What is Lost in Translation?

(A Brief Analysis of Two English Translations of the Opening Paragraph of Heinrich Von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas)

            A few months ago I was introduced by the love of my life to the German writer, Heinrich Von Kleist. I immediately became obsessed with his work. I read everything he wrote, including a biography and all his letters, and I consider him a literary friend who will always be there for me from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death gives me the chance to schedule a rendez-vous with him in hell.

            But I was lucky. I had encountered a magnificent translation of Kleist’s work by David Luke. You can read all about David Luke and his life in this Independent article. But here’s an excerpt:

           “His [Luke] verse translations all render into English not only the sense of the original with meticulous accuracy but make as close an approximation as is possible to the verse forms of the German, of which there are a huge range, even within Faust. All are remarkable achievements; the very best of them succeed magnificently in conveying the great beauty of the German language in the hands of the finest writers. For decades, reviewer after reviewer (including poets such as Stephen Spender and D.J. Enright), praised David Luke’s acutely sensitive ear and his tremendous linguistic dexterity. In 2000 the German-British Forum presented him with a medal in honour of his contribution to cultural understanding between the two nations.”

            I became so obsessed with Kleist that after finishing his masterpiece, Michael Kohlhaas, for the third time, I ordered a hard copy of the book on Amazon, to give my burning retinas a rest and to have a physical child I could actually hold. When the book arrived in the mail my hands were trembling. I tore open the package, jumped on to the coach to go for ride, and began reading…

            And while reading the first paragraph I was filled with a rising, sickening sense of revulsion. In my hands was a different book. This was not Kleist. This was not Michael Kohlhaas. After three pages, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was reading garbage, an airport novel full of clichés and detectives; a shit book with a hack title like: Jack Knish Hunts For Redemption. I threw the book across the room and stormed out of my apartment. I collapsed in the middle of the street, cars honking and speeding by (Qu’est-ce que vous faites, connard !), and wept bitter tears at the horrible mediocrity that pervades so much of this finite and imperfect world…

            A few days later I began to wonder why I had felt such disgust reading Frances A. King’s translation of Kleist. What was it about the translation? So I began to compare King’s translation with Luke’s translation. Below is what I discovered and the conclusions that I’ve made concerning the art of translation.

            To be a great translator, you must keep three ideas in your head at all times while translating a work:

  1. Who was the writer? 

Who was Henrich Von Kleist? The answer is complex, of course, but there are some adjectives we can use: intense, tortured, curious, adventuresome, lonely, hyper-sensitive, extremely intelligent, and wild. His first tutor described him as having a “mind of undampened fire.” Kleist was known for having shattering episodes of depression. His heart had been broken by his first love. His parents were dead before he was 15. He was a prisoner of war. His only remaining family (sister) abandoned him. He felt like he should have been living in another period of human history. He loved to travel, but he also desired to settle down in the wilderness and write. He committed suicide with a lover (or perhaps a close friend, biographers aren’t certain, Kleist was mysterious) at age 34. All these details and parts of his personality must be kept in mind as the translator engages in word choice, the rhythm of phrases, and the expression of complex ideas.

2.) In what period of human history was the writer working in?

Kleist was writing at the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s. He was a contemporary of Goethe. Goethe expressed horror and disgust after reading Kleist’s prose, calling Kleist’s writing “diseased” because it showed “the unlovely and frightening in Nature.” He condemned the violence of Kleist’s theories and for finding life “a labyrinth to which reason, faith and feeling were uncertain guides.” Kleist was writing during the romantic period of literature in Germany. Enlightenment ideas were on the rise (rationality, objectivity, reform movements, etc.). In 1793, the execution of the French king and the onset of The Terror disillusioned the Bildungsbürgertum (Prussian middle classes). Around 1800 the Catholic monasteries, which had large land holdings, were nationalized and sold off by the government. Europe was racked by two decades of war. All these events and more must be known by the translator so they can have a sense of the writer’s setting. But a great translator must also read other books written during the same time period (and their best translations), to get a sense of what words and phrases are being chosen.

3.) What is the context of the story itself? Who are the characters and what do they stand for?

Michael Kohlhaas is based on the 16thcentury story of Hans Kohlhase (a merchant whose grievance against a Saxon nobleman developed into a full-blown feud against the state of Saxony, thus infringing the Eternal Peace of 1495). Kohlaas himself was tough, rugged, fair, and strong. Here is a trailer for a movie made about Michael Kohlaas, released in 2013, to give you an idea:

Again, the time period (16thcentury) must dictate word choice, and the characters and the plot (which in this case contain violence and a wild, powerful quest for vengeance and justice) must determine how the translation is rendered.

            I could write 100 pages meticulously dissecting both translations. But I won’t waste your time. Here is just the first paragraph of the great translation by Luke with the shit translation [King] in parenthesis. Analysis and justification below. 

