Mortal Mastery

He went. I couldn’t bear to go.

It was all about almost dying. And the end of that story seems to always end without the almost that last time.

Dying does come for us all.

Chris wanted to see the movie Free Solo, about Alex Honnold who is set on climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope. No safety equipment and all alone.

He was compelled to do this thing, this thing that if he made a single mistake would cost him his life.

This life, this only life we’ve got–he decided to gamble it for the goal is conquering this cliff of rock.

Homer’s Iliad tells us of Achilles, the son of the immortal Thetis and Peleus, the very mortal king.

Achilles’ fate was mortal. He was a giant among heroes, with fantastic strength and skill at fighting, and he knew he would die.

The story of the Iliad is his struggle with his mortality. He was unsure how to spend his one life.

He calls his immortal mother to ask her what can be done. She cant’ help him; it’s his fate.

But the immortals of Greek mythology are not so very admirable. They are known for causing mischief and holding grudges for a ridiculously long time. There is nothing noble for them in their eternity.

But for Achilles? This is what Homer writes:
“Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”

So if this moment is the lovliest thing we have, what shall we do with it? Alex Honnold threw his whole self into mastering the sheer rock.

I’m not willing to do that.

But I understand his compulsion. If this is our life, we must make redeem the gift by stretching ourselves against some challenge.

Homer says it again: Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing

That’s part of why Free Solo is so unbearably compelling. We all feel that. The drive to see what we are capable of. He’s the hero we’d all like to be.

What’s so Different

Happy Halloween!

This is the day when what’s wrong is right.

This is the day we get to be what we’re not supposed to be, and do what we are not supposed to be.

Candy is good. Staying out late and talking to strangers. Evil is celebrated.

It’s an international opposite day.

There’s a hoity-toity name for that:

Inversion holiday

An inversion holiday celebrates turning things inside out.

I worked at a place that really went all out for Halloween. The CEO of this organization loves Halloween and had the whole company throw a huge Halloween contest and potluck that lasted all day.

He himself dressed as a woman every year.

It was important to him, and everyone played along.

People need a way to let off steam.

It’s a Halloween tradition for kids to dare each other to walk up to the creepy house, the haunted house on their block, and knock on the door.

C’mon, I dare you. Go up to it. Face the scary.

Touch it.

Find out that it’s not so bad as you thought.

Or maybe it is exactly as bad as you thought, but you still survive it.

Life is scary, but we are stronger than the boogieman.

And it’s safe to try things. There’s enough room to find out what it would be like to be totally different than you’ve always been.

You might like yourself better afterwards.
Or you could trick yourself and decide to stay that way.


I remember when I was trying to find myself after I divorced my first husband. I had too many and not enough words to come to grips with what my life had become.

I had very little, but I did have my piano.

And I played that piano. There may not have been words, but there was music.

With the music, I could reach the feelings that I couldn’t express. After time passed I could move into my life again.

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend about a writing project I want to start

Except I really don’t want to start it.

It’s a tough one. It will require a lot from me. I will have to grind up my soul again.

I have a lot of reasons not to do it.

And the one reason that counts.

It’s calling me.

But I don’t want to answer.

I’m tired. I have done this before. What do I really need to prove?

Maybe it’s enough.

So as I was telling her all about it, and all the reasons why I don’t want to go there, and all the reasons it’s pointless

I said, “Maybe I need to make some time to play my keyboard.”

They are adjacent, even if they don’t overlap. Music and words occupy different regions of the imagination.

Music can be there for me before words are ready.

And when I can find my way to one that could be the lookout point which shows me where to go the rest of the way.

Is this okay?

It’s a 21st century word:


Technology–TiVo, then DVDs then streaming–changed the way we consume movies and TV shows. Which then changed the way that movies and TV shows were created. TV shows like Lost, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey became something we could get lost in.

Even years after they finish.

It’s become a thing to consume a whole series in a short time, maybe taking a weekend to do nothing but watch that show.

And when I reach the end I get a feeling of satisfaction, like it was an accomplishment.

