Without passion man is a mere latent force and possibility, like the flint which awaits the shock of the iron before it can give forth its spark – Henri-Frédéric Amiel.

I like sleeping in, and I like staying up, and these facts are not always related to each other.

Because yes, if I’ve had a late night, whether I’ve been out with my friends (Dean¹ and Ashalina² and Paul³ and Eve⁴, maybe James⁵ and Claire⁶, possibly Tem⁷ from time to time, and, rarely these days, Jay⁸ and Lucy⁹, because Jay and Lucy have a baby and their freedoms and responsibilities have been irrevocably changed now that they have invited a tiny but nonetheless perfectly-in-ratio new human person to come and live with them in their house and this tiny new human person needs protecting from the heat and the cold and the wind and the gravity – especially The Gravity, as flights of stairs, even carpeted flights of stairs, are a dangerous and deadly place for fatly cheerful and unwary infants), or I’ve been sitting up commenting on The Nervous Breakdown and prolonging the shifting-scale internal discussion of the number and depth of comments I feel like I should be leaving as balanced against whether or not I have to start work early, or I’ve been out on a date with a girl who I’ve met in one of the places I meet girls to date (at the airport, or ten years in the past, or behind the box office desk of a cinema [Dear Andrea. I still can’t believe you actually lifted my number from that promotional membership offer form. If you were less pretty or I’d been less susceptible to my own needs for external validation from women, I might have reported you to your manager, and probably, you would have been fired, but you weren’t, and I am, and consciously or not, you gauged the situation and my insecurities and the outcome of pushing at the meeting point of the two accurately]), but not yet on the street after gently and deliberately scraping her car with mine and exchanging contact details, which is something I’ve considered but more than likely would never actually do, because I’m entirely too scared of the potential consequences of just such an action – then I am tired in the morning, and my body, in order to repair and refuel and start the day refreshed, aches for more sleep.

But from time to time I’ve been known to stay in bed simply because I like the way it feels to be there.

I don’t, technically, need the sleep during these intervals, going by a strict biological definition of ‘need’ according to what I understand is how the mechanics of sleep work. After the hands of the invisible clock in my suprachiasmatic nucleus have ticked their way around to meet at  a pre-set biological alarm point and after my pineal gland is done flooding my brain with melatonin and after my own personal circadian rhythm has played out the nightly sleep cycle of between seven and eight hours my blood is cleansed, my subconscious has imparted whatever messages it needs to impart in a language of symbols and surrealities, and the tiny tears in my muscle fibres that have been torn by a day’s worth of movement and action have been resewn then I am ready, if not raring, to go.


The pillows might be soft, and the bed soaking in the captured warmth it holds onto so jealously, and so I can lie on my front and slip one of my arms underneath the pillow I’m sleeping on, and tug my duvet up and over my upper back until the corner nestles perfectly between my ear and my shoulder (but not so high it slips over my toes, down at the mysterious and far away other end of the bed), and be totally, and completely comfortable. Then I get worried that  sleeping on my face could potentially prematurely age my skin, because I think I read that on the internet somewhere, so I might turn onto my left side, a motion which pulls an instinctual puppet string that draws my knees up, but then I become concerned that the fact I feel so at home in the foetal position is a sign of some unsuspected and socially dangerous inner childishness that I haven’t yet developed out of but really should have, that is apparent to all others but not to me, even people in the grocery store or women whose cars I may want to scrape with my car someday, so I try to reverse engineer psychological well-being and ego stability by lying on my back, the way I’ve seen handsome male leads who always get the girl in films do, and I wonder if maybe, finally, the story of my life, where I am a handsome male lead who gets the girl, will begin today, because I made the wise and adultly masculine choice of sleeping on my back this morning.

And then I realise that there is no point trying to convince myself; I’m much more comfortable sleeping on my face, and I rearrange myself, and I wake up on my side, where I have, as if stealthily dragged by unseen magnets, rearranged myself again.

The undeniable truth is that sometimes, I just like to be lazy. I like to do nothing and relax and be pleased and happy that I’m doing nothing except feeling very relaxed, and desperately scrambling through the morning and a nothing-but-functional shower and a breakfast I’d like to savour and enjoy but can’t because I slept in, again, is a small price to pay for that happiness, which, in truth, is a happiness I have totally and completely forgotten five minutes after I do, eventually, get out of bed.

Which brings me to Slawomir Rawicz.

This fucking guy.

¹ Dean has a laugh that turns downwards at the edges when he finds something really funny. He laughed for five minutes upon hearing the plot of Human Centipede.
² Ashalina is brunette and slimly pretty. She dances to no music when very excited.
³ Paul looks like Jonny Lee Miller, but Australian. He’s fond of good Scotch.
⁴ Eve has excellent fashion sense and wears large sunglasses. The only time I have seen her perform karaoke, she sang the Scissor Sisters’sTake Your Momma Out.
⁵ James enjoys DIY and Spider-Man t-shirts.
⁶ Claire’s accent slips into her original Irish when she is tired. She used to smoke, but has since quit.
⁷ Tem has the best power:weight ratio of all the people I know. He’s the sharpest-witted, too, and I’m not sure if the two facts have anything to do with each other.
⁸ Jay owns a very cool bomber jacket, and walks with a certain friendly swagger. He knows a lot about basketball.
⁹ Lucy also performed Scissor Sisters the one time I’ve seen her at karaoke (it was a duet). She’s handy in Spanish, but is not personally Spanish.


Slawomir Rawicz was a lieutenant in the Polish Army. He was captured by the Russians in the September Campaign, 1939. He was born on September 1 1915 and so he was 24 when the NKVD arrested him for espionage. He was 24 when they took him to The Lubyanka to extract a confession from him through torture.

The NKVD were the precursor to the KGB.

They were assholes. And these two facts are related. Even the heavy Russian pronounciations of the acronyms are harsh and unlovely on the tongue. Enn Keh Veh Deh. Keh Geh Beh.

The NKVD sent Ramón Mercador to sink an ice axe into Leon Trotsky’s skull.

The NKVD tortured and executed American factory workers who Stalin suspected of the crime of ‘Western influences’.

The NKVD left mass graves in the earth of the USSR in the wake of purge after purge.

The NKVD set up the Gulag and the Gulag is where the NKVD sent Slawomir Rawicz when he refused to confess.

Slawomir Rawicz, 24, was sentenced to 25 years of hard labour in Siberia. He was transported to Gulag Camp 303, 400 miles below the Arctic Circle. And then he escaped.

On April 9 1941 Rawicz broke out of Camp 303 alongside six other prisoners and ran. He led them over the frozen Siberian tundra with survival their only goal and in two months they covered over a thousand miles. En route the group found a Polish girl named Kristina who had escaped from another camp and brought her with them. At some point the eight of them realised they would only be safe once they had crossed the border to India, and so they kept running.

Their route went through the killing heat and cold of the Gobi Desert. Temperatures there range from -40F to 122F. And temperatures can change by as much as 61 degrees in 24 hours. Kristina and one of the men died there; presumably their bones are still baking beneath the sand. The remaining six made it to Tibet and then they walked over the Himalayas. When another of the party died from exposure as he slept the five left alive went without sleeping day or night to keep the same fate from finding them.

In their stories they said that they believe the creatures they saw in the mountains – tall, hairy apes – were the Yeti. To avoid these monsters they took a dangerous detour and one man slipped into a crevasse and died from the fall.

Eight days later – eight days without food – the four were discovered by an Indian army patrol. In a year they had made it four thousand miles out of the USSR on foot.

As an extra fuck you to Hitler Rawicz returned to his regiment in Poland and fought with the Allies.

It is hard for me to imagine a situation where I will ever need to show as much fortitude as Slawomir Rawicz.


I saw this ad during an episode of The Simple Life… which is a show that glorifies these two rich, giggling cunts, who have no respect for anyone, and get away with anything. I, right then, vowed that I would retain this image every time I hear George Bush say ‘the terrorists hate our freedom.’ You know what? I hate our freedom. Little ol’ me, an American! I hate it! That’s all we’ve done with it? We’re fucking assholes, man. We. Are. Awful – David Cross

I’m grateful I don’t have to endure that kind of extreme punishment in order to be free. By sheer virtue of the time and place of my birth, I am a hugely fortunate man.

In fact, really, I don’t have to endure any kind of punishment at all to be free, because the dice have been loaded in my favour since the day I was born. I’m a 28 year old, tertiary-educated, middle-class, heterosexual, white male, raised in Australia. In this day and age, the world I live in is primarily geared towards my happiness and ease of agency. I have more opportunity than most of the rest of the population of the earth to be so arrogant as to assume I can have, be, and do whatever it is that I want to have, be, and do.

But there’s more than just this.

I don’t have to worry about my homeland being invaded, for one. I don’t have to worry about being tortured if I’m arrested, or being shipped thousands of miles from my home to break rocks for Comrade Stalin – and it’s very easy to forget these blessings, but, really, blessings they are, because the world can be a hard and cruel place.

At the same time, I’m impressed – I am so impressed – if someone I know gets up at four am to go jogging.

I don’t say this to diminish the achievement of anyone who gets up at four am to go jogging, because man, that’s a real bitch on winter mornings.

But it isn’t exactly a life-or-death escape march through the Gobi.


But look at the people who use [their potential] — who do actually give it everything… The Beckhams or Roy Keanes of this world. People charging! Running up and down the field, swearing and shouting at each other. Are they happy? No! They’re destroying themselves! Who’s happy? You! The fat fucks watching them, with a beer can balanced on your ninth belly, roaring advice at the best athletes in the world – Dylan Moran

I saw an ad for 3D TV a few weeks ago. And the very first thought in my head was: Are you fucking kidding me?

And then I thought, Wait, are you fucking kidding me, I just thought, are you fucking kidding me?  Where do I get off? Demographically, economically, and personally, I am more likely than any single other person I know to buy a 3D television set. I can live on television like I’m sucking nourishment right out of the airwaves. I can reel off details about shows I’ve never even watched, because I like to read about them on Wikipedia. I have absolutely no ground to stand on and call foul at the prospect of 3D TV.

All that being said.

3D TV? Nope. Fuck it. That’s the point where we’ve gone too far. That’s the point where I draw the line, because I have the rest of my life to be three-dimensional in. I have experiences to actually experience in length, width, and depth, and not produced for me and delivered into my home with the promise that experiencing this is the very best possible use of my time, at that point in time – because that, in effect, is the decision that I would be making every single time I turned my 3D TV set on.


I’m not anti-entertainment. I’m not anti-leisure. I’m not anti-pop-culture. I enjoy all of these things. Wherever possible, I think life should be about happiness, and I think access to leisure activities is one of the primary fruits of our labours, and when we work, then not only do we earn money, but we also earn the right to spend our leisure time as we see fit. What better way could there be to spend our time than in the pursuit of happiness? So what if that happiness comes from watching two grown men sit and stand and run between a multitude of video cameras and a green screen and point and fire imaginary guns at imaginary ghosts and imaginary monsters once a week, so special effects staff can sit in editing suites and fill in the blanks and add sound effects and make it look as if the Winchester Brothers are sending the Monster of the Week back to Hell with a steely-eyed look and a grim joke every week on Supernatural? Who’s to say that’s a more or less valuable use of time than a critical reading of Tom Wolfe?


I’m also not an apologist for the 21st century. The Age of Information? Man, it could more than likely shank any one of the other Ages in an all-in prison brawl (especially the Age of Innocence, which wouldn’t know the first thing about defending itself, and would probably quickly be traded for cigarettes) as far as I’m concerned. I love that I can see the faces and hear the voices of people on the other side of the world with Skype. I love that a lingering death from  infection and blood poisoning isn’t waiting for me if I break a bone. I love that I live in a society where every adult citizen has the legal and democratic right to choose their own government of duly elected representatives. As a species, in so many ways, we are doing so well.

For all our achievements, though, we still remain 98% chimpanzee on a basic genetic level. Or, rather, we share 98% of our genetic makeup with chimpanzees. And you can see it – rub someone the wrong way and watch their face ripple to show the monkey lurking right beneath the surface, ready for fight or flight and reacting straight from the unthinking animal quarters of their brain.

Our greatest strengths? Empathy. Compassion. Imagination. Consciousness. Most of all, self-awareness. These are the rungs on the evolutionary ladder that separate us from the apes. These are what allow us to grasp hold of inspiration and raise ourselves up, to rise above our circumstances.

Slawomir Rawicz knew that, and used it, and somehow, the fact I can quote Heroes doesn’t rank as the same kind of human triumph.


Dear Batman.

You are a fictional character, and by this stage, you have been a presence across just about every form of media known to man. You’re pretty badass, as fictional characters go, and, the more I think about it, the more I am childishly delighted by the whole concept. ‘Batman’. A guy who dresses like a bat. That’s it! There’s the equation. Man + Bat = Batman. If only everything in life was as self-explanatory.

You were my favourite superhero growing up, Batman. One, because I kinda wished that I lived in a giant house and didn’t have parents, but two, because you were human. That’s your whole selling point. You trained, you kept your focus, you live at the peak edge of human potential, because you are driven by a righteous fury and –




Dear Simon.

Why am I writing a letter to Batman? OK, the original plan was to make a point about how our inspirations for grand passion, for reaching peak human potential, are mainly in fictions that take time to indulge, which thereby negates our ability to use our time to reach that potential, but… Jesus. That’s self-indulgent, isn’t it? And isn’t self-indulgence one of the things I’m rallying against here? Because the whole point I was going to make is that I’ve wanted to learn Spanish for over a year now, and I haven’t… but… that’s a choice. That’s my choice. I have no right to complain about this, or complain about a culturally-induced lack of inspiration. This is my responsibility. Who I am, the choices I make – these things are mine. They are perhaps one of the few things that can ever be truly mine.

Where was I going?


That’s right.

The simplicity of passion.

Because passion is simplicity. And we are human in that we have choice, but we are also human in that we need sleep. We cannot burn through days and weeks in the pursuit of everything we can be, because we would burn out. And if I’ve worked a minimum forty hour week and washed clothes and made meals and answered emails and tried to find time to post letters and the other million and one tiny jobs that have to be done to keep the tiller level, then it’s going to be that much harder to wake up at four in the morning to go running.

This is why dictators have housekeepers.


I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion – Billie Jean King.

The big problem here is awareness, or the unconscious lack of it.

My friend Dean, in particular, is familiar with and can expound on the concept of slippage. Slippage in the cracks that erode the best of intentions, in those delays of just five minutes one day that turns into ten minutes the next, that turns into mid-January gym membership lapse statistics. Slippage in the fading of passion, slippage in the centre that cannot hold.

Slawomir Rawicz held the centre together.