            About the middle of the sixteen century there lived beside the banks of the River Havel a horse-dealer called Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, who was one of the most honorable/[upright] as well as one of the most terrible men of his age. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man could have been considered a paragon of civil virtues/[model of a good citizen]. In a village that still bears his name he owned a farm where he peacefully earned a living by his trade/[quietly supported himself by plying his trade]; his wife bore him/[presented him] children who he brought up in the fear of God to be hardworking [industrious] and honest; he had not one neighbor who was not indebted to his generosity or his fair-mindedness/[nor was there one among his neighbors who had not enjoyed the benefit of his kindness or his justice]; in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not pursed one of his virtues to excess. But his sense of justice made him a robber and a murderer./[In short, the world would have had every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue – his sense of justice, which made him a robber and a murderer.

  1. Honorable as an adjective is a 100x better than upright. The word is stronger, fits the century, and connects with a theme of the story and with Kohlhass’ character (honor). Upright evokes somebody trying to fix their posture, and is physical and limited rather than epic and spiritual.
  • A paragon of civil virtues also has an epic quality, subtly revealing the power of Kohlhass, and the sound of “civil virtues” is pleasing to hear in English. Model of a good citizen is bland and weak, a product of the 20thcentury, and makes one think of “doing their small part” for society as they recycle, vote, and follow the rules. 
  • Peacefully earned a living by his trade evokes the image of a someone working hard in peace. The verb “to earn” is powerful and implies independence and pride. Quietly supporting himself by plying his trade implies that “himself” needs to be supported and that he is meek. Michael Kohlhass could survive any obstacle and doesn’t need, in a sense, to support himself. On the other hand, he is intensely “living” and desires “peace.” And the verb plying, is extremely weak, sounding close to playing and being synonymous with handling, using, operating, and feeling.
  • His wife bore children is 1000x better than his wife presented him children. To verb, “bore” is raw and suggests how difficult and painful the act of childbirth is, especially during the late 1700s. What does “present children” to Kohlhass even mean? It evokes an image of a woman nonchalantly putting children on a table as a gift and saying, “Here they are!”
  • Hardworking and honest is a pleasing alliteration. Industrious and honest are two words that rhyme, and intense prose shouldn’t rhyme (because it jars the ear and flow if it’s unintended). In addition, children aren’t taught to be specifically industrious, like machines or employees, they are taught to be hardworking, a subtle difference but all these differences add up.
  • “Not one neighbor who was not indebted to his generosity or his fair-mindedness,” reveals that Kohlhass had a respected and revered place in the community. They were indebted to him. Compare this to: “Nor was there one among his neighbors who had not enjoyed the benefit of his kindness or his justice,” puts the emphasis on neighbors enjoying Kohlass as if he was an entertainer. Kohlass was not an entertainer. And the sentence clumsily uses the word justice, tacked on at the end. Justice is the most important theme in this story, and it shouldn’t be used lightly, as it is in King’s crap translation.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, Luke breaks up the last idea into two sentences: as Kleist does in the original German. Luke writes, “in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not pursed one of his virtues to excess. But his sense of justice made him a robber and a murderer.” Making the last idea two sentences adds force and power to the second sentence: his sense of justice making him a robber and murderer. It punches the reader in the gut and makes them want to keep on reading. Compare this to King’s run-on, choppy sentence: “In short, the world would have had every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue – his sense of justice, which made him a robber and a murderer.” It’s as if the last idea were just tacked on at the end haphazardly, “oh yeah, Kohlhass also became a robber and a murderer.” The phrase, “the world would have every reason to bless his memory” is also stupid and sloppy. Why focus on the world in this sentence, when the story of Kohlhass is him against the world (as Kleist was against his world). Why use the verb “to bless” which evokes religion and the image of a priest calmly leaning over a pious worshiper. The world did not consider blessing Kohlass’ memory. The world either hated or revered him: a divided intensity that Kleist lived by.

Conclusion: If I had encountered King’s translation first instead of Luke’s I might never have befriended Kleist. How many times has this happened before with other translations? It’s better not to think of this question.

      If you get one thing out of this essay, I hope it is that you should read Michael Kohlhass as soon as you can. But please read David Luke’s translation. I believe it’s better.

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What is Euler’s Identity and Why is it Considered The Most Beautiful Mathematical Equation?

“…like a Shakespearean sonnet that captures

the very essence of love, or a painting that brings

out the beauty of the human form that is far more

than just skin deep, Euler’s equation reaches down

into the very depths of existence.

-Keith Devlin, Stanford University mathematics professor


Here it is, reaching deep, so deep put that ass to sleep:


So…so…so beautiful. Books have been written about this equation (two pop-science books in the last two years: A Most Elegant Equation: Euler’s formula and the beauty of mathematics, David Strip (2017)–pretty good, and Euler’s Pioneering Equation: The most beautiful theorem in mathematics, Robin Wilson (2018)–bad). In 2004, a poll of readers by Physics World found Euler’s identity to be the “greatest equation ever.” EVER. Richard Feynman called Euler’s Identity “Our Jewl.”

One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them, One right to bring them all and in the darkness TURN A FUCKING LIGHT ON MY CALCULUS HOMEWORK IS DUE TOMORROW AT 9AM!

