taking a break

I started this website in 2011, back when I was a junior in college. Over the last five years, I’ve written about baseball, history, politics, music, science, and other random stuff that’s popped into my brain-thing. I’ve interviewed the voice of Siri and the founder of craigslist and my hero Aaron Small. Over 300 posts, half a million words typed, and now, well, here we are.

No one reads this, and that’s fine. That’s never been my motivation for writing this thing. But over the last few months, I haven’t had the usual desire to post here. I’m not sure why that is. But it is. So, I’ve decided that I’m going to take a bit of a break from posting here. I have no idea how long that will last. It may only be a week. Or a month. Or six months. Probably not forever. But for a little while.

If you’re reading this, then I thank you very much for giving ol’ jfleishman.com a spot in your internet rotation. If you’re not reading this, then, um, uhhhhh, I don’t have anything to say to you.

I’ll be back at some point. I’ll leave the lights on.

For now, I leave you with the definition of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle:

In quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known.

 

 

Why are you still here? Go on! Get!

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On optimism

I have a few guiding principles in my life that serve as the foundation for how I:

Create stuff
Make decisions
Become a decent human

On Creating stuff. I’ve said this before, and it’s the unofficial motto of this blog. Dare to be pointless. The stuff you do, and the stuff you create, doesn’t need to have a point. All that matters is that you enjoy it and find it interesting. Hopefully others do too.

On making decisions. Be pragmatic. Ask questions. Listen to your gut.

On being a decent human. There’s a lot that goes into being a decent human. Helping others, being kind, listening. I try to do all of that, but here is my guiding principle: maintain optimism as a default setting.

There is nothing that turns me off more than negativity. It is my least favorite quality. And it does seem like it’s getting worse, that more and more people are turning to pessimism and cynicism in how they look at the world.

Perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves that negativity and outrage will somehow lead to positive change, either in our own lives, or in the world at large. But that usually doesn’t work. At least not in my experience.

I don’t think it helps that we have continuous and unrelenting cycles of manufactured negativity – the news, social media, higher expectations, Donald Trump, whatever. I think it is harder now to be a positive person. It takes more work.

But negativity doesn’t feel good. It’s just easy.

Optimism is my default setting because I believe in the fundamental goodness of people. There are also a tremendous amount of things to be optimistic about.

That’s not to discount the problems we have – climate change, nuclear weapons, cancer, and about 681,357 other things. But it turns out that humans are very good at solving problems. So far, we’ve done a pretty good job at avoiding the apocalypse, and I imagine that will continue for some time to come.

Now, of course, there are times when I’m negative. This whole optimism as a default setting thing is a work in progress. As a result of being human, I have times where I’m down, where I’m cynical, where I question people’s intentions and wonder if things are getting worse.

But I try to maintain optimism. I remind myself of it every day. It’s why I talk to really interesting people and travel and try to imagine others complexly and with empathy. I think back to that word sonder, the idea that everyone has a story and is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. That helps.

 

Brain Crack

I was recently asked by a group of loyal blog-readers for some life advice. They think I write good and think good things.

And I don’t know why, but I immediately reacted by turning into a Southern farmhand after a long day in the hot sun: Aw shucks, Daisy May! That’s mighty nice of you to say, but I’m not some big city-slicker, and I don’t really have much advice to offer. Then I returned to the field to tend to the cows.

But then I started thinking about it and, sure, here is my attempt to give some advice. And my advice can really be boiled down into two words:

Do stuff.

When I have an idea – whether it’s a blog post, a vlog, whatever – I try to get it out there as quickly as I can. I’ve learned that the time I waste rolling an idea around in my head – imagining what-ifs, coming up with perfect reasons why and then perfect reasons why not – is counterproductive. So when I write, or create something, or make an important life decision, I don’t know exactly where it’s all going. I just start with one thing that feels right and I keep following right-feeling things and it usually turns out OK.

But a lot of times, when you try to do something for the first time, you start to think bad thoughts:

I don’t have the time or resources to do this right.

It’s very hard and I will suck at it.