Thoreau held the centre together. He held the centre together so well he built a house in the woods around it.

Marshal Brown held the centre together. Sentenced to life in jail as a 19 year old, he spent the next 17 years educating himself on wilderness survival, passing himself off as a model prisoner and winning enough trust to earn a transfer to a minimum security prison. And then one day, on a job site… Marshal Brown was gone, like a whisper in the wind.

17 years.

These guys held their goals close to their chests. They carried them through time and hardship, and in the end, they got there.

Obviously, Marshal Brown’s story is something less of a cause for celebration (it’s OK. He’s no longer a fugitive from justice).

What Slawomir Rawicz and Marshal Brown have in common is that they didn’t forget. Probably that kind of single-mindedness is a given element in prison. It must be easier to focus without the scattering of attention, the demands for our input, and the information overload we’re exposed to 24/7. I assume I’d be better at planning and staging a prison break if I didn’t feel the urge to check my Twitter, my Facebook feed, my email, my SMSes, TNB, my metropolitan newspaper site, my national news site… and CNN, USAtoday, Wikipedia, and, occasionally, the San Francisco Chronicle, every hour.

Who am I kidding? Every ten minutes.

And really, what has this obsession with bowing down to the yens and yearnings of my attention span given me in return?

At least people who are obsessed with bodybuilding can lift heavy shit.

Maybe you need The Fear.

Slawomir had The Fear. Marshal Brown had The Fear.

Losing your freedom, forever? That’s got to make you suddenly value your days a lot more. Make you work harder, make you bend your mind to the task at hand. Give you the kind of impetus you need to run all the way across the Himalayas and into India, from Siberia.

But there has to be a better way to tap into the upper limits of potential than the threat of dying in starvation in the Russian snow.

Some of the most driven men and women I know come from bad backgrounds and poverty-stricken situations. They push themselves – and those around them – to work hard and constantly earn enough to not only keep the wolf from the door, but to beat the wolf into semiconsciousness with a sack of gold and then choke it death with wads of hundred-dollar bills if it’s foolish enough to ever come sniffing around again.

This is who we are. This is the monkey part acting out again. Insecure kids turn into bullies, abused kids turn into abusers, poor kids turn into Midases… all because the monkey in us reacts in fear and seeks to control by overcompensating.

Why can’t we – or rather, why don’t we more often – channel that strength by running towards, rather than running away?


You should stay away from your potential. I mean, that is something you should leave absolutely alone! You’ll mess it up! It’s potential, leave it! And anyway, it’s like your bank balance, you know – you always have much less than you think. Because then, in your mind, it will always be palatial. Mullioned windows, covered in mullions, whatever they are. Flamingos serving drinks. Pianos shooting out vol-au-vents into the mouths of elegantly dressed people drinking champagne and exchanging witticisms: Oh yes, this reminds me of the time I was in BudaPESHT with Binky. We were trying to steal a goose from the casino, muahahaha… But it won’t be like that […] You don’t want to find out that the most you could possibly achieve, if you gave it your all, if you harvested every screed of energy within you, and devoted yourself to improving yourself, that all you would get to, would be maybe eating less cheesy snacks – Dylan Moran.

It probably comes back to awareness and intention. It’s easier to be aware of what you have to do – and I mean, have to do – if you’re watching people around you die from exposure. If you’re seeing their ribs rattle inside their skin when they cough. Slippage is more difficult to excuse at a time like that, I guess. You’re less likely to be numb to the consequences of not acting.

Maybe this is why people tune into sports with such passion – it’s the sight of people achieving, pared down to nothing more than a few hours, at most, on a field. Our day to day, regular achievements… all that shit takes time, man. To get things done in an office environment, you have to sit down, turn on a computer, check your email, bounce ideas off your boss and then file reports, check figures… the minutiae of it doesn’t really lend itself well to myth.

On a sports field, you don’t have to worry about any of that. As the observer you don’t see – and you don’t really think of – the process of getting there that the players, the coaches have been through. You just get to live vicariously for the moments of sweating and running and humans trying to accomplish something under the watching eyes of hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of fans.

I guess sportspeople – especially when you get to the high, high eschelons of elite, Olympic-level athletes – do it for love. Love of the experience, love of the challenge, love of themselves their accomplishments and maybe love of the will it takes to get there.

I went to primary school with a guy named Steve Hooker. He’s an Olympic gold medallist now. I see him around, occasionally. He’s a nice guy, plain and simple.

He’s a man who’s fulfilling his potential. He’s holding the centre together.

A champion is afraid of losing. Everyone else is afraid of winning – Billie Jean King


Dear Slawomir.

I’m sorry you had to endure what you endured. I’m sorry your friends died on the way from Siberia to India. I’m sorrier still that you had to see it.

I’ve seen the photos from the Gulag; the wasted corpses piled high on top of each other, like cords of firewood. I think the worst to see are the soles of men’s feet; you see them sticking out from under tangles of legs and arms and shoulders that are little more than sheaths of skin over bone, and you know that means that on the other end of those feet, some corpse is stuffed into the centre of this pile of human remains, someone’s son now rendered so meaningless as to be as unimportant as a heap of trash.

Sentenced to work for 25 years and knowing your likely end was to be dumped on top of a carpet of bodies, with more carcasses waiting to be shovelled on top of you, of course you ran.

I bet you ran like hell.

Across the Himalayas by foot? Jesus Christ, man. How did you survive? With no food, no sleep, nothing to keep you going except your own will to be free?

Did you know anything about nutrition? Did you know that when you don’t eat, when no fresh stores of fat or carbohydrates are coming in to your body, once the flabby energy reserves around your gut and thighs have been broken down for nourishment, your digestive processes turn to your muscles and sinews? Did you know that when your system is that starved for the energy it needs to keep your vital processes moving, your body literally starts eating itself?

So with your heart pumping fatigue poisons through your veins, with the muscles you needed to move wasting away second by second, with heat and cold ripping at your skin, probably constipated from lack of fluids, your teeth loose in your head from exposure and malnutrition, nauseous from lack of food… you still ran.

Was the air thin through the Himalayas? Did you struggle to breathe? Did altitude sickness kick in? Did you start to bleed from your nose and your gums? Did you have headaches that wouldn’t go away?

And when did you stop being scared the guards would track you down? What was it like when you first made your break for it, running across the country, knowing they’d be looking for you, that they wouldn’t just let you and your fellow escapees vanish into the night?

What was it like to leave the bodies of other people behind? When they died in the desert, did they just breathe their last and fall over… or did you have to leave them behind to wait for death?

How did you make that choice?

Regardless of the choices you made, Slawomir, you made it through. You lead the others across the backbone of the world, and back to freedom.

No matter how much there was stacked against you, no matter how grim and bleak the obstacles were… there was something in you that overcame them all.

I’m glad you made it out alive.


The secret to life? It starts with a P. Passion. You’ll look back someday and think ‘That old bloke really knew what he was talking about – Ken, the Old Man who, Apropos of Nothing, Started Talking to Me at a Cafe this Morning and Gave Me this Piece of Unwarranted, Unasked-For Advice.

How many dead lie restless because they never got to see just how much they were capable of?

How many  of the skulls that once housed the minds of men and women of phenomenal ability, ability never harnessed, have been ground to dust by the weight of turning centuries?

Maybe this sounds like untoward praise of Spartan ethics, or like a rambling praise of some unreal, romanticised, cinematic achievements. It isn’t meant to be. I don’t believe that sacrifice and passion are mutually inclusive, or at least, not any more so than sacrifice plays a part in any life.

And I don’t mean to gnaw at the achievement that is a life happily lived. Working the nine to five, driving to the grocery store to buy food for kids, waking late on Saturday mornings to throw a football on the beach in the sun with friends… these are good things. These are happy things. There is value in them, without grandeur.

And God knows that just living day to day can take enough effort as it is.


So long as those malicious tailless apes that are so proud of their technical achievements—the animals that we call men—will build armies and wage wars, the command will always be obliged to place the soldiers between the possible death in the front and the inevitable one in the rear. And yet armies are not built on fear – Leon Trotsky.

Dear Leon,

The monkeys caught up with you, though, didn’t they? They got to you and one of them carved you up and left you haemorrhaging and spitting blood on a hospital bed in Mexico.

And even as your bodyguards ran in, you screamed at them to leave your murderer alive.

When you said your piece about the malicious apes, did you think that the country you fought for, the Soviet Union you helped create, would one day imprison a man named Slawomir who would see the inevitable death in a camp he was wrongfully imprisoned in, the possible death that lay ahead of him, and have the courage to run forward anyway?

Would you have sympathised, Leon? You knew what it was like to run.

What killed you was when you stopped.


And so what now?

Better to remember, when people aren’t playing the roles I want them to, when they don’t say the things I want them to say or do the things I want them to do, that the way of things was never promised. Better to remember, when my ego recoils and bruises and dreams of bruising back, that if things were different, the people I love could be thrown into a careless heap of the dead, that their eyes could be open and blind and pressed against the cold flesh of some other nameless victim’s back in a huddled stack of lifeless meat.

Maybe I’ll be kinder, then.

And better to remember that a man can run a year, if he really wants to, that there’s a spirit that can be called up that will sustain the body, the mind, and the soul, through utter brutality and loss.

Maybe I’ll strive harder, then.

And better to remember that this life is finite, and nothing should be taken for granted. Better to remember that the way we live is, in so many ways, so little of what we are capable of. Better to remember that we can make choices, and we can fan the flames of passion, whether that’s through love, or fear, and change things beyond what we thought possible. Better to remember that so much of this life is a choice.

Maybe I’ll be more, then.

Discover your divine assignment and you have no reason to retreat. Discover your passion and you laugh in the face of defeat – Kirk Nugent


There is some doubt as to the accuracy of Slawomir Rawicz’s testimony. Various claims have debunked it. Witold Gliński, a Polish ex-serviceman, claims that the facts are true, but he was the leader, not Rawicz. An English intelligence officer nevertheless reported debriefing three emaciated Siberian work camp escapees in Calcutta.

The upcoming movie will star Colin Farrell.

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SIMON SMITHSON is an Australian writer and editor. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia, but frequently finds himself in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His work has appeared on both sides of the globe in print and online in publications such as BLIP, Every Day Fiction, Beat, The Loop, My Sinking Boat, and more. He has a tumblr at www.simonsmithson.com and he runs a lifestyle experiment at www.selfhelpless.net.

188 responses to “Slawomir and Me, or, Y Tu, Batman?”

  1. J.M. Blaine says:

    This is completely different
    for you.
    Have you been snorting the
    American Ambien?
    When I get on the Ambien
    I write about insomnia
    & Batman

    It’s not a bad thing.

    • Simon Smithson says:


      I have never
      (to my knowledge)
      had the Ambien

      The Caped Crusader
      Dark Knight
      Ace of Detectives
      The Bat-Man
      will always

      Like Slawomir
      I decided
      It was time
      For something

      Thank you
      For reading.

  2. Zara Potts says:

    It all comes down to monkeys in the end doesn’t it?

    I know you’ve worked hard on this piece, Brew, and you have crafted a very thought provoking, thoughtful piece. I like it. A lot.

    Every experience is necessary for us to have the next experience, good or bad. Every minute, hour and day of our lives is important. Every moment matters. Whether we are striving for art, honour or even survival – every moment matters.

    What we experience and how we experience it all goes into to making up the unique and complex people we all are. I don’t know that I am explaining myself very well, so I will let your country man Clive James do a better job than me:

    “When Philip Larkin said “deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth” he was giving a powerful hint that he would stay deprived if he could.
    Chateaubriand, in the preface to Atala, said that when the Muses cry, it is only to look more beautiful. The immediate implication was that the poet might not be beyond courting some high-quality misery in order to make the Muses tearful.
    But true artists don’t need love trouble to stave off happiness: all they have to do is look at the world. In that regard, all the great art we know of carries within its compass a guarantee that its creator is not content. Shakespeare’s sonnets are the most powerful possible assertion that love is not only a fine thing but that we have scarcely lived if we are shut out of it, yet all the ecstasy in the sonnets would amount to nothing if it were not threatened by time and death, which he evokes with at least the invention that he lavishes on the erotic. Similarly Dante’s Inferno might be hard to take if we didn’t know that he would later write the Paradiso, but the Paradiso would be unbearable without the Inferno.”

    Maybe not quite what you were saying – but it brought this to mind for me.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      There’s no escaping them, brew.

      And thanks, as always, for reading, and for commenting.

      I love how much of a fan of Clive James you are. I want to read more of his work. I think he’s a far smarter man than people give him credit for, and people give him credit for being a very smart man.


      Clive James has Larking, Chateaubriand, Shakespeare, Dante. I’ve got Heroes, Supernatural, and Batman.

      Game on, sir.

      • Zara Potts says:

        Clive James is my absolute hero.
        I marvel at him – His knowledge, his turn of phrase, his utterly deceptively simple brilliance.
        And you know – I think there is something Jamesian in you, Brew.
        And that is the highest compliment I can give.

        If you want to read more of him – I have pretty much everything he’s written. (apart from his poetry collections in seventeen hundred different languages)
        My books are your books.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          How did I miss this comment?

          Madre de Dos… that certainly is a high compliment, brew.

          Thank you!

          And thank you for the offer, too – I’d love to read some more of this work. I’ve only read The Silver Castle, which is fiction.

        • Zara Potts says:

          I owe you a birthday present, Brew and at the risk of spoiling a surprise, I think I will send you his book ‘Cultural Amnesia’
          It’s a book of essays – billed as ‘the ultimate guide to the 20th century, illuminating the careers of many of its greatest thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists and philosophers. From Louis Armstrong to Ludwig Wittgenstein via Walter benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka and Proust it’s a book for our times.’
          He is brilliant. Just brilliant.
          Oh and I didn’t like The Silver Castle….

        • Simon Smithson says:


          (I owe you a birthday present too, brew).

          No, I didn’t much like The Silver Castle. It just didn’t click for me.

        • Zara Potts says:

          No, his fiction is dicey. His essays are sublime.
          You will love them. He has a turn of phrase which is breathtaking.

        • Zara Potts says:

          You might be interested in what James has to say on Trotsky:

          “Trotsky’s undoubted fluency as a polemical journalist does not mean that he wouldn’t rather have had a gun in his hand. The humanist makes a big mistake in supposing that a literary talent automatically ameliorates the aggressive instinct.”

          He then talks about his murder:

          ” Trotsky’s murder was not only horrifying, it was untimely. Treachery made it possible, and the subject is still surrounded with a miasma of bad faith. Pablo Neruda was instrumental in smoothing the assassin’s path but never wrote a poem on the subject; something to remember when reading the thousands of ecstatic love poems he did write. They are full of wine and roses but no ice axe is ever mentioned.”