And in 2014, a ridiculous study (who pays for this stuff?!) was conducted on the brains of sixteen mathematicians which found that the medial orbitofrontal cortex (emotional part of the brain, lights up for music, poetry, and pictures of bulldogs bathing on Instagram) lit up the most consistently for Euler’s identity than for any other formula. (Using science/technology to prove that we feel emotional about a mathematical formula…hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm010110110100100010101100.)

Origin story: Named after Leonhard Euler who was born in Switzerland in 1707:

Am I winking and is there a napkin on my head?…YOU’LL NEVER KNOW

He is considered the most prolific mathematician of all time, with 886 papers and books published. Most of this output came during the last twenty years of his life, when he was completely blind (ah, so he wasn’t winking, his body was shutting down, he went blind in his right eye in the late 1730s from an infection). In fact, his output was so extensive that the St. Petersburg Academy continued publishing his papers for thirty years after his death. Sort of like how I keep hearing new 2pac songs, even though he’s been dead for 22 years. Like this remix that came out four days ago:

Basically, Euler was a beast, a mathematician powerhouse. The French physicist François Arago described Euler:

He calculated without any apparent effort, just as men breathe, as eagles sustain themselves in the air.”

Euler wrote about acoustics, musical harmonies, ship-building, prime numbers, yo mama, bridges, and more.

It is claimed that Euler’s identity appears first in his epoch-shattering work, Introductio in analysis infinitorum (1748):

What made this book “epoch-shattering” was that over the previous hundred years, since Descartes wrote about graphs, lines, and axes, there had been a gradual shift of mathematics from geometry towards algebra, and this book represented the scintillating climax when Euler defined the conic sections (ellipse, parabola, hyperbola) not as sections of a cone, but by using algebraic equations, beginning with this:

I’d probably go on 2 or 3 dates with this blurry equation

Despite revolutionizing the field of mathematics, changing the focus from geometry to algebra, Euler’s most popular and best-selling book was his pop-science book called Letters to a German Princess. This multiple volume work was an exposition that he created when he was asked to give simplifed science lessons to the Princess of Anhalt-Dessau.


The work was a collection of 200 letters that Euler wrote on topics ranging from gravity (gravity stops when I’m with you), light (you are the light of my life), astronomy (I’d rather have you than all of the stars), sound (I hear my heart beating when I’m with you), magnetism (I feel attracted to you like a…a magnet), the “electisation of men and animals, (uhhh)” and logic (what do you mean you’re busy all weekend?!)

Even though Euler’s identity is named after Euler, there is some debate on whether he was the first to produce the exact formula and to use it, since in Indroductio… he wrote down eix = cos x + i sin but never took the final step (which is easy and simple) to write the identity above. In addition, Euler’s identity can be easily deduced from the work of Johann Bernoulli and Rodger Coates (who died in 1716 when Euler was 9 years old), but none of them did so. Who cares? They were busy. We’re all busy.

On the day Euler died (7th of September 1783) he was working on calculating the laws of the ascending motion of air balloons. He was dining with Mr. Lexell and his family, talking of Herschel’s planet (Uranus) and of the calculations which determine its orbit. Soon after, he was playing with his grandchild and drinking tea when he collapsed and died.

This picture came up when I typed “Hot air balloons and Uranus” into google.


So why is Euler’s identity beautiful?

It connects five of the most fundamental constants of mathematics (0, 1, pie (3.141…), e (2.718…), and i (the imaginary unit of complex numbers))…

…using three fundamental operational symbols (addition, multiplication, and exponentiation), exactly once.

Also, the equation equals zero, which is common practice in several areas of mathematics.

But why is that beautiful?

Mathematics is the universal language that allows us to describe, with clarity and precision, the way the universe is structured and the way our reality works. Math links ideas and knowledge. It is often the foundation of innovations and allows us to fly planes, build skyscrapers, listen to music in the wilderness, post silly blog posts, and get inside someone’s crazy head who’s sweating butt naked in a chair on the other side of the planet. The more simple, and the higher number of things that an equation connects (a difficult paradox to balance), the more beauty.

So what is the mathematical definition of beauty? I think it’s this:

Connection and simplicity.


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L’esprit de l’escalier

L’esprit de l’escalier (the spirit of the staircase) is a French phrase which roughly translates to staircase wisdom or staircase wit. It is the epiphany a person has after they’ve left a social situation, where they think of the ideal response (usually to an insult) they never said.

The term was coined by the enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot:

I should have…told him…he had…a tiny…dick

While Denis was getting sloshed at the mansion of his buddy, Jaques Necker, he was hit with a remark which left him speechless. Later on, Denis sat at his desk, fuming in his undergarments, and agitatedly wrote: “A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him becomes confused and can only think clearly again when he reaches the bottom of the stairs.”

“The bottom of the stairs” refers to the architecture of Jacques Necker’s mansion. In such a home the reception room, where people engaged in witty banter and busted balls, was on the second floor. To have reached the bottom of the stairs meant that you had left the party and were drunkenly stumbling out to your horse and carriage, pissed off at your social ineptitude.

