Candles Always Cry

And Other Stories

Category: Bookshelf

Infinities

That should be an oxymoron.

If infinity is infinite, then how can there be more than one?

But of course there can. Every time we say ’10 sefirot’, we are talking of 10 different and infinite… well, sefirot.

Is there directional infinity?

A line can go go on infinitely in two directions. But there are 6 directions.

Can infinity have only 6 directions? If it were truly infinite, could we talk about it in space at all?

So infinite doesn’t mean undefinable. It doesn’t mean not in our experience. It doesn’t mean beyond us and it’s pretentious to think it could have relevance to us.

Which does means that it’s incorrect to say that we can’t understand G-d because he’s infinite. And if that’s true, that puts the power back in our hands.

We don’t have to accept the G-d that’s evolved over 5,773 (or 10,000) years of human history, been subject to the biases and imaginations and agendas of men and societies, and now served in a neat package at your local religious institution.

In other words, there is an alternative to the prevalent version of G-d as schizophrenically warm and fuzzy/zealous and petty.

In The Language G-d Talks, author Herman Wouk writes of his first encounter with Richard Feynman (famous, Jewish, atheist physicist). Feynman asked him if he knew Calculus and Wouk answered that he did not. To which Feynman replied, “”You’d better learn it. It’s the language G-d talks.”

Many of us don’t understand calculus, but we could. As in, it’s in the realm of possibility. And there are of course people who do understand it, and a lot more than just calculus, even though they’ve never seen it or met it.

We can study G-d like we can study infinity. It’ll never be perfect, and it’ll never have the same immediacy as a chocolate donut, or as 1+1=2, but so what? How is that a reason  not to start? You’ll probably find a more accurate, possibly more mature, version. It’ll still be pretty far from the objective truth, but it’s hard to imagine going more wrong than we are already.

I’m partial towards the study of chassidus for studying G-d in His oneness and multiplicity. I think it’s wrong when people dismiss it or discourage it on the grounds that ‘we can never understand G-d’. This is my response to that.

Halakhic Man, by Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik

Synopsis

Written in 1944 by Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveichik, the head of the Rabbinacal school at Yeshiva University, Halakhic Man is a description of the ideal Jew in a modern world.

The Halakhic Man has a number of distinct characteristics.

1) He is rational

Like a mathematician he believes that there is an ideal world, which reality is at odds with. This is the world described by Halakha, and it can be approached only through reason. He studies all of its nuances, so that he can transform his reality into the preexisting ideal.

2) He is optimistic, content

Unlike the prototypical homo religiosus, he does not suffer from a conflict between body and soul. He sees no duality. His purpose is to rectify this world, and to yearn to transcend it, would be evading his purpose. Man can find his perfection only here, not in spiritual realms, or after death.

3) He is creative

“The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself.” -pg. 109

Creative as opposed to deterministic. In a deterministic world, time is linear.  You and everything that you do is is simply an effect of an earlier cause. Free choice gives a person the freedom to create each moment as it comes, and with that choice to redefine the past that led to it and the future to which it might lead.

Not a Litvak

As discussed in the essay ‘Rabbi Soloveichik’s Halakhic Man: Not a Mithnagged’, the Halakhic Man proposed here is not at all similar to the Lithuanian tradition from which Rabbi Soloveichik came. HM is similar to the Misnagdic tradition in his appreciation for study, and for the minutae of the law. He is dissimilar, and even contrary, to the idea that man’s purpose is to be found here, in this world. That is a Hassidic perspective, and a relatively modern idea.

However, the implications that RS and Hassidism take from that idea are however, very different. In Hassidism there’s a back and forth between heaven and earth – the desire to transcend the limits of this world, and the need to stay grounded here and carry out G-d’s will. Like the heart pumping, they’re the same movement really. The one drives the other.

According to RS, it’s all about this world. There’s no need to transcend when living a life according to the Halakhic blueprint is the true way to realizing your religious self.

Best quotes ever

Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs, and torments. – Footnote 4, pg. 142

Take that Raskolnikov.

Choice forms the base of creation. Causality and creation are two irreconcilable antagonists. -pg. 116

Forget evolution vs. creation. Are evolution and free choice (=creation) irreconcilable?

