The Ridiculously Slow Adventures of Aemilian

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I’m getting flashbacks of growing up in Canada…

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2018 was to keep up a daily blog, something that lasted for about the first week of January. Perhaps trying to maintain seven weekly columns was too ambitious, or maybe it was that the length of each post got away from me–I thought the posts would average about 500 words but they consistently came in at 1500+.

Timothy Ferriss, my role model whose books and podcast are responsible for most of what is good about my life, frequently asks “What would this look like if it were easy?” Sticking to one column would definitely help, but which subject would consistently generate enough thoughts for a daily blog? Turns out the answer is obvious: my Ridiculously Slow Skyrim Let’s Play. It doesn’t take much convincing to get me to sit down and play video games, and every time I play I find myself waxing philosophical about dragons or mindfulness or whether Nords practice Lagom.

I’m not abandoning the other columns. The goal is to focus on the habit of daily blogging first, then mix up the content second. If you’re not that interested in Skyrim, well, neither am I. As I said when I began my playthrough, Skyrim is more of a vehicle for discussion than an end in itself.

And so, the adventure begins.

A Rational Alchemist

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Prioritizing stamina is an odd choice since, as part of my Ridiculously Slow philosophy, I won’t be sprinting much. It seems to fit the character, though.

Although my Rational Alchemist column will be on hiatus for a while, my irrational love of all things alchemy hasn’t gone anywhere. Upon leveling up for the very first time, most players probably spend their perk on some kind of weapon skill, school of magic, or sneak, defining their hero’s chosen combat style. Aemilian has many battles ahead of him, I’m sure, but he is first and foremost an alchemist.

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A gloomy day, but my spirits were bright.

As an aspiring alchemist, the trek from Riverwood to Whiterun was full of delightful opportunities to harvest red, blue, and purple mountain flowers, along with the occasional lavender or tundra cotton. Already I am gaining a deeper appreciation of the game this time around; when I dabbled in Skyrim before I hardly noticed the flora, but now it is clear that a lot of care went into defining Skyrim’s biomes and the flora native to each.

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Pretty, in a chilly sort of way.

Graymane or Battle-Born?

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He came on a little strong.

Upon entering the city, I quickly learned that not many residents shared my resolution to stay out of Skyrim’s civil war. Idolaf Battle-Born, the first person I spoke to, demanded I pick a side in his family’s feud with the Graymanes. He explained that the Battle-Borns support the Empire, whereas their rivals side with the Stormcloak uprising. Even though I tentatively sided with a Stormcloak during my escape from Helgen, he made some good points about building a better future rather than being stuck in the past.

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A real rabble-rouser.

Yet no sooner had I agreed with Idolaf that his family had the right of it than I ran into Heimskr, the resident priest of Talos. He’s a bit, um, enthusiastic for my taste, but I sympathize with his plight: the Empire has outlawed the worship of Talos due to an agreement with the elvish Aldmeri Dominion. This is a complicated war, and I’m not about to take sides.

Much Ado About Dragons

 

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I admire her hustle.

Now we get into my philosophical musings for the day. The whole reason I’m here is to talk to the jarl about the dragon attack, which as a player I recognize is the game’s central story. Yet I’m somehow more interested in Ysolda, a woman I met on the stairs up to the jarl’s palace of Dragonsreach. Ysolda is saving up to buy the local inn by trading with the khajiit caravan that hangs around the gates, and asks me to retrieve a mammoth tusk, which she believes will make a powerful bargaining chip. This errand is so trivial in the overall scope of the game that it is listed in the quest journal as a miscellaneous objective, rather than being its own quest. Despite that, I’m more invested in this than the main story. Why? Because the main story is forced on me, whereas helping Ysolda is a choice that lets me define my own story.

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Let’s get this over with.

In real life, plenty of people are going to tell you what’s important, what’s fulfilling, what you were put here on this earth to do. You might agree. You might not. It’s up to you, although it may not even be your decision. I don’t remember consciously deciding to have a weird obsession with alchemy. It just sort of happened. Yet whether you control it or not, you can’t force yourself to be fulfilled by someone else’s Main Story. You have to explore the side quests, and when you find one that sets your heart on fire, you’ll know the adventure has truly begun.

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The jarl awaits.
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Real Talk 15/01/17: Grapes of a Better Path

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If the camera were faced the other way, you could see me struggling to remember all twelve wishes at once.

Ouch. Even for me that title was rough. This post is going to be about my New Year’s resolutions* for 2018 and I didn’t want to title it something generic like “My New Year’s Resolutions for 2018” so instead you got the first half-baked allusive slant rhyme I could think of.

