“The more competent I become, the greater my willingness to push the boat way out, the tighter the hands grip the throat. No other game can train me for it. It’s a stupid activity, but name one that isn’t — to someone somewhere.”
— Mark Twight, Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber
Seat 33A. Window seat.
It’s always the first thing I ask at the airport, if it wasn’t sorted out in advance.
“Am I in a window seat? Can I get a window seat?”
The two airport stuff are both Malaysian, a very soften-spoken young lady is checking me in with her supervisor kind of milling around, a guy in maybe his mid-30’s who has that “yeah, I’m corporate and responsible, but not that much” sort of feel to him.
I’m not in a window seat.
Do I want to switch?
Yes, I do.
The young lady tries to explain some sort of downside to me — I can’t really hear her very well. Something about, maybe I was in an exit row or towards the front of the plane or something like that, and if I switched I’d be closer to the back of the plane or on a bulkhead or on not-exit-row seats if I switch.
There’s some downside to switching, apparently, but I can’t really hear her. She asks me a question I can’t hear.
I ask, “Uhh… what do you think?"
The supervisor speaks out, “Switch seats, man. Get the window seat.”
“Right,” I say, “Let’s do that. Window seats are better.”
“Unless you’re in a middle seat between two pretty girls!” he says with a laugh.
I think of a couple joking replies but nothing really coalesces so I nod, they put me in Seat 33A, and I say thanks and move off to clear customs.
Glued is the wrong word — I’m certainly not glued to the screen in front of me in 32B. I am, however, watching it a little bit in between reading about mountain climbing.
It’s so… it’s so…
Gigantic robots are pounding on each other, sometimes with glowing swords and highly-inaccurate missiles, in some arctic-looking wasteland.
Cutting back and forth between the CGI robotic trial by ordeal are two actors looking like they’re playing synchronized Dance Dance Revolution. Good-looking guys in their twenties, a black guy and a white guy are synchronized in their dance-combat movements.
They’re wearing strange space-like gear that looks completely non-functional as they jump up and down and gesture wildly in synchronicity, to get the giant robot to follow their commands.
When they want to the giant robot to throw a big robotic right hook, both of them throw a punch at the same time in a synchronized, exaggerated theatrical manner.
This is a little silly, I think to myself. Why on Earth, if you had a gigantic robot, would you want two people to need to do choreographed dance moves in order to control it?
Watching Other People’s Movies
It only occurs to me now, two days later writing this in the hazy dark early morning Toronto light, that this might be a strange habit. I wonder if anyone else does it.
I don’t really watch my own movies on airplanes any more.
I’ll flip through the flight’s catalogue if it’s a long flight and I don’t have work to do — which is rarely the case, anyways — and I’ll look to see if there’s a classical film or interesting foreign film I might not otherwise see.
I saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on an ANA flight from Tokyo to the USA once, for instance. That was worthwhile.
Korean cop and gangster movies seem to almost always be at least mild interesting.
But no, there’s no 1970’s Westerns and there’s no Korean cop/gangster movies in the catalogue, and the recent slate of Hollywood blockbusters don’t do anything for me.
So I work a little — non-essential work, but it’s gotta be done sooner or later anyways, so I might as well clear it now. When I finish a couple hours of work, I read the arcs of Mark Twight's mountaineering career.
His — quite literal — battles on the edge of life and death, his hyper-real stories stand in a very obvious contrast to the material on the airplane’s glowing screens.
Yet, movies are shiny sorts of things, and I find myself sometimes catching glimpses of nearby passengers watching their movies. To the front of me, already mentioned, there’s three South Asian men — probably businessmen, they have the doing-business sort of look — 32B is watching robot battle.
To my right in Seat 33B, an artistic-looking young Vietnamese woman is watching some sort of college-coming-of-age-love-story type thing.
There’s scenes with exaggerated versions of the American college experience — doing shots of liquor, playing beer pong, dancing in a sort of hip-cool-sliding-bumping type dancing you might see in Miami, but certainly not in a frathouse or college party.
What stands out to me about the love story — as I glance up between chapters about Twight reminiscing over successful and failed climbs, over climbing partners who lost their lives in the mountains and what that means if anything — is another peculiarly specific thought.
Why is their hair always perfect?
