Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why Not Just Have Fun?

We recently had an interesting conversation with a colleague (who we would label mostly absurd), who posed the following question: "Why we don't all just have more fun? Why do we all work so hard?"

Obviously we have similar sympathies, but to us the important assumption is that somehow some other activity would be "more" fun. This is something we have discussed in the past--the concept that certain activities being preferable to others is nothing more than a human construct based entirely on genetics and prior experience. (Put simply, we like sex because the genes from ancestors who enjoyed sex are considerably more prevalent than genes from those who didn't.)

But of course, some things are more fun. Aren't they?

As we mentioned in our last post, we have been eating a vegan diet recently, not because it is healthy, but rather because it occurred to us that to do so would be an interesting way to shed part of our identity (our status as a big eater of meat). And it has been an interesting experience. In fact, we find ourselves at least as happy eating this way, and perhaps (for the moment) even more so.

Being "happy," or finding something "fun," is something of a misnomer, as it takes something subjective and tries to make it objective. It is actually quite fascinating how we all do this without realizing it. Consider the vegan example. We, and virtually all of our friends, eat meat. We think vegans are, to be honest, a bit odd. And yet, billions of people (some of whom, we must assume, fit the definition of "happy") eat this way today.

Just about everyone we know has had a similar reaction to our experiment. "Wow - I could never do that." "No meat? Why would you want to do that?" And so on. And to us, that is the appeal of the project. Not the reactions, of course, but our own similar feelings when we first considered it. We knew it was so far outside our comfort zone as to seem ridiculous to those who know us...and that's exactly the point! We assumed that "we" could not be happy eating a vegan diet, but never stopped to consider the absurdity (pun partially intended) of this position. Is there something that makes our dietary preferences "better" than people who don't eat meat? Are "we" different in some way that makes our happiness contingent on eating meat?

The more we get wrapped up in the illusion of the "I," the more we get set in whatever ways we have, the more difficult it is to believe none of it matters. How can I ever die? Look at the reputation I have! As Steve Martin once said, "I'm somebody now!"

To being this full circle...fun is a subjective term, but we have deluded ourselves into believing it is objective. We somehow think our wants and desires are objectively preferable to those of others...even when we are confronted with hard evidence that others are just as happy doing different things.

The bottom line is we agree with our colleague, but differ on implementation (as it were). We do not need things or experiences to provide us with "fun." We are content to simply be here now.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Anthony Bourdain: Absurd Man

“I think when you don’t give a sh** is when you win.”

- Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations

No Reservations is our favorite TV show. Anthony Bourdain - former chef and now author, world traveler and TV host - visits places far and wide to explore the world’s cuisines in their native settings.

The particular snippet above comes from an episode in Harbin, China, a frosty, wintry wonderland in the northern part of the country, settled around the Songhua River. Near the end of the show, Bourdain is sitting around a table with his Chinese hosts. One of them in particular is a happy go-lucky sort of guy. Throughout the show he is singing and generally making a ham of himself. He wears a cowboy hat and flight jacket with an American flag stitched on the shoulder. He loves America. He is also the proprietor of several restaurants and a successful guy by any of the usual measures.

So, Bourdain asks him what his secret is… The question is translated. The man answers in Chinese. The answer is translated back. “He has many assistants that help him manage his business.” There is an awkward pause as all realize something was lost in the translation.

Bourdain tries again. “No, I mean like a mental attitude or something that he finds invaluable in life…”

Ah, now the man gives his answer. “Live like a child.” Live everyday like you are a child. Have fun. Forget your inhibitions. Live as long as possible and die a child. That’s the message, from memory, mind you – as I don’t have a transcript of the show in front of me. We thought that was a great response.

At this point, Bourdain delivers his line, which I quote up top. We thought about it for some time after the show and hence decided to write it up here. It’s a fairly absurd sentiment.

Bourdain is an absurd man of sorts. In one episode, the mechanics of a cock fight are explained to him. In this case, the people eat the loser. Bourdain comments, “It’d be much more philosophically interesting if they ate the winner.” That would be a commentary on the futility of man’s efforts, he says. We all have our appointments with the grim ferryman.

We first found Bourdain back in 2000, when he wrote a bestseller Kitchen Confidential, his sort-of-memoir on his 25 years in the restaurant business. (Well worth the read. It’s funny. It’s immensely entertaining. And you will never eat at a buffet again, nor order fish on Mondays, nor… well; read the book and you’ll see).