The experience of Halakhic Man is not circumscribed by his own individual past… His time is measured by the standards of the Torah, which began with the creation of heaven and earth. Similarly, Halakhic Man’s future does not terminate with the end of his own individual future at the moment of death but extends into the future of the people as a whole, the people who yearn for the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom of G-d… We have here a blurring of the boundaries dividing time from eternity, temporal life from everlasting life. -pg. 117

Welcome to infinity in the everyday.

Pain only hurts

Thoughts on Eat & Run by Scott Jurek/Steve Friedman

For a few days I was hearing this mantra in my head, ‘pain only hurts’. I thought about it. If that’s enough to get you through something. If it’s true. Sometimes pain is an indicator of a problem that can escalate if it’s not addressed.

Or if you ignore it long enough does it cede its control over you?

It made me think of the chapter in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ where the author is taught by an Indian guru to use the pain, to feel it, to have the pain be the meditation. (Sad I get my knowledge of zen/yoga/meditation from an American adventurist, I know.)

Then I picked up Eat & Run by the super-ultrarunner Scott Jurek which I’d begun reading the week before. I flipped through the pages to find my place ans saw that  one of the early chapters in the book is called ‘pain only hurts’, which was the motto of Jurek’s high-school coach.

If I’d never picked up the book again, I might have thought it was my own head that had come up with that.

—-

In 2006, Jurek paced for a fellow ultrarunner named Brian at an 100 mile race in Northern California. Brian made it to with

in 100 fee of the finish line, the closest runner 12 minutes behind him, and he collapsed. Jurek and someone else supported him to the finish line. Instead of winning, Brian was disqualified.

In trying to explain how someone can run for 100 miles and collapse within reach of the finish line, Jurek writes,

Science is about objective measurement so it’s’ understandable that it has an innate bias for things that can be measured… It’s not possible to measure the mysterious workings of the will. – pg. 161

So reason isn’t G-d after all.

The book

The story is remarkable and it got me moving.  The  day I began reading it I ran 4.5 miles, about 50% more than my next longest distance.

The writing is, as you’d expect from a ghost-written book, not great. It flows glibly. Even the parts about extreme endurance and pain, those are glib too. Or is that how Scott approaches everything? He claims to be a thinker, to always asking why, to have a gaping need for something that he’s found only by pushing himself further and further. I know that because he told me, not because he showed me.

At the end of each chapter is a vegan recipe and sometimes running tips as well.  Some of those recipes actually look doable even for a carb and dairy eater like me.

[Sic] by Joshua cody

Memoir of living with cancer.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though there were moments where I felt like I had accidentally ended up in an upscale lounge somewhere where men wear $2000 suits, and drink $1000 bottles of wine and discuss their art collections, and where they invested their fortunes. (In short, privileged and over educated, and unaware of their own narrowness.)

There were pieces of it that were great. Fragments. But the story of illness, I barely saw it. Maybe that’s the beauty of it. The story of his illness is the story of life – the ups and downs of it, the people who come in and out of it, the moments where it is glorious and vivid, and the moments it’s just heaviness, and there’s the thought of ending it.

To explain feelings he uses metaphors or analogies, long, intellectual and fascinating, metaphors that are thoughts complete in themselves and don’t necessarily lead back to the feeling. The golden ratio, Citizen Kane, Klee, Ezra Pound – these are where he goes to make sense of things, his language for understanding the self.

These references, and the detours into artists and art and lyrics and girls are, told in this rambling, exploring way — are captivating, but in the most intense situations, where he is trying to convey something particular, it comes across flat.

My favorite passage is a description of  a girlfriend, only because it pertains to me:

But she had to assume this identity as she had to assume her other roles: girlfriend, New Yorker, freelance designer, person walking down the street, person eating breakfast, person engaged in conversation, person giving someone a hug.

None of her actions was in the least inauthentic but her degree of alienation from goals, actions, simple states of being – the acute inescapable self-surveillance of the addict – resembles that rareified ontological space of the depressive, the anxious, the ill, the poet.

That describes me too well. And I would venture, based on his own writing that it describes Cody, to some degree, as well.

Halakhic Man, Part I

A theological essay by Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik

Summary

Cognitive man –

The man of reason, the man who seeks an explanation for anything, who accepts only what is rational, and whose behavior follows his intellect. The scientist, the mathematician – disciplined, principled.
Math might be one of the purest forms of cognition since a world in math is an idealized, perfect version of our reality. One starts with ideal and then find how the world fits to what must be true, mathematically.