When the actors take a walk at 4AM after a long, presumably hot and sweaty party — perfect hair.
Raucously dancing together at a concert some scenes later — perfect hair.
Eating Chinese takeout on a train trip while traveling together — perfect hair.
And not simple hair, either. Perfectly placed, picture-perfect hair. Hair done by the makeup artists on a multi-million dollar production set, before spending probably hours to get a 5-10 minute scene just right. Perfect hair at the fictional 4AM.
I can’t see the Southeast Asian guy’s expression as he watches the robot movie, but my seatmate is in rapt attention at certain scenes of heightened emotional tension.
I know that something bad is happening in the love story, because the two protagonists finally have messy unglued hair.
“Bad things are happening. You know because the hair isn’t perfect.”
We spoke briefly later — she’s 19, studying business in Canada, she wants to be an entrepreneur. She’s from an entrepreneurial family.
“Oh, what do your parents do?”
“It’s just a small business.”
Oh, they’re very successful. Interesting. Right on.
“How was the movie?”
“It was great.”
The Canadian immigration officer looks a little bit like Gal Gadot. There’s a disarming sort of lightness about her — at first. But then her questions take that sharp sort of edge that, for whatever reason, all Canadian border guards seem to have. I’ve been to, I don’t know, 60-some countries? Canadian border guards almost seem to be the least friendly.
“From Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.”
“What is the purpose of the trip?"
“I’m sorry — do you mean this trip to Toronto, or me being in Malaysia?”
“Malaysia, why were you there?”
“I live there. I own a software company I started there.”
She pauses for a moment, she had some line of enquiry that was no longer necessary.
“And what are you doing in Toronto for... five days?"
“There’s a charity event this weekend, I’m going to it. It’s this… it’s a cookie bake-off thing, they’ll have like 30 bakers there competing for the best type of chocolate chip cookie… it’s five hundred dollars to attend, and then you can eat all the cookies you want, but I’m going to try not eat too many cookies since I don’t want to be fat, y’know? And there’ll be some good people there, some people I know and some good people I heard about that I don’t know, so I thought it’d be cool, so I’m going. After the cookie thing, I’ll head down to the States and see my parents in Boston before heading back to Asia.”
It’s the type of thing people don’t usually write about — it’s the kind of thing that’s more whispered about — but as far as I can tell, veteran travelers settle on one of two viable strategies when clearing immigration.
Either you answer every question as briefly and factually as possible, with no exposition and no unnecessary details, or you do what I do — just talk and talk and talk and talk.
The latter option gets you in trouble if you’re doing something you’re not supposed to be doing, or if you say something stupid. But as far as I can tell, the typical immigration officer has some internal clock of how much time they want to spend with you. So I’ll tell them my life story if they want to hear it, I’ll keep talking until they interject that that’s enough, usually ask another perfunctory question or two, and wave me on.
(In my case, if I don’t run out the internal clock with some exposition, they start looking for other questions to ask, and eventually start flipping through my passport before asking — “Wait, why you were in the Balkans? Why were you in Eastern Europe? Why were you in the Middle East?” My answers to these questions — my full, truthful, forthright answers — basically boil down to, “Because it was cool. Like, why not?” — which, empirically speaking, seems to generate a distinct lack of satisfaction in immigration officials.)
“So for five hundred dollars,” she asks in a tone that’s a mix of pseudo-skeptical and amused, “You can eat as many cookies as you want?”
I laugh. “Yeah, that’s it. I hope I don’t eat too many! But you know, it’s not about the cookies, it’s, umm, it’s for a good cause and there’ll be good people there.”
She starts to smile in spite of herself — I’m probably one of the more unusual people to pass through immigration this night — but realizes she has to ask at least one tough probing question before sending me on.
“This event — where is it?” she asks in a suddenly stern tone.
“Umm, it’s uhh —“ (the sudden brusqueness still puts me mildly off-balance, which I suppose is the point) “— it’s in downtown Toronto… I think it’s at the Admiral’s Rowing Club? Something like that.”
(It was actually at the Argonaut Rowing Club, when I checked later.)
She waves me through and I’m off into Canada.
Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “A true man hates no one.”
This seems correct.
Maybe it doesn’t go far enough, even.
“A true man hates nothing.”
This strikes me as the ideal — hate is notoriously unprofitable.
