The Void

The Void

An excerpt from my work-in-progress The Integrated Writer

Your little child is running outside. She trips, falls, hits her face against a stone step, hurts herself badly. After a few seconds of suffocated silence, she starts screaming. She may have broken her jaw.

What do you do?

Some years ago I witnessed this very scenario. I was at Les Halles, a busy shopping mall in the heart of Paris. Inside the complex there’s a small courtyard, with stone steps leading to a terrace. The girl was about two years old. She was running at full tilt with unbound excitement, and when she rushed onto the steps she fell face down, hitting her jaw on the stone. The sound her jaw made against the stone was horrifying and indescribable.

Her father was standing right next to her. Immediately after she fell, he exclaimed, loudly enough for all to hear: “I told you not to run like that!”

We can’t know for sure what was going on through his mind. Is he that much of an insensitive father, a control freak, a monstrous disciplinarian? Perhaps; there certainly exist guys like that. Was he concerned with other people’s assessment of his ability to “educate” his child? It’s possible, but we can’t know for sure. Was he just freaking out, and voicing the dread that his beloved daughter was badly hurt? That’s possible, too.

We can’t know any of that. But we can be almost sure that his reaction did nothing to solve the problem at hand, and most likely aggravated it.

Before we deal too harshly with this hapless parent, let’s accept that when faced with many of life’s problems, big and small, we all have the potential to act pretty much the way he did. We want the problem to disappear. We want the problem never to have existed. We want to blame other people for the problem. Or we find fault with ourselves, even when we are blameless. We feel angry, frustrated, and afraid. And we don’t want those emotions to stay inside us. We vent. We rant and rave. Or we act and do something.

More often than not, this makes the problem worse. Conflicts escalate. Our ability to think through the problem and its possible solutions gets clouded. The problem itself escapes us; we lose sight of what the problem actually is.

And that becomes the problem.

The father of my example put himself in a state. As long as he stayed there, he’d be unable to do anything constructive to solve that other, more pressing, problem: his endangered child, overwhelmed and helpless.

The father’s first duty toward her daughter (and in truth also toward himself) is to do nothing that aggravates the problem. And to make sure he doesn’t aggravate the problem, he must do nothing, period—perhaps for a microsecond, perhaps longer. The void (that is, doing nothing) provides room for all good things in the world to come in; but once the void is filled with something, all other possibilities are excluded, at least until room is made for them by the creation of another void. And the void is preferable to anything negative or destructive that occupies it.

The father does absolutely nothing for a moment that may be extremely short. During the moment of doing nothing, he gets a grip on himself; check his fear, his desire to act out on the fear, his impulse to have his child be the recipient of his fear. And then he picks up his child and calls for the ambulance.

Let’s open a parenthesis and look at a less urgent situation.

We take roller coaster riders and watch horror movies and smoke dope just so we can lose our balance, our sense of habitual safety. We like it, as long as we know our balance will be restored. Children do the same thing: they turn and turn and turn until they’re so dizzy they fall on the ground, laughing all the while. A child might trip and fall accidentally, in the playground or at the beach. She might decide the fall is no big deal. She’ll get up and resume her running, as happy as only a child knows how to be. Or she might ponder the situation for a brief moment. While pondering it, she hears her mother’s voice: “Ohmigod! Are you okay? Are you okay?” The mother certainly behaves as if she herself thinks the child is in danger. The child hears it, loud and clear: “Mommy is upset. That can only mean one thing: a bad thing has just happened. I . . . I did a bad thing. I’m hurt. I’ll be punished. Bwaaaah!”

Your fear? Yes, your child reacts to it.

Anger? You bet.

Scorn and mockery? Yep.

Well-meaning concern? Of course. The child reacts to every emotion. And a parent’s well-meaning concern is a potential burden for the child to carry. I think the parent serves the child best by a tender attitude that says, “I’ll help you if you want my help. I’ll leave you alone if you want to be left alone. Cry if you want to, suppress your crying if you want to. I’ll wait for you until you’re ready.” This is different from saying, “Cry, baby, cry.” Or “Don’t cry, baby, you’re all right.”

Now we go back to our example of a child badly hurt.

Who is the ideal ambulance driver? Someone cool and collected, in full possession of his driving skills, his sense of direction, his capacity to ask for a police escort or warn an ER of his impending arrival. The ambulance driver is neutral, alert, and intelligent.

Let’s say you get your daughter to the hospital. Let’s say she has fractured her jaw and needs facial surgery. Throughout the entire ordeal—accident, ER, surgery, intensive care, recovery at home—the child reacts to your thoughts and emotions. Your duty, then, is to put yourself in the ambulance-driver state: neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child hurts? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child is in intensive care? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child arrives home with her mouth wired shut? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent, at her service in whatever capacity she requires you to be.

The human potential for self-regeneration is remarkable. I used to see a doctor who would hear my complaints, then say, “Call me again in three months if it persists.” Often the complaints dissipated, and I wouldn’t need to call the doctor back. Time helps; attitudes and their energies help, too. If you keep focusing on the problem, you’ll think “accident, pain, fear, danger, hurt, frustration, anger, guilt.” This very thought spins negative and unhealthy energies. To solve the problem, then, you have to stop thinking of it, and turn your attention instead to the solution: the intermediate steps, the indirect procedures, the side trips and tangents that eventually lead to the problem’s dissolution.

You’re going to entertain the child, keep her company, give her small gifts. But if she wants to be left alone, you’ll do that, too. She has her own powers of self-regeneration, and by doing too much for her you may be sabotaging her recovery. It’s no good to keep telling her, “You’re strong, you’ll recover; you’re strong, you’ll recover.” If she’s strong, she doesn’t need to be told it; if she needs to be told it, she isn’t strong; if you keep telling her she’s strong, she’ll suss out that you’re saying, “You’re not strong enough to recover without my telling you again and again that you’re strong.” And she’ll behave accordingly.

Give her time, space, the possibility of her taking initiatives even if some of her initiatives carry risks and dangers—as do all initiatives, without exception. Haven’t you been telling the child how she strong she is? Let her be.

The solution for every problem in your life starts with your doing nothing—every last problem, including stage fright, writer’s block, a twisted ankle, a troubled sibling, an exam, a lawsuit, anything. Within yourself, create a void: a neutral, alert, and intelligent state in which you’ll be able to stop focusing on the problem and start focusing on the solution. And don’t wait until you have a problem. Embody the void, now and always. Thanks to you, many potential problems will be preventively “voided.”

©2015, Pedro de Alcantara

My kingdom for a couple more hours!

Time is a flexible entity. If you’re bored, time drags. If you’re excited, time flies. Sixty seconds can seem like an eternity—for instance, if you inadvertently lock yourself out of your house. Naked. In winter.

