Life

003: Does “Perfect” Exist?

In which we wax philosophical, apparently. I believe that there is, indeed, such a thing as perfect. However, that thing lies not in a thing as it is, but in a thing as it is perceived.

Let’s consider a perfect afternoon. I’ve eaten a delicious lunch and had a small cocktail to round things out. The sky is bright azure and there are small, white, puffy clouds skittering about the ceiling of the world. The temperature is in the mid-seventies, the grass is green, the lawn work is already done, leaving me comfortably sore and tired. I have no commitments in the evening or for the rest of the afternoon. The hammock is set up, and I am in that hammock, watching the clouds in the sky and considering this perfect day.

The day, in and of itself, is not perfect. Somewhere, a child lays screaming; somewhere, missles are being fired, somewhere, an old woman is dying alone and unloved. The day itself is certainly not perfect. The experience which I am having – my perception of this day – is perfect, as long as I don’t consider these other elements of lives outside my own.

And yes, these are the thoughts which intrude upon my most perfect days. For how dare I enjoy perfection in an imperfect world?

Let’s consider a perfect meal. A beautifully balanced pre-dinner drink, made by expert hands with a strong sense of flavor. Appetizers which prepare the taste buds and sharpen hunger, perhaps a little crunchy, perhaps a little sweet. Soup to follow which cleanses the palate and is presented with precision. An entrée of tender lamb, with a crisp crust and an interior which falls off the bone, served over garlic whipped potatoes and sweet peas. Dessert of crème brulee and a glass of Armagnac to finish.

A perfect meal, but one which would turn a vegan’s stomach, which would send an alcoholic packing, would absolutely freak out anyone more frugal than your humble narrator. A perfect meal nonetheless, in my experience and perception.

And yes, I ask as I eat; how dare I enjoy such luxuries, when I am surrounded by want and need? Who am I to partake of perfection when others go hungry?

Or a perfect relationship, one in which each partner’s needs are perfectly and exquisitely balanced to bring maximum pleasure to each one, to serve one another’s hopes, dreams, and desires and which lasts until the day they pass peacefully together into that long night. Hardly perfect in the eyes of their divorcee friends.

Perfect exists as an experiential state of mind. Is there a platonic ideal of any material thing? Perhaps elsewhere. Perhaps in the mists of another world. Here, however, as Milton says – Our minds can make a Heaven of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven. With our thoughts and our eyes, our choice of how to see those things around us, we can make perfection here on Earth …

Or we can question our rights to Heaven.

Currently Eating: Duck Duck Goat

Duck Duck Goat is star chef Stephanie Izard’s “reasonably authentic” take on Chinese food, located in Chicago’s West Loop – the Fulton Market District. My friends Carl and Nancy snagged reservations in late May and invited us along for the ride.

First off, let’s discuss the decor. Each room in this multi-room, high-ceilinged restaurant is decorated in a different but striking style. The lounge area is a lovely jade green, with a small but well-tended bar behind which rises an old fashioned mirror and about two dozen statues of goats. Many with lucky coins, others without. The room in which we ate was also jade green, but festooned with around sixteen different Bob Ross style paintings of calm forest waterfalls. You think they’re all the same at a casual glance, but if you look more closely you’ll pick up on the differences. The ceilings were dark cork for style and sound-dampening properties, inset with colorful crests and ornamentation.

The main room feels taller as well as larger thanks to the exposed pipes and the mahogany shelves up where our ceilings were, filled with goods that give the feel of an Indiana Jones market set-place, well-lit against the scarlet walls. I could spend a happy hour just walking through the place and taking in the feel.

We started in the lounge with Blind Goat Old Fashioneds: J. Henry Blind Goat Bourbon, Birch-Sarsaparilla, Angostura Bitters and an orange peel the likes of which I’ve never seen. Their mixologist really knows what he’s doing – not a hint of pith, and about as wide as a woman’s palm.

Our lovely server Sara recommended two dishes apiece for a group of four, as the food is served family-style typically in sets of 3-5 items. We wound up with eleven dishes total, plus dessert and perhaps another cocktail apiece.

Starters were possibly my favorite item of the evening: goat and duck skin spring rolls, lightly fried and served with two sauces. These little morsels could be a lunch for me and I’d be well pleased. The snap of the roll against the slightly musty flavor of good goat’s meat combined with the richness of rendered duck skin and the wonderfully hot mustard.

After that, wood-grilled duck hearts in horseradish aioli sauce. The lovely copper tang of organ meats blended with a perfect amount of smoke, with sliced scallions offering some vegetal relief from the supreme richness of the meat and sauce combination. At the same time we were served scallion pancakes with hoisin sauce and cabbage coleslaw. I’ve never had scallion pancakes this light and airy – thin, crisp, and warmed just so to balance the coolness of the slaw. These two together were a lovely combination.