But I must confess — with an irrational passion, I absolutely hate timezones.
If I live long enough and achieve enough of the more-pressing stuff I’m working on, I’ll eventually look to get the world off the 24-hour clock with timezones and into modern digital-metric time. Beat time is promising; standardizing the whole world where it’s the same time worldwide — beat 850 or whatever — would offer an immense amount of advantages.
I hate timezones for all the regular reasons people do — missed calls and appointments, silly events like almost missing a bus when crossing the Vietnam-China border on foot and not realizing it’s one hour later despite only going north, difficulty scheduling around travels, all the shenanigans associated with Daylight Savings Time…
But I have a reason to dislike timezones over and above the common reasons — I keep really elaborate records of how I spend my time. I flew to Toronto on the 4th of July, and this continent-shifting really makes a mess of my records.
To make a long story short, on 4 July, I had a 36-hour day. I acquiesced to the timeshift at 7PM Asia time, flipped a couple settings on my iPhone and laptop, and magically it was 7AM… still on 4 July.
I suppose I’m making some excuses for what happened next — all the mental chatter about timezones, thought in real-time before being immortalized in writing here — serves as a sort of defense mechanism against one’s own weakness.
I cleared customs around 1AM on 5 July, and was only set to check into my hotel at 2PM. I tried to nap at the airport, and half-napped poorly for about 90 minutes before grabbing a Tim Horton’s coffee, realizing that the train downtown wasn’t running for some hours yet, and grabbed a night bus into Toronto.
I’m very interested in why errors in judgment happen, and two of the factors that produce errors in judgment were present now —
(1) I was genuinely quite tired, and,
(2) I didn’t have a clear plan or objective of what to do next.
I figured I’d find a cafe or… something… but the bus into downtown Toronto wasn’t promising. I took the most urban route so I could look for a bright spot in the nighttime to post up and work, but it was nothing going.
Eventually, almost in spite of myself, I posted up at a gloomy 24-hour internet cafe, a few people sleeping and the majority on an energy-drinks-and-first-person-shooters type of listless nighttime gaming. It was around 5AM by this time.
On my own personal laptop, just about everything that’s not life-affirming is blocked with an elaborate mix of software. It’s very hard for me to play games or surf addictive websites on my computer — I could, if I really wanted to, but it’d take such a mess of re-configuring settings or downloading a standalone game that I’d be forced to decide to do it and then wait 30 minutes. Impulsiveness towards wasting time rarely lasts 30 minutes when you have to deliberately cut away one’s own pre-installed defenses.
The internet cafe, of course, has no such restrictions.
In Castle Wars 2.5, the best card — for my money — costs 17 swords. The card is Thief, which reduces all of the opponent’s resources by 5, and gives you +5 to each resource.
17 swords is a lot, but with a bit of luck in your card draw, you can use it early and get the equivalent of a two-turn boost while setting the opponent back two turns. If you land an early-game Thief, you really should win.
There’s much more powerful cards, but they require a lot of setup to get running and can be disrupted or outraced. Thief doesn’t look like it should be backbreaking to the opponent, but it creates just enough separation that you should win if you play it.
Eight hours later — really, was it eight hours? — I stumble out into the Toronto afternoon and make my way to my hotel to check in and sleep early.
Awake at 1:45AM.
Stumble out of bed, meditate, make my way to the little hotel breakfast room that won’t be operational until many hours later.
Don’t want to stretch. Stretch anyways. Don’t want to record my records from yesterday. Record them anyway. Don’t want to do fitness. Do air squats and pushups on the dirty floor anyways.
I’m tired. Wanted to sleep 12+, woke up after 8 hours.
Okay, but why am I tired?
Look at the records.
Including the eight hours last night, I’m averaging… five hours a night over the last week or so. Jeez.
(1) Go back to bed.
(2) Try to work in this dark and lifeless breakfast room.
(3) Go out and try to find a late-night or early-morning place for breakfast and coffee.
The most strong option would be (2), getting in some work right in front of me before doing anything else. Hours spent profitably are never undone, and lately I’ve been looking to cultivate training and working through discomfort — discomfort is always an opportunity to perform well despite discomfort, which is really an underrated skill. Mark Twight talks about this a lot; it’s one of his most core messages.
“Fun doesn’t have to be fun to be fun,” he sometimes writes.
