Caffeine and sugar. Often together. I don't know too many folks just drinking black.
We forget caffeine is a psychoactive drug. And everyone is high. According to the National Geographic short video Caffeine 101, 90% of Americans drink at least one caffeinated drink per day.
What's so special about this magical bean water?
It's an acquired taste. And a routine. It's become the symbol of the productive and it's available on every street corner. It’s roasted and sweetened and steamed and frothed whatever way you want.
And it makes the morning a bit more pleasant.
Last time I checked, death is the end for all of us. You'd think the thing that would take you out in 2018 wouldn't be fuckin lettuce. Or spinach. Or really any vegetable. Samurais and soldiers died with honor. Now we're all in danger of enjoying a sandwich.
The CDC issues an outbreak alert today. They tweeted: "Do not eat any romaine lettuce, including whole heads and hearts, chopped, organic and salad mixes with romaine until we learn more. If you don’t know if it’s romaine or can’t confirm the source, don’t eat it."
But in 2018, the modern world that can offer free flu shots and argue over vaccines for babies, juggle food waste and growing obesity, and jail people for plants and pay to prescribe addictive painkillers, what else can we expect?
Sometimes the world feels like it's moving so fast, it's hard to get a grasp on things. And other times you hear about someone like Yoshitaka Sakurada, the Japanese deputy chief of the government’s cybersecurity strategy office, who recently told the world he doesn't use computers.
I only want to imagine Sakurada spoke with such confidence that you'd feel like the idiot for questioning him.
The Guardian reported how he got his work done:
For four decades, the man hasn't touched a computer. You have to be kidding me.
When the world feels like too much of a joke, I often think about how jokes can spin into reality. Back in 1969, Peter and Raymond Hull did such a thing. They wrote a book called The Peter Principle. According to Wikipedia, the Peter Principle is described as "an observation that the tendency in most organizational hierarchies, such as that of a corporation, is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach the levels of their respective incompetence."
It was meant to be satire.
By now most folks know about the brain-hacking psychological powers of app designers - the infinite scroll, the random reward systems, the bright red notifications. But we barely stop to think about how the simple security of holding something powerful might be in our genes.
Professor and author William von Hippel was on The Joe Rogan Experience this past week. He talked about his new book "The Social Leap" and a great deal of the evolution story, as von Hippel details it. And one segment caught me off-guard in a way I don't think von Hippel meant it. In discussing our evolution toward bipedalism and this massive brain of ours, Hippel tells Joe about the reason we would learn to hang onto our tools:
Could that be why we're so attached to holding these things?
I think we need to constantly find our place on this supermassive spinning rock. It's in our blood to search. And every day brings new challenges to the point that it's all too tempting to cling to certainty.
But if you fall too deeply into a groove, you run the risk of your own programming. The Internet has deemed this meme, an NPC or non-player character. Author Michael Malice explained the meme concept on The Joe Rogan Experience as the video game characters that don't exist outside their realms. They don't have fleshed out lives or stories, they don't think independently. And Malice explains:
But all it takes is a second to change. That's the point author, professor, and neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky tries to highlight in one of my favorite parts of his latest TED talk, The biology of our best and worst selves. He explains how millions of years have guided us to act in certain ways and how quickly we can recognize and adjust our most ruthless and violent behavior:
First, it was Flint. Now, it's Newark.
Living in New Jersey, the water crisis crept closer to home for me when I read about it in the New York Times. A new study has confirmed that lead is leaching into the water for the state's most populous city. Even worse was that Newark officials denied the gravity of the problem for the past year and a half and now claim Newark has "some of the best drinking water. The problem is that our infrastructure is not safe.”
I'm left wondering what fucking difference does it make? How did we get to a time when water doesn't take priority for people?
It’s a technological world with a crumbling infrastructure, and even the solutions are technological - with water filters handed out of a local church to band-aid the problem.