There’s never a moment in your life when your moods and your needs and wants stop affecting your sense of time. Time is always, always, always flexible! In other words, you can always stretch time, steal time, and otherwise make and take the time to accomplish anything you really want to accomplish.

I’m saying this as a sort of confession. For the past few weeks I’ve been busy with deadlines, projects, travel plans, paperwork, and every last professional excuse ever invented. I’m in New York as I write, battling a big book deadline on a project I started roughly ten years ago. “I’ve been too busy to blog,” I telepathically told my subscribers. And you know what? I was lying! To myself first and foremost! How many things have I chosen to do recently that were less important and less fun then blogging? Dozens, hundreds, thousands of time-consuming things, many of which I wouldn’t even describe to you for fear of ridicule.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a complete slacker. I’ve done a lot of good things lately. I even found the time to read a couple of books, including a Sherlock Holmes novel I had never read before. It contains a quote attributed to William Gladstone, who was England’s prime minister for many years: “A change of work is the best rest.”

Moral of the story?

Writing this blog post has allowed me to procrastinate facing my big deadline. I feel so rested, I think I’ll pull an all-nighter on that ten-year project.



The Mask, Part 4: Wear Your Characters' Skins

In my recent posts I stated my belief that we all have multiple personalities inside us, and each personality has its own set of skills and talents. By wearing a Mask we can tap into our inner stockbroker, our inner rock star, our inner healer. And then we can USE their skills.

The principle applies universally, but for creative people, and more narrowly writers, it’s a boon to be able to tap into these different voices and people. If you’re a writer you can BECOME each different character in your novels, short stories, and scripts; and the character that you become then write the stories for you, by reacting, thinking, talking, and feeling each in his or her individual ways.

You need to draft a short story, screenplay scene, or novel chapter, and you can’t overcome the tyranny of the blank page? Put on the Mask of one of the characters involved in the action. This may be a T-shirt, a bonnet, an unlit cigarette dangling from your lips, a pair of oversized sunglasses. Or a posture: slouched, stiff, defensive, preening, slutty. Or a speech pattern or language tic: a few threatening words spoken slowly through clenched teeth, a fake-Serbian accent, or, like, a burst of Valley-Girl Speak.

By wearing their Masks you become Hannibal Lecter, Hamlet, Harry Potter, or Hermione. The characters have their own paradigm, their own agendas; they’ll act and react within the scene or chapter, doing and saying whatever is logical and organic to them. Then you won’t write the scene as much as you’ll take dictation from your characters.

After you finish writing, wear the Mask of the Literary Agent and sell your masterpiece for a million bucks. Just don’t forget to mention me when you give your Nobel Prize speech, all right?

The Mask, Part 3: Put on those glasses!

In my recent posts I stated that you have multiple personalities inside you, and all it takes is a Mask for you to tap into each personality. It may be better for you to rein in most of these personalities most of the time, but having them dormant inside you is better than not having them altogether. The multiple personalities really mean multiple energies and skills, and you have at least two good ways to put them to good use: You can sublimate (that is, gather, condense, and transform) these energies into a unified whole that is your individuality; or you can actually let them loose as needed.

We’ll leave sublimation out of the discussion and let loose instead.

A petty bureaucrat is refusing to stamp a form? Tap into your slick-lawyer persona. A peculiar smirk and a few words, well chosen and delivered with just the right mixture of charm and threat, will get the bureaucrat to stamp the form almost despite himself.

You need to learn the basics of a foreign language before being posted abroad? Trigger your inner chameleon. Wear a metaphorical kimono to learn Japanese, or metaphorical lederhosen to learn German. Go to the language classes as if in the skin of a German. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak a word of German to begin with. You’ll learn faster if you wear a German Mask.

You need to walk past a group of pumped-up street toughs? Inside yourself there’s a powerful martial artist. You don’t need to physically fight the toughs; just give them a little hint of that energy of yours, and they’ll let you through. At a glance they know the difference between an easy mark and someone they’d rather not mess with. A truly skilful martial artist actually never gets into fights: he or she moves with a steady posture that isn’t necessarily bellicose, and potential adversaries give up the fight before it starts.

Remember, the Mask may be a bodily tic, a single word, a tone of voice, a piece of clothing… or just the THOUGHT of that word or hat or tic or what you will. Ultimately you don’t even need to put on that infamous shirt to become a pimp or fanatic; any one trigger will do, including a single thought.












Before I conclude this series, I’d like to tell my writer friends how they can use the Mask in their work.


The Mask, Part 2: Do NOT put on that shirt!

In my recent post I stated that Multiple Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of every human being, and I promised to tell you how to trigger each of your inner personalities.

Have you ever had the creeps just touching a shirt in a clothing store, or simply looking at it in a window? The creeps is a strong negative reaction you can’t quite fully understand or articulate. You might say the shirt is very ugly, but that doesn’t explain the strength of your reaction. What harm is there in an inert shirt, hanging at a safe distance? In the shirt itself, none. In the energies that the shirt evokes in your psyche, however, there’s tremendous POTENTIAL harm. That shirt is a Mask, and you’re afraid of it, afraid of the behaviors it’d trigger if you wore it. Deep down you know that, were you to put that shirt on, you’d become a pimp, a murderer, a pedophile, a religious fanatic, a retard. You know you have these personalities inside you, and most of the time you really don’t want them to come out at all.

The Mask, symbolized by that shirt, is an extremely powerful trigger.

The Mask is many things. It can be a literal mask, like those used in sacred ceremonies in aboriginal cultures, or those we wear at costume parties and at Carnival time. Face paint is a version of this mask; and make-up is a version of face paint. Ergo, when you put make-up on you’re engaging in the same ritual as the aboriginal in the Amazon jungle who covers his face in red pigment: You’re summoning a different part of yourself to come to the fore.

The Mask can be a piece of clothing as simple as a tie, or as elaborate as a theatrical getup that takes an hour to assemble before each performance. Go through your wardrobe and imagine how you really feel when you wear jeans and a T-shirt, as opposed to a slinky black dress, as opposed to a pantsuit, as opposed to a cashmere sweater, as opposed to a halter top. Or take two T-shirts, one red, one black. Aren’t you two different people when you wear one or the other? Perhaps very slightly different in this case, but different nevertheless.

The Mask can be a gesture, a little tic of body language: shrug your shoulders, and suddenly you’re a Jewish mother harping about her wayward son. Thrust your chest outward, and suddenly you’re a preening bodybuilder. Let your head hang down and sideways, and suddenly you’re a sad-sack loser with a victim mentality. The gesture invites a certain voice, an attitude, a way of behaving. All you need is ONE LITTLE TRIGGER, and an entire personality emerges.

