July 2013

Dads really come in handy. Maybe especially my dad.

I’m building a solar batch water heater for my trailer. Where did I get that idea? My dad. He’s built two:


One for the house


And one for the bathhouse

Where did I get the tank? My dad. He saves stuff that he finds which just might be useful someday. This habit has its pros and cons, of course, but I’d put him just on this side of the line between saver and hoarder. He heard I wanted to build a solar batch water heater and had “just the thing,” pulled out of an old water heater or something.



The design, of course, is mostly my dad’s with a few of my own (primarily the over-engineering) and the internet’s (black, not reflective, box).


The white and grey are just primer. The inside will be black and the outside will be a color of Reanna’s choosing.

The major stumbling block so far has been pulling the square-head plugs out of the tank. My wrenches were just rounding the corners. I’d been scouring the internet for a week for a 15/16″ square offset wrench, my best guess for solving the problem, but apparently which you just can’t get anymore. The solution? Ask my dad. “You need a big pipe wrench. I’ve got one in the bottom drawer of my tool box.” He not only had the wrench, but knew how to use it, and the plug was out in a minute or two.


Dad with pipe wrench

My dad is a commercial photographer, sound engineer, and musician. Where did he learn plumbing? I don’t know, but he did say that he got that pipe wrench from his own dad in the 60s.

I grind my teeth at night. Hard. My dentist’s eyes go wide when he sees the marks I make on my bite guard. I probably won’t crack any teeth in the next few weeks, but I will over the next couple decades, and I plan to live for 50-60 more years. I need help.

Dentists don’t know how to stop sleep bruxism. The best they’ve got are these devices that focus the grind onto your front teeth so that you can’t grind as hard. I’ve been told that this would train me to stop grinding but it did not.

The various other treatments have little to no backing research or apparent success: CBT, benzos, other drugs, hypnotherapy, biofeedback, Botox injections.

Have you overcome nighttime tooth grinding or do you know anyone who has? Please let me know how. You can email me at nathensmiraculousescape@gmail.com. Thanks!

I deleted the only video game I’ve ever owned late Sunday night. It had to be done.

This is my third version of an essay about the game. The first was called “The Problem With Candy Crush,” and went something like this:

I’m not a video game guy and never have been. I dabbled in Tetris and played some two player games with friends and family, mostly Mortal Kombat and Mario Kart. Perhaps it’s my age–I’m solid Atari-wave Gen-X, the last generational cohort to have a real choice about playing video games. Perhaps I was just always more interested in other stuff. I’d rather read, play guitar, hike, whatever.

A couple of weeks ago, a coworker introduced me to Candy Crush, a single-player game where you try to line up images of candy into groups of three or more, which makes them disappear and more candy pours in from the top. It looks like this:


It sounds boring, and it should be, but I found I wanted to keep playing it. It has this Goldilocks just-hard-enough thing, and the rules are not completely handed to you, in an appealing way. In a short period of depression following a company-wide layoff, I downloaded the game to my iPod and started playing it. It engaged me when nothing else seemed interesting. A few days later, I accidentally played it for an hour and a half, losing my chance to get something done I’d decided to do. I felt cheated. I felt guilty. I felt ashamed. I started this essay in my head. 

Candy Crush is a combination of almost completely useless but also very sticky for me in the addiction-theory sense; I want to and do play it all the time but get almost nothing out of it. There are elements of pattern recognition and strategy but of very limited generalizability. There is no social component except for bragging to or begging from friends on facebook. Not only that, but the shapes, motion and patterns of the game show up persistently in my imagination when I’d rather they didn’t: talking with Reanna, meditating, trying to sleep. And dreams–when my friend Zen posted this image, I was certain I’d dreamed this exact scenario:


It got into my head the way speedcubing did for the first several months. The differences are that cubing skills are more generalizable–memorization, dexterity, three-dimensional pattern recognition and tracking– and that I’m genuinely proud of  and happy with my moderate Rubik’s-cubing skills. My average one-minute cube solve has a “wow” factor that saying or showing someone that I’m working on Candy Crush level 50 just does not have.