What is that?

Is it really real?

In a book, whose name I have forgotten, an Indian woman has separated from her husband. She’d been married to him for years, an arrangement made by their parents in a traditional match.

But she had grown tired of tradition and separated from him, tired of his rigidity.

When they had to meet, to finalize some parts of the separation, she saw they he had dyed his hair. His black hair had been turning gray, and he had colored it black again.

She wondered if he was trying to spruce up for a new woman. Could that be an indication that he was losing his rigidity?

After talking with him more, though, she realized that he was not less rigid at all. The color was not a change, it was a conservative preservation of the color it had always been.

He was not reaching out, he was centering more on himself.

I am not sure what their fictional marriage needed, but the idea of something that is self-centered is exactly what is happening when I achieve the dubious accomplishment of finishing a TV show.

I don’t know that finishing Downton Abbey was on my bucket list, but life has a great number of experiences I want to have.

I would like to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I actually do think it might change something about who I am.

Some shows–some books, movies or TV series– really do have that affect. They show parts of the world that would be obscured.

It’s okay to put stuff in your life that is only for yourself. We are all we really have, in the end.

The rigid husband was doing what he could for himself. And while I’m waiting to find the right time and place to get my Ring tickets, it is still worth doing to watch the shows that are more easily in reach.

Binging may or may not be required.


I wanted to learn to play the guitar.

It seemed so cool! Guitars had cases, and they had a strap so you could play it standing up. You could move around, dance while playing.

I could picture myself, with a cool guitar strap and a pair of killer boots standing in front of a mic stand, shredding the guitar while hitting the high notes.

Thing was, I had already learned to play the piano. The piano had been a joy to learn, with the keys laid out like a grid and the keys as clear as a math equation. I’d learned the way the scales and chords hung together, and made music happen.

It was so intoxicating to understand music theory, I thought I wanted to step up from the bench, come out from behind the dominated wall of the upright piano and be a guitar player!

When I played on Sunday, and the bass and guitar players sat in their chairs behind me, I saw how they were so mobile I wanted to be like them.

I asked Bill the bass player what it was like to play the guitar.

He said “If I were you, I’d stick with the piano. You could use your time to improve your playing on the instrument you already know, rather than trying to learn a new instrument.”

Bill was so cool.

But the desire for novelty doesn’t go away that easily.

The new and unexplored seems to have delights far superior to the known and well-trodden path.

Even now I think, maybe I should write something different. Observational essays are something I’ve done for a long time.

I think of launching into a new vector that will be full of glory.

But a lot of the time, it’s only that I don’t want to buckle down and get better at the task at hand.

Excellence has to be earned. And most of the time I am better at the thing I’ve already learned, as contemptuously familiar as it is.

So, I buckle down and craft my talent.

I’ll do the new thing later, when it’s not an excuse.

The rules of power

I stumbled across a book:

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

I found it as an audiobook at the library, but I think it would be best as a corner office bookshelf book. It’s the sort of thing you could pick up and open anywhere to read anecdotes supporting any of the 48 laws Greene outlines. It’s a fun read because of all the stories from history. Napoleon, P.T. Barnum, Kissinger, and animals in Chinese or African folk tales illustrate his laws.

There are a lot of laws and so far, some of them are contradictory.

But that’s how power works.

As he tells the stories of how people have used power, I realize power is very prepositional.

Power to…

Power for…

Power by…

Power in…

Power from…

Power against…

Power over…

Power is in motion, and power has an object.

Which makes it intrinsically unstable. It’s always in flux, and it does not sustain itself.

One of the folk tales, I don’t even know where it originates, is the story of the strong tree, which mocks the weak reed.

The tree stays fast, but the reed bends with every wind.


The strong storm comes. And the wind is too terrible for the mighty tree, which topples.

The reed remains.

The power of the reed?


And resilience is self-sustaining. Resiliency can be perfectly still. And it does not need any object.

It’s reflexive, keeping to its own.

To survive power, the powerful must remember themselves through it all. With humility and as much humor as possible.