After reading dusty biographies from Paris archives and scouring historical texts, I’ve been able to reconstruct the conversation between Jacques and Denis which led to the birth of this French phrase. Here is what Jaques said:

Jacques Necker being plump and smug

“So, hmph, ahem, Denis, you’re a freethinking atheist who is also a maniacal materialist. Well, answer me this. Last night the spirit of Jesus Christ visited me in bed and told me you’re an imbecile. (Crowd laughter.) He said you should have listened to your father and stayed in law, instead of living a bohemian existence for ten years and being disowned by your family. (More laughter.) Oh,
and you’re a penniless skeptic, who couldn’t even afford your daughter’s dowry so you had to sell your precious library, always questioning life and thinking about this blasphemous evolution. Well, let me give you some definite answers: I’m richer than you! I’m not a monkey! And I’m right and you’re wrong! (Room erupts with peals of uncontrollable laughter.)

Diderot sits there in silence. After he leaves the party, he finally thinks of the perfect reply:

Disgruntled Diderot

“Your mother’s a dirty whore.”


I’ve always been interested in semantic discrepancies between languages concerning particular phrases and ideas. In some Kenyan tribes they don’t have a phrase for “being late.” In the Russian language there are 9 different ways to say “bastard.” In Spanish there are numerous ways to say “I miss you,” one of them being “Me haces falta,” which means “you cause my want,” or “you make my lack.” These discrepancies reveal the culture behind the language, where desires, beliefs, and idiosyncrasies dictate which expressions become more varied, powerful, frequently used, or specific.

The fact that the French have a well-worn phrase for “staircase wisdom,” reveals their culture’s emphasis on witty, biting, and sparing banter. I’ve read many French novels, and in almost all of them there’s at least one scene where people are sitting at dinner table ruthlessly making fun of one another. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have a phrase which describes the “spirit” of getting back at someone in a social scenario.

Anyway…to leave on a good note…here’s a picture of moldy, delicious cheese:

Gimme mold.

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What is the opposite of paranoia?


My idea for this post came from reading a funny article from The Onion (2 min read, worth it):

Anxiety-Ridden Man Rightly Ashamed of Every Single Thing He Does

While reading it, I kept asking myself, how does someone act and think who is the exact opposite of a paranoid? What’s the opposite of paranoia?

Answer: Pronoia: a neologism (relatively new term) defined as a sense that the universe is conspiring on your behalf, that others are conspiring behind your back to help you…that the world is set up to secretly benefit people.

(Take note of how much more has been researched and written about paranoia than Pronoia).

The word Pronoia is also the name of a Greek goddess, an Okeanid nymph of Mount Parnassos, the wife of the Titan Prometheus. Also known as the goddess of foresight. Here are two Okeanid nymphs:



I had a BIG schoolboy crush on Arielle growing up. One time in the shower I…I digress.

Anyway, here are some writers’ opinions on the idea:

“I am kind of paranoid in a reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” -J.D. Salinger as Seymour Glass

Phillip K. Dick, in is posthumous published book, The Exegesis, suggested his own Pronoia (as referred to by his perceived protection by an entity called V.A.L.I.S.: vast active living intelligence system) was based on an “intelligent analysis,” of his mystical experiences, and was not, “reflexive or mechanical in its nature.”

Pronoia is a theme in the 1988 novel, The Alchemist, (which has sold 65 million copies, coincidentally the same as Salinger’s, Catcher in the Rye). An older man tells the boy protagonist, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” I thought the novel was boring.

Some may think this state of mind is stupidly optimistic or dangerously unrealistic.

head in sand

You put your head in the sand and it feels so good, so calm, so gentle, and so peaceful…but you’re still stuck in the sand and deaf to the world which is writhing and screaming around you.

As Dr. Fred H. Goldner states in his 1982 published paper, Social Problems, “Pronoia…is the delusion that others think well of one…mere acquaintances are thought to be close friends, politeness and exchange of pleasantries are taken as expressions of deep attachment and the promise of future support…”

So, like everything, there’s a destructive extreme.

And similar to my post, “I deserve this!” there’s a gray area which we have to navigate through trial and error, learning and changing, to avoid the extreme. Believing the world is straining to please and help you can be detrimental because you don’t do anything about it. You bask and wallow in an illusion of smiles and praise.

In reference again to the “I deserve this,” post, when it comes to temptation and our vices, it’s better to err on the side of looking at YOURSELF in a paranoid light, suspicious of your animal cravings…(do I really deserve this pie? This beer? A two hour nap?)

But when looking at the outside world it’s better to err on the side of Pronoia. Yes, that car just cut me off…but probably because there’s a cop ahead and they want to prevent me from speeding and getting a ticket. Absurd and insane…yes…but is it as absurd and insane as uselessly fuming or engaging in road rage?