        • Simon Smithson says:

          I think learning the term ‘not mutually exclusive’ has had one of the biggest effects of any phrases on me. It’s strange to me how people can hold two beliefs at the same time and not question the fact they do – or not.

          Yes. I think I want to read James very much.

  3. Judy Prince says:

    A tour de force, Simon. Tour…. DA… force! You’ve discovered your “divine assignment”.

    I got a bit dizzy copying passages to paste in here, but here they go a dizzying:

    “fatly cheerful”

    “after gently and deliberately scraping her car with mine and exchanging contact details”

    “and after my pineal gland is done flooding my brain with melatonin and after my own personal circadian rhythm has played out the nightly sleep cycle of between seven and eight hours my blood is cleansed, my subconscious has imparted whatever messages it needs to impart in a language of symbols and surrealities, and the tiny tears in my muscle fibres that have been torn by a day’s worth of movement and action have been resewn”

    “or women whose cars I may want to scrape with my car someday”

    “Wait, are you fucking kidding me, I just thought, are you fucking kidding me? Where do I get off? Demographically and personally, I am more likely than any single other person that I know to buy a 3D television set.”

    AND here’s the other shoe falling in your philosopho-rant, Simon. Right here:

    “That’s the point where I have to draw the line, because I have the rest of my life to be three-dimensional in. I have experiences to actually experience in length, width, and depth, and not produced for me and delivered into my home with the promise that experiencing this is the very best possible use of my time – because that, in effect, is the decision that I would be making every single time I turned my 3D TV set on.”

    “So what if that happiness comes from watching two grown men sit and stand and run between a multitude of video cameras and a green screen and point and fire imaginary guns at imaginary ghosts and imaginary monsters once a week, so special effects staff can sit in editing suites and fill in the blanks and add sound effects and make it look as if the Winchester Brothers are sending the Monster of the Week back to Hell with a steely-eyed look and a grim joke every week on Supernatural? Who’s to say that’s a more or less valuable use of time than reading Tom Wolfe?”

    “Man + Bat = Batman. If only everything in life was as self-explanatory.”

    “This is why dictators have housekeepers.”

    “I assume I’d be better at planning and staging a prison break if I didn’t feel the urge to check my Twitter, my Facebook feed, my email, my SMSes, TNB, my metropolitan newspaper site, my national news site… and CNN, USAtoday, Wikipedia, and, occasionally, the San Francisco Chronicle, every hour.”

    AND here’s the crux:

    “Why can’t we – or rather, why don’t we more often – channel that strength by running towards, rather than running away?”

    You will not run away, Simon. I like that. Lots.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Man + Bat = Batman. The simplest equation in human history.

      Thanks for reading, Judy – and wow, thanks for taking the time to select so many of the lines you liked! Talk about flattered…

      Discovered my divine assignment? Or has it discovered me…?

      • Judy Prince says:

        “Discovered my divine assignment? Or has it discovered me…?”

        Maybe it’s both, Simon. A great thing to think about.

  4. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Very skillfully woven, Simon. This is a demanding piece, and in a good way. I do, however, tend to spin in a very different direction.

    I do not think superman should be considered a template for mankind. Acknowledging the “super” bit is what saves it from misanthropy.

    Rawicz was determined, and he was also lucky. All life forms, including humans, can go through astonishing trials, but the astonishment is only registered upon surviving the trials. Rawicz survived to the limit of his capability, and to the completeness of his fortune. You mention the Olympic gold-medal winner as someone fulfilling his potential, which I found startling. An Olympic gold medal is by most likely assessments a far smaller achievement than Rawicz’s. But what is congruent is that medal winner succeeded to the limit of his capability, and to the completeness of his fortune. The most important thing about humanity is that capability and fortune are different to each of us, in scale and in circumstance. I think that it’s reductive to look at Rawicz as anything other than an anomaly in general, and as perfectly normal, flawed and human in individual context.

    In general, with regard to our potential, it will always be an asymptotic approach. We can come very close by applying a lot of force, and the closer we try to come, the more force that is required. I’d say it’s not obviously a good thing to live such a constant effort. I think our not meeting our potential is the hallmark of our mortality, rather than a stain.

    And I think it’s easy to see new developments as destructive of potential, because we’re conditioned to anxiety about the new. e.g. I don’t see the problem with 3D TV. The same argument about replacement of reality could have been made when moving pictures replaced stills, and then color came along (seems silly now, but it was a huge deal back then). Your description of the video cameras and green screens and imaginary environment sounds like just the 21st century version of Athenians trundling the machina across the stage 2300 years ago. You hint at it when you talk about how your personal experience connects you instantly with points across the world. Technology so far has almost always helped us enhance our physical experience at the same time it enhances our virtual experience, such that we end up with a net gain in engagement with the world.

    In other words, cheer up. 98% chimpanzee ain’t half bad 🙂

    One last thing: turns out we have the same PSP (perfect sleeping position):

    “I can lie on my front and slip one of my arms underneath the pillow I’m sleeping on, and tug my duvet up and over my upper back until the corner nestles perfectly between my ear and my shoulder (but not so high that it slips over my toes, down at the mysterious and far away other end of the bed)”

    Except in my case the cover should be two inches higher, between my ears and my crown. I do , on occasion like to bend my knees, so my feet are suspended in the air.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thanks, Uche! I wanted to do some deeper work with the form of this as well as the function; I hope I succeeded as I wanted to.

      And thanks, again, for helping me get this up on the site. For those who didn’t see, this was flickering on and off as I found myself unable to publish it correctly, Uche, Djinn that he is, made it a reality out of firmament.

      Nicht ubermensch? Ach, du Lieber!

      No, I think you’re entirely right about the superman/misanthropy part. Take that concept to its furthest iteration and suddenly you’re the jackass at dinner parties knocking canapes from people’s hands and yelling ‘Don’t eat that! It’s full of duck fat! Why aren’t you lifting weights and memorising chemical formulas?’

      Depending on your definition of superman, of course.

      Is the upper limit of potential defined in the achieving, or the striving? After all, they don’t tell stories about those who have tried and failed; those aren’t the heroes we lift on our shoulders up to pedestals. I went with the Olympic example because it’s, in technical, if not actual terms, a representation of the highest of the highest of his particular field (pole vaulting, in this case). Rawicz’s specific case didn’t have such institutionalised rules 🙂

      I think, also, that misery awaits anyone who believes that they should (should being the operative word), be pushing at the limits of their potential, all the time. God, what an exhausting way to live. What a completely miserable way to live. It’s one thing to be driven, to be passionate, but it’s another to be obsessed, and I think there’s an inherent loss of humanity there. Happiness is in the small and effortless spaces, just as much as it is in the opposite.

      And very well said on the asymptotic approach. I wish I’d thought to include that in this essay.

      I hope I didn’t come across as too strongly Tyler Durden in my words; a healthy dose of Murrow would have been better, and his appeal to the use of technology as an elevator (which, of course, I heard first in a movie cinema).

      It’s a subjective, arbitrary line, for me, the 3DTV. It’s the immersion of it, I think (although any show these days, worth its salt, wishes to immerse the viewer just as deeply).

      PSP? Perfect acronym.

      But bending the knees? Madness!

      I must try this for myself.

  5. Marni Grossman says:

    “The Age of Information? Man, it could more than likely shank any one of the other Ages in an all-in prison brawl (especially the Age of Innocence, which wouldn’t know the first thing about defending itself, and would probably get sold for cigarettes) as far as I’m concerned”

    I laughed a lot at this part. And other parts, too. But also, you made me think. (This sounds strangely like a fourth grade book report…) It’s a really wonderful, off-the-wall meditation on Big Things.

    I’d never heard about Slawomir Rawicz. But I’ve known quite a few Holocaust survivors. Heard their stories. And I can’t imagine living through that sort of hell. And not, necessarily, because I’m lazy. Though I am, a bit. (Like you, I enjoy Bed and TV.) But because I’m not sure I’m mentally tough. I mean, I fall to pieces under the most comfortable of conditions, you know?

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Well, you know. I assume the Gilded Age would drop like a bitch, too.

      The Stone Age, on the other hand. That was a tough sumbitch.

      (always glad to hear I made you laugh, Marni).

      And to hear I made someone – anyone! – think. I think more people need to think. Maybe that will be a post all its own, but seriously, that awareness business? To quote Lou Costello from In the Navy, as he drinks the Admiral’s orange juice: ‘Ehhhh. That’s good stuff!’

      I can’t imagine it either. I really can’t. And yet, some of the stories you hear… people have such strength in them.

      Do you know much about Victor Frankl?

  6. Gloria says:

    I have a very dear friend – an epidemiologist – the would-be love of my life – who once told me that humans are born with only two real enemies: microbial pathogens and gravity. I love him.

    That David Cross quote is fucking sublime.

    Have you see this?

    It’s okay for you to be okay. That’s what I think.

    I got the boys a children’s book on Thoreau. I love him. I want them to love him. I want them to love Walden. i want them to want to eat more than chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. I want them to not feel so excited when they eat a piece of lettuce – as if they’ve accomplished something great.

    Damn, man.


    • Judy Prince says:

      Gloria and Simon: Hey hang on—–Thoreau had his mother do his laundry; she lived nearby his Walden “retreat”. ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha true story!!!!!! Come on, confess it, you two: He was a faker who wrote the nice romantic idyllic that we’d ALL love to experience. What in fact he did was retreat from humanity, except for his handy mom.

      Me enjoying once again Simon’s post and you sharp commenters’ comments (Marni, LOVE the bit you quote about the Age of Innocence).

      • Simon Smithson says:

        @Gloria: I fucking hate microbial pathogens. Those guys are assholes.

        Also: awesome. Minchin. We’re all so very proud of him.

        And I think it’s OK to be OK too. I’m certainly not going to police and/or judge anyone for their lifestyle. Especially with the number of DVDs I own.

        Have you seen any of Jamie Oliver’s new show?

        It makes me wonder about how high we’re raising the bar.

        but then, who’s to say where the bar should be?

        I think maybe I should be in charge of that.

        @Judy: Oh, Thoreau. You sly dog. You fooled them all!

        • Gloria says:

          Oh. That’s right. He’s from your neck of the woods, isn’t he? Yes, he’s brilliant.

          I don’t know who Jamie Oliver is, but you should definitely be in charge of the bar. I think you’d be great at it.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Jamie Oliver is a British chef, who rose to fame for his vaguely cherubic, puckish good looks, sandy hair, and loveable Cockney lifestyle and delivery. Also, he hit the mark of Gen X/Y’s appetite for semi-exotic interesting food dead on target.

          It was only after he’d become popular that he turned out to be a really interesting, driven guy. He’s set up kitchens where homeless people are trained to be chefs, and his drive right now is turning around school cafeterias, educating people that they can feed their children healthy, good food for the same cost as horrible junk that’s filled with sugar and oils.

          Jamie’s School Dinners was the name of the program in the UK – he’s now doing a US version. And you know what?

          People dig in their goddamn heels about it.


      • angela says:

        judy, i was thinking this too! thoreau, such a momma’s boy.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Hey, angela, how come you haven’t got my comment on your post? It’s been a couple days now. Hmmmm…..it showed up in my email….

        • Simon Smithson says:

          HA! This keeps blurring so I read ‘tool’ and ‘Thoreau’ in the same line…


  7. Irene Zion says:

    zipped up in your
    seemingly shallow
    deep and dark
    and full of
    smart as a whip
    fighting to appear

    Why do you think
    your real
    inside self
    peeks itself out
    from time to time?

    Why do you
    to keep it

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Do I?


      Fight to keep an internal self hidden, that is.

      It’s entirely possible. I’m learning a lot about myself, these days. I’d like to learn more. I think, over the last few months, weeks, days even, I’ve become more comfortable with talking about the things that I think are important, about expressing myself in the ways I want to express myself.

      I hope there’s value in that, in a general sense, rather than just in terms of my own personal development.

  8. Greg Olear says:

    Yay, it worked, it worked!

    Fact: male humans are closer, genetically, to male chimps than they are to female humans (and vice versa).

    I’ve been reading quite a bit about WWII in the last few years. Just when you think you have a handle on the madness, some new terrible wrinkle is exposed. Stunning, the depths of depravity man will sink to, and for what? A few hectares of land, and some viscous liquid that has now ruined the Gulf of Mexico.

    Fact: Andrea is cool.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Greg, yeah, just so it’s more widely known, I think the lesson is that it’s usually OK to paste from other apps into the WordPress post body, but not the title. Type in the title by hand, to avoid tempting fate.

      • Simon Smithson says:

        @Greg: I didn’t know that. And I think there’s a lot to be said about learning about humanity through its excesses in all things… war, unfortunately, is just such a one. It’s a source of truth, but an ugly one. Thank God we can balance it out.


        @Uche: again, good catch, amigo.

      • Greg Olear says:

        The title! Of course. How stupid of me for not suggesting it.

        Simon, Andrea is the gal who swiped your phone number.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Oh, how gauche of me.

          (Gauche has become word du jour, as opposed to ‘gaunch’, thank you Gloria and Quenby and Storm Large).

          Andrea is not her real name, so I didn’t make the immediate connection. I can’t believe I forget a pseudonym I gave to one of my own narrative characters. Shame, shame, where can I put my face?

        • Gloria says:

          If I’ve delivered unto the world the message that there is more than one way to speak of the forbidden fruit, then my work here is done.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Can “gaunch” also be an adjective? “Gaunchy” seems like a perfectly great word.

        • Simon Smithson says:


          It sounds… fun. Like ‘raunchy’. I imagine people dancing and flapping petticoats on tables.

    • Opinion: I wonder – and this is a giant leap of opinionated possibility – if that 98% of genetic similarity to chimpanzees is what makes us so capable – and seemingly willing, often (see: Bernie Madoff, George Bush, the Joker) – of the great depths of depravity so many humans achieve. (NOTE: Is achieve the correct word? As in, “I’ve achieved human depravity! Hooray!” Psychologists refer to a suicide as “successful” so I assume this works.)

      Is being MORE like an animal what makes us so willing to be … evil? Not that animals are evil, they’re just tryin’ to survive, yo. But. If you couple pure survival instinct with creativity and imagination, where might we be able to delve, evil-wise? I’m sure Phillip Zimbardo would have something to chime in here.

      • Greg Olear says:

        I think it’s the 2% difference that does it. Chimps — or is it monkeys? — one of the advanced primates feeds on the brains of rival gangs it has vanquished. That seems to be them evolving into humans, not the other way around.

        But, in keeping with your point — since advanced and evolved humans tend to be pacifist, we can safely assume that, say, Dick Cheney is closer to a chimp than he is to the Dalai Lama.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          But. If you couple pure survival instinct with creativity and imagination, where might we be able to delve, evil-wise?