Power is fleeting. But we will always have our selves.


I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.

Mark Twain


The mind is a very powerful weapon. I wouldn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands.


I just finished reading a book Spy the Lie, which gives a system for detecting whether a person is lying.


I know, right? That seems like a very useful skill to have.


One of the tips they shared was that, as fast as we can talk, the brain can think maybe a thousand times faster.


When phrasing a question, the interviewer should keep it very much to the point. Two extra words in the sentence doesn’t make much different to the sentence, but it allows the one being questions a world of opportunity to consider the response from all angles.


That’s a lot of horsepower.


If I follow my own train of thought, I will not only run down a rabbit hole, but potentially dig a whole new warren.


I have to keep it harnessed. Have a few ground rules.


A friend of mine said she had a premise:

This is a friendly universe.


I have to say, at the time I was not at all convinced. The world was quite obviously out to get me, and I could name names.


It was up to me to come up with defensive and offensive plans to handle all these potential disasters and outright attacks.


And this is exhausting.
I really don’t have that much power.


If I look for people who are working against me, I will find them.


But if I look for people who will help, I will find even more of them.


At least, there is enough evidence that I could respect myself if I chose to believe that the universe is friendly.


Like Pascal’s wager, I am better off if I believe it than if I don’t.


It gets my powerful mind pulling in one direction at least. And I would be a happier person for it.

the Fair

We are going to the fair!

We have photos of taking Veronica to the fair every year since she was born. One of our favorite things is to get her into the goat pen.

The Los Angeles County fair has a big pen of goats, a scattering of sheep and a handful of alpacas. It’s free to go in but you have a pay a small fee for the Dixie cup of food you can give the goats.

The goats are very aware of the Dixie cups at all times. Veronica can hand feed a pellet at a time and be the center of attention. When she was shorter than the goats, this was a scary scene. Now that she has some height on them, it’s a lot more gleeful

But it’s always been gleeful.

It turns out that the county fair, and it’s descendent the state fair, are a product of the industrial revolution. A by-product, perhaps. The first one took place in England, the year after America’s declaration of independence, and it took almost a hundred years for the American states to take it up.

Wikipedia calls them agricultural fairs, because they happen in lots of places. They have animals and cooking and crafts–homey things. Homemade things. It’s a celebration of things that are not industrialized. Australia calls them Royal fair. I hear Jamaica has a phenomenal fair.

New York had the first American state fair, which continues into the present in Syracuse. More than a million people a year go.

My home state Alaska, whose fair I was deeply involved in as a teenager, is a big deal. I knew it was a big deal. I raised farm animals–pigs, cows and rabbits. My brother and I showed them at the fair and won prized. We had to drive to the fair every day to feed then, and clean their stalls. This let us get into the fair for free and see all the fantastic sights.

One of my favorite things to see was the punk rock hairdressing booth, where women would take your money then give you a stiff spiked and colored Mohawk for the day. They played rock and roll and made you one of them.

I was far too afraid to do this myself. Also, my hair doesn’t do that. Does it? But I could watch endlessly while taking a break from cleaning my pig’s stall.

The fair was always a magical place to me. It had a special place in my heart. It was my fair.

Looking into it, I find that maybe it was not so unique to me. Of all the state fairs, Alaska’s state fair gets the highest number of people visiting, especially when you take into consideration the low population of the state.

The Alaska state fair gets a whopping 40% of the ENTIRE STATE to come to see. That beats out Texas, which has four state fairs just to cover the territory. North Dakota is almost as popular, with 39%.

It is startling to realize I come from a place with a culture that values the fair.

Here, in Los Angeles, the agricultural roots are being forgotten. The fairgrounds are beautiful, with historic buildings from the 20s and 30s. And they do have contents for homemade things.

And we can’t forget the goats.


A couple years ago, I was invited to a party with a lot of college professors. I found myself sitting next to a professor emeritus.

I was nervous to go to this party, because I didn’t know many people. I’ve always felt out of place around highly educated people. I had to find a way to justify my presence.