I’ll get to it later.

I must be perfect at this thing — and then, and only then, can I pursue it.

The longer you wait, the more you convince yourself of how perfectly that idea could be executed.

This is called brain crack, as my friend Ze Frank says. Brain crack is bad, if it sits around in your head. You become addicted to the idea of ideas. You start to think about how good the idea will be, as opposed to thinking about how you’re actually going to get the idea into something tangible.

But no matter how much you plan, you still have to do something for the first time. And you’re almost guaranteed that the first time you do something, it won’t be very good. But someone who does something bad three times still has three times the experience.

So yeah – if you want to write, or make movies, or change careers, or do whatever, the best thing to do is…try. Even if it’s not fully fleshed out. Even if it really stinks at first. Even if you don’t get the recognition you want. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I mean, it’s good to plan. But if you’re passionate about something, you should just, like, do it.

By the way, I’m not particularly good at following this advice. But I think I’m getting better at it.

K? K.

dare to be pointless

A few weeks ago, I made a vlog. I filmed myself walking around and making dinner. It was fun and pointless. Someone asked me why I did that, and I didn’t have a good answer. I settled on, uh just because.

Every now and then, I interview people on this here blog. They are incredibly interesting (for me), but it takes a long time to set up the call, think of questions, record it, and transcribe. Sometimes I get asked why I go through all the trouble. And the answer I usually give is, uh I don’t know, just because.

The other night, I was walking down the street. I decided that walking was boring, so I skipped. I skipped for a good thirty seconds, and it was awesome. Why did I do that? I don’t know.

The theme here, if you couldn’t already tell, is that I like to do pointless stuff. And I think we should all dare to be a little more pointless.

Not everything we do or create needs to have a purpose, or an end-game, or a massive audience. We can just do stuff for the sake of … doing stuff.

Take blogging – I’ve seen a lot of friends, a lot of writers, a lot of people start a blog. And the vast, vast majority of them do not last more than a few months. This is, I think, due to one of three reasons:

  1. People have something building up in them that they want to say. So they spend a week writing, like, five posts a day. And then they get everything out there and they have nothing left.
  2. Other things come up and it just falls by the wayside.
  3. No one reads their stuff, so what’s the point?

When you start a creative project, you want attention. That’s just human nature. And when you put your heart and soul into something, and you start to realize that no one cares, then it’s very difficult to press on.

But here’s the thing – pointlessness shouldn’t be a deterrent, or a criticism. As long as you enjoy doing something, and you’re not committing a crime, then you should embrace pointlessness.

And sometimes, pointlessness turns into something really amazing. Like smart phones. I remember explaining smart phones to my parents:

So, like, you can download all of these apps, and you can browse the internet, and check your email.

And they were like: But you still have your laptop, so what’s the point?

And then I remember explaining Twitter to my parents:

It’s, uh, this thing where you write Tweets, but they have to be 140 characters or less, and you can follow other people who also write Tweets.

And they were like: That sounds stupid, what’s the point? 

And then I remember explaining Uber to my parents:

You can order a cab on your phone and it gets paid automatically.

And they were like: But we have regular cabs, so what’s the point?

Basically, any time I explain something to my parents and they think it’s pointless, I immediately invest ALL OF MY MONEY into it.

I imagine similar things were said about radio (what’s the point, we have live theater) or cars (there’s no need, we have horses), or written word (this is stupid, we can pass on our stories orally!)

Luckily, there are people out there who first embraced the pointlessness of something, and shared it with the world.

But yeah, most of the pointless stuff we do doesn’t turn into something that changes the world. And that’s OK. I think we all need to be pointless a little more. That’s really the whole point of this blog. Which is to say, there’s no point. As the tagline says, I write about stuff. Why did I write about James K Polk that one time? BECAUSE HE IS A VASTLY UNDERRATED PRESIDENT. And also because I just wanted to. I don’t have an end-game. I don’t expect James Polk’s ancestors to phone me up and personally thank me (though I would love it if they did). I don’t expect millions of people to read my crap and shower me with compliments. That’s not what I’m looking for. I’m just looking to enjoy my time the best way I can. I like creating stuff.