          Right there is the point, I think, Justin. Animals can be ‘cruel’, as you would label the behaviour set in a human; it’s not out of sadism or maliciousness, rather, as you say, just trying to survive. It’s hard out there for a pimp.

          I think one of the highest human traits is the consciousness of being conscious – is it animal to lose empathy? Would we be nicer if we could make a habit of being more empathic and aware of the effect of our actions?

          I’d hope so. The alternative is sociopathy, isn’t it?

        • Becky says:

          This is weird to me. I feel like you’re talking about sympathy, not empathy. Empathy being the quality of feeling what someone else is feeling (this strikes me as somewhat involuntary), sympathy being the quality of understanding why someone feels one way or another and being able to relate it to times when you have felt that way.

          When researchers look into empathy, they go to a land foreign to both: They watch people who are trying to discern WHAT other people are feeling. This, ironically, is an area in which sociopaths excel, in part because they are not distracted by trying to control their own feelings…their empathy.

          Empathy research is really fucked up. I think it’s that way because empathy is a matter of zeitgeist (often political zeitgeist) these days, and despite the intangibility of empathy as a quality by its true definition, scientists seem to be under pressure to quantify it.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          I mean empathy as I define empathy, which is the same definition, I think, as you’ve outlined.

          Wouldn’t true empathy preclude inflicting suffering on someone else for your own gain (see, Bernie Madoff, the Joker, various examples large and small), as you would empathise and thus wish to spare someone else the suffering that you acknowledge would make you suffer likewise?

          I don’t know much about empathy research, or at least, not laboratory-wise. Are there any links you can give me?

        • Becky says:

          Here is the one I read right before I posted that, which reminded me of other stuff I read during my anthro days:


          As to whether or not empathy precludes inflicting suffering, not necessarily. Because humans are both empathetic and equipped with defense mechanisms to thwart their own suffering (presumably to “do what needs to be done” in a survivalist sense). So one could feel empathy and defend against it, either causing suffering in the process or simply in order to move forward with the behavior that is causing suffering in someone else.

          I don’t know if I’m taking a semi-psychic approach to empathy or what, but in my mind, when I think about what empathy is, conscious thought doesn’t enter into it. It’s almost necessarily unrelated.

          Empathy strikes me as related to being “affected”–absorbing the moods and thoughts and mindsets of those around you, with nary a conscious thought.

        • Becky says:

          Oh, and of course we can’t all be 100% empathetic all the time. No one is.

          We’d die. We’d all die. We couldn’t eat or sleep or eat or carry on; we’d get depressed at everthing, happy at everything, we’d be totally out of control of ourselves, trapped in a wild, species-wide game of pass-the-emotion.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          “It’s almost necessarily unrelated.”

          You think? I mean, yeah, there’s the weight of our own wants to be dealt with, but I can think of examples from my own past where I have empathised with someone, and consciously taken different action as a result, in order to guard/protect their well-being.

          Of course, the stakes weren’t particularly high at the time.

          Empathy, to me, can be focused. Even if it’s based on generalities, rather than a specific personal mindset someone else may have.

          Does that sentence make sense?

          Also: heh. We’d die. We’d all die. There’s something about that construction that just strikes me as funny.

        • Becky says:

          It was mock horror at the thought of the widespread emotional instability that unchecked empathy would cause.

          It’d be like the whole world had some kind of mutant super-PMS. My God. The humanity. Not to mention the ease with which sociopaths could take over the world, having no susceptibility to the crazy-making agent and therefore being the only rational people on the planet.

          I don’t know. Maybe you can exercise empathy. I feel like the best you could do, at least in my idea of the concept, is decide to pay closer attention to those around you, increasing opportunities for empathy to strike, but the paying closer attention isn’t the empathy itself.

          But maybe I’m splitting hairs. I’ve been known to do that.

          On the whole, I tend to view empathy as something like a talent. At least insofar as the majority of people are born with some degree of ability, but some have a much higher aptitude than others. And even though you can’t exercise it, exactly, the way you might practice a musical instrument, there are probably things you can do–to your mindset, especially–to make yourself more susceptible or open to empathy.

          And, incidentally, I think it goes both ways. I think people with a high degree of empathy don’t just absorb the moods and feelings of others; their own moods are contagious, both good and bad. I stop short of the sci-fi superpower type of empathy, where feelings are consciously used to manipulate, but I know people whose individual moods can set the tone for an entire party, outing, meeting, etc.

          In that sense, my definition of empathy isn’t just about kindness and tenderness and understanding. Empathy is responsible for picking up and doling out unpleasant and/or nasty moods, too.

        • Becky, the contagiousness of moods is interesting. I remember an NPR story from about a year ago where researchers measured the contagion of good and bad moods in a party setting. I don’t remember the exact setup, but basically someone would exhibit a good or bad mood and – somehow – the researchers traced the “contagiousness” of the mood throughout the crowd. This, to me, is empathy at its finest. Not only were the moods contagious, but subjects moods actually seemed to change based on the mood of the person they last talked to. If I remember correctly, bad moods spread farther and wider than good moods.

          Also, another way that I remember empathy (cue extra-nerdy information): Empath, an X-man in the 90s, was able to absorb the powers of any mutant that came within a certain distance from him. Absorb energy —> exhibit absorbed energy = empathy. Maybe…

          Greg, I think your point is a good one. I wonder, and this is just a note of my ignorance, but can Dick Cheney, despicable and evil as he is, be truly “less evolved” than any of the rest of us? Is the Dalai Lama more evolved than he is? Is that, strictly scientifically-speaking, possible? I don’t know. I think there’s definitely another component here.

          And I believe that what makes the sociopath is not the degree to which he or she may empathize with anyone (as Becky suggested that they actually do that quite well), but that they have no remorse, despite a relatively intact moral compass. Bernie Madoff knows he’s doing wrong, but he does not care and, perhaps worse, is not afraid of getting caught.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I don’t know that they empathize, necessarily. According to the definition of sociopathy, a hallmark is a lack of empathy. They have a certain immunity to tender emotions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize, gauge, and accordingly exploit the emotions of others perfectly well.

          A sociopath can see and understand that a person is feeling sad, for example, and know how to act in order to seem sympathetic or empathetic or to get what they want, but they don’t actually feel anything themselves.

        • I guess that is true. I should have written more. It’s not that sociopaths actually empathize, not the way that non-sociopaths do, but, as you say, they are able to recognize them and utilize/manipulate people’s emotions for their own ends.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          “On the whole, I tend to view empathy as something like a talent. At least insofar as the majority of people are born with some degree of ability, but some have a much higher aptitude than others. And even though you can’t exercise it, exactly, the way you might practice a musical instrument, there are probably things you can do–to your mindset, especially–to make yourself more susceptible or open to empathy.”

          I think we’re on the same page, here. I mean, I don’t know exactly what those things would be, except maybe experience similar circumstances as the person who you are empathising with.

          I guess that would be a start.

        • Becky says:

          But then wouldn’t that be sympathy? Wiki has a slightly different take on the definitions than I do, but its definition of sympathy is closer to your usage of empathy in that sympathy includes “positive regard” and caring concern:

          “To empathize is to respond to another’s perceived emotional state by experiencing feelings of a similar sort. Sympathy not only includes empathizing, but also entails having a positive regard or a non-fleeting concern for the other person.”

          So, in a way, it’s funny that empathy has been elevated recently as the more desirable, more compassionate of the two. Empathy really has nothing to do with concern or compassion. It just means you’re affected.

          Again, I’m probably splitting hairs. At the end of the day, I know what you’re talking about. You’re talking about working to better recognize and care about the emotional states and emotional well-being of others.

          But the distinction Wiki describes is probably responsible for many of the confused looks and radio silences I get when I tell people I’m empathic. I’m trying to say I’m highly susceptible to contracting the moods of people around me, but if people I’m talking to have their definitions flip-flopped, they think I’m trying to say I’m extra caring and kind.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Aha! Look at that. I’ve learned something new today.

          Thanks, Becky!

          I always thought it was the other way around. Stupid general definitions, floating through the air, working their way into my head…

          OK. Vagueness, done.

          Yep, sympathy sounds more like what I’m talking about.



          And actually, it makes more sense when you use it as a verb. ‘Sympathetic’ really sounds much more like you’re being concerned or havng regard for another’s siuation/state, as opposed to ’empathic’, which really sounds more like hey, I’m picking up on your emotions.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, there’s “empathetic,” too, which describes a mood or feeling of being affected by empathy and is slightly different from “empathic,” which describes a way of being on a regular basis.

          Does that make sense?

        • Simon Smithson says:

          It does. It really and truly does.


          Do you know if the root of the word (heh. Heh heh heh) is related to pathos?

    • Becky Palapala says:

      The way I read it was that human females are closer to all chimps than human males are and that the difference between human males and chimp males was greater still.

      But in either case (and I don’t have my head quite around this, not sure if I can get there with my limited knowledge of genetics)

      I think, in species with males and females, one would expect females to be the most similar in genetic comparison for one simple reason.

      Long, long, long ago, there were only females (in a manner of speaking). Female is the default sex for mammals (and arguably, life on earth).

      Plainly put, in evolutionary terms, exclusively sexual reproduction and, by extension, the y chromosome are brand new. Women may be more like monkeys, but it’s only because all females are part of a much older evolutionary tribe. Men are n00bs. Their evolutionary function is to fill in the gaps in species with sexual reproduction, and as a result, y chromosomes are unstable–highly malleable.

      This, of course, leaves males of any given species more prone to rapid adaptation. But they only need be so because they are also less essential.

      *raise eyebrow*

      Hear that boys? You can be replaced.

      • Greg Olear says:

        Ah, so that’s what makes men so awesome. We’re supercool mutants! Thanks for clarifying. I always wondered where these ruby-red rays shining like lasers from my eyes came from…

        But seriously, I’m getting this from Russell Banks’ novel The Darling, which I assume he spent ample time researching and was copyedited and factchecked to death.

        A friend of mine told me that when they were mapping the genomes — or whatever it was they were doing; comparing our DNA to a chimp’s — there were so few differences that the scientists were actually worried that it was only environmental factors that made chimps chimps and us highly advanced organisms that can put men on the moon and keep up with the Kardashians.

        Welcome back, Becky!

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Factchecked at least insofar as they had to be able to say they could back up what he said within reason. To some degree or in some manipulation of data in a way that could conceivably lead to his assertion. They have only to be able to point to someone else who said it first, or something like it, to keep their noses clean.

          But just because they can do that doesn’t mean the author is representing reality in an honest way. Plainly, we don’t don’t even know what he’s representing.

          The man may well be defensible. Maybe I just can’t find whatever he was reading.

          Closest I could find was an assertion by an MIT biologist saying that the difference between men and women is between 1 and 2%, about the same as the difference between a female chimp and female human and a male chimp and male human (though this is an approximation at best. The similarity between chimps and humans is not agreed upon in the least. Depending on how it is counted, it ranges from 92-99%, nearly the difference, by some counts, between a dog’s relationship to humans and a human’s relationship to other humans).

          At any rate, all I could find was that the two sexes are as different as two different species in some sense. But this doesn’t really tell the tale, either.

          Because one needs only to look at a chimp and a human of the opposite sex to recognize that, obviously, WHAT the differences are matters more than the number of them. All this percentages garbage is basically useless and tells us nothing of any practical value. Beyond being charming at a cocktail party, anyway.

          This is a pet peeve of mine. Pop-science. I want to grab people and shake them. I want to punch my computer screen when I accidentally navigate to yahoo’s featured headlines. My life is a thankless battle against misinformation. I just yelled at my mother for not checking snopes. It makes me so tired.

        • Simon Smithson says:


          I read it as male humans were closer to male chimps than male humans were closer to female humans, and female humans were closer to female chimps than female humans were closer to male humans.

          Is that an accurate reading?

          And you’re right, Becky – it’s a point that I’ve made for descriptive value, rather than checking the scientific accuracy of it. And you know what? That’s actually really inexcusable, in my book. Fact, to me, should be sacred. Because otherwise, you’re on a slippery slope to the oblivion of rationality.

          That being said, I think it’s a good reminder – as long as you establish that it’s pop science – that we’re not as evolved as we think, and remembering that we are animals goes a long way towards explaining a lot of our behaviour sets, to me.

        • Simon Smithson says:


          And welcome back. The monkey in me is refraining from throwing its faeces as an expression of how overjoyed it is to see you again 🙂

        • Becky says:

          Oh, no. I wasn’t criticizing you for using it, Simon. Not my intent at all. Therefore, I reject your defense of using it as unnecessary and heretofore, ignore it completely.

          My point was only…what was my point?

          My point was that I am constitutionally incapable of seeing pop science and not throwing a temper tantrum. Basically.

          It was to say that pop science fits better under the category of rhetoric than science. Something like that.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Pop science is well and good until it gets dangerous…such as the pop science that convinced way too many people to forgo vaccinations for their children because of the alleged (and debunked) autism link. Europe is just waiting for a measles outbreak.

          Speaking of autism, that’s where you have to look to find info about empathy.

          It’s too exhausting, for me, to run around trying to change people’s minds about stuff. I would have made a lousy missionary. I don’t even like their furniture.

        • Zara Potts says:

          You don’t even like their furniture…
          I love that!

        • Becky says:

          Oh, I LIKE the furniture.

          I don’t know. I think I see pop science as harmful because it is symptomatic of what I consider a general sickness in thinking and falseness under guise of information-sharing.

          Not sickness in the sense that people’s brains are defective, I have to stress. This is a societal thing. In the sense that people are just constantly being manipulated, to the point where the manipulation itself is seen as a valid form of information-gathering.

          I am obsessed, as many well know, with avoiding being fooled by anyone or anything.

          I don’t know if it’s admirable or just neurotic and annoying and paranoid, but I don’t care, and by God, until the day I die, I will be sending those snopes links to anyone who fails to check their info.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          “It was to say that pop science fits better under the category of rhetoric than science.”

          Yeah, absolutely. I just think care has to be taken to make sure it’s being presented as rhetoric, rather than masquerading as hard fact; because then when people start making decisions and forming beliefs based on apparent ‘fact’, well, then we’re all sunk.

        • Becky, I feel the same as you on the point of fact-checking and truth versus fantasy truth. My temper tantrums generally occur largely when someone makes grossly-misinformed statements about politics (i.e., the oil spill was the Sierra Club’s fault, etc.), but I get itchy and bitter and reactionary in the realm of science as well. I definitely agree that the propensity to agree with or accept pop science as truth is symptomatic of a larger thinking problem. People, I remember my cognitive psychology professor saying, are cognitively stingy: they search for the easiest-to-get-to and most plausible, though often incorrect, answer in order to avoid having to expend too much energy coming up with a correct statement or idea. This is so, so dangerous and a major problem right now in our society.