That was how “The Problem With Candy Crush” was going when I attended a lecture at the Southern Region Student Wellness Conference by Tim Burns, entitled, “Fostering Wellbeing and Resiliency.” Apparently, there is some correlation between resiliency and the percentage of the day people say they are having fun, with some kind of threshold at 40%. I haven’t looked into that research, but it really made me think. It wasn’t really that I estimated myself having fun somewhat less than 40% of the time. It was that I was in the middle of this essay about how Candy Crush was stupid and compelling and I hadn’t put my finger on why: It is really, really fun.  And I value fun. I value it for its own sake, not just for some theoretical correlation with resiliency.

That’s when I started writing an essay in my head entitled, “The Problem With the Problem With Candy Crush: Fun.”

But a few days later, I deleted the game. I had just dropped Reanna off at the airport and wouldn’t see her for a couple weeks. I’m also unemployed for those couple weeks, so I have a huge list of projects I am excited about getting done, in my trailer, around the yard, in the garden, etc. And I’m planning to sleep a lot, exercise a lot, cook a lot, and generally recuperate. It’s an inspiring vision. But when I got back to Joshua Tree, instead of brainstorming my vacation and getting to sleep early, I played an hour and a half of Candy Crush. The thing is, I’m not depressed any more and I have tons of stuff I want to do–that will be fun to do–but if I didn’t delete that game I would have frittered those precious two weeks away, having fun but isolated and having nothing to show for it. That’s not me. It had to go.

Is California becoming the movie Brazil?

I was laid off from my job as a family therapist in a company-wide lay off when Morongo Basin Mental Health closed their doors on June 30 and now am actively seeking work. I have all the documentation to prove that and to show my income for any number of past quarters. It seems I am the ideal candidate for unemployment insurance.

Except that I have worked at a summer camp in Oregon for a few weeks in the last 18 months. (Each summer for the last 13 years, actually, but the Employment Development Office only wants 18-24 months of information.) That means I have to file for UI by telephone. The EDD website says you can apply online, by mail, or fax but eventually says it’s got to be by phone if there’s any out-of-state income.

The problem is, because of the sequester, you cannot get through by phone. Hours of operation are 8-noon, Monday through Thursday, and with limited staff. Last week, the outgoing message implied that if I called early enough I might be able to talk to someone, but I was not able to get through. This week, the message says they just don’t have the staff to answer my call.

Both weeks, the message kindly encourages me to apply online.

As far as I can tell my only options are to lie about my out-of-state income or to give up. Or maybe drive eight hours to Sacramento to make a stink at the Employment Development Office. (No, they do not process claims in person.)


I get half of my political news and analysis from a great podcast called Left Right & Center. (The other half is from Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square.) LR&C is an ongoing conversation between three guys from different political perspectives on what’s happened this week, and has been very valuable for the development of my own political thinking.

The other day, I was listening to another great podcast, This Week in Microbiology, and it hit me that these two shows have the exact same format. TWiM is also an ongoing conversation between three guys about the news of the week. The superficial difference is that TWiM is about bacteria and LR&C is about US politics.

The more abstract difference between these two podcasts, though, is that Left, Right & Center is an excercise in outcome-irrelevant learning, while This Week in Microbiology is an exercise in outcome-relevant learning. That is to say, the empirical events of the week change the opinions of the TWiM guys but almost never change the opinions of the LR&C guys. This is a huge difference. On TWiM, when there is a disagreement, they look up what is known about the issue and almost immediately come to an agreement based on facts: either one person is right and the other wrong, or else we really don’t yet know the answer to that question.

On LR&C, when there is disagreement (which there is on every topic), each fact that comes into the conversation is either disputed or used to proove each person’s own point. In politics, the facts are basically irrelevant. Makes me wonder why it remains so interesting.