Moving on. As discussed last time, I made twelve resolutions* this year. Mexican readers may guess why: at the strike of midnight, it is customary in Mexico (while all the gringos to the north are making out) to eat twelve grapes, one for each toll of the clock, and make one wish for each grape. I decided this year I would set twelve goals for myself in advance, and then, in the very first moments of 2018, I would wish that I would achieve each of them this year. Over the next 350 days or so we’ll see how effective my wishes were. For now, I’m going to talk about what my goals are for this year and why.

*Technically, many of my “resolutions” are actually “goals”, which I believe are superior to resolutions anyway, but “New Year’s Goals” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Make Every Anniversary Count

 

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Many of our anniversaries take place in restaurants that serve worms, such as the famous Corazon de Maguey. Am I bad at romance?

Since we’re already mangling the denotations of the English language, I’m going to throw another word on the fire: Venezia and I celebrate each one of our “monthly anniversaries” despite the fact that the word anniversary literally means “yearly”. That means we celebrate on the 16th of every month, so our first anniversary of the year is tomorrow.

Ever since we started dating, we’ve done a good job of doing something every month, ranging from getting ice cream to touring South America. My goal this year is to improve upon that already-great record by doing something both exciting and new every month. Last year, I took Venezia to Corazon de Maguey, an amazing restaurant with a romantic atmosphere and delicious food. It was a great night – but we’d been there before. Did that detract from the experience? Not necessarily. But it did make me feel I hadn’t put in enough effort.

The reason this is my #1 goal for the year is because, at the risk of sounding like a terrible boyfriend, I’m not immune to taking things for granted. As a very goal-oriented person, I sometimes spend too much time thinking about what areas of my life I can improve rather than which areas are already great. That’s a simple bad habit in most cases, but when it comes to my relationship, taking things for granted can be both destructive and hurtful. (Disclaimer: this hasn’t actually been a problem in our relationship, I just like to be proactive about not getting there)

The truth is, I have a long list of places I could take Venezia tomorrow, places we’ve already been where I know we would have a great time. But that’s too easy. By making myself do the work to plan something new, I’m reminding myself once a month that just because I already have something great, doesn’t mean I should stop working hard to keep it great.

Finish My 5-Minute Journal

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Not a sponsor. Then again, if you thought I might have a sponsor, you vastly overestimate me.

Honestly, my real goal is to journal every day, both in the morning and at night. Unfortunately, that’s hard to quantify: if I’m draconian about writing my journal literally every day this year, I’ve already failed; if I’m not, then how do I hold myself accountable?

For those who aren’t aware, the 5-Minute Journal is a streamlined journaling experience that honestly takes closer to one minute than five. It comes with roughly half a year’s worth of pages (one page per day), so if I fill it up by the end of the year, I’ve achieved at least a 50% success rate of maintaining my new habit.

Why journal (more or less) every day? I’m a writer, for one, so starting every day off with some scribbling is probably a good idea. More universally, a journal is a great diagnostic tool for anyone who has ever felt their life isn’t going 110% the way they want. It’s one of those things that’s so simple it’s cheesy to say it, but knowing what’s wrong in your life is the first step to improve it. You probably find yourself making goals based on what you think you’re supposed to improve: your life would be better if you got in shape, got a promotion, etc. So you might be surprised if you journal every day, literally just writing down whatever’s on your mind, and find your most common complaint is not your job title but the annoying squeaking your bed makes every time you roll over. In that case, a new bed may improve your life a lot more than a gym membership.

Run a Marathon

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Parque de los Venados, a five-minute walk from my house, makes every run a treat.

 

This one is straightforward. I’ve been wanting to run a marathon, but haven’t. I guess I have an excuse: my training took a huge hit when I moved from Vancouver to Mexico City last year, a jump in altitude of over 7,000 feet which leaves me gasping for breath when I run half the distance I could before. A fine excuse, but mostly a lie; in reality I just having been prioritizing my running as much as I should.

I’ve noticed a bit of hate for marathon runners lately. Mostly comments about people who take exercise too seriously, or jibes along the lines of “I wonder what they’re running from”. Maybe this is just insecurity, or maybe a lot of marathon runners are jerks (I haven’t met them, to be clear, but I guess it’s possible). In any case, I don’t believe running a marathon makes me better than anybody, and I don’t think it’s something everyone needs to do. I love running for it’s own sake. I always feel like I have too much energy and can’t focus, and the only time I really feel clearheaded is after a good, hard run. The goal of running a marathon is really just shorthand for “I want to make time to run a lot this year”. If you’re really into a different kind of exercise, say, skiing, you might set a goal to conquer a particularly daunting slope this year (I don’t really know if that’s how skiing works), but the real goal is just to get out and ski a lot.