          So much information is manipulated for specific purposes and people, the cognitively stingy ones, buy what they’re told as long as it generally corresponds with their belief set, however flawed and conservative and anti-progressive it may be. Like whenever Glen Beck says…anything.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Nope. There’s not the least reason to suppose that Y is “new.” Rapidly-evolving doesn’t mean new.

        I don’t know how all this male/female human/chimp stuff got started.

        The 98% +/- similar human-chimp DNA comparison has been known for many years, and it’s solid. But just making a comparison like that isn’t meaningful. All it tells you is that taken as a whole, the two genomes are remarkably similar.

        It tells you absolutely nothing about which parts of the genome are similar. Nothing, nothing, nothing. It cannot tell us which actual genes are similar or identical (although there are techniques that can, absolutely). Put simply, a percentage comparison cannot possibly tell us how much of what we’re comparing is structural DNA and how much is regulatory DNA. There’s no need to get more complex than that — it’s the way that the genetic information is turned on and off that makes the difference, and 2% is plenty for that.

        Here’s a useful example. There’s a phenomenon called “differential growth,” and it’s found all over. Think of yourself. If your growth and development hadn’t been “differential,” you’d look like a giant baby. You don’t. Your limbs are relatively longer. Your face is relatively larger, compared to your braincase, and there have been many other changes like that.

        Consider the face business. What happened to all of us is that the genetic control of facial growth kept the face growing, relative to the braincase. That, put crudely, is what development is all about.

        Want a chimpanzee with a larger brain? Don’t shut down neuron mitosis for a little longer. Want a chimpanzee with a smaller face? Shut down facial growth earlier. And so on.

        Of course it’s easy to say “shut down” or “turn on,” but that’s that the molecular folks are beginning to get a real handle on.

        What’s now called “evo-devo” isn’t new at all (we graduate students in the late sixties thought it was pretty cool stuff) but the advent of all these amazing genetic techniques has made it not just a really interesting thing to think about, but something that can actually be studied.

        I hate to just assert things, Becky, but “females are part of a much older evolutionary tribe. Men are noobs” can’t be substantiated. You’re suggesting that the females of a particular species are “older” than the males of that species. You have to talk about a particular species, because there are no “female” (nor any “males”) that exist outside of, or beyond, a species. And if you’re talking about Homo sapiens, consider what you’re saying . . . that there was a time when there were no males. Ask yourself how that could be. It’s the same species with the same evolutionary history.

        What might be happening is a confusion between default gender seen during development (that is, growth processes in an individual organism) which in mammals is indeed female, and some notion that there could be a “default evolutionary gender,” which as a phenomenon cannot be. Very different arenas, very different processes. In the one case you have change within a single generation, playing out in accordance with genetic instructions for structure and regulation, and on the other, change over multiple generations playing out by responding to particular ecological contexts.

        Male humans are closer to male chimps than male humans are closer to female humans? Stop! Think about what’s being said here — one human sex is closer to the equivalent sex in a different family, genus, and species, from which it’s been separately evolving for probably 6 million years, than it is to the other human sex? Less like the only living being on the planet with whom it can mate with full fertility? What? That’s beyond bizarre and I just don’t know where it came from.

        Russell Banks? Who the fuck is he? Oh, an American writer of fiction and poetry.

        And this stuff isn’t all that hard to understand. Where it gets hard is when the beginning “observations” are crap. Then it gets hard. Honestly, if you go back to Bio 1 or Anthro 1 and go from there, it’s all going to be clear.

        There’s enough wonderful mystery in the world without all this stuff.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          As far as I can tell, Don, we only disagree on one thing, and that is the relative newness of the y chromosome.

          Which, really, I only meant to stand as a representation of the relative newness of sexual reproduction on the whole. In animals, anyway. Hence my parenthetical qualification of the statement: “in a manner of speaking” and my repeated references to exclusively sexual reproduction. I suppose we could go one further and limit it to exclusively sexual reproduction in which sex is immutable in any given individual throughout its lifetime. Like, not counting species that amend their sex as necessary.

          You know this full well: You need fewer males than females, theoretically speaking, to maintain a viable human population. This is why men are free and eager to kill each other, is it not? At least in part?

        • Becky Palapala says:

          But I did want to, and couldn’t summon up the connection, say something about mitochondrial DNA and stability in the female genome.

          I have this vague sense that there’s something to it, but I can’t put my finger on what it is.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          And also, you are a cultural anthropologist, which, had I continued on my path, would not have been my destination (obviously). So I’m sure we disagree on more than is evidenced here, but not AS is evidenced here. Okay. Now I’m done.

        • Greg Olear says:

          I love that you’re on here, Don. I always learn something.

          And just to clarify, because it isn’t his fault: Banks wrote about the chimps in the context of an argument that cooking them and eating them, as they did and do in Liberia, is not radically different from cannibalism. He wasn’t making any larger scientific points; his argument was more poetic. (Also, I think you’d like Russell Banks).

          Interjecting these little tidbits of “knowledge” into the comment board…that’s my job. ; )

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Actually, Becky, I did much of my research as an “ecological anthropologist,” after I was a “biological anthropologist” and before I became a “humanistic anthropologist.”

          I entered graduate school as a biological anthropologist, having been trained by Paul Ehrlich and Richard Holm (biologists, but they took me on anyway). I stayed in biological anthropology until I realized that I was much more interested in ecological questions than evolutionary ones. By the time I changed my mind, I had already completed my coursework in biological, having studied with people like Ernst Mayr, W. W. Howells, Irven DeVore, and with a little bit of E. O. Wilson thrown in. Bob Trivers was a grad school friend. Henry Harpending and I were roommates. I passed biological orals and had done all the research to write a biological anthropology dissertation, before I dropped it and started over in cultural, although even after that I continued to do some biological anthropology research.

          Because of this biological anthropology background I was able to get a job as a biological anthropologist teaching physical anthropology, human genetics, prehistory, and allied fields. This was at a time when there were no ecological anthropology jobs. I kept that job for 30+ years, each semester teaching “Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Archaeology.”

          My evolutionary biology credentials are in order, I think.

          As for sex-ratio questions — things like “you need fewer males than females” — these are in fact extremely puzzling questions that cannot possibly be reduced to the obvious fact that a male can impregnate multiple females. In graduate school I wrote a very well-received paper about effective sex ratio and inbreeding in baboons. I was able to show that an unbalanced sex ratio (more females than males) at breeding was an illusion caused by looking at the population at only a single time, rather than over time. That was fun, but it hardly solved the general problem of sex ratio (as controlled by sex chromosomes), which continues to be a vexing one.

          I took a moment this morning to track down what’s probably the publication that got some of this started. It’s in Nature, from 2010 — “Chimpanzee and human Y chromosomes are remarkably divergent in structure and gene content,” by J. F. Hughes and 15 other authors. I subscribe to Nature, so I’ll grab the article and read it and report. I remember reading it, but I don’t remember the content.

          The abstract, which I found online, contains this: “By comparing the [male-specific regions] of the two species we show that they differ radically in sequence structure and gene content, indicating rapid evolution during the last 6 million years.”

          In this context, “rapid evolution” means nothing more than “rapid divergence from the male-specific regions of the Y chromosome of the common ancestor of humans and chimps.”

          More later, unless there’s an outcry to shut the fuck up about sex chromosomes and chimpanzees in Simon’s posting, in which case I will shut the fuck up.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Greg, I’m sure I’d like Banks. I’ve come to like the literary crowd more than the anthropological crowd.

          If he was writing about how that seemed to him, then fine. But if he was using “cannibalism” in the accepted meaning of the word, and maintaining that it was cannibalism, then he was wrong; if he had no knowledge of what the Liberians killing and eating “bush meat” like chimpanzees thought about it, then he had no foundation for claiming anything other than how it seemed to him. I think using chimpanzees as bush meat is dreadful, but it’s not cannibalism.

        • Becky says:

          Don, I wasn’t questioning your credentials. I think it’s obvious enough from our degrees, comparatively speaking, that you have more going for you in that respect, at least with regard to this conversation.

          I was just pointing out that our takes on the situation are bound to be different. I would have been EvoPsych, most likely. Some subgenre thereof. Maybe something in language acquisition or sex & gender? We’ll never know. I vacated that path and all of the potentialities in it.

          That said, am I correct in inferring that you examined an existing population of baboons? I am talking more about what is theoretically necessary/possible, not what is necessarily observable. It’s perfectly reasonable that a relatively even sex ratio is ideal, at least in humans. This would go a long way towards explaining why we’re born in equal numbers. Maybe. Though that fails to consider whether or not males and females in their prime reproductive years have consistently, over time, died in equal numbers, among other things.

          Anyway, the question is whether or not even sex distribution is necessary, not whether or not uneven sex distribution exists. Vexing, maybe, but only if one complicates it. It’s a simple base question, really, that I should think could be answered at the theoretical level by the folks who run computer simulations to try to explain everything.

          I have no problem with the assertion that chimp and human y chromosomes are markedly divergent, but my notions about the recentness of sexual reproduction and the role of males in it didn’t start there. That blame lies squarely with my Anthro of sex & gender prof.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          The sex ratio problem isn’t about what’s “ideal.” It begins from the observation that in meiosis, equal numbers of X and Y chromosome-bearing gametes are produced. This is inevitable, given the way that chromosomes are parceled out to gametes.

          But from that point on, the sex ratio is subject to variation and, across all sexual species, the sex ratio may or may not get weird before the time of reproduction. But then, upon gametogenesis, it all gets set back to 1:1, off we go again, then back to 1:1, and so on. That’s the part that’s tricky to understand.

          R.A. Fisher was perhaps the first person to think hard about that. If you Google “Fisher + sex ratio” you’ll hit information that you’ll find useful.

          So that’s a “low-level” issue because it depends on how the chromosomes do their dance. It’s often called the “primary” sex ratio.

          The baboon study I talked about was theoretical, but it checked out with later baboon work. The problem with unequal sex ratio is that it can produce inbreeding. If you have a population with equal numbers of adult males and females, but the “breeding sex ratio” is unbalanced, then the population size N is reduced to Ne (the “effective” population size) because of the bottleneck produced by the relatively small number of whichever sex is in the minority. Bottom line is that a good-sized population in which you don’t expect to see inbreeding effects can “behave” genetically as if it were a far smaller population, which will produce inbreeding. It’s irrelevant whether the minority sex got to that point because they died off or because they don’t breed (for whatever reason).

          I got into this because DeVore and others saw no signs of inbreeding problems in the baboon groups they studied, and yet there ought to have been some because only a few males dominated the breeding. Something must have been keeping the groups from becoming inbred. At that time (1967) available evidence was that baboons did not move from group to group, which implied even more strongly that they should be inbred.

          In brief what I showed was that the skewed sex ratio disappears if you run the breeding model over a long time. The males “cycled” through breeding. An alpha male would indeed impregnate the females to the exclusion of the other males, thus unbalancing the sex ratio at breeding. But he would only do so for a short time, and then another male would impregnate the same group of females, then another, and so on. Basically what happens is that (for example) a set of 3 females ends up breeding with 3 males, taken one at a time, sequentially. So the effective breeding population is not actually small, unless you’re looking at it for only a short period of time. And then there’s how females begin breeding at an earlier age than males, in baboons, which helps things along too (more time to cycle through the males).

          Finally, the problem with your (or your professor’s) “notions about the recentness of sexual reproduction and the role of males in it” is that it’s just wrong. Sexual reproduction is not new — it’s hundreds of millions of years old.

          I can’t think of what your professor might have been saying that sounded like that, except perhaps the loss of estrus in human females, which is new and not to be found in other primates except perhaps in bonobos. The human decoupling sexual activity from estrus is extremely interesting but also difficult to explain.

        • Becky says:

          A few hundred million years in 4 billion or more of life on earth? That strikes me as new. Especially if you cheat it further with the stipulation of fixed sexes.

          And none of what you’re saying is tricky to understand. Most of it I already knew, but none of it really answers my question, either.

          The bottleneck stuff comes close, but still not quite. In most countries where males aren’t strongly favored for cultural reasons, females outnumber males (including in the US). This can only tell us so much without more demographic info, but there is at least some tolerance for imbalance in the sex ratio. So the question isn’t, “Is there a tolerance.” The question is, “What is the tolerance.”

          I mean, I feel pretty comfortable saying that, since sex ratio imbalances already exist. In humans. Right now as we speak. Often negligible and varying one way or another depending on where you are and essentially evening out worldwide, but they exist, and for the most part, people in MN aren’t the major reproductive partners of people in China, for example, so even that worldwide balance is of questionable weight.

          Any population has, essentially, a capped potential for growth, and that potential is based on the number of females and their reproductive capacities. There is no way around that except in those freak populations, where, say, multiple births are inexplicably rampant. But even then, it’s just a higher cap. That, at least, I hope we can agree on.

          So, females are the arbiters, but how many males do they need? Actually need? And don’t say one for every female because we know humans don’t reproduce on a strictly monogamous basis…

          And, for that matter, what about inbreeding? In professional anthropological parlance, what qualifies? Reproduction within immediate family?

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Becky, I’m not in a mood to argue about this.

          If you think that a few hundred millions years — meaning, basically, since the origin of the vertebrates — is new, then go ahead. I don’t.

          When you write things like “The bottleneck stuff comes close, but still not quite.” Close to what? Not quite what? I offered an example of some work I did on a sex ratio problem. There’s a shitload of sex ratio problems out there. I don’t know about them all. I’m not interested in them all. If you are, you’ve got to do some reading in classical demography and population structure.

          Look, “Any population has, essentially a capped potential for growth . . . ” is just a meaningless statement. Nobody who knows anything about it is going to claim that the “number of females and their reproductive capacities” is the key. It’s only one of the factors, and perhaps not even the most important one. There’s abundant evidence that the max reproductive for human females in good environments is about 11 live births. If you know how, you might plug that number into an equation for population growth and see what happens.

          I can tell you that if very many women in the world reproduced at their max rate, we’d have trillions and trillions of human beings, and very quickly indeed. It’s an old argument, made in 1968 by George Cowgill, in his classic article titled something like “On the Causes and Consequences of Human Population Growth.” His point, validated beyond any reasonable doubt, is that factors other than potential fertility have acted and continue to act in all human societies, and it’s these factors that keep populations down. The number of populations in which actual reproduction has reached ultimate levels are very few in number. I can only think of two or three. I worked in a society where the population was doubling itself every 17 years, and I can assure you it had nothing to do with how many males were needed or not needed. The sex ratio was quite even. It had to do with the complete absence of fertility control options except for abstinence.