The ugly truth is we've stretched ourselves thin. With as complex and progressive as the human race gets, we're still drinking poison as the world keeps spinning.
And it's not a new problem. In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari said it happened all the way back to 10,000 years ago during the Agricultural Revolution, or what he calls History's Biggest Fraud. Harari wrote, "The agricultural revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return."
Is this just the luck of the hand we're dealt? How could we let this happen? Harari has an idea how it happened before:
And it worked, almost too well. Population grew and newer, more complex problems locked us into agricultural society. Harari explained, "If the adoption of ploughing increased a village's population from a hundred to 110, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times?"
It is the Luxury Trap - "One of history's few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can't live without it."
It seems we're still left to suffer for the growth of society. Like someone fell asleep at the wheel. We've become so obligated to modern society's luxuries that we're in danger.
We deal with poor nutrition, poison water, living with loneliness, shaky spirituality, and a price tag for an education. Sitting is giving us cancer and we don't even have healthcare to cover it. But, hey, we can order anything we want to our doorstep and watch anything we want from our phones.
Where is the antidote?
On the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, the comedian, actor, and UFC commentator spent the last month competing with his comic friends (Tom Segura, Ari Shaffir, and Bert Kreischer) in what they called Sober October. In addition to staying sober, each comedian wore a fitness tracker and acquired points for a specific heart rate. The highest score would win.
And in reflecting on the insane workouts they each put themselves through, Rogan, as usual, explored the evolutionary perspective through a substance-fueled rant:
I worked from home today. I'm lucky enough to have that option.
But more and more people don't. They're faced to endure a commute to work that they don't get paid to enjoy. More time of their day sucked away means less time for the essential.
The problem is larger than us. It's larger than cities. It's the way our society has been designed. We stretched our world far beyond one another. And we're getting further. The more people feel the need to cram into cities to work, the more commutes and the work day lengthen.
But Sebastian Yunger reflects on this trade-off in a much deeper way in his book Tribe:
Modern society is taking our time and somehow we don't really benefit. We might be comfortable but is that what we want?
How much you want to participate becomes a delicate balance and a striking decision.
Do you want to commute?
Do you want to wait on line?
Do you want to see screens and not people?
Do you want to react to everything right away?
Yunger continues, "Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society - despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology - is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down."
It’s the hard truth about time - you can’t get it back.
We lie to ourselves that it needs to be this way and that we’ll make due somehow. But Frank Bruni made the inevitable point in a New York Times Opinion piece years ago called The Myth of Quality Time:
What is a day if not a list of things to get done?
And it's even easier to continue adding to the list. But naturally there are only so many hours in the day and some of them are best spent sleeping, preparing for that brand new day.
Author David Allen says the problem with all this juggling in the present is "the future never shows up." The present is everything, so we need to harness it. And every few months or so I ironically remember David Allen already figured this all out in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Allen created a system to keep the mind clear and attentive to the present while, ahem, getting things done.
Write things down. It's as idiot-simple as that.
It turns out the human mind likes to close those loops, whether or not we're consciously aware of them. Will Schoder tackles this phenomenon in the video This psychological effect controls your life... The Zeigarnik Effect is the human desire to close the loop on an unfinished task and the subconscious drain we experience when we don't. It's the reason we're drawn to cliff-hangers, clickbait, and everything else David Allen tried to warn us about.
And in the end, Schoder makes an interesting point that this might be the very reason we are who we are at all:
I never really liked running. In high school, I tried to join track & field and after a few days of getting acclimated to cold evening laps, running in circles, my shins splintered so bad I was left limping to class for weeks. I quit a bit later.
It wasn't until I was old enough to afford living in New York City that I had enough of staving it off. I signed up for a 5k, one of those theme ones, where you can easily forget you're torturing yourself. It was the Epic Fail Challenge. And after getting into the swing of training, and realizing, “hey, I'm not so bad at this running thing” - they didn't even time it. But I did finish.
