Jimmy's stories


My friend Jimmy, who's been retired for a while, often repeats his stories. I still like hearing them. He's my friend.

As a kid when I'd go to the synagogue certain prayers would be repeated again and again over the years. They felt meaningful, even though I'd heard them many times before. Jimmy's stories are kind of like that.

What's better than being exceptional?


I imagine that balanced people want to be happy and healthy, and wish the same for those they're close to. It's also normal and healthy to enjoy your work or hobbies, and to try to excel at them. But this is different than needing to be better than everyone else. Wishing to be? Okay. Striving to be?  Fine. But needing to be? No sir.  There's something off balance about the need to be exceptional.

In the coming years, I hope that my country will become more psychologically healthy, and let go of the need to be exceptional. I hope we'll strive to improve educational institutions, to improve health services, to create more jobs that allow people to engage in fulfilling work. All of this can be done without the need to be exceptional in comparison to other countries.

There was a song popular some years ago that went "Proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free...."   But that lyric could just as well replace "American" with French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, South Korean, and many other nationalities. In Spanish, the lyric would be "Orgulloso de ser de España, donde al menos sé que soy libre". But people I know from Spain would feel ridiculous singing such a lyric. Listening to someone else sing it they'd feel what they call "vergüenza ajena", embarrassment for the other person. The Spanish have lived in a free country since the 1970s (when democracy was restored after Franco). But they know that they're one of many countries with freedom of speech, press, and religion.  The singer's proud to be an American, and that's great. But a person can be proud without being ignorant.

I can envision a psychologically healthy America, happy to be a member of a community of free nations, and motivated to improve conditions for its own people. That's better than being exceptional.

Waiting upon ideas

June 21, 2015

I read an interview of a highly creative neuroscientist who described his way of coming up with creative solutions. He'd have in mind a particular problem-to-be-solved. Then he'd sit quietly and wait for ideas to come to him. He wouldn't walk while he was thinking, because he found his own movements distracting. He'd just sit in a chair quietly. After a little while, so many ideas would come bubbling up that he'd have to write rapidly to get them all down.

But, for him, it started with sitting quietly and waiting.

There's an area of Brooklyn

May 30, 2015

Some neuroscientist wrote that until we’re about 30 our brains are highly plastic and are being shaped to our environment. But from then on, we try to shape our environment to match the way our brains have become.  I was thinking about that the other day when I was exploring Brooklyn neighborhoods.

There’s an area of Brooklyn near where Rosa works, centered around the Cortelyou Avenue subway stop. It's kind of a 'hip', diverse area, white, black, latino, West Indian. A neighborhood where you see easy-going people in café’s and restaurants, and where coffee house baristas hold the highest status in the neighborhood. Oddly, there's also a low-energy, suburban feel to it since the main street is surrounded by large residential areas.  A lot of the young people around Cortelyou seemed to be posing, as young people often do. Despite the easy-going and diverse population, it didn’t feel right to me.

Maybe it’s that the youth culture, 20s and early 30s, is no longer mine. They are not my people, and I am not theirs. Would I have resonated to the Cortelyou area when I was 28? Who was I at that age? I need to take time to recall. Where was I? I was finishing my PhD work at UC Santa Barbara and heading back to the East Coast to start a post-doc at Princeton. How would that Jon, the one packing his boxes before leaving Santa Barbara, have felt in the Cortelyou area? I guess that Jon could have moved to Cortelyou with an open mind, a sense of some adventure, looking for a girl; and he may well have found one that stirred his emotions and passion. And then the surroundings, the other people would have fallen into place around that center point.

That’s very different than coming to a place with a sense already of what I like, who I am, and recognizing whether or not an environment fits me.

So, after 30 we try to shape our environment to match the way our brains have become? That may be true for me. My brain’s undergone an awful lot of plasticity already.

I had a cup of coffee at Cafe' Madelaine on Cortelyou Avenue and then went on exploring Brooklyn neighborhoods. I drove down Coney Island Avenue just because I liked the name, passing the Eastern European neighborhoods in south Brooklyn, Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach.  I had another hour to kill before I'd pick up Rosa from work at Brooklyn College.