We recall another scene in the book, where he is going through culinary school and there this one chef that everybody is terrified of. He is “a monstrous, despotic, iron-fisted Frenchman who ruled his kitchen like President for Life, Idi Amin…” People dreaded his class as he was famous to dressing down his students with a harsh verbal tirade that brought many to tears.

Bourdain is able to stand it better than anyone simply because he doesn’t give a flip.

“I did the convict thing. The louder and more confrontational the authority figure got, the more dreamy and relaxed I became…” The old man, in the throes of his tirade, knows he’s not getting to Bourdain at all. “I think the old bastard might have even smiled a bit, halfway through. There seemed to be a twinkle of amusement in his eye as he finally dismissed me with disgust… the fast bastard didn’t scare me. And he knew it. He could have smacked me upside the head with a skillet and I would have smiled at him through broken teeth.”

It seems a good way to be. Total detachment in the face of life’s trials and barbs. Really, who gives a flip? None of it matters anyway, so it seems ridiculous to let anything get under your skin.

For instance, we were in the car with Bomstein, who was driving. Bomstein tried to get over to make a left turn. A jerky guy refused to let us in and Bomstein may or may not have – we weren’t paying very close attention – cut him off somewhat. The guy drives by us and gives us the finger.

We both laughed out loud. That, it seems, is some kind of snapshot of the absurd. First, the mere gesture itself, and the intent behind it, is inherently ridiculous. Second, reacting to it in anger is even more ridiculous. Laughter is like a great tonic of absurdity. Hard to be angry when you have this perspective.

It’s like Bourdain says, you really do win at the game of life when you stop caring so much about the outcome and just live free regardless… If fate strikes you across the face, smile back at it with a grin of broken teeth.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Shedding our identity

"You don't have to be who you think you are."--Jeff Bridges

"Our diseases are our attachments."--Henry Miller

We have always liked to eat meat. Not a little, or every once in a while, but everywhere and all the time. We used to go to all-you-can-eat buffets and fill our plate with bacon, and once went an entire week eating nothing but bacon cheeseburgers. Our local sandwich shop actually has a sandwich named after us because we are the only one who orders it, and it is the biggest and most calorie-laden thing they sell.

Thus, when we saw an interview with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey in which he explained his new diet of eating only plant-based foods (basically veganism, in which you eat no animal products, including eggs, milk, etc.), our initial reaction was revulsion, perhaps mixed with a bit of pity. After all, who would choose to live that way? Why deny yourself the pleasure of eating meat?


Obviously this presented us with a bit of a conundrum (yet again!). If nothing matters, then how can eating different foods...matter? Further, if John Mackey can be happy eating this way (and he claims to be), why can't we? (Not to mention the billions of people, now and in the past, who have eaten mostly plants.) The answer, obviously, is that being a "meat lover" has become part of "who" we are. It is part of our identity--something we cling to--an attachment that grounds us as an individual.

In other words, it is bullshit.

And so, we have undertaken what we have termed a "small-scale identity-shedding project." We began a couple of months ago, when we went for a week without eating meat. It seemed difficult, and we endured more than enjoyed it. Now, however, we have committed ourselves to a vegan diet for some indeterminate period.

To be clear, this is not about health, or some moral statement about eating meat, it is about truly embracing the ethos put forth in this blog--that nothing matters, and circumstances are irrelevant. Thus, we are emphatically not claiming a vegan diet is "better" than one composed entirely of meat (for example), only that we should be indifferent between the two. (And moreover, that our belief that we really like meat--that this "defines" us in some way--is exactly the sort of illusion so antithetical to true contentment.)

The line between preference and "meaning" is a thin one, and we are always at risk of slipping from one to the other. If we "care" about eating meat (and we cannot deny that we do), then it matters to us, and we are one step further away from being content.

(There is another side to this as well. Given that there seems to be a general human preference for meat--meat consumption rises along with income--we also look at this as a "Stoic-like" denial of pleasure that will cause us to appreciate eating meat all the more in the future.)

It is so, so, so hard to keep one's focus on the meaninglessness of life. We constantly need to fight against our human tendencies to label this, that, and the other thing as meaningful, and our ephemeral selves as real.

This is water. This is water. This is water.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

No attachments!

There is a large annual book fair near where we live. We were wandering through this book fair the other day with our chum, Rick Bomstein. Dozens of tables were set out piled with books. A little placard posted above the table told you something of the subject matter on each table. “Mystery.” “History.” “Travel.” “Absurd.”