Eventually I’m outdoors walking the surprisingly chilly morning of Toronto. I head for an American-style diner which is open and at least has coffee, and about 15 minutes into the walk, I realize it was the right decision.
You can introspect in real-time all you want, but often it’s impossible to clarify a certain set of two competing virtues through introspection alone.
Thought 1: “Working through discomfort makes me stronger; opting out of discomfort makes me weaker.”
Thought 2: “Pragmatism matters, and if rest or nourishment is necessary, grinding at low cognitive ability when it’d be possible to recharge is stupid and wasteful.”
When considering taking a break when you could or should be doing something that’s meaningful to you, this is ever and always the tension. “Is taking a break here correct pragmatism, or am I being a putz and rationalizing?”
I chose Door #3 this morning — getting out of the empty hotel space to look for food and coffee — and it was only mid-walk that I realized that, at least in this instance, it was the correct decision. Sometimes it’s not possible to know if one is being pragmatic or being a putz until making a decision and letting it resolve.
Realizing that more sleep was not in the cards for now, my mind stopped thrashing and started working with me; a flood of good ideas started hitting.
There’s a common English word introspection; wouldn’t that mean there should also be a word extrospection?
My spell-checker even now underlines the word extrospection, but Googling the word at the diner, it turns out it’s a thing.
“Extrospection is the observation of things external to one’s own mind, as opposed to introspection, which is the direction observation of one’s mind’s internal processes."
How about that.
The waitress at at the diner is cool — she looks like a modernized, 2018, African-American — err, African-Canadian? — version of Marilyn Monroe, if that’s not too oxymoronical.
Of course, the standard diner uniform doesn’t give much room for self-expression, but she seems to have something special about her. I’m not talking just about the platinum blond hair pulled elegantly and loosely back into a pony-tail that then splays out back towards her shoulders, nor the almost Hollywood-perfect acrylic nails in a subdued avant grade shade of surprisingly tasteful orange. (Who knew orange-colored acrylic nails could be tasteful? And yet, there they are.)
Coffee. Chicken. Zucchini. Brown rice. No thanks, I don’t want the bread. More coffee. Yes, even more coffee. Thank you. Yes, sure, another coffee. Thank you.
I do some much-needed work and the hours pass by; work goes well and quickly. People come and go through the restaurant. It’s a little rowdy when I first arrive, but then settles into a dull very-late-night / very-early-morning mix, and finally it’s just morning.
At first I was the only person who had woken up to go the restaurant instead of not having slept yet; eventually everyone is in for breakfast.
I ask Marilyn what the crowd is like. She tells me it’s a mix — some students. Nearby bus station, people waiting here before a bus or having a meal right afterwards. Mix of people.
You like working here?
“No!” she says with a laugh. “Not at all!”
It’s good to be back in North America. Pure unadulterated honesty from strangers, it’s been a while.
It’s more common in North America, actually yes that’s part of it but not all of it. I’ve been introverted lately with the exception of some hyper-social business-doing — but that’s a different sort of thing, the whirlwind travel through conferences and business meetings and product demos and sales and events and recruiting and such.
She tells me her story — looking to get into a cool type of art, finished art school, felt burnt out after the last year of school, started working at the diner.
“But working here made me realize how much this is not what I want out of life.”
Honesty! Realness! I almost don’t know how to process it.
“Why haven’t you left yet?”
All of sudden, I realize I’m writing.
I shouldn’t be surprised — this is what I decided I would do this month. Business is going gangbusters, which is great — we’re hiring, and we’ve got a couple people who are real stars as candidates, which is very exciting — we’re working on new products, new marketing, new sales, building out more ops and delivery, improving existing produ- well, you know how it goes.
But I haven’t been writing.
This strikes me having been necessary for two months — when you build things, sometimes they take take on a life of their own — but I think writing is both valuable and sanity-producing, and I’m very bullish on sanity. I think sanity is worth investing in.
Another realization hits — extrospection. Spell-checker still dislikes the word, but it’s a real thing. I haven’t been extrospecting for… too long now. The world became a sort of dull backdrop to living in my head, living in formulae and equations and production schedules — all valuable things. All what I wanted.