95% of problems are self-created. And 95% of people blame the world for their mistakes and issues. I’ve noticed this especially with restaurant employees…some of them, when criticized, immediately look for something else to lay the blame on: it’s the customer’s fault for being so needy, the chef’s fault for cooking so slow, the owner’s fault for not paying me more, the manager’s fault for not teaching me well enough.
ANYTHING but themselves. In the short term they want to get off the hook, but they end up stagnating and not improving in the long term.
There’s a certainty I daily repeat to myself which nothing can alter: I will support myself through writing books. This conviction burns inside of me. Each rejection I receive pushes me higher and the longer I churn in this void of day jobs and midnight scribbling sharpens the axe of my prose and whittles aways the superfluous.

I feel intense gratitude that my family and close friends don’t openly root for my literary success. They’re intelligent and aware enough to understand it’s a lonely battle that must be fought without a cheerleading squad. But my pronoia knows, deep down, that they’re looking forward to my publication…cause as the Philosopher Wiz Khalifa once said, “You know if I ball then we all gonna stunt.”


Each morning, according to my Pronoia, when I finally fall into a fitful sleep, the lords of the literary world meet in a video chat:

“Is…is J.W. Kash ready yet?”
“No, not yet. Tomorrow we must send him 12 rejections from online journals, one saying he should his prose is pathetic and that he should give up, and later that night he will have an employee insult him and walk out, then he will shovel vomit out a sink.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little too harsh? Shouldn’t we give him one more acceptance…to reignite his belief in himself?”
“Too harsh? Belief in himself? Have you read his stupid, selfish blog? The poor boy thinks he has something to say! That he can write! Oh no, we must crush this little belief. He has many more obstacles to face, many more.”
“How many more?”
“Thousands. Years of them. Everything in his life will fall apart, his close ones will start questioning his life choices and showing disdainful concern, he will be consumed by regret…then, only then, will we let him build it all back.”
“Yes sir. Years it is.
“Years (demonic chuckling) YEARS! YEARS!”

Then I wake up from a nightmare in a daze of exhausted doubt. And with 26 buck-naked jumping jacks and a trick of the mind turn it all into grist for the mill.


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Path Dependence

During college I took almost all of the economics and psychology courses available and was conscious that many of the concepts and insights of both disciplines overlapped. They often had different names for the same, exact thing.

Behavior Economics = Experimental Psychology

I won’t bore you with specific examples from each field, but there’s one concept in economics which I don’t remember discussing in any of my psychology classes: path dependence. I believe an in-depth, psychological analysis of this idea would have many implications for areas such as happiness, learning, addictions, relationships, disorders, etc.

Path dependence is the idea that the set of decisions we face is limited by decisions one has made in the past, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant.

In other words, inferior standards can persist simply because of the legacy they have built up. 

The most commonly used example to illustrate path dependence is the QUERTY vs. DVORAK keyboard story.


QWERTY, the keyboard, was designed in 1878 for the Remington No. 2 typewriter. The design purposely put the most commonly used letters “far away” from one another to prevent mechanical jamming. Typewriters soon became obsolete, yet the QWERTY persisted. The economist David Paul (1986) argues that QWERTY’s triumph over its initial rivals resulted largely from the happenstance that typing schools and manuals offered instruction in eight-finger “touch” typing first for QWERTY. The availability of trained typists encouraged office managers to buy QWERTY machines, which in turn gave additional encouragement to budding typists to learn QWERTY. These positive feedbacks increased QWERTY’s market share until it was established as the de facto standard keyboard.

In the 1930s the Dvorak keyboard came on the scene. Despite experiments showing the keyboard’s superior ergonomic efficiency (all the most commonly used letters are “close” to one another), Dvorak couldn’t gain a foothold in the keyboard market because QWERTY was so widespread. So, our choice of a keyboard today is governed by history, not by what would be ergonomically and economically optimal. 

A lesser known example of this phenomenon is the use of railroad gauges that are 4 feet 8.5 inches, which began in Liverpool in the 1830s. These railroad gauges are now used on over half the world’s railways.

The “Father of the Railway,” George Stephenson, built the first public inter-city railway line in the world to use steam locomotive, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway which opened in 1830. He used 4 feet 8.5 inch gauges because he had experience using the gauge on an older system of primitive coal tramways serving a small group of mines near Newcastle, England. Rather than determining optimal gauge anew for a new generation of railways, he simply continued his prior practice. His model served as a model of best practice for many of the earliest modern railways in Britain, continental Europe, and North America.

Yet, most railway engineers today view this 4 feet 8.5 inch gauge as narrower than optimal. Why should we keep using a gauge adopted more than two hundred years ago for horse-drawn coal carts for powerful locomotives, massive tonnages of freight shipments, and passenger trains traveling at speeds as great as 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph)?

Because although engineers would choose a broader gauge if the choice were open, they do not view potential gains in operating efficiency as worth the costs of conversion.

I could type this blog faster with less strain on my hands using a Dvorak keyboard, but the time and energy it would take to learn how to use a Dvorak keyboard wouldn’t justify me switching over.

So how could this idea be applied in the field of psychology?

1.) Relationships

It takes lots of time and energy to find a partner, to find love. You wade through those early dates, you gradually learn the person’s quirks, values, beliefs, fears, hopes, and dreams. You have intimate experiences with them. You cry, laugh, and travel together. You develop intense connections.