The Mask can be something you do with your voice: a few words spoken high up in your voice, a growl, a four-letter word shouted with a nasal twang. And off you go, a new person altogether: a Brooklyn hoodlum, a priest with a secret past, a madam in a bordello in Berlin, circa 1923. A single word said with the right accent or tone of voice: that’s all it takes!

Charlie Chaplin was pottering around the movie set when he put on a small bowler hat and oversized shoes, picked up a cane… and, bingo! The Tramp was born whole, the gait, the personality, all gestures, attitudes, and reactions flowing naturally from the peculiar outfit that Chaplin had put on.

Javier Bardem played an evil psychopath in “No Country for Old Men,” the film made by the Coen brothers based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. I read an interview with him in which he said the set hairdresser gave him a haircut… whereupon he became the psychopath he was meant to play. Bangs, that’s all it took! He couldn’t have played Prince Charming with those bangs. Or an action hero. Or a university professor. (Actually, I know a professor or three who have bangs, but this only proves the point.)

Look at a group photo of college students from about 1975. Those long fuzzy beards, those thick glasses with heavy frames, those broad-collared polyester shirts? They were “personalities,” not simple accoutrements. The personalities were triggered, intimately, directly, inevitably, by the accoutrements. Take one of those guys from that photo. Give him a shave, get him to wear contact lenses and a black linen shirt: He won’t be the same guy. He won’t talk the same way, pursue the same interests, or hang around with the same old gang.

You have the Brooklyn hoodlum and the madam and all the other crazies inside you. Most of the time you keep them quiet, deep within yourself. But part of the time you want them to come out; or you NEED them to come out; or you know they’ll do great harm but you’ll let them come out anyway; or you’ll yield to them and claim to be an unwilling victim. “I couldn’t help it!” In short, need, want, obligation, oversight, or compulsion might all cause one of those crazies to pop out of you and do his song-and-dance.

Since the crazies will come out anyway, how can you use their energies and skills constructively? Stay tuned!

The Mask, Part 1: You Are Many

It’s an undeniable biographical fact that you’ve had the experience of becoming a different person just because you put on a striped shirt, or a knit tie with a ketchup splotch, or a fancy new pair of eyeglasses. Or because you got a new haircut, or because you shaved that beard you had worn for twenty years. Or because you talked to a Norwegian tourist at a street corner and, almost unwillingly, you started imitating her accent. Then you weren’t “you” anymore, but a completely different person with a whole other inner life.

Inside you there are dozens of different personalities raring to come out. And all it takes for any of them to take over your life is a simple trigger that I'll call the Mask: a shirt, a tie, a word said with a funny accent. In this series of blog entries we’ll look at how Multiple Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of every human being, and how the Mask is an effective way for you to tap into all your personalities and their respective talents and strengths.

We don’t talk to our bankers in the exact same way we talk to our infant daughters. We behave one way in the shower, another in public; one way at mass on Sunday morning, another watching Monday Night Football; one way with our wives, another with our mothers-in-law. We change our minds over time, according to context and to specific needs and wants. We change our body language, our tone of voice, our discourse—all those things that are visible and audible to the world. But we also "wear" different priorities, beliefs, convictions, and many characteristics that aren’t so immediately obvious.

Let’s take as axiomatic (and that means, “so obvious we don’t need to argue about it!”) that we all have many sides to our personalities… which is just another way of saying we have many personalities. Out of our inner multitute, a certain unity arises, highly complex, complicated even, full of contradictions and paradoxes, messy—but unified all the same. You may be a rock star singing in the shower and a sniveling beggar asking your banker for a line of credit. And yet the star and the beggar both are YOU, absolutely and totally the same “you” and not two different people.

This paradoxical version of the Multiple-Personality Syndrome is the natural condition of a human being. There are risks and dangers to it, of course. But it’s truly innate, inevitable, and desirable. You don’t want to talk to your banker the way you sing in the shower—trust me on this. You’re much better off if you’re able to change your posture, your tone of voice, your "everything."

In the next post I’ll tell you how.

Working on yourself, part 4: The one-man band

In my recent posts I introduced the concept of working on yourself in order to dissipate your fears and fulfill your talents, and I suggested that the attitude you bring to the task determines whether you’re in fact working on yourself or just floundering, skating, coasting, retreating, or otherwise going backward rather than forward. Then I proposed that you build a team to help you work on yourself, and I finished my last post with a riddle: Who's the most important member of a one-man band?

A one-man band traditionally is a musician who plays several instruments at the same time, often accompanying himself while singing. The archetypical one-man band is a guy playing the guitar, with a harmonica affixed to his head and ready for hands-off playing, and a tambourine tied to his leg.

In the one-man band, the most important member is the man—that is, the guy at the center of the whole enterprise. The guitar, the harmonica, the tambourine, and anything else that comprises the band are all secondary.

The members of my team are like the guitar, the harmonica, and the tambourine of a one-man band. They each make a different kind of music, with their own individual voices. But without my own efforts at unifying their voices into a harmonious whole, we might as well call the whole concert off.

There are risks and dangers in every situation, and working on yourself with the help of a team is no exception, however competent and helpful your team members may be. I see two main risks in working with a team. There’s a scene in “Casablanca” that bugs the heck out of me every time I watch it. Ingrid Bergman, who plays Ilsa, cuddles with Humphrey Bogart, who plays Rick. She’s freaking out about their adulterous relationship and the war in the background.

Oh, I don’t know what’s right any longer.
You’ll have to think for both of us, for all of us.

All right, I will.

That’s perverted! That’s morally wrong! That’s just plain ugly! The thing in this life is to think for yourself, to make your own choices, and to live with the consequences of your choices. That’s the very definition of freedom. In a tyranny—like the very Nazism of which Ilsa is a victim—other people think for you, make decisions for you, impose their decisions on you. Ilsa’s pleading for Rick to think for her is a submission to tyranny. And Rick’s accepting to do it is, shall we say, counterproductive. It infantilizes Ilsa, makes her handicapped and dependent. It’s no solution to the problem. It is the problem!

It’s the same thing when you work on yourself with the help of a team. You risk being tempted to let other people “think for you.” You risk falling under the spell of someone who appears superior to you in some way, and this simply serves to make you inferior. It doesn't matter how brilliant your team members may be: In the end, you gotta think for yourself and make your own decisions.

The second main risk in working with a team is dispersion, or the contrary of integration. We all have many aspects to our personalities, many talents and possibilities lying within. To develop these talents is one thing; to have all talents collaborate to make you whole is another thing. If the team is working to make you whole, that’s great. But if the team is pulling you apart—or, more precisely, if you’re letting the team pull you apart—then you need to rethink your strategies. Fire the guitar player, chuck the harmonica, dump the tambourine, and sing a cappella, naked and all alone in the world. In other words, quit the one-man band and become a “one-man.”