Pop music is playing at the diner, I’m legitimately laughing and smiling for no particular reason for the first time in a while as I overhear the lyrics —
Be careful what you wish for
Because you might just get it
You might just get it
You might just get it
I’ve laughed both triumphantly after wins, and laughed with sort of a grim determination of, “Well, ok, we’ve signed up to do something impossible and now need to do it” — both types of laughter have been had recently, but not laughing for no particular reason.
I’m noticing things again. Extrospection.
Of course, the extrospection sets off chains of introspection as well.
It’s kind of amusing that I had a sort of unrealized background-swaggering-superiority about robot movies and perfect-hair-love-stories on an airplane while I’m a spectator to some book about climbing mountains, and then I opt out of life the next day for eight hours to play games without thinking about it.
17 swords — indeed.
Marilyn Monroe is kind of bored and chats with me as another batch of coffee is brewing up. I know where she’s at — she says she hates the winters here, wants to get out of Toronto, go to Miami or something.
Had she been to Austin, Texas? She hadn’t. I recommended Austin. I think it’d be perfect for her, she could find some work there easily for a few months in Texas’s warm and mild winter, and it’d be the perfect place for her mix of art and the type of work she’d want to do.
She thanked me, but it was a dull thanks. She was suffering, badly, she owned the suffering — there was very much “I wish something different would happen” — but apparently not enough to seriously plan and scheme on how to move on.
I remember that. People typically need either luck or rock-bottom to shake themselves out of something like that. Strong people maybe don’t, but strong people also are unlikely to get stuck in that “I wish something different would happen” type place. We all have a variety of attributes, but I mean strong in a sense that I’m not when I speak of that type of strength. That type of strength where you never lose agency is a rare type of strength; very few people get that in their natural deck of cards.
I decided that when she came back, I’d offer to make a few introductions for her that might get her kickstarted. One of the advantages of spending so much time knowing many different types of people is you know who is hiring, who needs projects done, who has spare bandwidth to work with talented people with something special about them. She’s in a beaten-down place, sure, but there’s still a certain spark in her.
Every now and then I’d wound up in a place like that, and every now and then, I got lucky and someone offered a helping hand. Sometimes it was rock-bottom, something’s-gotta-give, by-god-I-gotta-make-something-different — but just as often it was a random lucky thing.
For my part, I’m writing again. Praise God.
“Yes — thank you — wait, did the shifts change over?”
In the black diner uniform was a young Asian-Canadian guy — he’s smiling, fresh-faced, the start of the day and not the end of it.
“The shifts changed at 6AM.”
“Oh, did [Marilyn] leave?”
“I see. Thank you for the coffee."
Extrospection sounds a lot like Buddhist "Presence" (with an external sensory focus).
When considering taking a break when you could or should be doing something that’s meaningful to you, this is ever and always the tension. “Is taking a break here correct pragmatism, or am I being a putz and rationalizing?”
This is the story of my life. Especially outside 9-5. During business hours, my tendency is to grind hard, and if I feel like a need a break, I probably do. But at 9pm, kids in bed, don't necessarily need to start winding down for bed yet? On a weekend, after finishing laundry and dishes? It's a daily, unanswerable question.
You know Patri, I think you'd like the book Elite Minds a lot.
It's got some gems that are directly applicable — I think perhaps our minds work somewhat similarly, since I recognize what you're saying — and Elite Minds helped clarify some things.
As a warning, it's borderline-terrible writing. Long digressions, kind of wordy, etc. But some of the content is gold and might be very helpful to you.
Woooww...it feels so good to have you writing again.
Great read! Missed your style of writing.
Thank God you are back!
I love the blend of observation, definitions and story twining through each other. That balance is hard to achieve, and you do it very well here. And (appropriately to a post on extrospection vs introspection,) the back-and-forth between outer and inner is graceful, and helps illustrate the topic you chose.
I’m always curious how time and schedule conscious folks return to their optimal habits when disrupted. Thank you for documenting it for us.
Yeah, historically a tricky probably. Of course, Lights helps a lot but there's lots of moving pieces.
I started reading this at work, thinking that I could just skim and read the headlines because I got work to do. I ended up reading the whole thing and thoroughly enjoying it! I haven't read anything this entertaining in a very long time, thank you!
I would like to very much encourage you to keep writing these blogesque posts!
As for me, I'm going to make myself another cup of coffee and get back to work.