the flight the man still does not move, and I maintain a wooden lean and shift of my body weight to accommodate him, but I am happy.  From time to time, I look at him, and barely hold in my laughter as he continues his death grip.  My back starts hurting, but it is no big deal.  It is temporary, and I am happily finishing my book.

Thanks middling man.  You were a marvelous teacher.

This is the rough draft of a new myth I wrote yesterday.  You can see an explanation of the project and a few more myths on the “My Myths” page above.  

Humanity Oozes

It used to sadden me how impersonal everyone is in public.  When we go out we put on this solemn facade, wear sunglasses, and pop in our headphones.  I suppose the alternative is ridiculous, but it can be quite lonely spending this much time commuting amongst so many people yet without another soul in sight.

But, as I ride the subway to work everyday, I’ve gotten better at seeing, and I have come to this firm opinion: if you pay attention, you’ll see humanity oozing out everywhere.  Deception experts call it “leakage.”  I like the idea of our emotional, psychological, humorous, cruel, and kind personalities oozing mucous-like through the cracks in our cool exteriors.  After all, indefinable humanity is metaphorically viscous isn’t it?  Its more like sweat and blood and mud than water or rock.  Undoubtedly poets everywhere agree.

The other day on the subway I was attacked by this humanity and it made me quite happy.  It started with a woman listening to her ipod as she stood next to me as we waited on the platform.  I noticed that she kept subtly starting to dance to her music, and then stopping herself, as if to say “oh yeah, I’m in public.”  I was enjoying it, and then I realized that I was doing the same thing as I listened to JT.  A palpable sense of commonality rushed over me as I experienced a deep feeling of connection to this stranger.  I sensed that we were dancing to the same music, even if it was a different tune.  Sound is incidental.  It’s what the sound evokes that matters.

We got on the train.  I sat facing a man standing up, reading a book, with an untied bow tie hanging from his neck.  As we trundled away, he unexpectedly rocked forward with a vigorously subdued belly laugh.  It only lasted a moment before he stood back up and smoothed his features.

As the train left the downtown area and emerged into the daylight, I saw a storm was coming from the west and chasing us east, engulfing the Atlanta skyline behind us.  As rain drops caught up to our subway car, I was in the middle of listening to “Lily’s Eyes” from the Secret Garden and contemplating how incredibly human we all are–totally messed up, totally beautiful, and totally inept at hiding it.

So pay attention!  See the humanity oozing!  If you look closely (I look from underneath sunglasses to avoid detection), strangers betray that they are not the unfamiliar automatons they seem.  Please take part in my joy!

(Lately I have realized I don’t understand macroeconomics as well as I should and I have gone on a learning binge.  More on that later.  Also, Alicia is in Rwanda now.  She is doing well.)


Please gauge your initial reaction to this fact I’m about to tell you.  Ready?  Here it goes:

Last year Alicia and I bought a 26′ sailboat without knowing how to sail or having ever sailed.

I’ve observed a spectrum of responses.  On one extreme, people think that what we did was irresponsible, dangerous, selfish, and short-sighted.  In the other direction, people see what we did as a profound, beautiful, carpe-diem statement about adventure, loving life, and living freely.  Most fall somewhere in between, or rather, like me, somewhere in both extremes.  But while I think that there is a compelling case to be made about my general idiocy, I see buying that boat as one of my proudest moments.  When I think about that decision, I exhort myself to maintain that part of me.  I yearn to be that type of guy.

However, I just finished this book by David Mercy, Berserk: My Voyage to the Antarctica in a Twenty-Seven-Foot Sailboat, and, though I enjoyed the writing, I found them stupid, irresponsible, and selfish.  The Captain had just sailed single handedly down to Argentina from Norway at the age of 19 in a boat he named Berserk because everyone thought he was nuts.  Then two men, author included, who had never sailed before in their lives (they seemed to never have learned even how to tack) join him for a trip to Antarctica, across the worst seas in the world, far away from help, without a working engine, proper clothing, or knowing each other remotely well.  They go through major storms, mutiny, and extreme physical discomfort; near death experiences are the norm.

I want to go berserk, but not that berserk.  How about you?  How berserk is, ethically speaking, optimally berserk for you?  It seems to me that if you do not know, it is not even possible for you to have a happy life.

None of us want to go through life always being the responsible adult or always the risk-taking adventurer.  So, while the moderate middle way is different for all of us, it is also the same in that it is always a middle way.  None of us want to give up on adventure entirely or responsibility entirely.  In this at least we can relate to each other’s decisions, for we share the value that caused the decision, if not the same valuation of that value.

One way we each gauge how berserk is berserk enough is by looking at the people we love.  One of the reasons I thought the sailors in Beserk were selfish was because they did not fully consider the ramifications of their own possible deaths.  What about their family and friends?  We cannot let our parents, or even our spouse, for example, rule dictatorially over what constitutes our middle way.  But if we care at all about family and friends, we better be willing to compromise.  Hopefully that compromise will fall somewhere close enough to the middle way we might make in a vacuum, close enough so that we can still be happy.  If not, you’re screwed.  You cannot choose yourself over family and friends and still be happy, and vice-versa.

Your family and friends, however, can do much to allow you to be happy.  We could all do each other a favor.  Amongst our families and amongst our friends, we should not be so quick to judge each others’ morals for falling in different places along the spectrum.  Alan the aligator-farmer might be more reckless than you, or less reckless, but if Alan is living as recklessly as what he sees as exactly right, we can only applaud him for it, and of course, if we want to change his behavior, talk.

Of course, for some, confronting a loved one about how they live is just too berserk.  If so, let me break my own rule and judge you: you need to live more dangerously.  As for me, I love adventuresome confrontation, but that’s a topic of another post.