          And I have no idea what, in practice “females are the arbiters” means.

          Inbreeding is thought about it two ways: genetic and social. There are any number of ways to measure genetic inbreeding, but basically it’s all about fixed alleles and lack of variation. Social/cultural inbreeding has to do with the kinship setup in any particular society. Example: Cross cousins (children of opposite-sexed siblings) versus parallel cousins (children of same-sex siblings). It’s easy to find societies in which marriages between parallel cousins are prohibited (considered incest) while that between cross-cousins if allowed and even favored. Any geneticist will tell you that the genetic consequences of those two kinds of marriage are identical.

          Shouldn’t we just drop this? I know you’re fond of arguing, but I’m not, and this is after all Simon’s thread.

          I got out of the classroom so I wouldn’t need to do this. I’m writing fiction now, and that’s what I want to keep doing.

        • Becky says:

          Don. You’re getting mad.

          I’m not mad. I’m asking questions. You jumped in. You offered information. I started trying to understand what you were saying and better explain what I was saying. I think it’s reasonable to say we’re passing each other parallel on our points, but I think you may be the only one arguing. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this riled up, and I don’t really get it.

          I’m sorry to make you feel like a school marm, but I’m not going to take it on as mia culpa. You’re the one who took it upon yourself to instruct in this scenario.

          That said, I’m more than happy to drop it for any number of reasons.

        • Despite the dropping of the subject, I am glad this kind of discussion exists here so that people like myself can see the sides and get information we would not have otherwise known. I’m not sure who’s “correct”, but it’s nice to have this information available and argued in a viable and informed manner. Thanks, guys.

        • dwoz says:

          I think I read somewhere that humans share approximately 60% of our genome with corn.

          I’ve always thought that might be true, when I look at my eyebrows.

  9. James D. Irwin says:

    Wow, fucking epic. Usually I see that much text on a screen and balk at the prospect. Slawomir Rawicz I am not…

    But I did read it. You made me want to go back to bed at the start. I’m the same, love staying up, love sleeping in. I find getting out of bed quite hard. I have such a comfortable bed too…

    I never liked Batman as a ‘superhero’ simply because he didn’t have any superpowers. I thought he was pretty cool though. Preferred Spiderman though and his awesome puns…

    I love reading about guys like Slawomir. They’re just so fucking cool. I watch a lot of WWII stuff because I have a grim fascination with it. My all time favourite holocaust story (that sounds more trivial than I’d like) concerns an escape from Auschwitz. These four Jewish guys found an SS munitions shed unlocked so they stole a few uniforms, guns and ammunition. One of them worked at the AUschwitz garage (as a slave, obviously). He got access to a car. Dressed as guards they all hopped in and drove towards the gate. The plan, were they to be found out, was mass suicide. They get closer and closer to the barrier and it isn’t opened. Three of them prepare to shoot themselves when the fourth stands up and shouts ”are we going to wait all day or are you going to open the fucking barrier?!”

    The barrier is lifted, they drive off to safety.

    Guys in WWII had big, big balls…

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thanks, Jim. I appreciate you taking the time.

      I watched the word count build with some trepidation, I have to tell you.

      And it could have gone on for so much longer.

      Getting out of bed is a bitch.

      And I like reading about people who have done extraordinary things too. I like that Holocaust story (Uck. I see what you mean. There’s something about saying that that’s just flying in the face of how I think of expressing myself properly in any way, shape or form).


      • I’ll be honest, what else am I going to do all day? There aren’t any pubs where I live, which probably violates some sort of British law…

        the way I figure it, if I’m still wrapped in my towel at half eleven in the morning, two hours after I got out the bath, then I have time to read pretty much anything.

        If I’m writing something for TNB and it goes past 2,000 words I tend to give up and start re-writing. You can only really get away with a post if it’s as awesome as this (your piece, not my comment)…

        • Simon Smithson says:

          I applaud your honesty, Jim. That’s the stuff that carried the day against the Kaiser.

          “the way I figure it, if I’m still wrapped in my towel at half eleven in the morning, two hours after I got out the bath, then I have time to read pretty much anything.”


          Well-played, that man.

          Also: I don’t think I’ve breached the 1.5K mark before. So this took me by surprise, a little.

  10. Becky says:

    If it makes you feel any better, Simon, we also share 92% of our DNA with Kangaroos and rabbits and 91% of our DNA with Pigs and dogs. (Huge portions of our DNA are dedicated to hair, bones, circulatory systems, brains & nervous systems, skin, etc. Things all mammals–and in other cases, most animals–have).

    So another way to look at it is this: We are only 6% exceptionally DNA-similar with chimps (and it is nearly identical to our DNA similarity to rhesus monkeys, who are not even apes).

    But of course, the percentage that pop-scientists will arrive at to advocate this similarity depends on what they’re counting, too.

    A particular amino acid? If so, which one? So on. So that 98% percent thing is just a scientific-sounding way of saying “really, really similar,” which is true, but it’s basically meaningless beyond that. A tidy blurb created for use in defending against creationism and advocating for other things. We are really, really similar to turtles, too (86%).

    I have more to say on the post, but now I have to go to work. (Boooooooo)

    • Simon Smithson says:

      It does make me feel better!

      I’ve been thinking a lot about where we come from recently. What makes us. It’s interesting stuff.

      Pop-science is good enough for me, six days out of seven.

      (I had no idea about the turtles).

      That is a cause for booing. I’ll be looking forward to hearing what else you have to say.

    • Becky Palapala says:


      1) I sleep on my back, and I am totally incapable of sleeping in. I can lie there in bed for as long as I want after I wake up, but if the sun is up, I will not be going back to sleep.

      2) I’ve wrestled with the world “potential” since I was very young and have come to loathe it for its tendency to act as code for me (or others) not doing or being the things other people want me to do or be. “But you have so much potential! It’s a short-hand for “who you are and what you’re doing now isn’t good enough.” When people say it to me with regard to not only myself but also with regard to children, I want to throttle them.

      3) Related to 2: Everyone has “so much potential.” It’s Borges’ garden of forking paths. Every person, theoretically speaking and if you don’t believe in predestination, is born with an infinite number of potentialities in his/her life’s future. No mortal being could ever fulfill them all. On a more practical note: It is probably true that I could be a writer or a lawyer or a writer and a lawyer, but even within that tiny dichotomy of accessible outcomes that suit my natural aptitudes, there is an impossibility of doing all of them. At some point I’ll have to choose.

      As such: I can’t be both [JUST a lawyer] AND [a Lawyer and a writer]. It is a logical impossibility, built into the nature of the word “or.” Dichotomy. I suppose there are third and fourth options of being a lawyer THEN a writer or the other way around, but even those two negate each other and the first is no longer an option for me (to wit: I am already a writer and not yet a lawyer, so the potential for me to be a lawyer THEN a writer is erased.)

      So. At the end of the day, not only would an individual run him/herself ragged TRYING to do all things, the second he/she made a decision to do anything at all, and every time he/she made a choice thereafter, she/he would erase a set of other potentialities from his/her future. From his/her options. Permanently. No longer available. Forbidden by the universe as far as we understand it.

      So you know, no pressure.

      I have a feeling I’m not making any sense right now. Either that or Richard is going to come in here and begin lecturing me on the nature of time. The point is, anyway, that as Uche points out, because we are mortal and bound to one reality/dimension as far as we know, we simply have to pick and choose which potentials to fulfill and which not to. Even with infinite energy and ambition, we couldn’t fulfill them all.

      It’s crippling. I find it crippling. I agonize over every decision because of it, and my awareness of the options theoretically available to me makes choosing seem so impossible that I often choose to just do nothing. Which, then again, is doing something…but something considerably easier and less commitment-rich than becoming a lawyer.

      4) Batman is totally my guy. For exactly the reason you mention. He is human. The husband and I argue about this because he is a Spiderman type, and he always says, “But Batman has no superpowers!!!” to which I say, “Exactly!!!!” and then we stare indignantly at each other.

      Pretty dense post. As in packed with lots of stuff, not stupid.

      So I could go on and on, but I won’t.

      • Simon Smithson says:

        And now it is my turn to say ‘I’ll be back.’ I will. I promise. And there’s a lot for us to talk about.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          1) I try to sleep on my back. It just gets uncomfortable, after a while.

          2) I think there’s a lot going on with the use of the word ‘potential’, and I think, as you say, it’s a word people use as leverage to say ‘you should be doing something else, and, coincidentally, it’s this thing that I think you should be doing.’

          I think a better use is to say it in the context of: ‘I believe you have the capability to do and be more of the things you want to do and be, if you so choose.’ That doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, though.

          And, of course, there is certainly the scenario of people selling themselves short.

          3) Have you seen The Weather Man? There’s a bit where Nick Cage talks about how when he was young, he had the sense of many ‘potential’ hims, all of whom he wanted to be, but time has whittled them down into one potential him, which is the him you see in the film.

          The truth is, you can’t do everything under the sun. You just can’t. As you have so eloquently illustrated.

          And trying? Jesus. That would be no fucking fun at all. Think of the stress! Some of the most fun things in the world are least productive, especially in utilitarian terms. Why can’t the journey be an end in itself? Which is something that can be lost sight of, in these discussions about high-powered potential and wage earnings in your role of Dr. Detective, Attorney at Law.

          So. Infinite energy, infinite ambition… no dice.

          But. And here’s where it gets important.

          I think this stuff exists on a spectrum. And while it may be totally joyless to try to do all, I think it could be challenging, inspiring, and extremely possible, to do more.

          It may even be incumbent on us. Or rather, I feel it may be incumbent on me. I’m not going to speak for others, or judge others.

          At least, not in this theatre.

        • Becky says:

          I saw The Weatherman and was very “meh” about it, but I don’t even remember that being a theme, so the error must have been in my watching or where my focus was, or something like that.

          I may have to watch it again.

          What I’m saying, I guess–and what I never said outright–is that SINCE taking any action in one given direction erases potentialities in other directions, I’m often terrified to even flinch. I can’t go back to the fork and try another road. I can only move forward on the road that associated with the choice I make.

          True, taking action can also create new potentialities (in a sense…I suppose, maybe…but theoretically, they were always there), but none of them–or at least there is no guarantee–will be exactly like the ones that were destroyed when I made whatever choice I did.

          I think I may not understand your post. Or maybe I do, but I’m really fixated on potential/divergent realities and that was not what you meant. That is not what you meant at all. That is not it at all.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          The Weatherman was OK. I would characterise it as ‘an OK little film.’

          Aha! The Fear!

          I think you need to push on past The Fear, as is. Otherwise you’ll hit paralysis. No one wants that.

          Again, it comes down to spectrums, I think, of possibility and probability.

          I know what you mean on potential/divergent realities. It’s fascinating stuff. Maybe there’s a post for you in there (and no. It isn’t what I meant at all. They’re both in the same municipality, but not the same ball parks)

        • Becky Palapala says:

          It’s not really a fear. I prefer to see it as a calculation based in healthy respect of the outcomes.

          It’s like your gambling habits. We’ve discussed this.

          I play conservatively. I come out $20-$50 bucks ahead.

          You, on the other hand, either win $500 or lose everything.

          It’s a lifestyle choice, really.

        • Zara Potts says:

          I told him to CASH UP!!!

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I know.

          But apparently, living passionately includes losing money.

          Simon is lose money.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          @Becky: I was very proud of myself for coining (so’s far as I know) the psychological soundbyte: ‘overanalysis leads to paralysis’. I think sometimes you need to just bite the bullet. But make sure it’s the right bullet first.

          Simon is win money! You just wait and see.

        • Becky says:


          How can you be sure it’s the right bullet you’re biting??

          Those statements strike me as incompatible somehow.

          Don’t overanalyze.

          Just do it.

          But be sure you’re right.

          But don’t overanalyze.

        • Simon Smithson says:


          (it was a joke)

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I’m in some kind of serious mode lately.

          Not sure why.

          My sense of humor is all screwed up.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          It wasn’t one of my best jokes. It’s OK. And I kinda stole it from Dan O’Brien, a little bit.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Agree with every word Becky says, except for “I sleep on my back.” Even have the same damned inability to sleep in. Once I’m awake, I’m awake. Done. I’ve learned not even to try getting back to sleep in the morning. Just deal and get up and do something. Best bet is to try for an afternoon nap, if I can manage that.

        Anyway, I guess that’s proof wonders will never cease 😉

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Oh bullshit. We agreed on almost everything up until only about a month or so ago when I wounded your ego and you declared open season on me.

          Don’t try to ingratiate yourself to me now. You are only here for the Prufrock.

          *cross arms* *sniff*

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          You might be right, but I dunno. Depends on whether you’ve got arena prufrock, progressive prufrock or prufrock-a-billy.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I was talking about this Prufrock, which, I now realize, was not part of what you were replying to:

          That is not what you meant at all. That is not it at all.

          But I prefer southern prufrock, for the record.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Jeez, and here I was assuming you meant

          Streets that follow like a tedious argument
          Of insidious intent

          See, you’re still a mystery to me.

          Peace, but not the kiss of peace.
          A patched up affair, if you ask my opinion.

          If you ask my opinion, I think that this peace.
          Is nothing like an end, or like a beginning.

          –Murder in the Cathedral


        • Becky Palapala says:

          Per usual, your fault is in assuming too much.

          I’m a simple kind of gal.

          (That is a Skynyrd reference. Per my Southern Prufrock reference above. Since I need to spell it out.)

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          You’ve defeated me. I must switch to Pound.

          Tell her that goes
          With song upon her lips
          But sings not out the song, nor knows
          The maker of it, some other mouth
          May be as fair as hers

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Yer a snob.

          I thought I was a snob, but you’re a snob. Way worse than me.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          The chair he sat in, like a burnished throne,…

          Ta ta. Goodnight. Goodnight.
          Good night, lady, good night, sweet lady, good night, good night.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          *screw up face*

          It’s time?

    • My previous (see: further up the page) post about chimpanzees and evil and depravity might have seemed so much more enlightened – though probably not – if you hadn’t introduced ACTUAL scientific knowledge, Becky. 🙂

  11. Meg Worden says:

    What a lovely blend of hilarious and profound, Simon. I feel like I’m in your brain watching your synapses fire and the resulting fireworks are an epic display of light and the raining sparks of clarity.

    I, too, am infinitely fascinated with human potential. And have been to prison. Though it was far from Siberia, it is still of immense psychological interest to me what happens to people who are “doing time”, just watching the clock. What people do with that time, whether it wilts them or ratchets them to jet above circumstance, above their own paradigm of what’s possible seems such a varied outcome. Many sleep. And sleep. This literal prison experience has deeper more metaphorical ties to our own experience on earth. Bookended by birth and death, we are also “doing time”. Though our outdate may be less specific, it is still all ours to decide whether we will be merely survivors, or compassionate artists and passionate lovers.