After that we got pickled cucumbers as a palate cleanser followed by pork fried rice. I’m not normally a fan of fried rice, but the manner in which we were eating was protein-heavy, and carbs sounded like a good idea. (I would have preferred to try the Forbidden Goat, black rice with goat and pickled quail eggs, but I wasn’t about to push anyone at this stage.) The dish wasn’t as heavy or greasy as most fried rice, as I expected, and the pork belly and sausage were a real treat.

Frankly, I could have stopped here and been immensely satisfied. But no, oh no! There was more on the way.

Horn Shu Rao – braised pork belly – which was properly prepared, but a bit gelatinous for some members of our party. I enjoyed the entire thing immensely and wound up enjoying their servings as well. A plate of pickled mixed vegetables and a dish of the most amazing green beans in black bean sauce with fried onions and cashews I have ever had. These two vegetable dishes together gave me a world of enjoyment.

Barbecue pork Bao buns, half apiece, really put me over the edge. These were good, and it may be my increasing discomfort, but I don’t think I’d get them again personally. On top of that pork we got jiazao – fried potstickers of short rib and bone marrow – which would rank as my second favorite items of the night after the spring rolls we started with. Completely different profiles, with these being rich and dark and smoky and divine; much better suited for the end of an evening.

Of course, then we saw a plate of regular wood grilled short ribs being served at the next table and, being who we are, added an order of those. Again, I’m afraid I wound up eating more than my share as some in the party had believed they would be boneless rather than bone-in. Saucy, sesame-laden, and pillow-soft to the tooth once you got through the tantalizingly crisp wood crust.

For dessert, blueberry and bullet chili sorbet topped with shaved rhubarb ice, “crunchy corn cereal” which I believe – but cannot prove – came from a certain Captain of the cereal industry – caramelized condensed milk, blueberries, and an incredibly delicious take on rhubarb slices that melted in the mouth.

The bill was also … remarkably low. I have honestly had much less food at a similar price here in the suburbs, routinely. I had fully planned to spend twice what I did for this experience, which makes it all the sweeter.

Admittedly, sleeping was an issue after that much rich and incredible food, but I’ll gladly trade a good night’s sleep for a meal I’ll still be thinking about for years to come. I am an unabashed fan of Duck Duck Goat and look forward to trying Chef Izard’s other locations in the near future.

002: A single backpack

If you were forced to eliminate every physical possession from your life with the exception of what could fit into a single backpack, what would you put in it?

Credit cards to everyplace that sells physical possessions? I kid, I kid.

First things first, a photo from my wedding, a photo of my wife, a photo of my parents, and a photo of my sister, all laminated against spills and tears.

Next, my laptop computer and wireless mouse. This covers all my entertainment needs, most of my social needs, and the vast majority of my working needs; though a printer hookup would definitely be choice. If by “from your life” you mean “forever,” well, I’m more than a little hosed; so let’s aim for a small portable printer as well.

Secondly, a selection of pens and my Leuchtturm 1917 paper journal. This keeps me sane, together, and focused. It’s my to-do list and my aspirations.

Thirdly, my cellphone and Kindle. Yeah, the tablet’s kind of redundant to the laptop, but it’s less than book-sized. Oh, and chargers for all electronics, obviously.
Two changes of underwear, one change of pants, one change of socks, and three shirts all in a gilly roll at the bottom of the backpack. Razor, soap, deodorant stone, shampoo, conditioner, hair product (my little secret) and electric trimmer. As my buddy Ben once pointed out, I believe neatly groomed facial hair is key to the Kingdom of Heaven.

I mean, there’s not much else I need. This is basically what I carry to and from the office every day.

That said, I’m assuming climate won’t be an issue. If so, a good coat is probably going to take up the rest of this backpack.

By the same token, if we’re talking serious post-apocalypse, throw out ALL the electronics, ain’t gonna need them. Replace them with the complete works of William Shakespeare and Dashiell Hammet. The rest of the backpack’s a good sized multi-knife, a mess of canned food, a can opener, mess kit and water purifier, and a tarpaulin for sleeping. Plus a guide to edible flora in the area, as I’m likely going vegetarian. I’d be a lousy hunter.

001: What did I do last week that was memorable?

(Note: This was written several weeks ago, but is being published today.)

Oh, plenty of things. How much fun to answer this after such an eventful week. If I were speaking on my feet, I could not refer to my bullet journal; so I’ll work to simply recall in writing as well.

I completed the edits for two short stories, putting my work on the Gentleman Ghouls Omnibus to bed. Well, the writing work. I also designed a book cover and was paid a pretty penny, which is going to purchase a PlayStation 4 – mostly in anticipation of Red Dead Redemption 2, but partly because I’d like a modern console.

I wrote quite a bit in these blog entries. Five full entries out of an attempted 3. I didn’t get any fiction writing done, but am aiming to fold that in this week. I delivered a speech off the top of my head to an appreciative room and got at least one amazing compliment out of that.