I would start talking; explain some of the more interesting stories about myself. I would want to come up with something impressive I had done.

I could go the other direction too, come up with stories that explained why I was behind and backwards. I found that if I made them colorful, people would listen and possibly forgive my awkward ignorance.

That was the hope anyway.

But it could be exhausting, making sure to get in my stories of explanation, and I could find myself the one doing all the talking. I wished that I could find another person who would tell me about themselves. Because what I really wanted was connection.

As I was getting ready for this party, I told myself to tone it down. I wanted to listen to other people.

At the party, I was introduced to people, and I was trying to start conversations. And then I encountered this professor emeritus. We exchanged names, and I asked, “What do you do?”

“Oh, I used to teach. Tell me what you do.”

I told him, and he was so charmingly interested. I tried to ask him more about himself, but he was so interested in my stories he had no time to tell his own.

I didn’t hog his attention the whole night. In fact, I saw him move around the room, and engage person after person in rapt conversation.

He was really interested, and people really wanted to tell him what they were up to.

I remembered self-admonition to tone it down. But when I saw this guy in action, I could see what I was trying to achieve.

He was more interested than interesting.

I mean he wasn’t trying to be interesting to these people at the party. He didn’t have anything to prove.

He was interested. He was interested in me, and in hearing what all kinds of people had to say.

And it was easy to tell him, because he really wanted to know.

Which means, years later, never having met him again, I remember this man. He made a lasting impression on me.

And it wasn’t even his goal.

Alternate futures

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades

Science fiction used to be a lot better. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking. In a galaxy far, far away and long, long ago there were a lot of seriously evil people.

But even Disneyland had a sparkling view of the future. Walk past the castle in fantasyland, make a turn and the future prospects of Tomorrowland were just as magical. Rockets? Spaceships? All of it was fantastic and getting better by the minute.

My first forays into science fiction were that sort of giddy optimism. The world of Star Trek was as pure and seamless as any happily-ever-after fairy tale. As Kirk liked to expound, the biggest flaw of mankind was the insatiable desire to explore.

And then my older brother tossed some Heilein at me, and I saw some more of that exploration of the universe, with unbounded freedom. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress showed a wild-west space colony using science to gain their freedom from the remote earthbound leaders. The protagonists were very pleased with their prospects and pretty sure that things were getting better.

That’s something that Sci-Fi has always been able to do for us. Imagine a world…same laws of physics and science…. but we have better tools…What could we do then?

Certain authors and an older tradition of science fiction had that optimistic thought-experiment tone with their storylines.

But others looked into the future with dystopian gloom. The very recent Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is set in an impoverished world where people escape into virtual reality without ceasing. Neil Stevenson’s The Diamond Age from 1995 is cyberpunk gloom, with organized crime barely worse than the official governments.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer from 1984 has vat-grown food in a hopeless future where people jack into their technology to have any kind of power. Even HG Well’s The Time Machine published in 1895 showed a terrible future for the planet.

I had for the last few years been very suspicious of science fiction because I couldn’t deal with the gloom. Some of my friends may remember an extended rant I went on regarding Stephenson’s’ Seveneves after I hit the darkest point in the story and dropped it like a hot coal. I was angry at the author.

This was going too far! Science fiction plays into the pessimistic tendencies of people to extrapolate into the future the worst possible outcome of the current trends.
Unbridled pessimism as unrealistic as unbridled optimism. Are people terrible? No doubt. Will we do the wrong things? Yes.

But more often, we do right things. We are generous and creative and kind.

I stumbled on a recent book in the optimistic tradition that reminded me why I used to read science fiction Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon. It was not dystopian, it had a girl flying spaceships and having an adventure.

THAT”S WHAT I”M TALKING ABOUT! I am pleased to have some adventures in space where bad stuff happens but a little hard work, ingenuity and good character saves the day. We are not powerless, not now and not in the future.

Yes, Captain Kirk, humans are amazing. I’m proud to be part of this group. We are imperfect to be sure, but the future is full of promise. Look what we’ve already done so far!