    I think I could happily chew on this stuff for hours, and then sleep, wake up late and start again…

    “This is why dictators have housekeepers.”

    “And better to remember that a man can run a year, if he really wants to, that there’s a spirit that can be called up that will sustain the body, the mind, and the soul, through utter brutality and loss.”

    Thanks, Simon, for the bravery and the ardor.
    Let’s go rollerskating, K?

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Oh, thanks, Meg! My synapses do what they can. I try to treat them well, because I think they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them.

      “whether it wilts them or ratchets them to jet above circumstance, above their own paradigm of what’s possible seems such a varied outcome.”


      The environmental stressors trigger… what? What’s the latent aspect here that gets flipped into existence? And more importantly, how do you get to it without being locked into a cell?

      ” Though our outdate may be less specific, it is still all ours to decide whether we will be merely survivors, or compassionate artists and passionate lovers.

      I think I could happily chew on this stuff for hours, and then sleep, wake up late and start again…”

      Yeah. Me too.

      So let’s talk about this stuff! I’d love to pick your brain about your particular experiences, if that’s OK with you. I’m becoming more and more interested in where a lot of this comes from. Have you heard of an aspect of the brain called ‘neuroplasticity’? I’m talking to everyone about this recently.

      And you’re very welcome.

      I’d love to go rollerskating.

      • Meg Worden says:

        Hmm, the latent aspect seems to me, is the switch to turn on a motivation to tap into a kind of infinity that is available to all….who figure out how to tap in. Does everyone have the switch? What is the catalyst specifically, and why does it usually come packaged in intense pain, incarceration, amputation, or a face to face reckoning with your own mortality?

        Questions that bring on more questions. Yes, lets gab and skate and gab any day anytime.

        Neuroplasticity is fantastically facinating. Just read The Brain That Changes Itself last year. Wow. Is there anything that can’t happen? Any arrangement of the particles that make up our being that cannot be rearranged along the same universal principle of constant rearrangement?

        We are multi dimensional creatures, only partially conscious at best. We filter information and present it through the prism of our own experience. Those of us that are more sensitive…we can be antennae of the culture, barometers of a zeitgeist.

        Maybe knowing that things are possible, that if we needed to, we *could* run for our lives all the way to India…maybe that is a really good start.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Hmm, the latent aspect seems to me, is the switch to turn on a motivation to tap into a kind of infinity that is available to all….who figure out how to tap in. Does everyone have the switch? What is the catalyst specifically, and why does it usually come packaged in intense pain, incarceration, amputation, or a face to face reckoning with your own mortality?

          You are so totally speaking my language.

          And isn’t it! Fascinating, that is. I’ve yet to read TBTCI, it’s sitting on my nightstand.

          “We filter information and present it through the prism of our own experience. Those of us that are more sensitive…we can be antennae of the culture, barometers of a zeitgeist.”

          Oh, Meg, I’m so glad you’re here.


          I don’t know if it’s covered in the book, but have you read about the work they’ve done with meditative states and neuroplasticity?

  12. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    Oh, good Lord, my friend. I so should have checked the board at home, before endless – and mindless – interruptions. The tolerances of this piece are too tight to forgive skimming.

    Quickly, though:
    – Your friends sound very cool. Of course, they’d have to be to qualify as your friends.
    – The NKVD was a pack of assholes. Mean, ugly, vicious, brutal assholes. History shows that we humans are good at producing them and there are many such organized clumps of them in most every nation. But I guess it’s just nice to keep them all in one place, like an Asshole Motel, to facilitate extermination should the opportunity arise.
    – I grew up around the “Pollack joke”. Then I spent some time with Poles. Even aside from the stupidity of ethnic jokes, I don’t joke about Poles anymore. Respect.
    – I read a story just about two years ago about a Swedish chimp who was pissed at being gawked at so he’d throw rocks at zoo visitors. At first, not too impressive. Except they couldn’t figure out how he was getting the rocks so they watched him. He would spend his free time looking for them, gauging their throwability. Some he’d reject, others he would stockpile for when the visitors came, planning ahead even though he was currently not pissed or threatened. He would also wander around the walls, knocking, looking for loose spots that he could chip away into a good projectile. I considered trying to smuggle him a pistol in a gesture of solidarity. I may add a zookeeper’s uniform.
    – I – flawed though I may be – don’t have the stomach to be a dictator. I’ve refused management positions. Why would I want control over more people?

    More when my world isn’t collapsing….

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Anon! And nice to see you again, as well, my friend. As a juxtaposition to my excitement over seeing Becky, my inner chimp (chump?) is flinging faeces at the tourists with wild abandon.

      – they’re OK. Dean’s the best. But shhhh. Don’t tell the internet.
      – An Asshole Motel. Good plan. The Khmer Rouge, NKVD, KGB, Stasi… the list goes on.
      – We don’t have a lot of Poles over here. My one Polish friend is nicknamed, of course, Polack.
      – That’s awesome. That chimp has more forward planning capability than most of the people I know. He should be dictator! Then we’d get shit done.
      – I think it’s only good to be dictator if you know you’re never going to get ousted. That’s the ‘Bob Hope USO’ dictator.

      Oh, and benevolent! Benevolent, too.

  13. Joe Daly says:


    Brother, this is as enjoyable, engaging, and inspirational as it gets. I liked so much. Want to know how much? All of it.


    Because it’s so easy to focus on problems. “This is what’s wrong,” “This is what went wrong,” “Because this went wrong, this is how I am,” or “Something must have gone wrong, otherwise I would be happier right now,” etc.

    I hear fewer and fewer solutions. “This is how I’m going to deal with this,” “This is what I learned from that,” “I choose the following, so I don’t have to endure what previously occurred again,” or “I accept that what is simply is, and today I’ll take responsibility for my own happiness.”

    While underscoring cultural shifts that seem irreversible (assuming they would merit reversal), you provide inspiration through the acts of others and hope through your own world view. Not trite after school special axioms, but real, practicable hope.

    I find more and more inspiration talking to my father. He served in WWII and still remembers the days before the refrigerator, let alone the internet. He’ll drive ten miles to save ten cents on a head of lettuce because that’s how he’s wired. He takes responsibility for his life. He saves his money, which allows him to be extraordinarily generous to others. At 94 he still golfs and walks every day, because he cherishes his temple. He talks to my sister and me everyday, even though she’s a mile away and I’m three time zones left. While I’m exactly like him, he’s also a perfect contrast to my convenience-driven experience and I can’t ever take for granted what people like him and Slawomir can teach me.

    Slawomir lived in the solution. And you, Dear Simon, also live in the solution.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thanks, brother. Now let’s take that trip to Daly City, the happiest place on earth.

      “Because it’s so easy to focus on problems. “This is what’s wrong,” “This is what went wrong,” “Because this went wrong, this is how I am,” or “Something must have gone wrong, otherwise I would be happier right now,” etc.”

      Ain’t it just? And it’s not that I’m anti-problem-recognition; there’s a lot of value in investigating and exploring difficulty. It’s how we learn.

      Thanks, Joe. For reading, for commenting, but also for your clear-headed response and engagement with the deeper issues I was trying to bring up.

      I think there’s a lot of craftsmanship that goes into building a life like your father’s. And that’s so inspiring to me. Thank God we have the ability to recognise this stuff, and therefore rise above it.

      Slawomir lived the fuck out of the solution. He was so metal.

      “I can’t ever take for granted what people like him and Slawomir can teach me.”

      Word to live by, brother.

      • Joe Daly says:

        I think there’s a lot of craftsmanship that goes into building a life like your father’s. And that’s so inspiring to me. Thank God we have the ability to recognise this stuff, and therefore rise above it.

        That’s so true, man. It’s like the saying, “those who forget history are destined to repeat it.” Absent an examination of what’s not working, we can never move through the problem. The funny thing is that so often, it’s simply a matter of acceptance- “this is the reality of the situation, no matter what I think, how it makes me feel, or how I want to change it.” It’s like it’s automatic after that- with the real problem laid before you, the solution almost begins by itself.

        As Slawomir showed us- in life, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

        Slawomir lived the fuck out of the solution. He was so metal.

        Slawomir was so metal that he walked 4000 miles across a 14 billion year old rock just because he wasn’t done living.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          “It’s like it’s automatic after that- with the real problem laid before you, the solution almost begins by itself.”

          Funny how that works, isn’t it?

  14. Dana says:

    “cherishes his temple”… For a moment I thought your da had converted. 😉

  15. Dana says:

    I love how this twisted and turned from the delightful and light, pulled a u-ee (I have no idea how to type properly) and started asking the big questions and searching for the great answers.

    I’d never heard of Slawomir before and find his tale fascinating. How did you come upon his story?

    This really made me want kick ass and take some names today, so thanks Simon!

    Also – as far as the animal kingdom is concerned, chimps are pretty cool.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      I’m not sure what the accepted spelling is on that one. Uee? U-ee> Uey? I don’t know. It’s much easier to use the Australian terminology: ‘Drop a U-bolt’. Or Samuel L’s from S.W.A.T: Flip a bitch!

      I opened a book of Amazing Stories that was sitting around the house, and bam! There he was.

      Oh, thank you>/i>, Dana! That’s so good to hear!

      Chimps are pretty cool. I wonder how much DNA we share with sharks.

  16. I really love this piece. Not just from an intellectual standpoint, as it has thinking down in spades, but from a style point as well. Your language and tempo and style are so varied here. I really loved reading this. And.

    I prefer Spider Man. He’s not completely human, but he was a nerd and can climb on stuff. I respect that.

    This really made me want to step up the content/passion of my next post. Thanks, Simon.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Hey, thank you, Justin!

      Honestly, TNB and the writers here have made me want to elevate my game, which is where a lot of the stylistic swings in this piece come from. This is a great place for exposure to some really good writers – fiction, non-fiction, creative non-fiction. Damn. Freakin’ Brad Listi. He’s building an army.

      And being in the middle of that makes me want to do better. Which is a very good thing.

      Glad to know it’s working…

      Spider Man’s an OK kind of guy, I think. I’d like to have a beer with him.

      And you’re very welcome, man. Looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

      • This is the exact kind of community a writer needs: a supportive, yet discerning, group of professional individuals that know their shit and are willing, if need be, to call you out on yours.

        I like it.

        I, too, really want to push myself to be the best I can be for TNB. That kind of potential is exciting and something worth trying to live up to.

        For the record, Spider Man could totally take Batman. Just sayin’. Though, I would like to have a beer, also, with Batman.

  17. I don’t even know where to begin. There is just too much good stuff going on in this essay. The way you weaved Slawomir’s journey and will to live in and out with a pop culture parallel is fine work indeed.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      From you, Jeffrey, not knowing where to begin is high praise indeed. Thank you for saying so.

      I’m a big fan of the weave. Not just the Beastie Boys’s stage technique, but threading juxtapositions and contrasts throughout a piece.

      I want to develop my skills with it.

      As always, amigo, thanks for reading.

  18. A slight change of pace for you, Simon. Well done, sir.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Honoured it caught your attention, Rich! Thanks for the kind words – I’m looking forward to reading what you and Jeffrey have to say to each other in the piece just published.

  19. Richard Cox says:

    I’ll award you many bonus points for quoting David Cross. I own all three of his comedy albums, of which Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! is unquestionably the best.

    To me the essence of your 5,500-word post is a question I always ask myself, which is to what degree are we separate from our animal nature, and does it even matter? On the one hand these biological machines we inhabit are going to do what they have to do to survive and procreate in their particular circumstances. We can’t realistically expect to ever change that. On the other hand, all the reasoning and emoting and considering and justifying we do comprises the essence of our humanity…without these things we are just biological machines and little more.

    Becky’s correct about the genetic percentages being fairly meaningless. Of course she could tell you much more about this than I ever could, but since we’ve evolved from the earliest single-celled organisms, I look at our genetic makeup is an onion of sorts, layers and layers of code that have been added over the eons. It’s easy to look upon chimps as our “animal” nature, but you can also do the same things with dogs or whatever, on down the evolutionary tree, or, if you will, deeper into the onion.

    What makes us different is that very top layer, the most recent blocks of code, and in that thin layer is the difference between humanity and every other animal on earth. The bulk of us, and the onion, is essentially no different. As much as we sometimes like to believe otherwise.

    Great piece, Simon. As usual.

    (Incidentally I’m halfway through a post on a very similar subject. I’ll try to take mine in a bit different direction to avoid a rerun). 🙂

    • Simon Smithson says:

      I owe so much to Cross. The first time I listened to him was when I started to believe that it’s actually really OK to use intellect as a weapon, and call bullshit on what you see as bullshit. Especially if you do it in a way that makes people laugh.

      The bulk of us is no different at all; you’re so right. But that top layer of code… can we use it to take command over the rest of the onion? To direct the onion, make the onion the very best onion it can be?

      Or… will the onion just make us cry?

      (sorry. Couldn’t resist the last bit).

      Choice, RC. Choice is a wonderful thing, but maybe we have less than we suspect. And maybe it’s more powerful than we believe.

      (Can’t wait to see what you’re cooking up. An RC post day is always a good day).

      • Richard Cox says:

        Cross owes a lot to Bill Hicks, but in the end (dodges bullets) I enjoy him more. Hicks was ahead of his time and in touch in a way few people are, but Cross makes me laugh more. Both of them are social commentators more than comedians, though.

        The most miraculous thing about human beings is we do (appear to) have choice. We are conscious beings who are aware of the genes that drive our behavior and we can take steps to override or even change the source code. But there is a small part of me that wonders if even our sentient minds are just doing what they were always going to do given a set of circumstances. That the choices we make appear to be our own but are fairly set by the original set of conditions that go all the way back to the Big Bang. Yes, sir, I’m talking about determinism, and whenever this idea of choice is addressed I can’t help but wonder about it.

        In my daily life I choose to ignore the possibility that we live in a deterministic universe. But am I choosing to believe a fairy tale the way believers in myth also do?

        • Simon Smithson says:

          It’s OK. I like Cross better too. There’s something about his delivery, to me. It’s a little sharper-edged, and that makes me laugh more. Yes, on the social commentary.

          I wonder about this too. Godel was with us, on the deterministic front. At least, my very new understanding of some of his theories is that he believed that.

          The question is, does that limit us or free us?

  20. Matt says:

    Oh, please, Simon–like you ever check your Twitter feed anymore!

    I am biologically incapable of sleeping in. For me waking up is like having a switch flipped to the “on” position; I come to fully awake and full of energy. Lying there, without falling back to sleep, just makes me restless. This is why I get up and go to the gym at 5 am every other morning, sick bastard that I am.

