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You will thank me for this. Or at least your friends will.

It actually is a personal request: please, in conversation, don’t tell me anything about people I don’t know. If it’s about you, too, actively, that’s fine. If it’s not, you can figure I will have started thinking about nail polish or radish roots before you get one minute into it. I’ll shake myself back into your story repeatedly because I am both nice and well-trained. But it will be a dutiful, not beautiful, return.

I am not sure exactly what happens to the human mind, or at least to mine, when it gets lassoed and dragged through detail about people it doesn’t know or care about. Almost immediately the detail is boring. Unless it is about a murder, and even then it has to be pretty vivid and stay that way.

Actually, I can just about stay with you if you’re talking about someone I don’t know but whom I know you love (or hate). But even then if you slip into things about their children or, god forbid, their grandchildren, you have not only lost me no matter how much my head is nodding (if not nodding off), you have also assaulted me. Details about strangers hurt brains.

Yes, there are a few exceptions. One, if you are funny, almost anything, even strangers’ great grandchildren or dogs, can hold people’s attention. But don’t get your hopes up. Most people are not funny. So you’re probably not either. A lot of people think they are, and they show you this by laughing at their own stories before they’ve gotten to the funny part.

Two, if you build suspense (quickly), people stay with you as long as you don’t do a lateral slide into suspense-less explanation or more strangers.

Three, if you are talking about the listener, no matter how much detail about strangers you go into, they will stay with you, ravenous for the next bit about themselves that you might say.

And that’s about it for exceptions.

So in a valiant attempt to save the world from conversational ennui, not to say desperation, I have devised the ‘First generation Rule': ‘Stick with the people your listener knows’. Period. Second generation stories, never mind third and fourth generation ones, drum up revenge fantasies and can even lead to orchestrated avoidance schemes, i.e., termination of friendships. In fact, if you have lost any friends lately, you might count how many times you told them about people they don't know.

And stop doing it.


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Both Ways, No Way

Capitalism is tricky. I think that on balance (but with zero enthusiasm) that it is the best of the so-far-thought-up economic isms. It is so bad in so many ways, though, it is hard to put the word ‘best’ within a mile of it. But ‘best’ never did have to mean ‘good’, just better than the rest. So, okay, capitalism is the best of the bad.

Here’s my point today: part of its ‘bestness’ is its assertion that the market (you and I when we buy) determines what products are made and what their value is, i.e., their price. You and I. Not the government, and not the folks getting rich from the sales. The idea is that we won’t buy the thing if we think it is not worth our money (given how little of it we have), especially if there are heaps of those things out there to buy. We will buy the thing if we really, really want it and the price is ok, or if there are very few of the thing out there and we are scared we might not get one, especially if we are snobs and like having something that others don’t have.

That’s basically it. All the rest of capitalist theory is either an inaccessible expression of this ‘market decides’ idea, or entirely esoteric hocus pocus assembled to keep us from asking too many questions. 

Key in all of this is that true, deep-in-their-bones capitalists 1 have a fit if any government tells them what to make, how to make it, who can buy it, how much it can cost and how much of that they can keep for themselves. They especially won’t be caught dead proposing that a government dictate to them and their committed capitalist buddies how to decide what to make or how to make it or who their customers can be or how much they can charge and keep. Capitalism itself says they get to do all of that themselves, following the market (us), and if they can’t, it isn’t capitalism any more – it has just, poof, become socialism. And that is that.

This all leads to an unsavoury lifting-of-the-lid on a fetid affair between government and capitalists. Enter conservatism. True conservatives (and Conservatives) are almost always capitalists and are full-time marchers for ‘we decide’ politics. ‘We the market’, not ‘we the government’. Legislators (government), according to pristine conservatism (and Conservatism) get to decide only a vanishingly few number of things. Those include when to go to war, what to do if half the country is under water, how to keep runaways from other countries out of ours, and who won an election (unless you are a  depository of narcissistic mendacity with a spray tan).

So basically a true conservative Conservative is a capitalist who wouldn’t dream of being a conservative Conservative capitalist legislator who tells other conservatives Conservatives capitalists how to decide anything, especially how to run their capitalist businesses. 

And yet. The US conservative Conservative capitalists of Congress have just gone nuts over other conservative Conservative capitalists of Business because they are basing their decisions about what to make and sell and to whom on three questions: 1) what does the market want environmentally? and 2) how does the market want to be treated as human beings? and 3) how can they govern their very own capitalist businesses consistent with those two answers from us?

This way of deciding things even has a name: ‘ESG’. It stands for ‘environmental, social, governance’. Basically it means that the conservative Conservative capitalists of Business are making financial decisions based on non-financial things like – get ready for it – the market. They have discovered that the market these days wants to buy things that emerge from thoughtful environmental, social and governance issues. And they are finding that by considering those three things, they are making money. And are going to make lots more in the future. Just as true capitalists should. 

