There are two important instances of ringing the bell that I can think of.
The first one is rather known – it ‘s when the aspiring SEAL guys can’t take the Hell Week abuse but aren’t simply allowed to say, “I am out, I’m going home”.
They have to go to the center of the camp and ring the heavy bell three times, and this means – “I can’t take it anymore”.
And almost all of the quitting happens within the first two days, did you know that?
The men that stay came from all walks of life. I heard a SEAL instructor say this: “don’t judge the book by its cover, prepare to be surprised.”
And I appreciate the psychological aspect of it.
It’s real, and it says there is a hierarchy in the world and you just placed yourself in it.
But there is more to come, you can change the way you are – the race is long.
And in the end – it’s only with yourself.
The second ringing of the bell has a personal meaning to me in a totally different dimension. I was an altar boy once; I would ring the big bell in the church waking up a small village on the other side of the iron curtain in Eastern Europe.
It was a long time ago.
For a boy of maybe eight at that time, it was some experience to climb up the dark tower (no windows) find the thick rope and pull it with all my might.
Then I heard the clear, loud sound of a heavy iron bell that was cast centuries ago.
It was there then and it still is. It will be there after I’m gone.
It was deafening me, and when the big bell rung my whole world was in suspension and after it was all done I was afraid to go down about as much as scared of going up earlier.
I wasn’t able to articulate very good what was going through my mind as a small boy, but something was seeded in my brain then.
And with time I understood. “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
And to be clear, it doesn’t work for everybody in life. It tends to be a risky proposition, because one may fail faster then succeed. Life is not fair.
But “shit, at least you tried” - and that’s Lana Del Ray’s lyrics.
She really says – “keep it real, and handle the consequences. What else is out there?”
Besides, that’s how you know that you have a life.
I will go a bit personal in this essay, but it seems to me that I have established the readership, so it’s not out of place to do it. I am starting a new job on May 1st in Switzerland, and on the next day, the Wednesday, there is a big meeting, and I was asked to introduce myself at the beginning of it. So I was rehearsing it, driving around Toronto in my slick black car that still has the winter black rims, which my older son calls “sick”. My younger son says that he will rather buy a Tesla.
Kids these days.
I was born in Poland, but I spent most of my life (the important part) in Canada. We landed at Pearson airport in the middle of the winter in 1995 with my wife pregnant and me not speaking English. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? And so it did.
And it was fun, this landing experience. The captain said through the speakers that outside there is -22 degrees C, a strong northern wind and a snow storm. Then he wished everybody a great day. Sure, his day of work was almost over.
Some years later we took another gamble, taking jobs in Switzerland.
So I said this to my kids, and it makes an impression on them. “You talk about people betting in casinos a few thousand bucks? That’s child’s play, it’s nothing. Try to bet your life more than once. That’s when you’re in the big boys league.
So back to my introduction in the next week’s meeting. My issue is that it becomes hard to say where I am from.
And I am not looking for pity, just stating the fact.
There was a good comedy show on Polish radio when I was growing up. It was about a guy who makes problems go away (not really, he just made things more complicated and that was the genius of it). And it was not clear where he came from. So the speaker introducing the show (imaging a serious Johnny Carson) would say this – “he probably fell out of the train to Bobcaygeon.” (Any funny sounding city will do.)
There was lot’s of fun growing up in Poland – the owner’s manual for your new Fiat had this chapter in it: “Small, medium and catastrophic fires in your new Italian car.”
Try to beat that in the fun category.
So what should I say on Wednesday morning?
I can be boring, that’s the easy way out.
I can tell them that I wrote a book, which got good reviews. And English is my third language, but that’s what I use when thinking.
And my book library at home is absolutely deadly.
I used to bench press 140 kilograms and do squats with the same weight. Not anymore though, I am getting old, but I still hustle.
I did screw up a few times, but now I am sure what I want to do in life. That’s not bad, I think.
The Levant is an approximate historical geographical term referring to an area in the Eastern Mediterranean. It derives from the Italian Levante, meaning "rising", implying the rising of the sun in the east.
The Lebanese Civil War was a multifaceted war in Lebanon, lasting from 1975 to 1990.
If you’re a cynical person, or perhaps just wise, you had noticed that Beirut was too much of a banking center for petrodollars, so it had to be destabilized. Geneva and London is where the oil money goes to now.
Still, Lebanon is a place of plenty - and of peace now. They trade water for oil with the desert states around them. How cool is that?
The people there experience the current war in the sense of American missiles crossing their sky on the way to Syria, as the Yankees are shooting them out from ships in the Mediterranean sea.
It must be some experience for the locals, almost like sitting on the detonators, counting on somebody to punch the right directives into the computer before the touching of the shot.
And after the strikes against some chemical weapon factories in Syria we will never know if the poisoning gasses are now in the open, hovering like big cloud over the region. The media will not investigate it, but it’s an interesting question, nonetheless.
There is something else that is rarely talked about when it comes to the region, and it’s the elephant in the room – China.
They are there all right. Levant is of utmost importance to them. They already have close ties with Iran, which is Shia, like Syria. There are reports of the Chinese training and advising Syrian forces.
And its not just energy supplies in the game here – China needs a route to ship its products to the European market that can’t be shut down by US navy in a moment of conflict. It needs a land route.
Now, let’s just step back and take stock of the world powers.
The US is number one, no question. Is Russia any threat to the United States? The answer is no. The gross domestic product of the entire Russia is about as big as the greater New York area. They have no capabilities to move an assault force to the American shores, and they will not start a nuclear confrontation, because they’re not suicidal. Russia is only being used by the media to justify a bloated Pentagon budget, that’s it, that’s why it is in the news. It’s their raison d'être in the media space.
The real challenger is China. But with these guys you need to tread carefully. They are a huge trade partner and they hold $1.17 trillion US debt as of January 2018. And they’re growing their military every year.
Lebanon is an example of a country where people of different religion co-exist and do business with each other. It is also a democracy and their legal system is based on a French system. All this makes it unique in the Arab world. But its location just asks for trouble.
The origin of this phrase refers to a reaction of the mind to troubling events that are bothering you in a way that you can’t easily shake off. But they’re your own creation, because there is nothing out there nearly as sinister as you’re thinking it is. You’re a worried man with a worried mind.
“No one in front of me and nothing behind
There's a woman on my lap and she's drinking champagne.”
That’s Bob Dylan’s lyrics, starting with the sentence I used.
And you sit in your car on a red light somewhere in the big city, watching the rain come down on a slow Tuesday afternoon and having the feeling that your mind is playing tricks on you. And you can’t help but go along.
And you know that the battle is rigged and every time the wipers make their way across the windshield, you try hard to focus on the rain, but it’s no good.
There is something bothering you.
Perhaps you watched the TV too much, all the pundits with big egos spreading the visions on Bloomberg and other outlets, and you’re having hard time to comprehend why this should be important to you at all.
You look at the rain right there in front of you, and it’s real. It brings relief, just like Mother Night.
And you get the notion that something is missing in life, and society has become shaky on many levels – there are just too many aspects that are up in the air, not adding up, such as the recent strikes on Syria.
And you sense that a part of the reason our society is so unstable now – we blew the metaphysical foundation out from underneath our culture. And if there is a fix for that, it has to start with you. And what keeps you up at night is the question how to do it.
I am an engineer, but I don’t live by the numbers. I understand how they work, but I think in scenes, which are vivid in my mind.
I then translate these scenes into words – this is my reaction to reality.
It’s a bit longer cognitive process, but I can’t help it.
Like a bad dream, or like something from The Shining, with Jack Nicholson (who, I believe, was put on Earth to show everyone just how wild life can be) the irony is, that there is nothing sinister– just our mind’s playing tricks on us.
That’s the brilliance of it - as long as you can call self-destruction that. It’s like you sitting in front of the red light somewhere; your mind can take you to many different places.
And if “The Shining” is not convincing enough for you, watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a movie, directed by Milos Forman, who passed away just days ago (Jack rules in it too, as he got an Oscar for it in 1976).
So what about the things that go bump in the night?
They happen because your brain collected too much information that bothers you, and it doesn’t want to handle it anymore. This is what wakes you up at 2am in the morning after the initial tiredness wears off. No matter how many times you flip your sweat-stained pillow and try to sleep again, something keeps wracking at your brain, keeping you up.
It wants you to take action.
Maybe you have to change the way you think.
There is a scene in “The Rain Man” that I’ve always remembered. It’s when the brothers sit in a diner someplace, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, and Dustin’s character is heavily autistic, and Tom looks at him trying to form his opinion about the state his brother is in. When the waitress comes, she opens a fresh box of matches to light something up but she drops the box and the matches spill all over the floor. Dustin looks down, moves his head quickly and says - “296”. Tom picks up the box, looks at the number and says: “You’re wrong – it’s 300.”
Then they both look up at the waitress who holds four matches in her hand, not knowing what to say.
While exercising at the gym, running hard on the elliptical, I noticed a person in front of me had a t-shirt with the saying “what do you live for?”
And it got me thinking.
Maybe the bigger question in life is: what are you responsible for?
Responsibility gives life meaning. Men, especially young men, are hungry for that. As the great psychologist Jordan Peterson puts it: “women know what they have to do, men have to figure it out.” A man has to decide that he is going to do something in life. And what makes life attractive to him is taking responsibility.
Too often we focus on rights, but it’s impossible to have half of a discussion, because your right is my responsibility.
So we take responsibility and at some point in life we all fail.
As we push ourselves outside our comfort zone, we find growth. There is no progress coming out of a comfortable, cozy life… you need to bet big on yourself.
Perhaps that is the sense of the Bible’s original sin - that life is a struggle, and if it’s not hard, you’re doing something wrong.
Well, what happens next after you fail? The best advice I read is to take control of something, even in the face of hardship and focus on it with all your might. Then, gradually, your circle of control begins to widen and you get back on your feet stronger then before.
The SEAL warriors, arguably the best special army detachment in the world, have what is called a 40% rule. It goes like this: when your brain taps you on you shoulders and says “you’re done”, you are really only about 40% done. You need to dig deeper and try harder. And this is the key to overcoming mental barriers.
Hemingway said: “the world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Many, but not all, an important distinction, but I think that truer words were never spoken.
He also said: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
A wise man.
I am taking this retrospective look at life tonight likely because my birthday is soon, Friday the 13th. Not a big one yet, but close.
I have taken chances in life and I’ve bet big, and still do.
Life is a highway and I’ve loved every moment of the ride.
As the great song goes:
Cause I'm a picker
I'm a grinner
I'm a lover
And I'm a sinner
I play my music in the sun
I'm a joker
I'm a smoker
I'm a midnight toker
I sure don't want to hurt no one
Whether you’re a Trump supporter or not, you have to give it to the man - he is firing on all cylinders, delivering on his campaign promises.
The latest hot topic is the trade war with China – the idea of putting tariffs on imports from the Middle Kingdom.
This is an interesting subject for at least two reasons. First, any international tariffs should be considered in conjunction with currency exchange rate. Simply put – if the US introduces, say 10% fee on exports and the Chinese cheapen their currency by similar amount vs. the USD, then nothing really changed for the exporters, specially if they can secure raw materials within their country. The tariffs will be simply a tax on American consumers.
But the bigger, more interesting question is exactly how the US deficit is calculated.
To do it properly, and consider currency fluctuation, would mean that the payment of countless invoices has to be correlated to the exchange rate of the moment, which is impossible to do. What also distorts the number is the fact that interest paid on the US Treasuries held by China increases the current account deficit, even though it doesn’t immediately cost any American jobs.
Then there are business tricks that muddle the picture even more: if China buys gold in New York turns around and sells it London, it will have an effect on trade balance. I am sure that there are also way more advanced schemes out there.
And I didn’t even touch the subject of the complexity of global supply chains.
With the series negotiations just getting underway, there is a possibility that various lobbying groups will all try to cut a deal for themselves. This would be a sad conclusion indeed.
I believe the best chance for lasting peace is to let people trade and do business with each other. Business transcends religion and race, as it is a part of human nature. But there is always the reality of geopolitics.
Still, when president Trumps announces “we need to negotiate a better deal”, I cringe a little.
It’s not a leftist article at all, even if the title sounds like it. I will start with the Bible, from a different perspective because I have a tremendous amount of respect for its content and structure. It’s solid – every weak argument has been weeded out from the stories over the centuries. Whether you’re a believer or not, the Bible’s content is something to behold.
The principle of unequal distribution actually comes from it. Sometimes it is known as the Matthew principle (Matthew 25:29), derived from what might be the harshest statement ever attributed to Christ: “to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.”
To be clear – I am convinced that rules for life first develop in the society and then they are put together as God’s words, never the other way around.
It is unthinkable that Moses would descent from Mount Sinai with Ten Commandments that would surprise people waiting for him with their content. Instead, the people fully knew what to expect, because they lived the rules anyways and knew what works in life. God just put them in bullet points - that is all religion does. The tradition always comes first in the creation of things. Then tradition creates religion.
It could be that Moses said this when he came down – “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I got the number down from 15 to 10. The bad news is that adultery is still in.” We’ll never know.
So what message did Christ want to convey in his harsh sentence from Matthew’s gospel? There must have been one.
Here is my take on it.
What often happens in history is that a dedicated and aggressive minority takes control of the more passive majority. And the people with wealth to protect make amendments with the new rulers (think Nazi Germany). The regular guy pays the price at the end. Not much different with the Bolsheviks in Russia, really.
All it takes is a few strong-minded men and women convinced that the world is not marching right and they need to do something about it. There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction and strength of character.
This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.
What Christ meant is not the material wealth; he was talking about the mental power. Let it sink in for a bit and see how it changes the context of what he said.
First, stating, “from those who have nothing, everything will be taken”, doesn’t make any sense in the material world. So he was clearly referring to the mind. What’s below nothing? You become a slave, or your mind does actually.
What he was really saying, in my opinion, is this:
“A strong mind creates more strength, while an unfocused one spirals down into chaos.”
So why in the world the distribution is always skewed?
Astonishingly few in the society make it big, and it goes for art, business and politics. Jesus’ take on the situation was absolutely right in this sense too.
How many classical composers are played in operas today? Four or five, out of hundreds of thousands? It’s true for every walk of life if you think about it – there are just a few famous painters, writers, rock bands, financiers or philosophers.
The problem is that many people have an obsession to somehow fix it and create a leveled playing field. This is a mistake in my view. It kills talent and creativity.
A university degree is supposed to make you dangerous in the marketplace. That’s the whole idea of it. And this doesn’t happen anymore. How are the kids supposed to benefit from going to universities?
In the ying and yang of the world, order and chaos are fighting it out throughout the history. It never stops, but it pays to understand that the chaos is only a step away, or it may surprise you badly one day.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.
Tom Kubiak is the author of The Traveler