All of sudden, you’re thinking about them every other moment of the day. All of sudden, you’re living together. All of sudden, you’re married. All of a sudden, you have whining, needy kids. All of a sudden, youth is gone and you’re both old, wrinkly, and ugly together. “Honey, have you seen my dentures?”

But what if…at some point during this charging stampede of life and love…you encounter someone else who seems perfect, ideal, undoubtedly better than the person you’re with? Maybe it’s a co-worker who makes you laugh like you’ve never laughed before…or maybe you’re at party and this person asks you piercing questions and seems to understand a part of you in which your partner was always callously indifferent? Or maybe you’re at a family reunion and the brother of your husband seems full of life, confident, charming, and you wonder…

No. You love the person you’re with…you’ve chosen the QWERTY keyboard and the 4 feet 8.5 inch gauge and they work just fine. The time and energy and turmoil and chaos it would take to make the jump don’t justify the switch.

And who’s to say this new person is optimal? Or if they even share your enthusiasm? We’re all engulfed in uncertainty and the clock is ticking. Life is actually smoother and easier if we’re not always looking for the optimal…if we accept rather than search.

But for the sake of argument let’s say we somehow know this new person is optimal and that they think you’re optimal too. Doesn’t matter. We encounter these possibilities almost everyday (most of us willfully ignore them), but we’re already experiencing path dependence with our high-school sweetheart…we move on.

2.) Addictions

I’m severely addicted to coffee. During college, early internships, and my first jobs I drank it like a maniac to keep on grinding. Now I’m completely dependent on the substance.  Yes, it would likely be optimal if I didn’t spend so much money on coffee, and if I didn’t experience headaches and crankiness if I didn’t get my fix, if I didn’t get distracted and shiver with delight when I smelled coffee beans. But there’s too much going on with my life right now (job, writing, reading, calling my grandmother, daily tug-of-war sessions with Hank, etc.) for me to ween myself off caffeine. Apply this to people who consistently use alcohol, marijuana, etc. to get through the day.

3.) Jobs

Many people are in “sub-optimal” jobs they dislike. There’s another occupation they’d rather be doing and in which they’d be providing more value. Yet they continue with their dreary, soul-sucking 9-5.

I remember when I first moved to NYC I thought I’d wait tables for a couple of months then find a job in journalism. But the novel I was working on, my own research, learning, reading, and waiting tables always trumped the effort and uncertainty to find an occupation which I wasn’t even sure I’d enjoy or benefit from. Three years have gone by.

Again, often the time and energy to search and acquire a new job doesn’t outweigh the subsequent uncertainty, upheaval, and strain. The current job pays the bills, feeds the kids, and allows you to go on a pleasant vacation once a year. Why change?

To conclude, I believe that our society and culture subtly shoves down our throats these notions of ideal love, ideal health, and an ideal job. Of course we should strive for finding the best partner, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and working in an occupation we’re passionate about. But we also have to be realistic and realize that something has to give…something will always be sub-par. 

We are constantly passing up optimal opportunities because of path dependence. I think if more people acknowledged this fact many disorders, mid-life crises, and bouts of depression would be alleviated.

So , when I’m on a train using 4 feet 8.5 inch gauges, typing on a QWERTY keyboard an email to my bartenders about upcoming drink specials, fiendishly drinking coffee, and thinking about the date I’m about to go on with a girl who may or may not be the one…

I won’t stress.


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Attempting to Reconcile Doubt and Adversity with Positive Thinking for a Better Life

I recently read the following “poem:”

Watch your thoughts, they become your words.
Watch your words, they become your actions.
Watch your actions, they become your habits.
Watch your habits, they become your character.
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.
Watch your thoughts.

For many years I’ve known, at least in the back of my mind, that thoughts are powerful, directional forces in one’s life. I remember in a college philosophy class reading these quotes by Marcus Aurelius:

“The soul becomes dyed with the color of one’s thoughts.”


“Very little is needed to make a happy life, it is all within yourself, within your way of thinking.”

Yes, Emperor Aurelius, what we think is important.

But we’ve all had those days where we wake up feeling morose and cranky…and the rest of the day seems to follow suit. Then there are those times we think unstoppable, triumphant, glorious thoughts…and all the circumstances of the day seem to work in our favor.

So the solution is simple, right? Just think more positively and have a better life…in the words of the poet Biggie Smalls:

Uh, damn right I like the life I live
‘Cause I went from negative to positive
And it’s all…
(It’s all good)

But here’s my issue/concern #1:

How much control does one really have over one’s thoughts? How much should we expect ourselves to have the ability to watch over them? How does one simply “switch from negative to positive” despite the intervening chaos of the outside world?