Read Twelve Novels

 

 

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The first book I read this year was an instant favorite, and not just because I got it signed.

They say the key to becoming a good writer is to read a lot. I’ve been slacking in this department for oh, I don’t know, five years. The irony is that I love reading, and would spend all day doing it if left to my own devices. When my schedule became cluttered with things like university and earning a living, I tried to prioritize things I considered “productive”, which is why I still read a lot of nonfiction.

Looking back, the only reason I tried to stay away from reading too much fiction was because I found it too enjoyable. It made sense at the time, somehow. We’re taught from a young age that things that are fun aren’t good for you and vice versa, which is sometimes good advice and sometimes totally backwards. The fact I love to do one of the best things I can possibly do as a professional writer is, if anything, a huge advantage.

I’m opening up my schedule this year and letting myself read to my heart’s content. Technically my goal is to read twelve novels this year, one a month, but it’s halfway through January and I’m about to finish my second book. I probably don’t need to get too hung up on the numbers.

More to Come

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Going to be a great year.

I definitely intended to fit all twelve resolutions into one post, but as usual I wound up rambling on about every little point. I think I’ll cover the remaining eight across two more posts this week, in lieu of normal programming, so look for those on whatever days I don’t feel like doing normal content (Sunday is a good bet; Stone by Enchanted Stone is the only column that consistently requires legitimate research…blech). In any case, Real Talk should be back to normal next Monday.

Until then, I hope I’ve gotten you thinking about your own goals for 2018. Feel free to share!

The Rational Alchemist: Salt, the Fulcrum

Every Wednesday, we’ll explore how ancient and esoteric practices can enrich your modern life.

A shape split into two halves? Salt’s alchemical symbol is great at foreshadowing.

When you imagine the stereotypical alchemist, you probably envision him stooped over a cauldron or a beaker, mixing strange substances. Seeing as the study and combination of substances is a large part of alchemy, we are going to examine alchemy’s mist important substances.

Alchemists saw three specific substances as being more important than all others. These “three principles”, salt, sulfur, and mercury, formed the cornerstone of not only practical alchemical experimentation, but also of the alchemists’ world view.

Let’s start with salt.

The Go-Between

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Like this, but with more magic and stuff.

As tends to happen in esoteric traditions, the qualities of salt are contradictory. Salt represents corruption as well as preservation; it is the last agent of corruption and the first agent of generation; it is involved in death and rebirth.

The metaphysical qualities of salt possibly arose from the fact that it survives combustion after other elements have burned away. You can see why it would represent rebirth. The idea of salt being concerned with contradictions is actually consistent with modern science, too: in chemistry, it can be defined as the product of an acid and a base.

Things get weirder from there. A key point in alchemy is that the agent (whatever substances are being administered), the instrument (the equipment doing the administering), and the patient (to whom substances are administered) are not separate entities but part of one reality. If that doesn’t make any sense, that’s okay – it’s not too important to this discussion. The takeaway is that salt serves as a fulcrum that links things together, especially opposites. It is the constant between life and death, and is the thing that binds patient and medicine together. It also is the midpoint between sulfur and mercury, the other two principles.

Salt, Real and Imagined

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This picture makes me dehydrated.

Even taking away the supposed metaphysical properties of salt, it’s still a remarkable substance. It’s the only rock that we eat. It is capable of both corrosion and preservation. It comes (often) from water but also removes water from whatever it touches. As a dilettante chef, I appreciate salt on a whole other level: it is one of the single most important tools in a chefs arsenal. If there were Three Culinary Principles, salt would be a top contender, up there with acid and Worcestershire sauce. When it comes to food, salt revolutionized a lot more than just flavor. The preservative qualities of salt allowed primitive societies, who lacked refrigerated trucks, to transport food over distance. This is a way bigger deal than it sounds. Not only did it facilitate trade, which is a huge factor in human and technological advancement, but it also exponentially increased opportunities for exploration and expansion. If you have to forage for food during a journey, you spend over half your time just looking for food, rather than, you know, journeying. It’s a lot easier to just bring a sack of beef jerky.

It’s actually a little ironic to speak of the metaphysical properties of salt, as it represented, in alchemy, the physical aspect of being: the body. It is also described as a key, which makes the contradictions surrounding salt a little easier to understand: it is a key that both closes and opens. Locking and unlocking are opposites, but that is in fact how keys work. So if salt is the key, what exactly is the lock?