Homo Religiosus –
The artist. He revels in mystery. He wants outside of reason, beyond it, to the infinity he knows but can’t explain – the depth of feeling, the blurring of pain and pleasure, the in turns enormity and utter insignificance of the human being.
The religious man experiences intense conflict, periods of ecstasy, is constantly in the throes of a tumultuous questioning of existence and identity.

The religious man looks for questions he can’t answer; cognitive man looks for answers that are unquestionable.

Halakhic man –
He is, of course, the combination of both. He is a cognitive man, because to him, the world is a place to implement the idealized world that Halakha describes. He first seeks to understand what such a world would look like – hence the endless discussion of distance and size, endless what if scenarios, and pages devoted to the elucidation of one word.
He is a religious man because his cognition of the Halakhic world brings him closer and closer to truth, which he feels absolutely, but always within the framework of Halakha.

The implications –
Halakhic man does not suffer from the dualism usually associated with religion.

In mind: There is no schizophrenia, no yo-yoing between the heights of spiritual ecstasy and the depths of soul-sucking materialism.
Unlike the mystic, he does not presume to find G-d only outside of reality, in rapturous awe, or overwhelming love. The whole of his relationship with G-d consists of his interaction with this world, of his realizing the idealized Halakhic map, in practice.

In heart: Halakhic man is not uncomfortable in this world. He doesn’t see it as a dark and evil place, devoid of G-dliness. It is not an obstacle to but the means by which he encounters G-d.

In behavior: There is no dualism in his behavior. He is not one man during prayer, and another in the marketplace. His relationship with G-d doesn’t end at the door of the prayer-house. It penetrates every moment, every place, every aspect of his own nature. Every waking moment, there is a Halakhic model to inform his behavior.

Nevertheless, he is not devoid of the depth of emotion for which the homo religiosus, only it is contained. Instead of a futile quest, and the confusion/hopelessness/emptiness/madness that often accompanies it, the religious experience of the Halakhic man is grounded in knowledge and reason.

Thoughts/Questions

In Chapter IX (pg. 49-63) the author highlights the difference between Halakhic man and a prototypical follower of the Chabad branch of Chassidism.

He argues that according to Chabad there is an inherent dualism, which results in exactly the characteristics that Halakhic man is free of. According to the Chabad doctrine G-d is in exile in this world of lies and faithlessness (Shecinta Begalusa). Therefore, the Chasid (one who studies Chassidism) desires to escape this world, his soul reaches heavenward – to free itself, to free G-d. He is torn between two worlds, and dismayed by the state of the reality he is forced to live with every day.

To support the idea that this world is anathema to a Chasid, he cites a discussion about whether G-d created the world for the sake of his kindness, or his will. The mystics (presumably this means or includes Chabad since most of the quoted material here is from Chabad sources) take the position that G-d created the world out of kindness, while Halakhic man says that G-d created it for his will. The difference being that if G-d created it out of kindness, it indicates a concession on G-d’s part, a lowering of Himself for the sake of creation. If He created it for His own will, then the world is clearly not a contradiction to Him. He desired it, and desired man to be in it, not to abandon it for inclusion in the oneness of G-d.

The advantage of the Halakhic man is that he’s free of all this conflict and depression. This is his only world.

This argument is missing two points.

First, Chapter 36 of Tanya – the same book and author that Rabbi Soloveichik quotes to argue his point – starts with a paraphrased quote from the Midrash, “G-d desired to make for himself a dwelling place in the lower realms.” It is explained to mean that the motivation to create the world was an inexplicable desire to be hidden and then recognized. In other words. That is the crux of the Chassidic understanding of – to bring G-d here.

In fact, Rabbi Soloveichik notes this himself in footnote 65. “It is interesting that even Habad doctrine understood creation from a voluntaristic standpoint…. But this entire matter is of exceptional profundity.”

According to that, the Halakhic and Hassidic men are in agreement that this world is not a necessary evil. It is, or could be through our effort, G-d’s happy place.

But there the agreement ends. R.S. claims that there is only downward motion of putting G-d’s vision of this world into practice. In Chassidus the yo-yoing described earlier – on one hand to cleave to G-d, on the other to engage the world – that is the necessary pulse of life. It is necessary both to wish for a purer, truer place and at the same time to transcribe G-d’s plan, outlined in the Torah and Halakha, into the real world. To bring Him here.

