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Squirrel in the Winter

For the past week highs in this January of a Broadview Heights winter have approached 40 F. Although there have been record lows in recent months, the mild weather echoes a mild November. (A few flying insects hatched early, as if it were spring, and are trapped behind a screen in a window.) The two feet of snow has partly melted,  but more will arrive soon. The hyperactive squirrels in the woods bordering my back yard never seem to mind the weather, whether a perfect spring day or a winter blizzard. Whether playing or working, they go on their merry way oblivious to everything except their patch of woods. On this day I saw something I’d never seen before. A red squirrel was quickly gathering leaves off of the lower branches of a tree, compacting them into its mouth, then gathering more leaves and compacting those, until it could carry no more. Then it would travel up the tree to a branch high up, jump over to a branch on another tree, then continue traveling up the tree until it arrived a spot about 50 feet above the ground, where three branches pointing upward made a pocket where the squirrel had placed a large amount of leaves and twigs. Whether this was a nest or simply a cache of food supplies I do not know. But after delivering the compacted leaves, the squirrel would come back down more or less the same route it took up, jump over to the other tree, then go down to where leaves were. This being winter, there were relatively few leaves, in varying shades of brown. When I looked the next morning, all the leaves on the tree were gone, although there had not been many the day before. I watched the squirrel do this back and forth with its gathering and delivery several times. It chose to gather the leaves closest to his cache, rather than some further off. Although it didn’t do any math, somehow it did a mental calculation that the leaves it chose were closest and the paths it chose optimal in terms of time and distance. The next morning it was playing with another squirrel, most likely its mate, rather than working. Although most likely this is programmed, instinctive behavior, some if it may be learned. Do people have similar instincts? Do people with an obsessive compulsive disorder who collect too much useless stuff have such an instinct that has gone haywire, rather than being useful, being dysfunctional? We all squirrel things away from time to time, planning to use them in the near or distant future. How many things do we squirrel away that will never be used, but merely take up space and cause accumulated inventory costs? If they increase in value that is one thing. If they depreciate to being worthless that is another. Perhaps there are two lessons with the squirrel. One is that yes, it’s important to prepare for the winter ahead. The other is that beyond a certain point, there is no need to squirrel more when you have enough.

Peace of Mind, II

In order to create great art, or even mediocre art, the right frame of mind is required. So to create art, nurture the needed peace of mind. Although achieving this state of mind might seem to be a simple matter, easily achieved by snapping one’s fingers and saying “voila,” it is not for most of us. Perhaps some people are born with this ability. Others may find it easily achievable. But for most of us, we must obtain and understand the wisdom, acquire the needed knowledge, determine how this knowledge and wisdom relate to our own situation, and apply them. Given the uniqueness of each soul in this world, your own optimized path to achieving peace of mind is unique to you. What works for you will not necessarily work for somebody else. At this times there will be similarities between what works for any two people; at times the difference will be that between two extremes, or not comparable in any way. Achieving peace of mind is a practice. Building good habits in this practice is time well spent. For some people this practice seems to be somehting they are born into, in that they seem to be highly advanced beings on the path of widsom as soon as they are born. For most of us though, the path of widsom is challenging, a lifelong quest that after a lifteime seems like we are just getting started. Whenever you start, wherever you start, when you set your feet on the right path, peace of mind will follow.

The Psychology of Evil

It’s a weird thing to discover, if you are a basically honest person, that a very large number of people in the world don’t have a conscience. (“Basically” in the preceding sentence just notes that even the most honest person in the world will, at times, be inclined to be dishonest, even if only to protect the feelings of others or combat the potential ill effects of violating unjust laws or social taboos.) According to Martha Stout, a psychologist previously at Harvard, the number of people without a conscience is 1 in 25, four percent of the population (see The Sociopath Next Door). That’s a remarkable number. Think about it. Are there 100 people where you work? On average, there would be four people totally devoid of a sense of right and wrong. This lack of conscience doesn’t correlate with looks, intelligence, or background. These people, who find it humorous that you and I have a sense of right and wrong, are indistinguishable from the normal crowd. They even tend to be glib and charming, albeit in a superficial way. Perhaps the percentage is less, but even so, exercise caution until you really know a person.