Let’s go back a step. Given the duality of salt in alchemy, you might have been surprised to learn it is associated with the body – that is, just the body, as opposed to both the body and the soul, or the physical and the spiritual. That’s because in modern spirituality, there usually is such a duality. But if salt, the fulcrum of alchemy, is the body, that seems to suggest the body is the fulcrum of something too. Salt is, among other things, the fulcrum between sulfur, which represents the mind, and mercury, which represents the soul.

Wait, what?

Yes, it seems odd in the context of modern spirituality, but in alchemy, the mind and soul are opposites and the body is the midpoint between them. I’ve definitely seen the trinity of mind, body, and soul expressed in all kinds of pop spirituality lately, and even more practical-minded people talk about balancing physical, mental, and emotional states. What I haven’t seen before I started studying alchemy is this particular linear configuration.

But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.

Alchemy 1.1: Discover Your Fulcrum

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Like this, but probably less balanced.

This is the part where we talk about how you can actually use these ideas in your daily life. Specifically you’re going to reframe how you perceive your own identity, and lay a foundation for recreating yourself from the ground. But don’t worry, we’re going to do it in baby steps. Your body is the key that can lock and unlock your mind and soul (or brain and emotions, if you want to keep it more grounded), so before you explore the contents of your mind and soul you should develop a good understanding of what’s going on in your body.

Exercise 1: Find a journal or just a convenient piece of paper and write down whatever physical sensations you feel right now, especially those that demand you take action. Maybe you’re thirsty and want to go get a drink, or you have an itch that cries out to be scratched, or you want to go lie down because you’re tired. You don’t need to do anything with this information for now, just write it all down. You might be surprised at just how much your body is asking of you at any given moment.

Come back next week for a discussion of sulfur, the human brain, and why you may not exist at all.

Human Interest Photojournalism: A Walk on the Dalí Side

Every Wednesday I slack off and upload a bunch of photos from my daily life rather than writing an actual post. That might sound silly, but as long as I justify it as a “human interest story”, it somehow makes sense.

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Even his signature is a work of art.

Last month, before we went to Machu Picchu, Venezia and I visited a Salvador Dalí exposition in the Centro Historico, right here in Mexico City. Entry was free, and the sculptures were all originals, not replicas. I never knew much about Dalí before I met Venezia, but I quickly discovered why she’s so fascinated with him. Now, like Hemingway and Eminem, he’s one of our shared idols. I almost always get the Dalí rolls when we go out for sushi and the Dalí waffles at our local waffle place – both dishes are as werid but delicious as you would expect.

Dalí the kind of artist whose work makes you feel pretentious whether you like it or not. The only response to most of his work is “I can’t explain what it means, but I feel like I get it.” I originally was going to dig into each photo and fill this post with expert theories about each sculpture, but I decided that’s missing the point. The best way for you to enjoy these works is to interpret them for yourself. I’ll add my own theories, but will keep them off-the-cuff, leaving a lot of room for you to analyze for yourself.

Let’s Start Simple(?)

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My girlfriend and fellow photojournalist, Venezia Castro.

There is no such thing as simple when it comes to Salvador Dalí, but we can at least start with something more familiar. The above picture obviously shows some sort of beautiful, angelic creature. There’s also a weird horse lady in the background.

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Even a melting clock is right three times per star alignment.

Okay, for real. If you’re not up-to-date on surrealism, you probably at least know Dalí as “the melting clock guy”. Chances are you’ve even heard someone, whether a college professor or a stoned roommate, pontificating on what these clocks mean. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s got something to do with time. Maybe it’s trying to show that time is relative, or that our perception of it is an illusion. Or maybe it suggests that time is slipping through our fingers, and we should make the most of it before it all melts away.

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If you stare at it long enough, it looks like the clock is waving its arms and screaming. Eerie.

Like the last one, this clock is growing out of a tree. So time is natural. Yet the tree is intertwined with a manmade structure. Perhaps time does exist in nature, but we also created part of it ourselves through our own perceptions, and now we can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Also note the positioning of the human and angel: under the clock but above the manmade base. Perhaps Dalí thinks that no one, man or god, can escape or control the course of time, yet we do control the way we perceive it.

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This one could definitely start some fights.

Christ is easily recognizable here, but Dalí doesn’t play it straight. Christ stands on a pedestal, and with the cross absent, his arms are suspended from nothing. I could go very dark with this: the pedestal represents how we idolize Christ’s suffering, while the lack of a cross shows his pain is in fact needless. On the other hand, maybe the lack of a cross symbolizes inevitability: regardless of whether he was betrayed and killed in this specific way, he would have found a way to complete his mission and redeem humanity.

But let’s move on before I wade too deep into someone else’s religion and make a mess.

Things Get Weirder

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Eat it, snake.