I dropped the chase again until years later when my best friend and I were living together in California, and he was running enough to make me want to join. It all culminated in the REI Bay Area Trail 10K after weeks of miles, sprints, and loops around the local high school track. Full circle.
Now, I find myself back on the East Coast wondering if I want to be the casual American jogger. But the more I run, the more I learn, and what I'm starting to notice is we weren't meant to do this. Or at least not like this.
"In Born to Run, his 2010 bestseller, Christopher McDougall pulls no punches in telling the story of how Nike essentially convinced a generation of joggers to ignore the evolved bio-mechanics of the human body and run in an unnatural, debilitating way that required the purchase of their overpriced, utterly unnecessary products," author Chris Ryan Ph. D. explained in his Psychology Today column, Civilized to Death.
Could be my body was trying to say something with those shin splints all those years ago.
And what if what we can call progress is really just running the opposite direction from what's helped us evolve after all these years too?
Janine Benyus would agree. Benyus is a biologist and a writer, and she coined the term biomimicry - the concept of design based on the functions of the biological world. In a Vox segment entitled The world is poorly designed. But copying nature helps, Benyus drops this sick burn, "the people who design our world usually never take a biology class, believe it or not, so they're novices in how the world works."
We don't need to shed everything that's modern to live our best lives, but it might help to step back and recall that we've been around a lot longer than we can remember, and there is something to learn in our past.
Russell Brand said those words, reflecting on, of all things, Kanye West's intriguing interview over the summer on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Ye has continued to mystify and frustrate America as of late, but I think, like Brand, it's worth taking a closer look back.
I learned about Kanye West when someone told me he rapped his first single, "Through the Wire" while his jaw was wired shut from a near-fatal car-crash. And, like plenty of others, I've been a fan since.
How could you not like an artist that gives Zach Galifianakis the spotlight in a cornfield for his music video "Can't Tell Me Nothing"? Or that samples Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory for the mega-hit "Niggas in Paris" with Jay-Z?
Kanye's hyper-aggressive Yeezus was something else. It was a record I'm sure our grandparents would say is the work of the devil. He was an artist pushing every limit.
Vox did an amazing piece of how Kanye West has changed the game of hip-hop and all sorts of music highlighting the most powerful element: the human voice.
And with all that being said, even before that fateful car crash and risk-taking debut, Kanye started making beats because he had a video game idea featuring a penis hero and vagina ghosts. That made me like him more.
But of course it's clear Kanye is not always making sense to everyone. How can he? He is an artist after all. And more and more we're noticing how his mental health affects that art.
Russell Brand of all people brought this to my attention with a YouTube segment he calls Trews: True News. Brand studies Kanye West on the late night talk show appearance, or as one YouTube commenter wrote, Brand "David Attenboroughed Kanye West".
Like Brand, the fact that Kanye endorses Trump interests me less than what he says about reality itself. Kanye says, "We get too caught up in the past and what everyone is saying and what everyone is tweeting and sometimes you just have to be fearless enough to break the fucking simulation." Russell Brand wonders if this is like The Matrix. Is Kanye seeing or questioning something we're not?
I took the bus home for the first time yesterday. I always thought it was way too complicated to find the right schedule, the right bus, and the right terminal, so I often opted for the last train home. All I needed was a nudge from a friend and the willingness to try. And it worked out even better than I thought it would!
If everyone knew it was this easy, would the world be different? I’m afraid so.
An episode of Adam Ruins Everything took a hard look at the car craze and taught me actually what I needed.
A century ago, when cars became something people could drive, the roads were already full of people walking about and streetcars for groups to go even further. But after a few unfortunate car-fueled fatalities, the auto industry knew they had to do something to keep selling. They ended up planting stories in local newspapers, labeling the poor souls that found themselves six feet under a car - jaywalkers. But back in the day, the term "jay" was an offensive slur akin to a stupid hillbilly, and no one wanted to be that.