Weather Patterns in Cleveland

I’m currently living in Broadview Heights, in the southern part of the Cleveland metro area, approximately midway between Cleveland and Akron. For the first several months after I arrived in Cleveland, I lived first in a suite in Candlewood Suites in North Olmstead, then in Westlake. There is a cluster of cities on the west side: North Olmstead, Brook Park (where I work), Lakewood, Avon, Avon Lake, Westlake, Rocky River, Bay Village (where there’s a great Metropark beach–Huntington). These are all nice areas, like most of the places in Cleveland, each with its own demographics and other characteristics. One thing they share in common, bordering on or not too far from Lake Erie, is that they are not in the snow belt (but it does snow!). The east side gets the most snow, being in the primary snow belt, while the west side gets the reverse of lake effect snow: less snow. This is a much recognized truism. Now, when I moved here last March, the first week I was here it snowed for two days (i.e., 48 hours) nonstop, and indeed it was deep on the west side. (Oddly enough, my car, sheltered behind a three-story hotel, did not need to be dug out, because of the way the wind was blowing when it snowed so long.) But it was deeper on the east side. Temperatures vary too. Although there are hills, the land is relatively flat on the west side. Between where I am now leasing a house and where I work, there is a fifteen-mile route, but there are so many traffic lights and rough roads that I seldom take it. (I have an alternate long route through the Metropark, which is much more agreeable although slow). So I take a route to and from work that is mostly highway, 237 to I480 to I77, which clocks in at 22 miles: half an hour each way on a day when the traffic cooperates. Road construction is often a factor; these are big city highways, thankfully. A colleague of mine who lives on the southeast side of the metro area in Twinsburg told me before I moved here that in the winter he goes through several weather patterns on his daily commute. I’ve discovered I go through at least three, probably four. Although it’s only 29 October, winter is showing its face (indian summer days expected tout de meme). As I drive to where I’m living, the flat land turns to rolling hills, some quite high. I’m living in the secondary snow belt, a fact a number of people have pointed out to me. This morning, it was eight degrees Fahrenheit cooler in Broadview Heights than in the city of Cleveland. There was snow on the ground, the first time this winter-approaching season. It is pretty, in a magical way. As I drove to work, first I encountered spitting snow, then a little hard sleet, but on the Interstate quickly passed to where there was no snow on the ground, with a light rain. As I took an exit into Brook Park heading to my place of employment, I noticed the clouds in the sky, in the direction of the lake, were much different than those where I live. In Broadview Heights I looked up and saw a gray, homogenous sky. In Brook Park, the sky showed white and black billowy clouds, with high contrast: rain, not snow clouds. Getting out of my car it felt noticeably warmer than it was from whence I had come. What can be said about passing through different weather patterns on a short drive? It’s not boring but is beautiful in its own way.