I hope you’ve acclimated, because things are about to get heavy.

The problem with analyzing this sculpture is the fortuitous sunbeam. Don’t get me wrong, I think it makes a pretty picture and I’m proud that I captured it, but I have to keep reminding myself it’s not actually part of the original piece and I can’t infer any meaning based on it.

Okay, so what are we looking at? My first thought is man’s conquest of nature. The horse is suppressing the serpent’s wings and making it vulnerable to its rider’s attack; man is using nature to conquer nature. But there’s more going on here: the man has no face, while the animals have rather detailed faces. Almost too detailed: both horse and snake have nearly human expressions of fear and pain. What is Dalí saying by dehumanizing the man and dehumanizing the animals who fight for or against him?

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A melting clock has 1001 uses.

After the last one, I’m tempted to read some message about animal abuse into this horse, but the clock throws me off. The metaphor of a horse saddled by time is poetic in its simplicity, but I’m not convinced Dalí made a sculpture about how horses deal with time. In this case it’s possible the horse is a metaphor for us: we’re all just beasts of burden, ridden by the unstoppable flow of destiny.

Or maybe he just can’t help himself when it comes to those melting clocks.

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If even half of what I think this means is true, this sculpture may be more relevant today than in Dalí’s own time.

Here’s the first sculpture that made me really uncomfortable, partly because I laughed at it at first. It’s a giraffe person. That’s funny. Except it’s not a giraffe person. It’s a giraffe woman. It’s also a woman whose body is a chest of drawers. And notice how her dress seems to meld with the skin of her hoofed leg: apparently being less than human is intrinsic to being a woman, rather than this being a lone example.

I’m going to break my rule and admit some prior knowledge on this one: those little pronglike objects you see in many of the sculptures is supposed to represent the intrusion of reality into the surrealism. Its scary that this one supports the drawer. The suggestion is that fusion of giraffe and woman is a surreal metaphor, but the treatment of women like pieces of furniture is perfectly real and normal. The drawer comes out of her stomach, implying her function is to store a baby until it is ready to be born. Finally, her vacant expression atop a very long neck suggests that she is divorced from what is happening to her, seeking escape from reality in the heights of surrealism.

That’s bleak.

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Surrealism, or an unedited photo of how a man sees his wife?

I believe this is the same sculpture as the last one, from a different viewpoint. The giraffe woman shows what’s going on in her head, while this is what a man, probably her husband, sees when he looks at her (note the prominent breasts). The golden egg where her stomach should be reveals the most valuable thing about her is the baby she carries – certainly more important than her identity (missing face) and her autonomy (missing arms and legs).

I honestly have no idea about the clock this time. It’s where her head would be, so maybe she’s thinking about time. Possibly worried that once the time of her pregnancy is up, she won’t have value anymore?

The Big Three

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Eat it, snake-hair.

These last three have no connection other than they happen to be my favorites. This one of Perseus killing Medusa is my favorite of all. If it hadn’t been for the other pieces showing the oppression of women, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about the meaning; it’s just an illustration of a Greek myth. But look at her severed neck: it’s unnaturally long, and hard to picture how she would have looked with the head still attached. In fact, it looks less like her head is missing than she simply lacks a face. Perseus hasn’t just killed her, he’s stolen her face, robbing her of identity. Keep in mind that in the myth, Medusa’s main crime was being ugly.

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Mirror, mirror.

Venezia and I disagreed on what was going on in this sculpture of Alice (of Wonderland fame). I thought her arms were forming part of a looking glass, suggesting everything she sees in Wonderland is a reflection of herself, a mirror she is part of. Venezia thought she was just holding a skipping rope. I really like this interpretation due to the prong behind her: if Alice continues swinging the rope, it’s going snag on the intruding reality.

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You’d never guess…

I’m going to drastically violate my rule and tell you exactly what this last one is, but I promise it will improve the experience and leave plenty of room to wonder what the hell is going on here.

You ready?

This is a portrait of Dalí’s good friend Sigmund Freud.

Hall of Heroes: Jocko Willink

Retired SEAL commander Jocko Willink may be one of the scariest people alive. He’s also a huge part of the reason I’m able to keep this blog up seven days a week. If you’re interested in creating a new you in the new year – for real this time – I don’t think there’s a better person on this earth for you to follow.

A Modern Warrior

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Sort of like if the Rock did real action instead of movies.

Think of your favorite video game warrior-type hero. John Willink, better known as Jocko, is probably more badass than them, and he’s for real. His twenty years of service included eight years of active duty in deployments to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He worked his way up from recruit to platoon commander, and under his leadership, SEAL Task Unit Bruiser became the most highly decorated special operations unit in the Iraq War.