I’m assuming I’m missing something here. Rabbi S. knew all this. Nevertheless he a. gives the impression that Chabad Chassidus does not believe that this world is G-d’s goal and b. never mentions the yo-yo theory – leaving us with either the desire to escape the world, or to live solely within it.

Those two ideas are deeply ingrained in me, so I’m going to need to address them if I am to understand what R.S. really means.

An interesting aside that may or may not be important: R.S. quotes a Midrash to prove his point that the world is the end, not the means – which at that point would have been revolutionary (1944). That same Midrash is used to illustrate the same point in the Chabad Rebbe’s first discourse in 1951, which is basically his manifesto. The two draw different conclusions from there, but is it a coincidence?

So I’m left with this –
What’s wrong with the bi-directional approach? We need to desire something above and beyond us, and G-d needs to penetrate every beautiful and vile and picayune part of our lives.
Is the approach of the last two Chabad Rebiim, that this world is G-d’s true home, revolutionary even within Chassidus? Whose ideas influenced whose?
From the prospective of Rabbi Soloveichik – what is truly the advantage of the Halakhic man over the approach of the Chabad Chasid?

Single in a Big City

Office GirlOffice Girl by Joe Meno
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s whimsical.
The story, and the writing style.
I like the idea of art terrorism, but not if it hurts people.
I like the exploration of twenty-something aimlessness, of the lonely single in a big city, of life and success being less interchangeable than we realize. It’s okay that there’s no real resolution, maybe because when you’re twenty-something, oftentimes things aren’t yet resolved.
It could still go either way.
You might find a calling a passion, you may end up being okay with the status quo, you might find belonging and acceptance in love or in community, and then maybe the does-anything-really-matter won’t matter as much.
Or not.
If you’re twenty-something it may feel vindicating. If you’re past that stage (I imagine) it’ll be either nostalgic, or I’m-so-over-that.

In terms of writing – it is a fun style, different, and there’s some great imagery. There are lots of sentences beginning with so or and so or and then, and the pacing from one page/chapter to the next is like taking a lot of quick breaths. Overall it feels amateurish sometimes, too conscious of itself.

750 Word Challenge

I accepted a challenge to write 750 words every day in August on a website called 750words.com.

The reasoning behind the 750 words is a method called Morning Pages from a book called The Artist’s Way. The idea is to dump everything that’s in your brain first thing in the morning onto paper, as a  creative release. It’s supposed to clear your mind and let your creativity flourish.

It’s similar to the daily practice described in ‘Writing Down the Bones’ by Natalie Goldberg. Her method is also to write every day (8 minutes as opposed to 3 pages), and also to just release whatever’s in your mind, but it’s more of a writing exercise. It’s meant to train yourself to let go, let the editor, the censor go — to get in touch with your  the first layer of your consciousness, the one that gets regulated and filtered in order to fit in to what’s right and appropriate. Similar, but not the same.

I made it until day 27. Strangely, I don’t feel so bad about not making it to the end, which is surprising to me.  I’m usually pretty insistent on ‘winning’. I’m an ends rather than a means kind of person.

When I accepted the challenge I decided that I would do it every morning at 8am, or basically, first thing in the morning. And that’s the only reason I lasted as long as I did. It’s also why I enjoyed the process. I enjoyed the routine of it. It gave some semblance of order to my day, and by some semblance, I mean it was never at 8, and rarely first thing in the morning. Sometimes I’d get distracted by email, or I’d have to answer an early phone call or go to an appointment, sometimes I’d choose to make breakfast. But over all, there was something – the same thing – that was supposed to happen every day. It’s made me want to figure out how else to introduce rituals and routines to my day, in a way that doesn’t add pressure to it, like “Oh my goodness, I need to do this.”

In terms of the writing, I’m not sure how I felt about it. Most days I was literally counting the words and stopped as soon as I hit 750. It was a lot of what I need to do today and things I was worried about – which might be the point – but it’s also not very fun. I plan to continue but I’ll reread Natalie Goldberg and try to follow her method and see if that works better for me. I’m afraid to stop, that’s the truth. I like what it did for me.