We are kidding about that last one…

While poking around we found Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi, one of our favorite Miller books about his travels to Greece before the Second World War. It is a lyrical book, a peaceful book, a meditative book full of epiphanies. It also has its absurd moments.

Anyway, this used edition was all of a dollar. We offered this to Bomstein who put it in is his increasingly heavy bag of books.

Later, we went home and pulled out our own copy of this book, which we have read more than once, but not again in several years. We had certain passages marked as our favorites. Here is one particularly absurd passage, which we share on this bright and cool Saturday morning:

“Our diseases are our attachments, be they habits, ideologies, ideals, principles, possessions, phobias, gods, cults, religions, what you please. Good wages can be a disease just as much as bad wages. Leisure can be just as great a disease as work. Whatever we cling to, even if it be hope or faith, can be the disease which carries us off. Surrender is absolute: if you cling to even the tiniest crumb, you nourish the germ which will devour you…”

Wonderfully put… The absurd man revels in his lack of attachments. Yes, he enjoys his creature comforts, his favorite food and beer and whatever else. But he is also secure in his knowledge that he could do without just as well. He attaches no meaning and importance to any of it. He is free in the most powerful sense of that word...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

To Live a Popperian Life

We like to think of the absurd as a philosophy of doubt. It is a sharp blade that cuts through life’s thickest illusions. The absurd man, emboldened by the idea that life has no meaning or purpose, finds it easy to slay dragons that give other men nightmares, so to speak.

The absurd, in this way, shares its method with Rene Descartes’ methodical doubt. (Cartesian skepticism, as Descartes’ method became known, doubted nearly everything that could not be supported with logic.) As critic John Cruikshank put it, “This is why [Camus] says that The Myth of Sisyphus [Camus’ book on the philosophy of the absurd] offers a method of argument but does not contain a body of doctrine.”

As we’ve talked about before, the absurd does not tell a man how to live. There is no absurd lifestyle, per se. There are absurd attitudes and absurd conclusions, but not a systematic way of life as is the case with religions. The absurd is mostly concerned with sweeping away things that other men think so important and meaningful by showing that all things are unimportant and meaningless.

There is another philosopher of doubt that has always appealed to us and whose ideas, we think, have absurd applications. In our line of work – trying to make a buck in the world’s financial markets – he is the only philosopher anyone ever talks about because his ideas are eminently practical, and profitable.

That man is Karl Popper. In recent years, we have tried to live a more Popperian life by incorporating more of his ideas into our everyday thinking.

We won’t give you his life story, which you can find readily on the internet. We will get to the meat of Popper’s own unique brand of doubt. Let’s start with the famous example “All swans are white.”

Popper thought that no matter how many swans you found that were white you could never prove the statement that all swans were white. However, by finding a single black swan, you could disprove it. In this important sense, the observations we make are not verifiable, but only falsifiable.

Thinking this way, no amount of proof can ever verify a statement. All we can do is prove something is not true. All knowledge, then, is provisional knowledge – and permanently so. At no stage can we be sure of what we know now because at some future date that knowledge can be overturned by a “black swan.”

As Bryan Magee, a long-time scholar on Popper’s ideas puts it:

“If we are rational we shall always base our decision and expectations on ‘the best of our knowledge,’ as the popular phrase so rightly has it, and provisionally assume the ‘truth’ of that knowledge for practical purposes, because it is the least insecure foundation available; but we shall never lose sight of the fact that at any time experience may show it to be wrong and require us to revise it… According to Popper, falsification in whole or in part is the anticipated fate of all hypotheses.”

This is how true knowledge advances. We prove things are not true. We falsify ideas and by that way we get closer to the truth. To a Popperian, to find error is a pleasure.

Now, we’ve just summarized some basic ideas here and we are hardly doing justice to the depth of thought and the complexity of his ideas.

But Popper’s ideas on falsification seem a nice marriage with the absurd. As with the absurd, it is a philosophy of doubt. It has no doctrine. It is a philosophy more aimed at not being fooled by what may not be true, than it is a philosophy about proving something right. It is a philosophy open to the mysteries of the universe and to the idea that what we think we know may not be so. More than that, it actively seeks to falsify ideas.