Jocko retired in 2010, and now leverages what he learned as a SEAL commander to teach others to take control of their business and personal lives. Chances are, he has lived through and thrived in conditions far more difficult, complex, and dangerous than you ever will, so you should not take his advice lightly.

Despite retiring as a SEAL, Jocko never took a break from Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which he has a black belt in and trains just as hard as he ever did. His business, Echelon Front, is hired by CEOs who want to become better business leaders, but his podcast and books are available to anyone looking to live better lives.

 

Discipline Equals Freedom

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Safe to say he knows his stuff.

Jocko’s mantra, as well as the name of one of his books, is “Discipline equals freedom.” It sounds counterintuitive: how can you be free if you’re a slave to a schedule? Many creative types rebel against disciplined living. In my experience, though, Jocko’s words ring true. If you build and stick to a routine that guarantees you finish absolutely everything you need to get done, every day, then you can literally spend your free time doing what you want without consequence or anxiety. It might be tempting to achieve immediate freedom by letting your moods dictate what you do from moment, but this freedom is an illusion: you’ll get less done, which means in the long run you will have far less control over the course of your life and your success.

Reinventing yourself does not happen overnight. That said, Jocko does offer a few tips which can be applied to great effect within the next day, and they would make great New Year’s resolutions for anyone honestly invested in bettering themselves.

I’m probably going to harp on this every week just because it is a constant trait in successful people, but Jocko’s number one tip is to wake up early. Really early. During his military career he noticed the highest performing SEALs always woke up the earliest, and he sets his alarm for 4:30 every morning. Being productive while everyone else is asleep gives you a huge edge. He does not advise you to skimp on sleep, though, and suggests you get a full night’s sleep by going to bed much earlier in the evening. Your social schedule my suffer, but your productivity will skyrocket. He emphasizes that you have to do it every day, though. If you sleep in on weekends, the habit will never stick.

Getting out of bed is the first step, but how you use your morning is also key. Jocko lays out his gym clothes the night before, and first thing in the morning he puts them on and goes to the gym. The important thing is to exercise when you wake up. It does not matter what you do and does not have to be intense if you are starting out, as long as you get your blood flowing and wake up your brain. One the same note, you should make your to-do list for the next day each evening before you go to sleep. You should start your day by moving, rather than thinking, to take full advantage of your extra morning hours.

As for diet, Jocko sticks mostly to meat and vegetables and eats very low-carb. He is fond of pointing out that the human body can go on just fine for thirty days without food, often even longer, so if the choice is between eating junk food – which is a kind of poison – or not eating at all, the latter is always the better option.

Begin Your Training

Jocko posts his watch each morning, keeping himself accountable and keeping you inspired.

If you aren’t too intimidated yet, keeping up with Jocko is a great way to add some discipline to your life. I highly recommend his book Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual, both for its instructions on leading a life of discipline and for its simple yet brutal workouts. I have not had a chance to read Extreme Ownership yet, his book on business leadership, but it does come highly recommended.

I only recently began listening to his podcast, Jocko Podcast, but it is already one of my favorites. He and his friend Echo Charles cover productive living, military history, martial arts, and other topics. Finally, I cannot emphasize enough how life changing his Psychological Warfare tracks are. These are very simple recorded messages about getting out of bed, going to the gym, eating healthy, getting creative work done, and so on. They work because Jocko is scary as hell, so if you can’t motivate yourself to sit down and write or study, throw one of these tracks on and you’ll be amazed what you can accomplish when you fear for your life.

Find Jocko’s website, podcast, books, and branded fitness products at jockopodcast.com, and follow @jockowillink on twitter and instagram.

Ridiculously Slow Skyrim Let’s Play: Slowing Down

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The adventure begins.

It’s been a busy week, largely due to travelling for Christmas, and I haven’t actually played a lot of Skyrim. When I have played, I’ve succeeded in playing as slowly as possible. I haven’t even entered Whiterun yet; those who have played Skyrim will understand how little I’ve accomplished so far. For that reason I haven’t been able to put together any real-world content yet. In lieu of that, I’ll recap what I’ve done so far and explain the guidelines I’m following to keep my game play slow and steady.

Introducing Aemilian

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Definitely not a Stormcloak.

My character, Aemilian, is a Redguard, or a dark-skinned human. Skyrim does not have classes, but I chose the blessing of the Warrior Stone (over Mage or Thief), which is the closest thing to selecting a class as this game gets. I wanted my character to be a human, but not a native of Skyrim, which ruled out Nord. I played a Breton the first time I played the game and decided to try something new. The Imperials seemed a little too generic.