One more thing — the site is beautifully designed. And by beautiful, I mean you don’t notice the design. It doesn’t feel like anything else on the web. It feels like a sacred, private place. The site (aka the creator of the site) also gives you cool stats about your writing, your sentiment while writing and even gives you a rating for violence, sexual content etc. If you like the quantified self, you’ll love the site.

Journalism Rules from David Foster Wallace

Wallace probably made a terrible journalist. At least the essays I’ve read of his so far are ridiculously detailed and personal and more like a really long journal entry than a sober, informative journalistic report of a particular event.

Which is why it’s so much fun to read.

The essay I just read is called, “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain STuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”, sixth essay in the book, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

(If that doesn’t give you an idea for Wallace’s penchant for wordiness and maximalist sentence structure, you’ll probably be bored by the rest of this post.)

The essay is about the Canadian Open in 1995, or more specifically about the pre-tournament, the week before the televised event, in which 128 qualified players play against each other for the top eight spots. Wallace follows Michael Joyce, a star-material tennis player.

Wallace doesn’t follow any rules that I can discern. He uses footnotes and parenthesis and brackets to say what he wants to say, and comment on what it is he is saying, and then wanders off onto tangents that keep branching out further. He doesn’t follow chronological order, and sometimes rambles, sometimes educates, sometimes narrates.

Wallace goes into incredible, relentless detail about everything. He spends pages describing the techniques of certain players, the play-by-play of the games he watched, the weather, the clothes that the players are wearing, Joyce’s reactions, Joyce’s tics, Joyce’s facial expressions, Joyce’s hair.

He spends an entire paragraph discussing the bathroom for the media at the event, as a footnote to his description of the endless lines at the two public bathrooms, in a section about the general atmosphere at the event.

“I learn by the second day to go very easy on the Evian water and coffee as I’m wandering around.”

(He talks about Evian water, one of the many sponsors of the event, all throughout the essay. I can’t help but read into it a conscious attempt to bring to our intention the pervasiveness of marketing and branding and the consumer society, mostly because of his own essay on television and U.S. fiction, earlier in the book, which describes the fiction-writer’s use of pop cultural references.)

He doesn’t only talk about himself, he talks about himself as a journalist and is completely candid about his weaknesses in that regard, and in all regards. About a tennis coach that he describes as, “one of the coolest people I’ve ever met”, he confesses in parenthesis, “(so cool I’m kind of scared of him and haven’t call him once since the assignment ended, if that makes sense.)”

The parenthesis is in a footnote which begins by describing this particular coach who was mentioned as an aside, and then goes on to discuss the relationship of coach and athlete after a lament about the difficult, lonely, and insane lifestyle of the pro athlete.

He zooms in on the smallest details, feeds you on them until you’re gorged on the colors and the feels and the tensions and the humidity of the moment, and then zooms way out and talks about free choice, or mastery, or athlete-as-ascetic and themes that are cultural, sociological, national or global in scope.

The level of detail is remarkable – as is the amount of fascination he must have had to notice it, and attention he must have paid to retain it, the energy he must have had to write it and share it, and his belief that somehow we would find a week’s worth of one sport in one town through one man’s eyes as fascinating as he did.

What if he saw the entire world that way? What if every person he met, every stop at the traffic light, every short trip to the coffee shop, had that kind of intensity and that many angles, and held that level of interest for him? What kind of capacity for life (as an observer) at least would you need for that?

(It’s fascinating to me because I can imagine it. That’s the way I am to some extent, and I’ve always felt like it sets me apart. It’s not about the amount of space in the brain, or even the amount of depth. It’s just this voracious capacity to see everything as it is, and then see it also as a symbol with meaning, and unconscious intent, and as a cultural, spiritual, local, global, mental incarnation of something ultimate.)

That, and his disregard for rules, and his waterfall of words, should make for some hyperactive reading, but either I’m hyperactively attuned, or there’s this rhythm that he has, where he moves between peak points of intense visuals, to more relaxed troughs of insightful commentary, with breaks of personal and comedic tones in between, that kind of lulls you, so you’re coasting instead of flailing.

I feel like you could possibly get high on him.