If we stop asking why, maybe we can do a lot more things.

25

Yankees

There’s a great rabbinical motto that says you start each day with a note in each pocket. One note says, “The world was created for you today,” and the other note says, “I’m a speck of dust in a meaningless universe.” 

Some days, I feel like a speck of dust in a meaningless universe. Well, I guess I am a speck of dust in a meaningless universe. We all are. The volume of a human is 0.07 m3. The volume of the universe is 4×1080 m3. The universe is really big, and we are really small, and I try to remember that when I kvetch over my clothes not matching. Though in fairness, it is very difficult to match clothes when you are colorblind.

Our lives are meaningless, but they matter to us, and to our friends, and to our family, and I think that’s enough. The sun might explode in a few billion years, but you can’t sit in your house all day and raise your arms and yell What’s the Point? You gotta do stuff. You gotta feel stuff.

I can’t shake the feeling that time moves more quickly when we’re older. And yeah, approximately ten shmagillion people have said that before me, and many more shmagillion people will say that after me, but there has to be something to it. Summer vacations were two months but felt like an eternity. A week off from school was the best thing ever. Now I sneeze, and I cook some dinner, and suddenly it’s the fourth of July.

Maybe you notice this too, the way time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin into the future. First it’s a few days, then a few weeks, and then the seasons and years and decades start to blend together. Then your life flashes before your eyes, and you’re dead.

Still, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks for overcoming the inevitable passage of time, which I’ve outlined in the gray blob below:

JEFF’S TIPS AND TRICKS FOR OVERCOMING THE INEVITABLE PASSAGE OF TIME

  1. go jogging. twenty minutes feels like twenty years. your body will hate you, then you will stop, and then your brain will release endorphins and you will feel good.
  2. travel the world. sit on planes. listen to safety demonstrations. deal with the tsa. wait in line at border control.
  3. sit in traffic.
  4. hang out on broken down subway cars, preferably in the Canarsie tube between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
  5. make friends with people who are perpetually late. agree to meet at a particular time, then wait for them, often and with gusto.
  6. invent a super-fast mode of transportation and travel near the speed of light. gravitational time dilation will take care of the rest.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows – which, by the way, is the greatest name for a dictionary, I mean who would even argue? – calls this Zenosyne, the sense that time keeps going faster as you get older. And if you’re wondering: is there really a dictionary out there that categorizes our innately human sorrows into little tiny word packages, the answer is YES. And they’re great. Here are some others:

Alazia: The Fear That You’re No Longer Able to Change

Avenoir: The Desire To See Memories In Advance

Sonder: The Realization That Everyone Has A Story

Onism: The Awareness of How Little of the World You’ll Experience

Koinophobia: The Fear that You’ve Lived an Ordinary Life

So yeah, Zenosyne. We should consider the idea that what we feel as little kids, or teenagers, makes perfect sense. Your first break-up might be the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Or maybe it’s your dog dying. Or a failed algebra test. Things will surely get better, but at that moment the bad thing has suddenly become such an important part of your story. It has warped your identity. It’s no wonder we feel so intensely when we’re young. It’s no wonder we get jaded when we’re older.

And then if you’re really lucky, you start to view the bad stuff and the failures as good things. Maybe they were stepping stones. To quote Louis CK, I’m glad for every single thing I didn’t get.

I don’t know. I’m rambling. I turn 25 today, which is great because I can finally RENT A CAR!!!! … though technically I’ve been able to rent a car for four years, but now I can rent a car WITHOUT PAYING ANY ADDITIONAL FEES. WOOOOOO.

Soon I’ll be 26, then 27, then 31, then 42, then 57, then 84, and the years will move even faster than they do now. Yes, I’ve got a long way to go. But eventually, those days will start slippin away as I drift around the bend.

Life is short. And life is long. But not in that order.

A secret formula for happiness

The first assignment I had in college was a philosophy paper.