Because the outside world often invades our thinking. We’re not empty islands of consciousness. We’re affected by our past and our surroundings. When you’re tired or you’re in pain, you think negatively. When you listen to a beautiful song, your thinking becomes brighter and more positive. Depending on what you eat, your thinking is altered (just now I crushed an entire box of cinnamon toast crunch and I “see” my thoughts are more sluggish and uncooperative.) If you’re high on drugs, you think you’re on top of the world. When your loved one is treating you cruelly, your thinking plummets. When you overcome an obstacle, do something kind for someone else, or even remember a special moment, the color of your thoughts change. 

Over the years I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on free will and the brain. I desperately want to believe that the brain is more than a complicated muscle. There’s a burning conviction inside of me that I can mold and craft my life within reasonable bounds. But when I mentally step back I can’t get over the knowledge that your sense of self, your mood, your beliefs can be altered by poking, cutting, and tampering with the physical brain. Insert dopamine into the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus: happiness.

Unsatisfying Conclusion #1: The “self” is influenced by millions of unfathomable things…we can play games with it (in a bad mood? listen to your favorite song, exercise, remember a beautiful moment…then ride the mental momentum etc.) but this doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re constantly pushed and pulled around and it’s not always easy to press the on-switch of positive thinking.

Issue/Concern #2: Negativing thinking and doubt can be horrifying and tortuous nowbut it may pay off in the future. 

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” -Friedrich Nietzsche


“My mustache is better than yours.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Contained doses of struggle has its merits. Whether it’s your leg muscles or your brain, if you don’t work them, they decline. Because everything is in flux, nothing stays the same (Buddhism 101).

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
-Friedrich Douglass

“We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.”
-Helen Keller

This means that negative thinking, mental struggle, and spiritual pain carves out parts of our mind and selves so that we think more clearly, simply, and positively in the future. Mental anguish makes us better on the other side. 

So shouldn’t we, in a sense, say bring it on to negative thoughts? Shouldn’t we submerge ourselves in loathing and confusion? Because if we survive…we not only have learned about ourselves and the world, but we’re left with the residual belief that we can handle anything in the future.

Right now I could drop my writing ambitions and coast on positive thoughts for the rest of my life. Whenever negativity creeps into my consciousness I’ll jump on it and say: “At least I’m not starving, at least I can go to the movies, at least I’m not retarded or paraplegic, at least there’s bacon, at least my dog loves me, I’M THE MAN, LIFE IS GOOD.” But no…I return to my apartment and I’m consumed by doubt and anger. I beat myself up.

Yet how long will this go on? How much progress should we attempt to achieve through ceaseless struggle?

I used to read a lot of self-help books. Many of them have the following message:

What you think about, you bring about. 

This is also the message of “The Secret” or The Law of Attraction: By focusing on positive or negative thoughts a person brings positive or negative experiences into their life.

So if I focus, positively, on being a successful writer, on being a good person, on a healthy, sunny existence…experience will mirror my beliefs?

Perhaps…in my own, narrow way. 

But I think this sort of positive thinking can be dangerous, can be stagnating. How does one improve if they’re always patting themselves on the back? How does someone move to another level in their art, in their thinking, in their confidence, in their strength, if they are busy telling themselves how good they are? Doesn’t calling yourself a wretched, stupid, lazy nobody provoke action to remedy the situation?

Today a regular came to my bar and was pissed off that he had to wait a couple minutes for his drink. Then he was angry that there wasn’t enough vodka in his Moscow Mule. Before he left, he told the new bartender that, “I’m actually a really nice guy. I’m not an asshole.” A quote from a Louis CK comedy sketch came to my mind: “Nobody’s allowed to say that they’re not an asshole. It’s not for them to decide! Other people decide whether or not you’re asshole.”

So can’t positive thinking, in a sense, be delusional? You repeat to yourself: I’m a nice guy, I’m successful, I’m strong, I’m charming, I’m caring…meanwhile, you’re a mean, weak, selfish bastard living in a hovel. Wouldn’t it be better if you had more negative, confusing, depressing thoughts? Wouldn’t that develop more empathy and understanding?

Unsatisfying Conclusion #2: Yes, negative thinking may bring about negative experiences…but it is also your brain searching and coping and digging through the maelstrom of experience.

“To live is to war with trolls.”
-Henrik Ibsen

All that being said, we should still watch our thoughts, positive or negative.

But don’t flee the battlefield.



Lost Innocence and Childhood: Stop Fantasizing Against the Inevitable and the Irrevocable

girl with cigboy with gun

Last night a regular at my bar (“The Devil”…see People at my Job) pulled me aside and shoved his stinky-booze-breath in my face,

“Uh…dude…you should check out the bathroom…big problem.”

I opened the door and discovered shit smeared on the wall and shit-covered toilet paper all over the floor. I put on gloves, got the mop bucket, held my breath, and cleaned up the mess. Then I watched the security camera.

Two boys were the culprits. But wait a second…they were still sitting “with” their family at the restaurant! (Separate table though: telling.) I thirsted for some type of revenge, but I’m a manager and wasn’t about to make a scene, so my tactics for releasing rage were limited. Perhaps I should let the whole thing go? My nostrils were still quivering from the stench. Nay.