A bad part of town

Living in the Cleveland metro area for the past four months, I’ve been astonished at how nice it is up here. In the parts of town where I live and hang out most of the time, I couldn’t imagine any place better (people tell me “wait until winter,” but we’ll see). I started off my Saturday with a hike in the Metropark at the South Rocky River Reservation, on a path that requires I climb several flights of stairs that is challenging, but healthy. What a refreshing way to start a day! After that, I took a long drive through the Metropark, ending in at the Brecksville Reservation, exiting the Metropark to get some lunch. Since the Subway I stopped at didn’t have any chairs, I decided to delay lunch until after I’d gone to the library to get some books. Online, I was looking for books by George Soros and Benoit Mandelbrot, brilliant hedge fund manager and mathematician, respectively, related in that they both understand the inadequacies of modern portfolio theory in finance. (When will “modern” no longer be modern?) The only library in the metro area that had books by both authors on the shelf was in Maple Heights. Must be a nice part of town, I thought, to have such serious finance books on the shelf. Not being sure, however, I set my GPS on Most Use of Freeways, to minimize my time on backstreets in case I was wrong. On exiting from the freeway, I realized that in fact this was not the best part of the metro area. I saw a store on a main street whose windows were boarded up with plywood. In Florida, this means that a hurricane is on its way. In the Cleveland metro area, it could mean it’s a high crime area. As I followed instructions to the library, given by the GPS, I grew more alert, especially to people on the street and to cars near me. I was thankful for the heavily tinted windows of my Florida car, although aware of the conspicuousness of my Florida tag and the GPS on my windshield. As I turned left onto Library Road, the terrain continued to be ominous (perhaps this is too strong a word, but that was my impression). I noticed there were many cars in the parking lot, but as I got out and quickly made my way towards the entrance–whose location was not clear (I had to backtrack from my original attempt to find it), I noticed that a sign in the window said CLOSED, COME BACK LATER. Um, I thought, if this place is closed and there are this many cars in the parking lot, who knows what’s going on. Finding the entrance, I saw people and entered: the library was open after all. I asked a woman in circulation where the bathroom was, and after she told me I politely noted that the sign in the window said the library was closed (she told another woman about the sign). I found my books–upstairs–and went to check them out. Before that, while downstairs checking the place out, a tall young man with long hair enter into the library. He had a glazed look on his face. A very light skinned mixed-ethnicity young man was downstairs checking out children’s books. He appeared to be mildly retarded, and I felt great compassion and sympathy for him. As I exited the library (with the sign still saying CLOSED), I headed quickly to my car, got in, and locked the doors with a motion of my elbow, a movement that seems natural in my Volvo 940 Turbo. As I pulled onto Library Road leaving the scene, a police car was heading in in the opposite direction. As I exited the road and turned right, I saw a police car parked in a parking lot across the street with a vigilant officer inside and hoped that the traffic lights would stay green. When they turned red, I did not go all the way up to the line when I was in front in the right lane of the four-lane road where I stayed. I kept far enough back so that I could not see the people through the open windows of cars on my left, nor they see me. At one point, my car was rocking to the bass beat of a car behind or next to me–it’s hard to tell directionality with low frequencies. Sitting at the first light, I saw a sign on a building for sale: GHOST TOWN REALTY (no kidding). Finally, I pulled onto the Interstate, headed west, with my excellent books with me. On the one hand I was intrigued by the neighborhood, on the other I had the thought that it might be better to have the books delivered to another branch if I checked out books from there again. Getting home, back to my temporary apartment (most things seem temporary to me these days, which in the long run everything is except our souls/spirits/minds), I checked on the Internet to see what the neighborhood was like crime-wise. Indeed, many bad crimes take place there. Examples include the police breaking up a crowd of 100-150 young males, perhaps viewing a fight, with pepper spray, and the theft of nine catalytic converters from a car lot. Also, anything left out, such as two tables in preparation for a yard sell, are stolen. It’s weird, those catalytic converter thefts also occur here in Westlake where I’m living. But the valet parking and living room furniture on the sidewalk for passers by in the shopping district seem like in another country from where I just checked books out. We have a lot of work to do here in the US to help those less fortunate to share in the American abundance.

Point of View

We can choose the things that make up our world. How many of us do? It takes a mindful stance to choose the things that make up our world. For example, according to some experts, ninety percent of our thinking is subconscious. So in order to consciously choose, we must be on the constant lookout for the seductive pull of subconscious drives, some of which we may not even be aware of. Ever find yourself doing something that is not part of your conscious program? It could be something so silly as mindlessly turning on the TV to watch a soap opera, without even thinking about it. When we consciously choose, asking “what is best,” magic happens. Point of view, properly chosen, can transform your world! Is your news source all bad news? Change it. Eliminate it. Tap into the infinite with intuition. Stop the noise of the chatter.