I chose the Warrior Stone as a reflection of real-life values. Not that I’m anything resembling a warrior in real life, but I do try to take care of my physical self first. I work as a writer, which you might think puts me more in line with being a Mage, but I try to put my health above my work. A lot of people who lead intellectual or creative lives almost seem to deny their physical selves; that’s one reason I started Desdenada in the first place. I love to tell stories, but living stories in real life is always most important, and you can’t do that if your body fails you.

That said, I obviously consider intellect and creativity to be important parts of my life. I fully intend to develop skills related to the Mage and Thief archetype in Skyrim, but as a supplement to my Warrior skills rather than a main focus.

Laying Low in Skyrim

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Working day and night.

In addition to playing slowly, I’m trying to play in character as deeply as I can. Skyrim is a vast open-world game, which gives me a lot of opportunities to make choices by putting myself in my character’s shoes.

The game begins with the player imprisoned by the Empire after being caught in an ambush against the Stormcloak rebels. Right before the you’re executed, a dragon attacks and you escape. That’s when you make your first choice: leave with one of your jailors, or one of the rebels?

I left with the rebel because my character was suspicious of what the Empire would do as soon as the immediate threat was over. That by no means implies he condones the Stormcloaks, however. At this point I can’t say whether I’ll join either side. I’m new to Skyrim and have no stake in local politics. My main goal is to steer clear of the Empire for now, which also means steering clear of the rebels.

That’s why as soon as I got to Riverwood, the first town you encounter besides the one that just got burned down by a dragon, I sold the Stormcloak armor I’d looted off a dead body. The armor I bought to replace it was of inferior quality. There was no game incentive for doing this – weirdly, you can walk right up to Imperial guards in Stormcloak colors and no one bats an eye. Still, I’m committed to roleplaying, and the last thing Aemilian wants is to be mistaken for a rebel.

That’s also why I spent most of my time in Riverwood learning the ropes of blacksmithing and alchemy. Aemilian isn’t sure whether the Imperials are going to be coming after the recently escaped prisoners and is going to be lying low for the near future. To that end, he needs to learn to be self-sufficient.

Meanwhile, the family of the Stormcloak I escaped with asked me to head to nearby Whiterun and warn the local jarl about the dragon. I left off right outside the gates. Aemilian will deliver the warning for the sake of the defenseless people of Riverwood, but what I’m really interested in is everyone else I’ll meet in the city. This is where the game really opens up, and looking forward to exploring Skyrim in earnest and finding my place in it.

Guidelines for Slow Play

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It’s a beautiful world. Take the time to enjoy it.

Trying to do things slowly is usually harder than you’d think. I’ve recently gotten into the idea of mindful eating, something I desperately need in my life (my girlfriend often admonishes me, “You’re food won’t run away if you put your fork down.”). The conventional wisdom is that most people who attempt to eat mindfully never achieve it. Simply wanting to eat slower won’t work. You have to follow strict rules and take real precautions against distraction: eating in a quiet place with your phone and all other electronics turned off, deliberately putting down your fork after every bite and chewing with different parts of your mouth than normal just to make sure your mind stays present.

Simply saying “I’m going to play Skyrim slowly” probably wouldn’t do the trick either, so I put some guidelines together beforehand. First and foremost is to walk by default. Many Skyrim players probably have never pressed the key to toggle their character from running to walking. Sprinting does drain stamina but your character never tires from regular running, so there’s no game penalty for literally running across Skyrim in one stretch. I will let Aemilian run in combat or other urgent situations, but for the most part I think he’ll be content to walk.

In the same vein, I will never fast travel. I understand why it’s in the game and players would riot if it wasn’t, but it almost defeats the purpose of having a huge world filled with things to see and discover.

I’m playing on Legendary difficulty, the highest one. I’m not an especially skilled player, so this forces me to make sure I’m really, thoroughly prepared for every challenge I face. That means staying on top of skills like smithing and alchemy, keeping potions and other items stocked and keeping my gear in top condition. These are all things that will deepen my experience of the game.

I’m talking to everyone I see, picking every flower, and checking to see what’s behind every door and tree. This is just good gameplay anyway since you get most quests by talking to random passersby and find a lot of treasure hidden in weird places.

Finally, I’m reading the books. You find a lot of books just lying around in Skyrim, which offer a lot of lore about the world. Whenever Aemilian has a break from travel and adventure, he sits down in a tavern or a sunny grove and reads through all the new tomes that he’s collected.

I’ll play a lot more this week and next time I’ll have some real-life content for you. I can’t say what it will be yet, but that’s the beauty of an open world like Skyrim: you never know where your next adventure will lead you.