I approached the low table of adults and half-kneeled next to them (same plane of eye-contact, manager technique, disarming) and said,
“Are your sons feeling alright? Are they sick?” The parents and grandmother looked angry and confused.
“No. Why?”
“Well, fifteen minutes ago they went into the bathroom and smeared their shit on the wall and left shit-covered toilet paper on the floor.”
“Nooo, not them.”
“I watched the camera. It was them.” They paused and looked at each other.
“Ahhhhh, oh, yes, ____ wasn’t feeling well, we’re sorry.” They weren’t sorry. I had observed them since they sat down. They had sent food back twice and complained unnecessarily to the server. They were wretched, despicable human beings. The grandmother’s hideous face was lined with wrinkles of bitterness. The father had beady eyes, a hitler mustache, a pointy chin, and struck me as a prick. The mother was obese with sagging cheeks, bleary eyes, and wispy hair. The mother blurted:
“And?” The father added,
“What do you want?”
“Tell your sons that it’s inappropriate to smear their shit on the walls of a public bathroom.” The father nonchalantly leaned to the side,
“_____ and _____! Tell the waiter you’re sorry.” The boys hadn’t been listening.
“We’re sorry Mr.!” I walked away. Nothing had been accomplished.

Twenty minutes later I was working upstairs when I received a text message from a bartender:

Customer wants to talk to you.” I went downstairs and saw the mother leaning against the bar.
“How dare you,” she said. “Never have I gone to a restaurant and had a waiter complain about me and my family. My son has special needs. He’s not stupid. He’s smart. But there wasn’t any toilet paper left and he didn’t know what to do. I’m writing a bad review as soon as I get home. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Sometimes, in life, I wish I was more of an asshole. Because if I was…I’d have been prepared for such an attack. I’d have lashed out with my opinions. I’d have been quick to the gun. But I’m not. Despite being socially pounded in the ass by NYC and restaurant environments, I look for the best in people. So I stood there, in disbelief, wondering if this woman was being serious at first, then letting her rant because what would fighting against her have accomplished? I knew there had been two full rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom in which her son/s had spread their feces, yet I let her shout, nod in satisfaction, and leave.

Twenty minutes later I found a server crying in a stairwell.
“I’m leaving,” she said. “Transfer all of my tables to Caitlyn.”
“Why? What happened”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I’m leaving.”
“Was it that table with the two, shitting-boys?”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No.” She doesn’t know that I had a crush on her when she was hired, but that it faded away due to time, the seriousness which we take our jobs, her comments implying being devoutly religious, and the social barrier of manager vs. server. Again, if I was an asshole I’d probably have ignored this barrier. But I wouldn’t put a woman in the pressured, difficult place of choosing between job/livelihood and pleasing a man above her. (How many millions of women are put in this kind of wretched situation everyday?)  Besides, she had developed a crush for a bartender. That’s why she was crying. He was drinking after his shift at the bar and hitting on her too aggressively. There was a regular there who liked her, too, and was also hitting on her. Then there was a drunken, idiot saying inappropriate things about her yoga pants. The three guys were all sitting in a row next to one another and chuckling. (I learned all of these details later.) She just wanted to go home.

An hour later the only barback/busboy arrived at the restaurant. He hadn’t shown up for work the past two days and wasn’t responding to phone calls or texts. The police showed up, though, looking for him. Long story short, his girlfriend had put a restraining order against him. She had stabbed his ball sack with a box-cutter (did I want to see it? No.) He had slashed her ear.  He had spent a night in jail. Here’s the paperwork. He’ll be in for work tomorrow.

At 1:45am I’m sitting in the ferry terminal waiting for the boat. I’m thinking how my life is a ceaseless grind, and yet there’s no way that my perspective is unique. Other people must be going through this sort of thing too. Other people must be coping with daily depressions.

But am I paying for wrong things that I did in my past, or am I being somehow prepared for obstacles in the future? That’s the problem with justice: you never know which direction it’s coming from. Are you being punished for what you’ve done? Or bombarded by senseless pain and confusion so you’ll be ready for what will arrive?

You ever hear someone say “I wish I was a little kid again”? Ever watch a movie or listen to a song that laments lost innocence and lost childhood? I couldn’t help but fall into the fantasy as I sat there in the terminal. What happened to my joyful innocence? How did I end up here?

But after indulging my childhood memories….here’s what I realized/was reminded of while sitting there: the problem, the ridiculousness of such a desire…when you’re a kid, you’re a leech. Between the ages of 0-20 (depending on your family environment) you’ve been provided for, allowed to play, given a fantasy world. Of course the memories are often rosy and nice when you could lounge with stuffed animals, draw in coloring books, and play games without worrying about the implications and support of such a lifestyle. You could smear your shit in a public bathroom without consequences. But that’s not reality anymore…that’s not life.

I think the sign of a mature mind is how fast you move on from the pettiness and problems of the daily grind. I’m not very good at it, but I’m getting better. Because while sitting there in the terminal and telling myself to stop fantasizing, I began to look around. Already the stress of the previous shift was melting away and the events that occurred seemed funny. I was looking forward to going home.