Gender roles solved by the Pythagorean Theorum

Two unrelated pieces of Talmud- one about the role of mankind and one about the role of women – talk about bread and wheat, and lead to a surprising conclusion. Check it out:

On humankind

The Talmud records a number of conversations between Turnus Rufus, a Roman official stationed in Judea in the 2nd century, and Rabbi Akiva. The Midrash Tanchuma records one such conversation (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashas Tazria, 8):

The evil Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “Which are better, things made by the Almighty or things made by flesh and blood?”He replied, “Things made by flesh and blood are better!”
Turnus Rufus said to him, “But heaven and earth, can a human being make anything like these?”

Rabbi Akiva brought him wheat and cakes and said to him, “These are made by the Almighty and these are made by man. Aren’t these (cakes) better than the wheat?”

Turnus Rufus blieved that G-d/nature was perfect and should not be messed with. Rabbi Akiva disagreed. He was of the opinion that humankind had a role to play in the process of creation, that of perfecting and improving the world. The role of humankind is to take wheat and turn it into bread.

On womankind

In the second chapter of the Torah, the first woman is created as a “helpmate opposite him”. The Gemara in Yevamos discusses the meaning of this verse (Yevamos 63 1):

R’ Yosi:
It says in the Torah, “I will make him a helpmate.” How does a woman help a man?
Eliyahu:
A man brings wheat. Does he grind the wheat? Flax. Does he wear the flax?

The man may bring home the wheat but it is useless until the woman makes it into bread, or weaves the cotton into clothing. He provides. She completes. The role of a woman is to take wheat and make it into bread.

Conclusion (a la the Pythagorean Theorum)

If humankind=turning wheat into cakes
and womankind=turning wheat into cakes
then humankind=womankind

Sorry guys.

Sources:Midrash Tanchuma http://marker.to/exHSqk, http://marker.to/5oe45f  Bereishis 2:18 http://marker.to/bHYbEQ Yevamos 63 http://marker.to/3SLsYw

Boomerang, by Michael Lewis

Boomerang is a collection of five essays, one each on Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and the United States. The author, Michael Lewis, attempts to find a coherent narrative for each country’s role in the economic recession. Mostly, he finds a national character to be blamed. The Greek are corrupt, Icelanders are feral, the meticulous Germans have a secret fascination with dirt, and Americans are greedy. It’s simplistic but entertaining, and fills the human need for finding order in chaos.

The last chapter, on the United States, provided really great food for thought. The premise there is that like the Greeks, Americans want everything, without having to pay for it, and without taking into account the price we’ll have to pay for it in the future. Public employees want better pay and benefits and pensions, households want houses and cars and health care and vacations, students want education and opportunities — and all without raising taxes on the middle class, or at all.

What I find interesting is that this is the complaint that both the right and the left throw at each other. The left claim that the right are greedy and motivated only by money. They care only about big business and not at all about the little guy. The right claim that the left are lazy and motivated by getting as much money as possible from the government. They spend their energy figuring out better ways for the government to take care of them instead of innovating and working hard.

At its core, it’s the same complaint – you care only about getting what you want, on your terms, preferably right now.

If there’s truth to that, then we share a certain kind of soullessness. But it’s also true that at the root of both complaints are shared values. We all feel that something is missing. Maybe its patriotism or unity, or maybe it’s the caring more about the quantity than the quality of life, maybe it’s a delusional grandiosity that’s taken hold of us– the harmful belief that we deserve to have everything, even youth, forever.

Whatever it is that ails us, it isn’t partisan. It just expresses itself differently on the right and on the left.

Lewis ends the book (the chapter on the U.S.) with the story of Paige Meyer, a firefighter in the city of Vallejo, CA. Meyer moved to Vallejo from a “cushy job in Sunnyvale, CA” because Vallejo homes are mostly wooden and there are a lot more fires to fight. He loves what he does, both the adrenaline and the saving people.

Meyer was appointed fire chief after the city declared bankruptcy and had to drastically reduce the number of public safety employees. Now the city has the same amount of fires to fight, but with fewer stations and fewer engines, and therefore longer response times, and bigger fires. Meyer will have to figure out a more efficient way to use the resources as his disposal to keep the city safe.

The lesson in the story is that when finally faced with the reality of scarcity, Americans do what they do best — innovate.

It’s an optimistic note to end on and even Lewis hedges against it. His last sentence, “As idiotic as optimism can sometimes seem, it has a weird habit of paying off.”