Working on yourself, part 3: The Team

In my recent posts I introduced the concept of working on yourself in order to dissipate your fears and fulfill your talents, and I suggested that the attitude you bring to the task determines whether you’re in fact working on yourself or just floundering, skating, coasting, retreating, or otherwise going backward rather than forward.

What about building a team to help you? Most people have their own informal circle of friends, advisers, teachers, and partners, but it could be useful to bring a little discipline to the team.

A good “ear” is essential: someone who can listen to anything you want to say without judgment or censorship, perhaps even without actually giving advice. My friends Debby and Ed are very much like that. With them I can say any absurd thing about myself and about other people, reveal my foibles and weaknesses, and kvetch about petty concerns without their giving me a hard time about it. Debby and I usually start laughing within sixty seconds of any of our phone calls. Ed understands me so well I sometimes don’t have to say anything whatsoever. I think my thought, he thinks his absolute agreement, and we take another sip of coffee. If you don’t have one or two (or ten) friends like Debby and Ed, you might want to pay a professional to play the role of non-judgmental ear.

Your team might have a teacher or two. I had a singing teacher for 20 years from whom I took occasional but regular lessons in my trips to New York, until he passed away recently as a very youthful 97-year-old. Voice is identity: You are your voice, and to change your voice is to change yourself. Some of the sounds my teacher persuaded me to produce—enormous, vibrant, powerful—seemed to belong to someone very different from my everyday "me." My singing teacher pointed the way to a world of inner possibilities, and although he isn’t around any more I’m still learning his wonderful lessons.

Your team might have a non-doctor healer, someone with fine hands and the ability to speak to a non-verbal part of you—an osteopath, Alexander teacher, massage therapist, acupuncturist, you name it. Over the years I’ve had some memorable sessions with a cranio-sacral osteopath in Paris who wraps his soft hands around my skull and makes my brain and my mind go on a trip to the other side of the moon.

Your team might include someone who knows about symbols, numbers, dreams, words, metaphors, archetypes—in short, someone who helps you interpret the stories your unconscious tells yourself. My expert is a German-Swiss woman who’s a veritable encyclopedia of symbology. She’s a literal translator, preparing French versions of German texts about Carl Jung’s work, but she’s also a metaphorical translator. I dream in a convoluted language called Pedronics, she translates it into crystalline French, and I go home understanding myself rather more clearly.

A good team is dynamic: It changes with time. You might need a member of your team for years, another for months, yet another for a single encounter. You might learn a tremendous amount from someone in your team, and at some point you might need to stop seeing him or her: the task is done, or you’ve changed a lot and your team member hasn’t followed along… or you realize you’ve been mistaken about this person’s merits all along. You might need to fire team members, to replace a member who goes missing like my singing teacher, to open up the team or to streamline it.

I finish this post with a riddle that hints at the subject of my next one:

Who's the most important member of a one-man band?

Working on yourself, part 2: In the bodega of life

Suppose you start studying a new skill. For the sake of argument, let’s say you take up cordon-bleu cooking, learning to prepare elaborate meals for yourself, your family, and your friends. The apparent subject matter of your studies is “food.” Choosing and buying ingredients, setting up menus, practicing techniques, everything you study revolves around food.

Well, that’s an illusion.

If you’re a really good student, everything you study revolves around yourself. How do you interact with your cooking teacher? What kind of listener are you? Do you tend to jump to conclusions and start preparing a dish even before the teacher finished explaining things? And when there’s a little accident in the school kitchen, how do you react to it? Do you get angry when a colleague takes your wooden spoon without asking for permission? Or are you afraid of conflict, so you make nice-nice with absolutely everyone in school, including the notorious child molester?

That’s what you are studying at all times: your own reactions and behaviors, your assumptions, your habits. If while learning how to cook you learn something about yourself—and, better still, if you change some of your psychic energies from negative to positive, from destructive to constructive—then you are working on yourself.

It may be counterintuitive to many people, but you actually learn anything faster and better if you pay attention to your own self first and foremost, and to the subject being studied only secondarily, be it cordon-bleu cooking, trigonometry, or sanskrit. There’s a fine line between self-awareness and self-absorption, of course, but navigating that particular zone also is an integral part of working on yourself.

The principle applies universally. That’s why doing even seemingly banal things like calling a friend on the phone or going around the corner to the bodega to buy a pack of bananas can be called “working on yourself.” When you pursue any one activity mindlessly, you’re letting your psychic energies dissipate and stagnate. When you enter any one activity with a mixture of curiosity and commitment, you’re renewing and refreshing your psychic energies.

Some tasks you face when working on yourself are huge—patching a troubled marriage, for instance, or coming to terms with disease. Others are much smaller. The idea is for you to become good at working on yourself regardless of the task. Start small if you need to, and hone your skills by opening up your curiosity about yourself and your commitment to the here and now, in the bodega and beyond.

And while you’re at it, get some Häagen-Dazs to go with those bananas.

Working on yourself, part 1: Call your mother!

Life is a never-ending exploration of your identity, your capabilities, your talents. But life is also a study of your blind spots, your emotional issues, your foibles, and—let’s just say it out loud—your problems. To work on yourself is to deepen your talents and lessen your problems; it is to tame your fears and fulfill your destiny.

Working on yourself can take many forms, such as psychotherapy, exercise, and meditation. Each of these ways is a universe all by itself. Not only there are dozens of different ways of working on yourself; there are dozens of different forms of psychotherapy, exercise, meditation, and so on. In fact, your first duty when you set out to work on yourself is to determine how best to do it. One of my favorite proverbs says, “Reptilian heaven is mammalian hell.” The snake loves the swamp, the kitty cat hates it. Would you benefit from lying on a psychoanalyst’s couch four days a week for ten or fifteen years? For some people that’s heaven, for others, hell. If Freud isn’t for you, there’s always Lacan, Jung, Rogers, Klein, Erickson, Gonzales, and a stadium-full of others. (You’ve never heard of Gonzales? He’s an excellent therapist. Muy rápido, señor.)

Taking ballroom-dance lessons is a way of working on yourself. If, like many guys, you are deathly afraid of dancing, lessons become an arena in which you face and conquer your fears. Learning a foreign language can become a way of working on yourself too. Even the weekly phone call to your mother can be a way of working on yourself. “Taming your fears,” remember? That’s the name of the game.

Working on yourself may be painful at times, and perhaps inevitably so. But once you engage in the process to the full, you might come to see that working on yourself is the most satisfying thing there is, a never-ending festival of adventures and discoveries. Shedding fears, developing talents, affirming yourself: you can do it every day, all day long, and you can call it “life.”

In my next post I’ll explain why the same activity, depending on how you do it, can amount to “working on yourself” or “wasting your time.” This applies to all activities, including reading someone’s blog on the Internet.