Infinite Palette

An artist chooses from among things to create his or her art. The painter chooses paints, mixes them and chooses something to put them on; the musician chooses sounds, instruments, technique and a million other things; the writer chooses words; the photographer chooses a camera, lens, film or digital, printing–traditional darkroom or digital printer. Each of these creators of a work of art chooses from an infinite palette, making infinitely many choices along the way, constantly. Likewise, an engineer chooses from among infinitely many choices when designing something; an interior decorator does the same. An architect does also. When a person landscapes his or her yard, many choices are also made. We are constrained, however, by our training, our background, our culture, our own limitations, sometimes by what we think others will think. Even then, however, the choices are infinite. What is not commonly thought about often, however, is that every move we make in our lives, every word we say, everything we think, everything we do, all of our plans, our hopes, our dreams, are chosen from infinite palettes of possibilities. Sometimes we choose consciously, but often we choose unconsciously, without even thinking about it. Never forget that at each instant, you have infinite choice. Your life, what the inside of your house looks like, your character, your friends, your developed abilities, are the result of your own choices. Paradoxically, a disciplined person has more freedom of choice than an undisciplined person. Discipline itself implies an ability to choose. Remember, at every instant you have infinitely many choices to make. Choose wisely, and be sure to include some fun, some productivity and some love every day!

Priceless Things

The priceless things in the world are those things beyond material comfort: the appreciation of art, music, literature, friendship, love, experiences shared with others, moments of accomplishment, understanding or spiritual enlightenment, the joy of helping someone in need.  Money cannot buy these things. Ironically, money may be a prerequisite for experiencing some of them, because if one is spending all one’s time obtaining basic food, clothing and shelter, then obviously the finer flowers of a person’s development and experience go unbloomed, wilting before they have a chance to blossom. Noteably, wealth cannot buy culture, kindness, intelligence or class in a person. If a person has all these qualities and is wealthy, they are lucky. People are sometimes held in awe for their great wealth though when they are bizarrely lacking in basic human qualities. Money as an end in itself is a sickness, as a means to accomplish and experience things it is an essential tool.

Qualities that make people what they are

Intelligence, wisdom, talent, character and goodness are all different things. Intelligence has been defined in many places, and most people would not have trouble coming up with a decent definition. For wisdom, we must look to philosophy and religion, but suffice it to say, one can have intelligence but be seriously lacking in wisdom. Talent comes in many forms; it is not synonymous with intelligence, but like it, can be endlessly developed by our mutable human characteristics. Character includes those good qualities that a human would ideally have, particularly in the social environment. Goodness relates also to how a person behaves socially. One could be good without having any of the other qualities mentioned above except character, which goodness would indicate a certain amount of.

Off to Florida again

I’m going to Florida on business for a few days, so I get to stay in my Orlando house where I have not been since the first week of April–too long. If I could, I would extend the trip a few days and stay the weekend, but I must come back to Virginia to try to close on a house here. I miss Orlando, mainly because it’s a really cool city, in spite of the heat. The odd thing is–this is hard to believe but true–, so far this spring and summer the daily highs have usually been higher here on the Virginia Peninsula (Hampton Roads) than in Orlando. Granted it is sometimes cooler here, but the reality I’ve seen doesn’t jibe with the data from a ten-year-out-of-date Places Rated Almanac I referred to before moving up. Last week it hit 97 F in Hampton; next week it is forecast to hit 99 F in Hampton. I recall one day it was ten degrees cooler in Hampton than in Norfolk just across the James River. But it is truly surprising to see it ten degrees warmer in Virginia than in Orlando! Is this typical? On the data will show. Another great thing about Orlando is low taxes. Here in Virginia it is lovely–I wouldn’t be buying a house here if it were not nice, and I love the neighborhood where I’m buying, but the taxes are incredibly high–at least to someone whose never had to pay state income tax (in Tennessee, Texas or Florida). Sales taxes, high car taxes every year, property taxes, state income tax…they’ve even passed a law adding huge “civil penalties” to traffic citations, milking hundreds or thousands of dollars from citizens in a blatant revenue-generating scheme. It seems more communist than even socialist, but as a citizen of the free world, the thing to do is make money, pay the taxes, and live. That said, ceteris paribus, it’s economically better to be in a state without income tax. There must be a lot of cheating that goes on, but it would be stupid to risk prison for mere dollars. After all, the most valuable things in life are priceless.