And as we all know, cars took over the roads. Where the streetcar, much like the bus I rode this weekend, could carry a dozen or more people, cities were built over the last hundred years to accomodate everyone's personal death machine.
And some could argue it's done even worse.
I've never had the patience or strength to finish one of Robert Greene's books. They're not only thick, the margins are filled with citations and extra stories to cement Greene's well-researched points. I know this from skimming through a number of them.
Greene has written, among others, the infamous The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and Mastery.
Hearing about his latest book, The Laws of Human Nature, I thought, it's about time I picked his work up. The description for The Laws of Human Nature is as follows:
We are social animals. Our very lives depend on our relationships with people. Knowing why people do what they do is the most important tool we can possess, without which our other talents can only take us so far. Drawing from the ideas and examples of Pericles, Queen Elizabeth I, Martin Luther King Jr, and many others, Greene teaches us how to detach ourselves from our own emotions and master self-control, how to develop the empathy that leads to insight, how to look behind people's masks, and how to resist conformity to develop your singular sense of purpose.
On the Aubrey Marcus podcast, Greene shares plenty about human nature but one bit particularly caught my attention:
It's the greatest mystery we can possibly know - what are we doing here?
Of our modern conveniences, "toilets still have one big problem, not everyone has them yet."
And in an episode of the College Humor sketch turned TruTV show, Adam Ruins Everything, host Adam Conover explains:
A big reason for the slow progress fixing this problem is that it's too taboo to talk about, despite the fact that everyone does it.
Enter Jack Sim, aka Mr. Toilet.
This dude made a bunch of money being a businessman in his younger years and then decided in his 40's that he wanted to change direction and give back. Sim became Mr. Toilet when he started to fight against the taboo of talking toilet problems. He began his crusade in Singapore and then collaborated with other world toilet organizations, founding the World Toilet Organization (WTO) in 2001. The WTO is "a global non-profit committed to improving toilet and sanitation conditions worldwide."
But the advice Mr. Toilet gives on Adam Ruins Everything for everyone is that we need to start talking about this problem. If we don't talk about, we don't know about it. And if no one knows something is a problem, no one knows we need to fix it.
You might never go a day without a toilet but if you take a minute to imagine one day without them, you can see how things get dirty real fast. For billions of people on this planet, that's just everyday life.
How are we supposed to concentrate if no one really ever taught us how?
Who else would rattle that thought around my head but a Hindu monk turned entrepreneur with a single name - Dandapani.
He wears the robes and the garb. He has three lines painted on his forehead. And still he drops the knowledge that we all can use:
We know that the day has an end and so does life, but we keep on keepin' on like we'll handle it all tomorrow. And tomorrow never comes.
Right now is the time to do what matters.
One book on evolution is enough to make me question my daily life. Reading two at once can make reality slippery.
As much as we think we know, we're still very much in the dark about our history. There are unsolved mysteries, particularly how we acquired these big brains and what we're meant to do with them. In the middle of reading both Terence McKenna's Food of the Gods and Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens, I'm left scratching my head about everything. This morning, the itch was meditation.
Just five minutes of focusing on my breath is enough for my mind to run wild. All sorts of odd thoughts bubble up, challenging me to melt back into the everyday. It's like the faint whispers of my monkey ancestors urging me to open my eyes and stay alert.
What I don't quite understand is why meditation can be so beneficial now when it would most certainly make monkey me a target in the forest. It feels like we're trying to calm the eras of us being animals. Meditation gives us a moment before the snap decision to show our teeth or sprint in fear.
In Dan Harris' 10% Happier, he explained:
Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True, says we're rebelling against natural selection. He told NPR, "Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda, and Buddhism says, 'We don't have to play this game.' "
With a monkey mind in a human world, we're left with only pieces of the ultimate puzzle. All we can do for sure is take a deep breathe and keep on searching.