You have no manners (and neither have I), part 6: Seven Pointers

We’ve been looking at how our sense of propriety, also known as “manners,” affects touch, language, food, and pretty much everything else we do. Now it’s time to make that famous list of pointers where we try to be intelligent and practical-minded.

  1. I’ve often asked Americans to explain the rules of baseball to me. Everyone has always failed—the game is so deeply ingrained in their unconscious that they can’t verbalize the rules in a coherent and comprehensive order. Your sense of propriety is the same: it develops so early in life that you won’t be able to fully grasp it intellectually; it’s a nearly biological reflex by now. You take an awful lot of your tribe's customs for granted!
  2. There are very few absolute propriety values, shared by all nations, cultures, and tribes. You should never assume a trait of yours is shared by all, or that it should be shared by all.
  3. Looking at people from a culture different from yours, you might think that their manners are crazy, absurd, and unhealthy; and you might wonder why on Earth don’t they give it all up already. First, manners arise for reasons that at the outset may be quite logical. Second, those crazy people aren’t aware of their craziness, and in fact they don’t even consider themselves crazy—not in the least. Third, to them you’re just as crazy, absurd, and unhealthy. So… why don’t you give it all up already?
  4. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” In other words, adapt the mores of the culture you visit or the country you move to. In France, say “Bonjour, Madame,” every time you enter the bakery—every single time, always! Entering a Catholic church, uncover your head—always! Entering a synagogue, cover your head—always!
  5. Clashes of manners are inevitable. An overly sensitive introvert meets a brash extravert. The introvert finds the loudmouth extremely rude and insensitive. But the extravert considers the introvert terribly stifling. Whose manners ought to change, to accommodate the needs of the other? Oftentimes there are no fair solutions.
  6. Although we learn most of our manners intuitively, from a very early age, we can also learn new behaviors as grownups. It takes discipline, sensitiveness, and imagination. But, most of all, it takes a little “distance,” the capacity to leave your own certainties at the door.
  7. When someone invites you to dinner, ask what’s on the menu before you say “yes.”


You have no manners (and neither have I), part 5: Mangia, mangia!

As we have seen already, our deeply held feelings of propriety include matters of language and matters of physical contact (for instance, in the form of handshakes, kisses, and hugs in social settings). Today I have one word for you: Food.

Much of what we eat and how we eat is socially determined, from a very early age. If you grow up in a culture where drinking milk is considered healthy, you may find it very hard to actually believe that milk is bad for you—as it is indeed, if not for you personally, then for a great number of adults who can't quite digest milk and yet continue to drink it. If you come from an Asian culture—Japan, for instance—you might find the idea of drinking milk absolutely revolting, and you might find it hard to imagine why on Earth some people would even think of drinking glasses and glasses of the stuff.

You see, the beliefs are so deeply held that we can't quite grasp them; we can't question them; and we can't imagine that other people might see things differently.

Our beliefs about food go well beyond nutritional matters; they include matters of hospitality, of times and spaces shared together. Someone might think like this: Everyone knows meat is an essential part of one's diet. Meat is good for me. I like meat. Meat is good for you. You should like meat. You must like meat. You have no choice but to like meat. I'm going to serve you meat, and if you don't eat it you're not only crazy but rude as well, since you're telling me that I'm wrong to like meat. Mangia, mangia!

In 1988 I went to Berlin for the first time, when the Wall still divided the city. I stayed with a friend of mine for a week, a Brazilian of German descent whom I knew from our shared adolescence in São Paulo. A friend of his—a purely German woman—heard about my presence in the city, and she decided to invite me for dinner. She didn't tell me this, but she wanted to show the distinguished guest something typical of her land. Off I went to her home. Ten or twelve people met: friends of hers, friends of my friends, the sort of incoherent assembly that comes together once and once only. The centerpiece of the meal was a German delicacy, which my hostess had prepared at great cost to her: Eisbein. That's pig's knee. Yes, the knee of a humongous pig, served whole on a plate, with bones, gristle, ligaments, tendons, fat, and a little bit of meat hidden behind the rest of the pig's anatomy.

Each guest was served an entire knee. Plus trimmings, of course—potatoes, cabbage, and whatnot.

I sat looking at it for a long time. It was impossible, this late in the game, for me to pretend I was a vegetarian, or a vegan, or a fish eater, or a monk from a strange sect that only ate pasta and ice cream. No. I had to eat the pig. It had been prepared especially for me, lovingly, by a dedicated German hostess who had gone out of her way to welcome me, a complete stranger, into the bosom of her home.

It wasn't dinner, it was vivisection. The pig looked so pig-like you could hear its squeals. You know what it said? It didn’t say, “Hello, Pedro, I'm delighted to be eaten by you. I'll do my best to go down your throat smoothly. Trust me, we're on the same side here.” No. It said, “I’m a pig, for goodness’ sake. I should be playing in mud right now. If you eat me you’re nothing but a blue-eyed devil.”

After the longest time I took a thin slice of meat from one side of the knee, removed the fat and other anatomic paraphernalia as well as I could, and ate a small forkful of it. One of the guests, a hearty Pole, turned his attention to me. “What's your problem?” he asked. “Are you sick, or something?” He had finished his Eisbein already, and on his plate there remained only the bones. He had consumed, devoured, masticated, and sucked off everything else in his sight.

It has been reported that, in certain Arab communities where hospitality is of the utmost importance, a host might KILL you if you refuse his or her hospitality. It was the awareness of this risk that led me to consume a few more forkfuls of that fateful pig.

Where I come from, the pigs are congressmen and senators. We don't eat them, man!

You have no manners (and neither have I), part 4: A Brazilian picks a fight with an Englishwoman in France

My friendly and dedicated correspondent, Lisa Marie (an Englishwoman who lives in France), is at it again. She wrote most thoughtfully about my recent posts on the subject of manners.

And you know what? The Brazilian in me disagrees with the Englishwoman in her, proving that I have no manners whatsoever! My retorts to Lisa Marie's remarks are inside the little boxes.

Hi Pedro,

I've been silently enjoying your posts on politeness. It's such a potentially hilarious subject. I think there are two kinds of behaviours which both fall into the category good manners but are very different. The first are all those culturally specific things that are often absurd (though not always) -- and have to be learned. The second category includes all those ways in which you attend to others to make them feel comfortable, e.g. listening to people until they've finished their desultory sentences, not staring over their shoulder in search of someone more interesting to talk to, not making other people aware of their lack of the first sort of good manners -- like the (probably apocryphal) hostess who drank her finger-bowl to save the blushes of a guest who had just drank his. It is easy to get the two categories muddled because some behaviours fall into both categories, for example -- remembering that guests arriving from far might want to rest and wash before they feel like being chatty and entertaining.

Er... I think both types of behavior you mention are similarly "cultural," speficic to certain groups and having to be learned. Listening to other peope until they finish their sentences, for instance: oftentimes in France and elsewhere, several people in a conversation might talk at the same time, without waiting for other people to finish what they're saying; and for people in such cultures, it's not considered rude in the least to converse in this manner. Indeed, I think ALL social behaviors are culture-specific; if that weren't the case, there would be SOME universal behaviors, and I can't think of even one that happens in all cultures, tribes, social settings, and so on.

I have problems in France with "Bonjour Madame X", to which, as you know the correct reply is "Bonjour Monsieur Y", (rather than plain unadorned "Bonjour" which I would find more natural)."Bonjour Monsieur Y" always makes me feel as if I've become trapped in a language primer and the words always come out of my mouth with audible (to me at any rate) inverted commas. I suppose any formulaic exchange learned later than childhood will always feel like an exercise in role-playing.

I think one can learn to absorb behaviors -- and make them become "natural" -- at any point in one's life, not in childhood alone; it's just that some things learned in childhood are more deeply rooted than others. Also, I somehow suspect that there are people in all groups who feel unhappy with the behaviors imposed by the traditions of the group. I'm sure there are Brazilians who don't like the cheek-kissing thingy, even though they grew up with it, and Frenchmen who are impatient with the "Bonjour, Madame" thingy.

Someone (Paul Theroux?) wrote 'The Japanese have so perfected good manners to the point that they have become almost indistinguishable from rudeness.'

Funny. And astute, I think. 

Your hypothetical American sins by ignorance (bad manners category 1). Your hypothetical baker is arrogant -- despising his customer as a barbarian just because he cannot imitate his (the baker's) local customs inferring thereby that he (the baker) would fare better if suddenly whisked accross the Atlantic -- but he only commits bad manners category 2 if the American becomes aware of the baker's mépris.

Warm beer is the result of incompetence. English real ale should be served at (cold) cellar temperature but not refrigerated.

Sure, sure. But for a Texan who ALWAYS drinks beer ABSOLUTELY FREEZING-COLD (and any other beverages that he perceives as beer-like), real ale served at cellar temperature will appear WARM, therefore WRONG. The guy doesn't know the difference between real ale and lager, doesn't know about the gustatory demerits of drinks that are too cold... and he doesn't know he's making tons of assumptions about everything in this world.

PS I forgot to say that "I was only being Brazilian" is not an excuse I've ever heard before... Do you think the recipient of your Brazilian-ness subsequently felt embarrassed to have reacted as she did? -- how culturally insensitive!

If that woman regretted flinching at my Brazilian-ness, she certainly hasn't sent me a telegram about it -- yet!

PPS The possibilities for painful embarrassment are endless. I haven't even begun to bang on about tertiary embarassment -- that's when you feel embarrassed on someone else's behalf because they miraculously fail to feel as embarassed as you feel they ought. Perhaps that's an English thing... 

Aha! The truth comes out! I knew most of the things you think, say, and feel arise from the assumptions you learned as a child in England!

Warm regards from the the patch of Brazilian jungle near the Bastille, Paris.

-- Pedro 

You have no manners (and neither have I), part 3: Watch your mouth

Politeness and propriety cover vast swaths of our behavior. Take the language of greeting, for instance. A Texan arrives in London for the first time and is introduced to a proper Englishman.

“How do you do?” asks the Englishman.

“Oh, I’m doin’ great,” says the Texan. “But why is this beer so damn warm?”

The Texan misunderstood the Englishman’s question. This is how it was supposed to go:

“How do you do?” asks the Englishman.

“How do you do?” replies the Texan.

The question isn’t even a question, but a greeting—given in the full expectation it’ll be answered by the very same greeting. It doesn’t mean “How ya doin’?”, as the Texan assumed. The Englishman DOES NOT WANT TO KNOW how you’re doing, and his greeting is designed to indirectly let you know that.

In France, where I live, it’s an absolute obligation for everyone to greet everyone else by saying “Bonjour.” You walk into a bakery and the baker says “Bonjour.” You MUST say “Bonjour” back. It doesn’t matter how friendly you behave yourself, how full of smiles, how appreciative of the baker’s goods. If you don’t say “Bonjour” you’re as rude as a Barbarian taking a pee inside the Notre Dame cathedral.

The French learn their “Bonjour” so early in their lives, and so insistently from so many trustworthy sources like parents and teachers, that the reflex is totally integrated into their psyches and out of reason’s reach. The baker doesn’t think this:  “Ah, yes, we the French learn to say bonjour so early that we take it extremely seriously—so seriously it’s kinda funny. The Americans have a different way of expressing their friendliness, which they too learn early and take seriously. But since we all understand how the sense of propriety is different from culture to culture, we can appreciate one another without enmity and, indeed, with a lot of humor and tolerance.” No, the baker thinks this: “Mon Dieu, how rude. Get this Barbarian out of my bakery.”

Okay, you blog readers out there. In your opinion, who is being rude to whom in that proverbial French bakery frequented by the proverbial American? And who’s being rude to whom by serving you a pint of goddamn warm beer?

You have no manners (and neither have I), part 2: Turn the other cheek

Every culture has its deeply ingrained notions about manners and propriety. But no two cultures are exactly alike. I grew up in Brazil, where the overall style of human interaction is quite informal. People greet friends and acquaintances with kisses on the cheek—women kiss everyone, men kiss women but don’t kiss men, God forbid! Even when you get introduced to someone for the first and last time, however briefly, you might kiss him or her on the cheek.

You grow up with it and you acquire a reflex: you kiss as a matter of course, without much thought, without ever asking yourself if perhaps the kissing is appropriate. Indeed, not to kiss someone becomes the inappropriate behavior, and if you decide not to do it, or if you forget or neglect it, people will think there’s something wrong with you.

The kisses vary in number and intimacy. Sometimes a single kiss (right cheek to right cheek), sometimes two (first the right cheek, then the left one). The lips might not touch the cheek at all, so the cheeks meet lightly and you do a little sucking sound. It’s not quite like the air kisses of certain celebrities in America, say, as contact is actually established. Until very recently, it was absolutely taboo for two straight men kissing each other on the cheek, with the exception of your kissing your father, uncle, or grandfather-and those man-to-man kisses were by no means obligatory. Now it’s becoming fashionable in some circles for men to greet their straigth men friends with the usual cheek contact or a variation thereof, but I expect it’ll be a while until man-to-man cheek-kissing becomes universal.

In the US, it’s extremely rare for friends to kiss each other, however intimate the friendship. Only friends of mine who have lived in Europe seem comfortable with the cheek-to-cheek contact; other friends might hug me, but never kiss, and even their hugging entails tons of space being kept between our bodies. And strangers meeting for the first time never, ever kiss, of course.