To put it bluntly, to live a Popperian life means to not be a sucker for ideas that others take as given. Similarly, to live an absurd life means not be a sucker for ideas that other men let bind and constrict their lives.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Absurd Road to Nowhere

“There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that cultures decay and life’s end is death.” - Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), American poet.

We were driving on a narrow twisty dirt road somewhere in Central America with the jungle all around us. Up and down and around, we finally came to the coastline and followed it for a time. We drove through what was a very poor village. The people live in shacks made of corrugated iron with dirt floors. Chickens and stray dogs roamed about.

“Imagine if you got your start here,” we observed to our friend traveling with us. “Life would be tough.”

“No it wouldn’t,” our friend corrected us. “The beach is right over there.”

We chuckled, but our friend was right. If you knew nothing else, this life would be perfectly fine. Plenty of sunshine, the sea right there, it’s bounty of fish beckoning and fruit trees all over the place, leaden with mangoes, coconuts and papaya.

We made the assumption that life would be hard here because we saw all the things they were missing. And instinctively we assumed that people without those comforts would be unhappy.

Of course, we know that isn’t true. Our rational brain knows better, but we were struck by how we – absurd men after all! – still instinctively made this judgment. It just goes to show us once again how society has drilled all these ideas into our heads about all the stuff we need… We need a good education, a good job, a big house, a car, a clean floor, good teeth… We deserve it, whatever “it” is, be it a fancy watch or a vacation to Disney… And on and on it goes.

We stopped by a little roadside stand with canvas stretched between four poles for a roof. We ordered up some quesillos, thick soft tortillas filled with pickled onions and a sauce of cheese and vinegar. It’s made right there before you and served in a plastic bag. It costs all of a dollar.

The world from which we came seemed very distant… and different. As we’ve talked about before, the absurd man knows that one experience or life is no better than any other. In a world without meaning or purpose, all paths are equally unimportant and meaningless.

The absurd always amazes us on this front. First, it is always amazing how keeping in mind what most people would see as a very bleak thought – that the end is death and life has no meaning – can keep us feeling so mentally limber and light. Far from bleak, we find the thought freeing!

Secondly, we love how the absurd comes out so readily when traveling. We travel the globe quite a bit in our line of work. We’ve stepped foot on all the continents save Antarctica. We’ve seen very different people in all manner of circumstances. Our “hero” Albert Camus traveled widely, too, and he valued travel for its taking him out of his habits and routines.

The self seems more unfamiliar when placed in unfamiliar settings. The “who” you thought you were suddenly seems less real and feels more distant. Travel takes away the masks and disguises. These people had no idea who we were. We could be anyone we chose to be – which again makes the self seem all the more illusory.

And we think, too, that there is no reason why we can’t keep these same absurd thoughts with us when we are home. There really isn’t a self to worry about or fret over for the same reason that living in that poor village isn’t a tough life. It is all a self-imposed judgment. It’s all in our head. Life is absurd.

Surely, as Jeffers writes, there is no reason for amazement…

Monday, April 5, 2010

Operation absurd

Take it easy, take it easy
Don't let the sound of your own wheels
Drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don't even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
and take it easy
--The Eagles, Take it Easy

We embarked on an undercover operation last night in the spirit of our last post. Attending an Easter party with some decidedly anti-absurd people, we played the role of...well, just a "regular" anti-absurd person. Mainly this consisted of not pointing out the inherent absurdity of others' positions, and joining in (often heated) conversations about a variety of topics. We also spent a lot of time listening.

The experience was very illuminating.

Put simply, while we accept that absurdity is a "minority opinion," something we have not focused on all that much is the depth of most people's illusion about reality. It is, in a word, staggering. The concept that there is no meaning to our actions is so foreign, such a fantastic concept to many people, that it might as well be tossed in a bin with time travel and warp speed. Pointing this out, therefore, is on par with explaining financial markets to a five-year-old--you get a lot of blank stares and changing of the subject.

Importantly, this does not necessarily mean some of these people don't understand, or even sympathize with, the absurd on some level. But for many it is simply so overwhelming they choose (consciously or not) to block it out rather than consider its implications.

This is a shame. As we have chronicled, we have found the absurd to be a wonderfully liberating philosophy. We actually saw a great example of this recently on the television show House. Greg House (an absurd character) mentioned that he found the concept of nothing mattering to be liberating, which caused one of his colleagues to exclaim "You think it's comforting to believe this is all there is?" To which House replied "I think it's comforting to believe this is not all a test."

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming...