Friday, January 25, 2008


I took a psychology class in college that required me to spend a certain number of hours as a guinea pig in psychological research classes. I was assured that this was so I could further my understanding of the methodology involved with formal research, and had nothing to do with creating a cheap and constant source of test subjects. It said so in the syllabus. That same document also said that I would fail if I didn't participate, even if I aced every other part of the class. I guess this important "understanding of the methodology" I was getting couldn't be reflected in a test score.

But I did learn from the experience. I learned two things, in fact:

1. If you want someone to go out of their way to help you, one way is to arrange things so that they have no other choice.

2. Psychological researchers are liars, and mostly they just like to mess with people.

About two sessions into my indentured service I realized that every study was it's own little joke. No matter what the sign-up sheet SAID the research was about, it's actually about some other thing:

"We're testing the correlation between intelligence and memory!" (But really they want to know if you think better around an authority figure)

"We want to know how different colors affect people's reaction time!" (Actually, we just want to see if you'll shock someone to get a piece of chocolate.)

"What's the relationship between family history and career choice?" (Haha, you're about to be sprayed with WATER!)

Once you understand the kind of formula they're working under, every session becomes a little game called "What are they really testing?" You begin questioning every little detail of the experiment, wondering how many of the people with you are actually confederates. Eventually you develop a pretty good eye for it.

Which is why I know that the construction near the building I work in is a complete ruse.

It started innocently enough. Just a few fences to block off the work area. For a while a gate was left open, so people could cut through when walking to and from their cars. Then sometimes that gate would be locked, but another gate (around the corner where you couldn't see it) would be closed but NOT locked. That was a little suspicious, but still reasonable.

When they put big, black sheets across every fence, though, I knew something was up. They'd gotten their control data, now they were adding conditions to see how people would react. It's a rat maze. A real life, sociological rate maze, and it's getting more elaborate every day. Currently, going from my car to my office involves walking around the border of my parking lot, through the green space, then down a set of stairs before finally (and this is the best part) walking right past the little snack store.

At last, I see where it was all going. No doubt this study is being sold as "how minor inconvenience affects office morale" when really it's closer to "how a big black fence can make for crazy-good soda sales."

Any day now, I expect to find a piece of cheese on the sidewalk.*

*Before immediately being sprayed with WATER!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Catching Down

A few years ago, as the Norwalk virus stormed through my social circle, I realized something important.

Now granted, I came to this conclusion while I was still sick, after spending a whole night in my bathroom, so between the illness and lack of sleep I might have been borderline insane. But here's what I realized:

Throwing up due to illness is a strangely spiritual experience.


Spirituality is about freedom. You achieve it by looking outside yourself, even forgetting yourself. It is a long hard road of letting go, and realizing that no one is liberated who clings desperately.

And that's where vomit comes in. Because no one, absolutely no one, can sit hunched over a toilet bowl and think:

"Wow, I am really in control of MY LIFE."

That moment does away with some other statements, too. Like:

"Nothings gonna get in my way!"


"I don't have time for this, I have important things to do!"

When you throw up, those thoughts are completely drowned out by a much louder, more primal voice that says: "ACTUALLY, YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL OF ****. YOU ARE AS FRAIL AS ANY LIVING THING AND NO MATTER HOW BUSY YOU ARE, YOU'RE GOING TO BE SICK, RIGHT NOW, NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO. YOU HAVE FIVE SECONDS."

So there you are. No more faith in your own little plans. No concern for your belongings, your status, or your dignity. Not worried about the future, not burdened with the past. Absolute presence, wholly focused on the present. An empty vessel.*

It's not a bad start.

*Ba dum, bum.

Friday, January 11, 2008

If you're confused, see last week's post.

It's like baseball.

I don't remember learning how to play baseball, or kickball either. I understand bases and outs the same way I understand brushing my teeth or getting dressed, the logic to it is an ancient foundation in my mind, so old that it has always been.

And that's what sandwiches were for Earl. Sandwiches were like baseball. Bread, something else, bread. Of course! How else would you do it? Sandwiches just made sense, which is precisely why it took a long time before he realized that he was good at making them.

Looking back on his life now, his sandwich aptitude had always been there. Earl started making his own lunches at an early age, once he realized that his mother would never understand how some jellies went with crunchy peanut butter, some went with smooth, and only a select few were reserved for extra-chunky.

And he can remember being asked to make sandwiches for school events, parties, all kinds of things growing up. At the time he hadn't thought much of these requests. Someone asked him to make sandwiches, he liked making sandwiches, it was perfect. It never occurred to him that sandwiches could be a direction for his life.

It wasn't until Earl got his first job at "Vaguely Sounds Like a Foreign Word for 'Bread", when he got his first look at the dark world of corporate sandwiching, that he knew he'd found his purpose. The job had been a difficult time for Earl. Everyday was a new fight with the kitchen manager, another reprimand for "improvising," another explanation of why "asiago" and "chipotle" were not magic deliciousness potions. The kitchen manager didn't understand. Recipes aren't commandments, they're someone else's best guess! If everyone followed the recipe exactly there would be no recipes except the first one!

Earl remembers that job with sadness, yet it was one of the most important things that ever happened to him. Until you see someone doing it wrong, you don't realize how important it is that other people go out and do it right. Only in the moment after he screamed "But they won't even taste the mayonnaise, and it will keep the oil from making the bread soggy!" did Earl, stunned at his own sentence, know he had a gift.

The gift became work, the work became learning, the learning became mastery. The mastery became blackened beef, cheddar, fried egg, and tomato, all on a fresh onion roll.

Thanks Earl.*

*His name is probably not Earl, but man that sandwich was good. Really good.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Oh! Continuity!

There's a restaurant in Athens. I don't want to mention it by name, but let's just say it's called "The 'abrasive particles or granules, as of sand or other small, coarse impurities found in the air, water, etc." You know, the one out on A Son of a King or Queen Avenue? You following me?

It's a great place and always has been. But as long as I've been going there, every entree has come with a free side of surl.

The waiting staff isn't bad, by any means. But you always got the impression that you're patronage was not so much "welcomed" as "being tolerated and you had better tip well and not require too many refills.

It's the kind of restaurant where the menu states clearly that they don't divide checks unless you ask them to up front. There's another great restaurant in Atlanta, lets say it's called "The 'a whirling mass of water, esp. one in which a force of suction operates, as a whirlpool", that enforces the same policy.

Well, in the past year or so, "The 'abrasive particles or granules, as of sand or other small, coarse impurities found in the air, water, etc." establishment has really lightened up. The current wait staff has been known to be downright friendly, even pleasant toward customers. But the funny thing is that they didn't have to. The restaurant was doing fine, even when the surliness was at it's peak.

It's the "Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld, all over again. If you make a good enough product, you don't have to be particularly nice about distributing it. No matter how many people you anger, there will always be those who appreciate your work enough to come back. If you love the art, you can put up with the artist. Being brilliant is his job, and that's enough. We don't need him to be in a good mood all the time.

And that kind of tolerance is what you need to keep in mind when I tell you about yet another surly restaurant. It's just around the corner from "The 'abrasive particles" actually. Let's just call it "Large Urban Baked Good."

Now there are a lot of people who don't think this establishment is anything special. It's a little pricey for a lunch place, I'll admit, and while their menu items are all of high quality, nothing really stands out.

Unless you order the special of the day.

I have only ordered the special sandwich of the day at "Large Urban Baked Good" twice, but they were the best two sandwiches I have ever eaten.

These sandwiches were not invented, they are composed, intricately balancing, no, juggling, juggling flavors.

The restaurant is home to a "Sandwich Genius." I'm sure of it.

*Next week: The Sandwich Hero's Journey