I read a lot. Two chapters in an assertiveness workbook, which is doing me a world of good. Five chapters in a book on compulsive behaviors. Three in a book on soul-friendship, given to me by someone very dear, a true Anam Cara. And five chapters of Jack London’s The Iron Heel, a socialist work against the oligarchy, and very timely in these miserable days beneath the heels.

Probably the two most memorable moments, though, were gathering with another dear friend for coffee on Sunday afternoon – a day when I am often found curled up at home, avoiding the world and myself. She surprised me with gifts from a recent trip, both for myself and my lovely wife, along with a few new card games for us all to try.

And I took said lovely wife to the theater for the closing night of Any Other Name, an excellent new black comedy starring three dear friends – James, Michelle, and Frank. The set design was splendid and the actors were each phenomenal. The tickets were a surprise gift from my good friend Phil.

By Julius Schorzman - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107645 I felt very taken care of last week, honestly. It seemed like the world was bending over backward to make good things happen for me. I got the news of both a merit increase at work and the annual bonus payout, both of which made me very pleased. We did our taxes, too; but between state and federal it came out to a wash. Still, I’ll take a wash over a nasty surprise any day of the week.

Aha! Referring back, I see I also got out of the house on Monday and Friday to play games! First time to the Burdsell Manor to play Mansions of Madness over cheese curds and Miskatonic beers, second time to Chateau Glovier for our first try at Archipelago. Dan and I enjoyed tonkatsu udon for dinner that night, which was just delightful; and I was able to treat myself to a rare luxury Sunday evening with the missus.

It was, to be honest, a lovely and golden week. I look forward to this new one with a smile.

 

Three Ways to Prioritize Your Time

Let’s face it, we all procrastinate to some extent. The question of “to what extent” is what really separates us from one another, and separates the chronically late from the simply ill-prepared. I’m going to introduce you to three tools that moved me from the former category firmly into the latter.

The first is a physical and analog tool. This, my friends, is called a Bullet Journal. I know, I know. It’s the information age, the digital age, the time of miracles and wonder. An age that requires us to be nimble and to move quickly. Our brains, however, haven’t always caught up with that age. We’re still wired to work in an analog setting. The Bullet Journal, developed by a clever young man named Ryder Carrol, works to blend the two.

It has been scientifically proven that writing things out in longhand keeps them in our memory longer. At its simplest and most effective, the Bullet Journal consists of only three things: A number to every page, a topic to every page, and bullet points on every page.

As an example, take a look at these two pages, 114-115. This is where I keep track of restaurants I want to try and movies I want to watch, or have watched. You’ll note that each starts with a bullet point, maybe a brief description. At the bottom of the movies page, there’s a variance – having watched the Coen Brothers’ HAIL, CAESAR, I made an X through the bullet point and provided my personal 3-star rating. It was a good film, but not their best work. Similarly, under Restaurants, I’ve crossed out Trencherman, which sadly closed before I was able to enjoy their fare.

The page numbers allow me to create a quick index at the front of the journal. You can see how this system lets me take casual, one-off thoughts or comments and log them to remember later, when I’m actually looking for something to do. I find recommendations online or on television, and jot them down in the journal so I don’t have to remember them any longer.

The second tool is called the Eisenhower Matrix. Named after President Dwight D. Eisenhower, this is the tool that really changed the way I spend my days and weeks. He had a great quote – “What is urgent is rarely important, and what is important is rarely urgent.”

As such, the matrix consists of four quadrants: Important and Urgent, Important and Not Urgent, Urgent but Not Important, and Neither Urgent nor Important. Examples of those four might be tax deadlines, physical exercise or study, assisting co-workers with their deadlines, and – at least in my case – scrolling endlessly through social media.

It’s a funny thing about our modern age that we spend most of our lives in the third quadrant, taking care of things that are Urgent – usually for someone else – but not truly important to us.

Eisenhower recommended that you Do everything in the first quadrant as soon as possible. That you Devote the majority of your free time to the second quadrant. That you Delegate or Decline to accept items in the third quadrant. And that you Delete items in the fourth quadrant.

I found that tracking these in my BuJo – and not even marking down the fourth quadrant – truly helped me begin focusing my time and energy where it was most important.

The third and final item that helped me with time management is called the Pomodoro Technique. Francesco Cirillo developed this in the eighties. The idea is that you can usually focus on ANYTHING for twenty minutes’ time. Therefore, when you begin a difficult task, you set a timer for 20 minutes. When that timer goes off, you ask yourself, do I need a break? If so, you take five minutes to stretch, check Facebook, or do other things Eisenhower would put in his fourth quadrant – then get back to another 20-minute block of work.

These three techniques have changed me from a full-blown procrastinator to a largely functional member of adult society. In fact, not too long ago, one of my mentors commented on the fact that he didn’t believe I’d ever been a procrastinator; because it seemed like I was always busy doing something different. I had to tell him, “Well, that’s the one great part about being a procrastinator. I can’t get bored – I’m just doing the things that were due in January!”

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