Rational Alchemy 101

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Here in Mexico, the traditions of the past are not so far away.

My brother and I often start projects together and immediately abandon them. Not because we aren’t passionate about the idea, but because it’s hard to collaborate with busy schedules when we live two countries away from one another. One such idea was The Rational Alchemist, a site that would turn occult wisdom into practical life advice. Maybe it will become its own site again one day. In the meantime, I was still in love with the idea. This was about the time I decided to run seven weekly columns right here on Desdenada, and so The Rational Alchemist became seven of seven, a weekly dose of realistic mysticism delivered every Thursday.

It’s Occult for a Reason

 

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The local Salem Witch Cafe is fairly popular, so don’t tell me I’m the only one.

The occult has fascinated me since I was a child, but I never really believed in it. I’m a special breed of self-hating skeptic: I approach conspiracy theories and ghost stories desperately hoping to find a shred of truth but expecting parlor tricks and noise. Yet I continue studying ancient traditions, even when I can’t justify it. Witchcraft and alchemy are cool, whether or not they work.

And it makes sense that they don’t work. A lot of people interested in these sorts of things are looking for some hidden knowledge that will give them an edge or resolve all their problems. If they’re not currently succeeding and living the life of their dreams, it must be because they’re missing some key piece of information.

This is backwards.

Good information is not lost or forgotten. It may be briefly hidden or forbidden, but that only causes those who seek it to fight more desperately. Ideas are not finite, and so knowledge that works and is considered useful is ceaselessly replicated and spread to the far corners of the earth.

In my experience, the best advice is trite. Imagine you asked your personal hero how to succeed and they told you, “Work hard and never give up on your dream.” You’d roll your eyes. But what if you actually followed their advice, to the letter? If you worked hard, really hard, every day, eschewing television and social engagements to cram as many productive hours into each day as you could? If you never stopped trying to complete your goals, even when they seemed impossible or you felt yourself losing interest?

You’d succeed.

The secrets to success are not hidden in some musty tome in a Tibetan library. The formula was probably instilled in your brain when you were five years old. Yes, there are all manner of tricks to maximize your productivity and you should always seek out wisdom and advice where you can find it. But the hard truth is, success is mostly a choice.

It’s just such a difficult choice to make.

Making the Potion Go Down Easy

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Mmmm potions.

Yeah, you heard me. You get to choose whether or not you succeed, and success is certainly the less appealing option. The ins and outs of why I believe this are beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll stick to one example.

Let’s say you want to be a writer. If you block out four hours a day to do nothing but work on your writing, and I mean really working, putting all distractions aside and pushing your brain and creativity as hard as you can, you will succeed as a writer. Of course, many people who want to be a writer wouldn’t consider doing that every day to be success. They think that’s what they want, but have trouble ever completing one of the aforementioned writing sessions, let alone doing it every day for the rest of their lives.

What if there was a way to make this choice easier? That’s how I justify studying the occult to myself. It’s irrational, and maybe I’d be a better person if I wasn’t this way, but I get more excited by the idea of following some arcane tradition than I do about actually accomplishing meaningful things with my life. Maybe I would never keep up this blog every day if my only motivation was “to build my personal brand, develop my writing, and find a meaningful place within the wider community” or some lame shit like that, but if I tell myself “I must complete my Insight Work every day to ascend to the next level of the Tree of Wyrd” these posts are a lot more likely to go out on time.

Humans are creatures of dogma, whether not it makes any sense. If you’re as fascinated by the occult as I am, you can leverage this drive to trick yourself into being more productive.

The Rational Alchemist

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One day, we, too, shall be gold. Photo: Venezia Castro.

To be honest, I’m mostly undertaking this project for my own benefit. If it happens to benefit anybody else, great. Specifically, I’m going to convert occult traditions into practical, contemporary self-help guides. There are many traditions I’d love to get to eventually, from Viking shamanism to Toltec medicine, but it feels only right to start with alchemy itself.

Alchemy, the pseudoscience that became modern day chemistry, is about components. At some magical moment in history, people discovered that objects are not intrinsically themselves, but can be separated into smaller pieces. This began with crude ideas about each thing in the universe being made up of different parts of earth, air, fire, and water and progressed to the study of subatomic particles. Alchemy falls toward the earlier end of the spectrum, but was still a complex and robust field of study.

The goal of our self-help course will be to wield the metaphorical philosopher’s stone, transmuting ourselves into gold, or our best selves. Of course, we’ll have to start at the opposite end of the spectrum, working our way there. Check back next week for a discussion of one of the most basic – yet most important – components of the alchemical tradition.