What is the best way to live?

How can you possibly answer a question like that? I wrote about finding a balance between being happy and helping others. Do things that make you feel good! Help a person in need! It was a fine thought, but in truth there is no best way to live. It was a terrible paper.

But in my old age, I’ve learned something. There is a secret formula for happiness.

Happiness is reality minus expectations.

H = (R – E)

I’m not the first to say this, but the formula explains a lot. Like, why surprises are great. You weren’t expecting anything, and then you got something. With an E of zero, the H and R meet as one and life is wonderful.

It explains why some of my favorite experiences – concerts, movies, travels, whatever- have been those that exceeded my expectations. For example, I expected Star Wars to be amazing. It was amazing. R and E were the same. I did not expect 50/50 to be a good movie. It was a great movie. R was higher than E. It was a happier experience.

But here’s my main point — I’m not sure that my generation, millennials or Gen Y or whatever the hell you want to call us, is very happy. This is not true for everyone, of course, but it is true for a lot of people.

I think the reason we’re not happy is not that our lives are worse than our parents. Or that we’ve inherited a terrible world. Yes, we have more student loans, we have more wealth inequality, we’re living in the afterglow of the worst financial crisis in eighty years. We also have: less crime. Social progress. Better access to healthcare. Lower unemployment. The internet. I would argue the reality (R) is HIGHER than ever before.

I think the heart of our shared unhappiness lies in the last part of the formula. Expectations. That’s higher too. It’s accelerated at a higher rate than Reality. And thus we are unhappy.

There are a number of reasons for this – the media, technology, unrealistic expectations set upon us, demographics – but let’s talk about social media for a second. When I go on Facebook, or Instagram, I feel terrible about my life. I see people getting married. I see people on vacation. I see amazing pictures from amazing people, doing amazing things, with these amazing filters that capture the light so amazingly. And I’m sitting in my pajamas, scrolling through my phone, eating a bowl of cereal, while a stream of milk leaks out the side of my mouth and onto my shirt. I feel inadequate.

I have to constantly remind myself that people present an inflated version of themselves on social media. I do it too! We all want validation. In order to get that, we need to make it seem like everything is going great. JUST GREAT. In reality, everybody has problems, everybody poops, everybody is always going through something.

I like social media. I would never delete my Facebook or Twitter accounts. Yes, social media can breed a profound sense of inadequacy. It raises the E to unreachable heights, which makes it impossible to have a positive H. And that’s why I force myself to remember that behind that awesome picture in that awesome place is a person who probably has the same worries I do.

Or maybe they really do have an awesome life, always. And if that’s the case, I feel bad for them. Did you not watch Inside Out? There is beauty in sadness.

Paris

A day after the 2013 Boston Marathon, I wrote down some thoughts on this blog. I was sore like hell, and the manhunt was still ongoing, and the city was in lockdown, and nobody really knew what to do. I knew I just needed to write. And so I grabbed a coffee and an Advil – and with great physical and emotional pain consuming my body, I wrote. I wrote about the thrill of running a marathon, of seeing the thousands of supporters along the route, of pushing the human body to its limits, of witnessing the chaos unfold in front of my endorphin-filled eyes.

It was the best and worst day of my life.

I also wrote that people tend to show their best in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedies. It was true after Boston, and it is true now after Paris, and it will always be true. The vast, vast majority of humans want to help. It is an inherent quality. I think back to the old Mr. Rogers quote. ‘When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me: Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’

We cling to these stories, of hope and courage, of the first responders, of the people running into the fire, of the helpers. What else can we do? A bunch of crazy people detonate suicide vests, open fire on a crowd, and 130 people are dead. There is no way to make sense of that.

I look to Twitter and Facebook to see what the masses are saying. Some are emotional. Some are political. Some use hashtags. Some disengage entirely. It is utterly fascinating.

We are grasping for answers, for justice, in an unclear and unjust world.

There are no answers right now.

So I sit here and I breathe and I write. I look for the good. That is all I can do.

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A picture I took from the top of Tour Montparnasse in Paris