Decades ago, when I was a college student in the US, I spent a summer in Brazil and returned to NY for the beginning of the school session in September. The night after my arrival I attended a concert somewhere. During the intermission I ran into a woman my age whom I knew in passing from the previous semester. Without thinking, because I was still in my Brazilian mode, I put my cheek against her and did the sucking thing. She recoiled in horror. A microsecond too late I understood what I had done: I had sexually harassed her, and in public! I thought it’d be impossible to explain the situation, so I just disappeared into the crowd, and we never crossed paths again. It’s been roughly 28 years since the event, and I still remember her disgusted reaction and my own sense of shame.

You guilty and shameful readers out there—care to share some traumatic bouts of bad manners with us?

You have no manners (and neither have I), part 1: Are you CRAZY?

Sometimes we read articles about foreign cultures in distant lands—the Mongolians, say, or a religious sect on the border of Arizona and Utah—and we wonder at their strange rites. Not only do we wonder, we laugh at them, since they’re so stupid and ridiculous. Kissing a spoon four times before slinging mud in your baby’s face? Those Absinthians are really crazy.

What we don’t realize is that all people, regardless of their culture, have well-established social habits of which they may not be consciously aware. And, to an uneducated observer from another culture, those social habits appear illogical and incomprehensible, if not downright perverse. The bone-crushing handshake of an American used-car salesman, for instance, is quite logical to him, a sign of his being friendly and interested in doing business with you. To a countess in Westphalia it’s a criminal act.

A Parisian student of mine once confessed that she was always uncomfortable when she arrived for her lessons, because I didn’t shake her hand in the exact French way (which of course is quite different from the Bonecruncher). On another occasion I was having lunch with a French friend who became agitated when someone else put a loaf of bread belly-side up on the table. It’s just not done! As it happens, centuries ago French people put the loaves of bread that were meant for lepers belly-side up, to distinguish them from the bread of healthy people. There were no lepers at our lunch table, but that didn’t reassure my friend in any way.

It’s not possible to foresee every culture’s habits and quirks, particularly since so much of it goes unspoken and unexplained. But it’s possible to suspend your critical judgments of people who live differently from you. By that I don’t mean to say that every behavior is equally acceptable, only that before you approve or disapprove of something you must first understand it.

Shaking my student’s hand as she expects me to is a solution. Another is to become playful, bring the phenomenon to the surface, share the details of my culture with her, laugh at myself for being crazy, and perhaps laugh with her for being anxious over a handshake. To dismiss her anxieties altogether is no solution at all.

In this series I’ll look at the quirks of social habits and how they shape our perceptions and behaviors. I’ll tell you about the time a young American woman thought I was molesting her when I was just being “Brazilian.” I’ll tell you about the day I had to eat pig’s knuckles because politeness demanded it of me. And I’ll tell you about the man who insisted on licking the soles of my feet to celebrate the birthday of King Stavros the Injudicious.

Oh reader, your talents require TLC!

In my last blog entry I riffed on the notion of talent, the gist of my convictions being that everyone is born multitalented. A brave voice rose in the wilderness, pointedly letting me know I’m crazy. Just kidding! The brave voice, who answers to the name of Lisa Marie, makes some very good points. Here they are.

I think there is a problem with the word “talent.” Isn't it used to mean the exceptional thing, the thing that most people don't have? I think one tends to use the word unthinkingly in order to designate that happy (and indeed, rare) combination of qualities and circumstances (energy, enthusiasm, time, a little salutary egoism to enable one to be a bit annoyingly obsessive, good teachers, etc.) and one ends up being mislead by the existence of the word into thinking one is referring to something else, some further magic entity, apart from these ingredients.

And so my more somber version of your “we are all multi-talented'” would be to say “we quite probably all aren't, but that this is a lot less of a problem than we have been led to believe... particularly if it is possible to muster energy, enthusiasm, time, egoism, etc.”

Genius, now that would be something else again, I suppose.

This is my abbreviation of what the brave voice is saying in the wilderness:

“Talent” as people normally see it is a kind of illusion; people do things well because of down-to-earth qualities such as energy, enthusiasm, time, and so on—not because of a magic, mysterious quality, which we might want to call “genius” instead. It’s not a problem to be “untalented” as long as you find the necessary time, energy, and enthusiasm to accomplish your goals.

I see talent as an innate capacity to do something, a biological inheritance that is independent of these down-to-earth qualities but that needs some of them to blossom. So, I do think everyone is multitalented indeed, having many built-in capacities from birth. Ultimately, however, the brave voice is quite right: things happen not by magic but through dedicated effort. Here's the film maker Ridley Scott in a recent interview in the magazine Film Comment: "[My mother] was a real force of nature. [My brother] Tony and I inherited perseverance from her. It's really the thing you need to succeed. I always say it's stamina, stamina, stamina, then perseverance, and last is talent."

As for "genius," I’d like to offer a very specific definition. I see a genius not as someone with brilliant inborn capacities, but someone with an original insight who creates a new paradigm within his or her field. In that sense Claude Debussy was a genius, since he created a new musical paradigm contributing to the development of, among other things, atonality; but Maurice Ravel wasn’t a genius, since his work—however brilliant—hewed to the paradigms, tonal and rhythmic, that came before him. Ludwig van Beethoven: genius. Felix Mendelssohn: not (even though he was an astounding child prodigy). Miguel de Cervantes: genius (he "invented" the modern novel). Jane Austen: not. Mahatma Gandhi: genius (he created a new paradigm, non-violent resistance). The Dalai Lama: not (he embraces a paradigm that was fully formed before his birth). But note that I admire the Dalai Lama unconditionally, and I think he represents humanity's highest ideals. Here I'm using the word "genius" as a technical term, narrowly (and perhaps idiosyncratically) defined.

Given a choice between talent, genius, and stamina, I know which one I would pick for myself and my career. Phew! Writing this blog entry has exhausted the resident genius here, so please excuse me while I take a nap.


Oh reader, you're so talented!

In my recent installments of The Naked Beginner I recounted how I used to suffer from the misconception I had no talent for drawing, and how I cured myself from that handicap with help from a fictional character, an imaginary friend, and a dead white male. Here I offer you a little meditation on the notion of talent. Since the meditation applies to all people, I’m posting this blog entry on multiple categories.