But – the conservative Conservative capitalists of Congress are screaming. They say you are not allowed as a conservative Conservative capitalist of Business to base your capitalist decisions on the environment and on respect for human beings and then govern accordingly because those are not financial things. They are socialist things. And we won’t be socialist come you know what. And so we the conservative Conservative capitalists of Congress will tell you the conservative  Conservative capitalists of Business how, yes, to run your business. ('Who is the socialist, did you say’?)

So it seems to me that if you are a conservative Conservative capitalist of Congress, you can have it one of two ways. Either you can let conservative Conservative capitalists of Business be real capitalists and use their market to shape their decisions about how to run their capitalist business, or you can scrap conservative Conservative capitalism and admit that something other than that, and other than the other existing economic isms, is actually best. Even if you don’t have a clue what that is. 

But what you can’t do is claim to be a conservative Conservative capitalist and then, when in government, legislate against conservative Conservative capitalism. 

The market is the market. Either you believe in it or you don’t. Either you are a capitalist or not.

Which is it?

1 I realise that actually, as economist Michael Cahill has said astutely, there are hardly any true capitalists left; they have all morphed into ‘corporatists’. But until they admit that and stop pretending they are true capitalists, they are the deserving targets of any stand against capitalist legislator hypocrisy. 

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Carl Sandburg can knock the wind out of you. He uniquely understood the alchemy of brevity into immensity.

I return often, usually near the end of autumn, to this masterpiece:


The voice of the last cricket

Across the first frost

Is one kind of goodbye.

It is so thin a splinter of singing.


I wanted this year to celebrate his genius with you.

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But-Firsts and Swiss Cheese

Meet Sara and Vanessa. I wish they were here. In fact, I was going to call this piece “Saranessa” because these two women are a powerful duo. They don’t know it. They don’t even know each other. But each has taught me something life-changing about how to get off the dime and get started. On whatever it is. Huge or ho hum. Anything we’re not doing that we need to do. Or even want to do.

A few years ago Sara told me about “but-firsts”. That’s what she calls all the things we do first, instead of the thing we need to do. “But-firsts” are the hired thugs of procrastination.

As a writer I know about procrastination. People say that all writers are hardened procrastinators. In fact, lots of people have written about that. After they stopped procrastinating.

However, it is one thing to know that you procrastinate. It is another to understand procrastination. Specifically its mafia. Understanding it dissolves it because understanding it prevents it.

Enter Sara. Sara does understand it. Ages ago she learned from Buddhism  that when we procrastinate, it is not just that we are not doing something. It is that we are doing something else first. In fact we are doing lots and lots of things first.

Surely that’s obvious? You can’t be not doing one thing unless you are doing a different thing. Yes. Logically. But that’s not what our brains tell us in the moment when we are not doing the thing we need to do. Our brains tell us only that we are not doing that thing. They don’t go on to say, “Look, look at what you are doing first! Now stop doing that, and start doing the thing you need to do.”

So we trudge on in a miasma of not doing.

The key thing is that the Buddhists not only understood it, they labelled it. Labels are magic. They help us see things we can’t see. (I know they also make us see things that aren’t there, but this is the opposite. Phenomena are like that: they have a good side and a bad side. Like us.) So when people saw that we are doing other things first, they labelled them. They called them “but-firsts".

And suddenly there they were, right in front of us, flesh and blood, real things we could recognise and stop doing. Right now. We could stop doing the “but-firsts” because the label made us see them. And seeing something works because you can’t really stop not doing something, but you can stop doing something.

So all we have to do when we face the fact that we keep not doing something we need to do is to stop and ask ourselves: “What are the ‘but-firsts’ that are abducting me?” And presto, there they will be, concrete chagrinned little entities with a name. We see them, so now we can stop doing them. And then sit there, still, ready to start the thing we need to do.

See. Stop. Start.


But how?

Enter Vanessa.

Many years ago she told me about the “Swiss Cheese” process for starting something we keep not starting. She said that we just need to regard that thing as a monumental block of cheese and punch a hole in it. Anywhere. At all. Just punch. Dive right into the middle of that thing we need to do, or go to the end of it, or close our eyes and plummet. Anywhere. Just punch!

Suddenly we’ve started. And the next hole is easier. And next even easier. The point is to punch.

Before you know it, that unscalable, menacing mass will have all the holes it needs to become beautiful “true Swiss”. And we can have the inimitable pleasure of finishing what for ages we couldn’t even start.

Saranessa, thank you.

With my thanks to Vanessa Helps and Sara Hart (

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