    The thing about potential is, we never really know what we’re capable of until placed in situations that test it, and for a lot of them there really is no way to train or prepare. Slowamir Rawicz was likely as not an expert on long-term wilderness survival; he was placed in a situation where it was either act, or accept death, and he chose to act. The “it” that kept him alive, unlike a superpower, isn’t a quantifiable, reproduceable element.

    And here’s the thing about Batman: he may be living at the peak edge of human potential, and has drive and determination and has dedicated himself to a higher ideal and whatnot….but everyone around him has suffered or died for his choice to do so, even poor ol’ Alfred. Other people pay the cost for Batman’s decision to be what he is.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Oh, man, Twitter. That thing never stops. I just don’t have the time to maintain any kind of presence anymore. But it’s fascinating to watch how that thing is turning out.

      Man, I love sleeping in. Although it’s nice to start the day early, too, and get the dawn light. A nice balance between the two works well for me.

      Do you think so? I think it would be possible to develop our potential and its uses – whatever that or its uses may be – outside of testing situations. Rather than that ‘dare to be great’ type situation finding us, can’t we go and find it, in every day? ‘

      Of course, that would leave me less opportunity to sleep in…

      Ah, yes. The tragic human price of Batman. The innocent of Gotham City have to foot that bill.

      • Matt says:

        I’m sure I would love sleeping in if my stupid jerkface body would let me! But NOOOOOOOOOOO, it’s always “six hours of sleep is enough for you! now you’re wide awake!” All the damn time! Even on weekends! And since I’ve got no girlfriend around at the moment to help me deal with this excess of energy, I go exercise. And the endorphin high has proven to be a really nice start to my day, and I’ve feeling a hell of a lot less stressed at work.

        I’m not saying there’s no point to develop our potential or improve our capabilities–I wouldn’t be working out or training in karate if there weren’t–but that there are things we cannot know about our potential until we’re forced to put it into action. Personal case in point: much as I’d read, or studied, or stockpiled survival supplies, there was nothing to truly prepare me for the experience of that damn hurricane. It was an experience that completely set it’s own rules right from the start.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          I think there are probably worse problems to have than a surfeit of exercise.

          Boneitis, for example.

          And that’s just one of the benefits of exercising some potential – exercise (no pun intended). Just doing a little of what we can goes a long way to improve life overall.

          I think a lot of what you’re saying comes down to the fact that in modern Westernised society, we’re actually not required to really live life on the edge of danger and mortal stressors in any one given day (depending on occupation, really. Emergency services workers, military, possibly security forces… well, that’s different). And so there isn’t really cause for that scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel-up-by-the-bootstraps level of functioning. I mean, I’m not going to sit down and say ‘Yeah! Fuck yeah! Breakfast! I’m going to eat the fuck out of this! Bring it on! Bring it ON.

          Although, that actually sounds like a lot of fun.

          But I don’t think life should be that. I think maybe situations need to be extreme for the most of us to see if we’re capable of extreme acts – which will by necessity probably come down to survival a lot of the time.

          Again, I’m anxious to add the proviso that I don’t think it’s somehow letting potential go unfulfilled by raising kids and working in an office as opposed to charging into the wilderness to gut wolves with your bare hands. One of the big problems with this discussion is that the question of what ‘using potential’ is remains undefined in terms of answers. I think the word has been a little co-opted by the self-help and extreme sports industries.

  21. This turned out wonderfully, Simon. A pleasant and thought provoking break from the norm. Just what I needed today.

    Thanks for that.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thanks Megan. Thank you for your earlier input, and thank you for this later opinion. I’m glad to hear it hit some marks for you.

      You are, of course, very welcome.

  22. angela says:

    there’s so much here, simon, that i love, from the deft touches – babies and gravity, the descriptions of your friends – to the deep wonderings about life and potential and death, to the skillful stream of consciousness thing you’ve got going.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Oh, thank you, Angela.

      I was just talking to Zara about how I have been trying to develop a defter touch in my writing – I’m very happy with the response you’ve given me, therefore.

      I think it’s important to wonder about this stuff. But maybe not all the time.

      Let’s have a drink to it in SF. You can have a mocktail, and I promise there won’t be bands.

      • Angela Tung says:

        yes, balance is good! wonder sometimes but not always, otherwise we’ll never get anything done.

        i will take you up on that mocktail, and the bandless promise.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          “wonder sometimes but not always, otherwise we’ll never get anything done.”

          In a nutshell.


  23. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Dear Simonator.
    City of Angels seeks funny, side-swiping, face-sleeping, Australian Americana fetishist to co-pilot outrageous screenwriting super-duo.
    PS: How awesome is Ed Norton as The Hulk?


    I love how you let yourself go far out and all over the place to free associate with this one. It feels like a real exploration of identity and I was riding with you the whole time. There are some really beautiful moments when you imagine Rawicz’s struggle. I like the way you use second person. I might’ve mentioned this before but you have a really wonderful ability to balance humor with depth and grit.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Dear Lisa Ray of Cunning,

      City of Angels: S, N/S? GSOH?

      I actually really like Ed Norton as the Hulk. He was fun. It was a fun movie. And Tim Roth should be a giant monster in everything he does.

      Out of curiosity, what made you bring that up? Because I was just thinking about it…


      Thank you. A lot of the ‘softer’ parts were all about what makes me tick, I didn’t want to hide those things, as fear and insecurity play into each other while being separate.

      The feedback is, as always, appreciated very much 🙂

  24. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    I was reading your mind. That’s why I brought up the Hulk.
    Tim Roth SHOULD be a giant monster in everything he does. imdb…
    What makes you tick is the whole point, ya big softy. That’s whey we’re here. Good Klosterman quote from Eating the Dinosaur (reading it now, have you?, you’d like it too):
    “The artist cannot stop himself from injecting his own experience into these subjects, because that is who the artist is — either you always write about yourself or you never do. It’s not a process you select.”

    What does S, N/S, GSOH mean?

    And how do I make italics in a comment?

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Tim Roth makes an awesome giant monster.

      ‘Hey man, how do you feel?’
      ‘Like a monster.’

      That should be a line in everything he does.

      I want to tick in subtly different ways. I’ll have to get to work on that.

      I have not read Eating the Dinosaur. Now I will.

      S, N/S, GSOH: Smoker, non-smoker, Good Sense of Humour?

      Make italics like so:

      [i] starts the italics.
      [/i] ends the italics.
      The text to be italicised [i]goes in between[/i].

      But instead of using these guys: [ ], use these guys <>

      (if I used those second guys in the demonstration, then they would disappear when the comment was published, leaving only italics remaining)

      • Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

        Thank you. I feel fancy.
        My thought was this close: Smoker, non-smoker, Ganga-smoking old Hippy
        You’ll like Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs too.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          You’re welcome.

        • Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

          You did that on purpose. Okay, I submit. Show me, Simon. Show me how to be bold. Also, I first read this article on my Blackberry walking home from work in a riveted trance interjected with laughter, so I didn’t peruse the comments. I now see that while the rest of you debate primal philosophy I openly crush on Ed Norton. Out of respect for the content of your work, mind and this literary space (and in defense of my soul), one of my favorite poems of all time feels relevant now, so here goes:

          by Louise Gluck

          comes into the world unwelcome
          calling disorder, disorder–

          If you hate me so much
          don’t bother to give me
          a name: do you need
          one more slur
          in your language, another
          way to blame
          one tribe for everything–

          as we both know,
          if you worship
          one god, you only need
          one enemy–

          I’m not the enemy.
          Only a ruse to ignore
          what you see happening
          right here in this bed,
          a little paradigm
          of failure. One of your precious flowers
          dies here almost every day
          and you can’t rest until
          you attack the cause, meaning

          whatever is left, whatever
          happens to be sturdier
          than your personal passion–

          It was not meant
          to last forever in the real world.
          But why admit that, when you can go on
          doing what you always do,
          mourning and laying blame,
          always the two together.

          I don’t need your praise
          to survive. I was here first,
          before you were here, before
          you ever planted a garden.
          And I’ll be here when only the sun and moon
          are left, and the sea, the wide field.

          I will constitute the field.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Oh, I like this poem very much. I seem to be getting more and more into poetry recently, a good thing for me.

          Being bold is easy. It’s the same as being italicate, but substitute a b for an i and you’ll be courageous in no time.

        • Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

          I realize commentary on a lit blog has typos, but I feel badly about fucking up a perfect poem. The second to last line should read “…and the wide field.”

          If you’re getting into poetry, Richard Hugo is boss.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          I will investigate this Richard Hugo.

        • Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

          Indian Girl
          by Richard Hugo

          Days she looks at floors, a thick degrading cloud
          crosses her face for minutes and I think of wheat.
          And in what must have been slow days, I see a girl
          packing dirt like makeup, preparing herself for years
          of shacks and drunks, stale air filling morning
          and the fire out, grease a soapy gray in pots.
          You need a blind wild faith in crazy neighbors,
          in rocket ships one plans to build for children,
          the flight you will be taking in and out of stars.

          Stars are not in reach. We touch each other
          by forgetting stars in taverns, and we know
          the next man when we overhear his grief. Call the heavens
          cancerous for laughs and pterodactyls clown
          deep in that fragmented blue. In that red heart
          a world is beating counter to the world.
          My sweet drum, be silent. War paint’s running
          down her face two centuries of salt. My skin
          is bland. My pain can be explained away in bars.

          Bad rains, I look for her. Look deep in reeds along
          the stagnant ponds and deep in desperate ends
          of boxcars. Someday, I’ll find her huddled
          fighting back the cold with tongues. My strong teal,
          please know these words attend you always. Know years ago
          long before you lived, I prayed for power of mind
          to break these rigid patterns of the nerve.
          And should it come, don’t think I won’t walk miles
          of barren rails to tough you like a daughter.

        • Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

          (my attempt at fancy and courageous: a failure. please instruct.)

        • Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

          And I fucked up another perfect poem. It’s “…touch you like a daughter.”

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Oh, I like this one too.

          To be fancy and courageous, just double up. So [i][b] at the start, then [/i][/b] at the end.

      • Tim Roth is the giant monster of my dreams.

        I’m now someone interested, though not excited, to see Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk in The Avengers. I would have picked Phillip Seymour Hoffman, even though he doesn’t fit the part at all. I’d pick him to play every role in every movie. He is that good.

        • Whoops. I should proofread my comments. Delete “someone” and substitute “somewhat.”

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Oh wow. PSH as The Hulk?

          Now there’s an interesting idea.

          And how come no one ever suggests people who are the opposite of the parts, when people are recommending people for parts? Like, ‘I think John Goodman should have played the Joker!’

        • Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

          Phillip Seymour Hoffman is unspeakably awesome. I don’t know if I want him to turn green, though. Or join Fight Club. Or be a skinhead at Venice Beach. Because Ed Norton’s got those bases covered. And Ed’s really, really smart which is really, really attractive. Actually, if I could have coffee and pie with Ed Norton and Phillip Seymour Hoffman over a late-night gab session, I’d be in the best mood ever.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Heh. I could just imagine him doing his awkward glasses-rub thing in Fight Club.

          ‘Um… see… the first, uh, rule… of Fight Club… [heavy sigh], is that you [sudden annoyance] look, you just don’t talk about Fight Club, OK? Fuck. Fuck. I hate having to do this. Just don’t talk about Fight Club. OK? OK? Fight Club. Talk. Don’t.’

        • Lisa Rae Cunningham says:


        • PSH in Fight Club. That would be stellar. In the interest of suggesting completely wrong actors for roles, I’d like to put forth Clint Eastwood as the next Hannah Montana.

  25. “3D TV? Nope. Fuck it. That’s the point where we’ve gone too far. That’s the point where I have to draw the line, because I have the rest of my life to be three-dimensional in.”

    People probably said something similar about the novel at one time.

    It’s just another form of storytelling to me. I think it’s natural to sort of rebel against technology. People do it all the time. Some of my photog students barely switched to digital.

    There’s a sci-fi piece I wrote where this diva dude is junked up on his own musicals. Talk about an entertaining experience.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      I know, I know.

      I know.

      I know!

      I know.

      And yet, I just can’t convince myself of it on an emotional level.

      I’m one of the biggest advocates of not shooting the messenger there is, in terms of medium. I love that we have so many streams of creative expression, and new forms allows us to do new things, which inspires different ideas, and… it’s all good. And I feel Luddite (and hypocritical) in condemning 3DTV while I wite about that condemnation on the internet, while I read books, while I listen to downloaded music.

      It just rubs me the wrong way. That’s where my personal line is, I think.

      You know.

      Until I get one.

  26. Even though very late to the party, I too enjoyed this, Simon. It’s nice when there’s so many comments I don’t even have to consider reading the comments. So it’s all about the post. And I am a big fan of any post whose point is to remind the collective modern Us of the endless, boundless ease that comprises most of our lives. This is something I think about a lot. This is a notion I try to impart while come across most forms of whining, particularly my own.

    Also, interestingly, I was just reading a review of a new book about the demented Eitingon family. All of the brothers were exceptional (neither pejorative or laudatory) in their own way. One, Leonid, was the NKVD assassin who groomed Ramon Mercador. You might want to check it out.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thanks, Sean! I’ve been late to TNB a little myself, recently – a busy week has put a crimp on my reading and replying to a lot of posts.

      Ah, the whining! I’m certainly guilty of it, as well.

      I think it’s the human attention span. We forget how good we’ve got it at the drop of a hat.

      Thank you for the recommendation. I will add it to my Amazon list (oh, God… that list).

  27. Aaron Dietz says:

    Loved the meta quality of this. And I think the centre held throughout. Excellent work, Simon.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thank you, Aaron. I was trying to push the boundaries of my own skill set a little, so I’m glad it worked.


      Let’s go be Jedi.

  28. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Suffice it to say that there’s a lot more going on in my head than what’s going to come out in a comment. This is a thought-provoking piece. Well done, Simon.

    People like Slawomir Rawicz blow my mind. Even if a mere fraction of his story proves true, it’s way more than I could ever endure. I know it. At least I’m honest about that.

    Passion…hmm… I remember vim and verve in my 20s. Then there was the singular force of I’m-going-to-get-published, dammit, which consumed most of my thirties. And then [insert sound of crickets].

    Spiderman was my fave superhero. Seriously, to be able to shoot webs out of one’s wrists and swing around and entrap evil-doers? Sweet.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thank you, Ronlyn, as always, for reading and for your kind words.

      It’s amazing to me to read these kinds of stories, it really and truly is, and it makes me wonder if there’s room for the sinking of such a deep bore into human potential in day to day life.

      Ah! Vim, verve, and vigor. The three Vs of success, if we’re to believe what we’re told.

      The webs would be awesome.

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