  1. Everyone is born multitalented; this you can see by watching a few kindergarten kids at play, inventing every sort of game and improvising brilliantly at arts, sport, music, relationships, and anything else. The tragedy is that many of those kindergartners (and I’m talking about you and me and your brother and your sister) will grow to “forget” how talented they were from the first.
  2. You have hidden talents you don’t know about. Every day as you go about your normal existence, amazing things lie inside you waiting to be discovered.
  3. Talents are eternal: they are always there, inside you, from birth to death. When the expression of a talent is squashed, the talent itself remains. At any time in your life, if the conditions are right the talent will come right back out.
  4. You can be absolutely sure about something and yet be absolutely wrong about it. Wanna bet? The principle is universal. It applies to your feeling certain you don’t have talent for something—drawing, music, computers, managing people, you name it.
  5. If you’ve tried to do something and failed miserably, you might still have a talent for it; perhaps you just need a good teacher, a good partner, a good environment. Think how many mean and incompetent teachers are out there, and how discouraging they can be.
  6. “I’ve never danced in my life! I don’t have a talent for it!” Can you see what’s wrong with these words?
  7. Timing is everything. Talent is always there, but sometimes you need to wait until you are good and ready to explore it. And you may not be ready until you’re 13, or 26, or 39, or 52. (Here’s testing your talent for multiplication tables!)
  8. Talent is immutable; it’s already there inside you, and it’ll always be there as a latent force. But your manner of tapping into it is highly variable. It’s easy to confuse the two. If you go about blindly trying to develop a talent, your failure doesn’t mean you don’t have the talent.
  9. You can develop a new skill in intermittent bursts of time and effort, as long as the effort is intelligent and the time well-spent.
  10. If someone has a great deal of innate facility for something but no patience to develop the skill over the long term, does he or she really have “talent”?
  11. Okay, it’s possible for you not to have talent for something and feel sure that you do. Still, that’d be a lesser problem than having talent and feeling sure you don’t.
  12. Talent isn’t contagious, but enthusiasm is.

Hey, you talented readers out there: How about submitting your stories about hidden talents, talents snuffed out by mean teachers, talents that have surprised and delighted you as you went about discovering them?

You're wrong about me (and I'm right about you), part 8: Judgments

A brave new voice has rung out in the wilderness, purporting to disagree with me on my “right and wrong” catechism. That I actually agree with the voice doesn’t make it any less brave. Here’s Lisa Marie’s statement.

I don't want to sound contrary, but I think negative judgments need someone to defend them.

Aren't any negative judgments ever right? Aren't any artists overrated? Wouldn't you be justifiably irritated if I suggested you were just in a bad mood and succumbing to irrational prejudice when you say that Ella Fitzgerald's bossa nova renditions give you the aesthetic equivalent of hives?

And isn't the converse of Terry's experience not “judging correctly because in a positive frame of mind, but “having one's pocket picked from being over-certain of another's good faith”?

Of course I can see that teachers, doctors and priests need/ought to hold off from judging pupils, patients and parishioners too quickly or harshly. And book reviewers should try to practice charity more assiduously even than the rest of us. But arguments about aesthetic matters are surely a form of human flourishing and must often involve someone saying "I really don't like this.” The examination of why someone objects to some great work or artist is often fascinating and need not leave one less free to come to one's own conclusions.

I absolutely agree with everything Lisa Marie says! Plenty of negative judgments are right, and plenty of positive judgments are wrong. Plenty of artists are overrated. The naive permanently risk getting their pockets picked, literally and metaphorically. The give-and-take of aesthetic arguments is very enriching, and stating one’s likes and dislikes unequivocally is all for the better. My philosophy isn’t “Never make negative judgments” but, rather, “Make the judgments that you will, positive or negative, but don’t forget you may possibly be wrong about them—particularly if the judgments come from preconceived ideas of which you may not be aware. And if you find out you’re wrong about something, change your mind and your behavior regarding the thing in question. Your change may come from a judgment that goes from negative to positive, or from positive to negative. It all depends.”

A positive judgment may be wrong and extremely harmful—for instance, when the electorate issues a positive judgment on a wicked politician. In such a case the collective duty is to scream bloody murder.

I don’t plan to start liking Ella’s bossa nova renditions any time soon. Or anything by John Denver. Or Barry Manilow. No way—not Barry Manilow. I’ll never change my mind about Barry Manilow. Not in a million years. Never, ever, ever.

You're wrong about me (and I'm right about you), part 7: Moods

After my recent call for testimonials about right and wrong, Terry sent me the story below.

I like to think I'm patient and I give people the benefit of the doubt. I remember once standing in line with my wife at a movie theater in a very grumpy mood. Why so grumpy, I can't remember. I saw a couple apparently start another line, as if to bypass us. I yelled something unpleasant out to the guy in the couple and complained loudly. He looked at me like I was some kind of a nut and just ignored me. Later I realized his line was for something else and had nothing to do with what I was waiting for. The guy was right: I was some kind of a nut. I was mentally prepared for someone to do wrong by me, so that's what I instantly saw.

Terry’s anecdote demonstrates a simple but powerful fact: when in a bad mood, our judgments of right and wrong deteriorate, and we end up doing dumb things for dumb reasons.

Fortunately, the reverse of the medal is also true: when in a good mood, we usually make fewer dumb mistakes, though of course there’s no guaranteed way of stopping all mistakes.

These are some of the things I do regularly to affect my mood for the better and, indirectly, my judgment of right and wrong and the behaviors that follow from the judgment.

  1. I instantly feel boosted when I hear the Golden Gate Quartet, Louis Armstrong, Charles Mingus, the Miles Davis of “Kind of Blue,” or Ella Fitzgerald (except when she sings the bossa nova of my native Brazil, which she butchers with a not-so-infectious joy!). When I'm in a bad way, I listen to one of their CDs and I get good in a nanosecond.
  2. I’m a big fun of comic books and cartoons: Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts, Fat Freddy’s Cat, The Muppet Show, Daffy Duck and his friends. (Actually, Daffy doesn’t have any friends. I meant his foes.) If I need mood therapy I watch a DVD or read a few pages from the anthologies in my library. Wile E. Coyote’s humiliating losses in battle make mine seem rather petty, so I give up my irritation and take it easy instead.
  3. Chocolate is a legal mood enhancer, packed with caffeine, theobromine, and many other chemicals that end in “-ine” (just as in “coca-ine” and “hero-ine”). A few ounces of dark chocolate can turn Scrooge into a pussy cat. Like all drugs, however, chocolate has unpleasant side effects: the unwillingness to eat your vegetables, diabetes, Flabby Belly Syndrome, you name it. But—hey, today I want my chocolate. Tomorrow’s another day.
  4. My childhood friend Debby and I like chatting in Portuguese on the phone, gossiping, whining, and telling each other all the terrible things we’ve done in recent days. Somehow when Debby laughs at my right-and-wrong struggles I go from upset to relieved, from grumpy to cheerful, from dumb to intelligent.

It’s best to use these tools preventatively. If you spend your days eating candy and watching cartoons on TV, you’ll be in a permanent good mood. In fact, your mood will be so good you won’t do anything wrong at all (other than spending your days eating candy and watching cartoons on TV!).