Bullish 11.29.16

Bullish: Analytics?

The Chicago Bulls aren’t usually the sort of team where you need to parse the narrative; in most cases the headline and lede will do.

In the early ‘70s, they won with such a bruising defense that opponents often wondered if Dick Butkus and his mates had donned basketball garb for the evening.  The lone question was would this squad have anything left when superior Western Conference teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks aged out of the championship conversation (they didn’t).   In the ‘80s, the simple question was whether a true title contender could be built around Michael Jordan (it could).  And in the ‘90s it was would they ever not win a ring in a season that began with Jordan, Socttie Pippen and Phil Jackson with the team (nope).  In recent years the big picture question centered around the health and return to form of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose.

This season’s Bulls offer no easy primer.  The team is 10-6 and exceeding expectations by a healthy margin.  How they have done it suggests a sea change in their operating principles.  The Bulls have been slow to embrace advance metrics as a tool of analysis.  In his superb breakdown of where each North American sports team stands on the usage of analytic data, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton ranked the Bulls in a group of “skeptics” or fourth among five tiers of teams on how they value and implement advanced statistics, citing that front office honchos Gar Forman and John Paxson preferred scouting reports and character evaluation.  At that time, the Bulls had only one person, Steve Weinman, assigned to analytics.

The Bulls hired Fred Hoiberg as head coach in the summer of 2015, and there was speculation that he would invest more into analytic data.   They hired an additional data guy, Miles Abbett, and in the signature statistic of the basketball analytic movement, three point shots (yes, for all of the extended equations in analytics, some of the fundamental principles are pretty basic, three points are indeed half again better than two), the Bulls improved.  Their three point shooting percentage shot up from 10th in the league in ’14-15 to a bright and shiny third in ’15-’16.  However that was about the only thing that went right in a season rife with player dissent and crippling injuries.  The Bulls won eight fewer games than the season before and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.  Hoiberg was supposed to revamp a moribund offense but in Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions) the Bulls slipped from 11th to 23rd and the defense fell from 11th to 15th.

The improvements this season have been dramatic as the Bulls rank seventh on both sides of the ball.  The offensive improvements are centered on the other key offensive factors, notably rebounding but also preventing turnovers and getting to the free throw line.  The offseason additions of Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez seem to account for much of this.  The team also signed Rajon Rondo, but it remains difficult to see the benefits (my theory is that no one in the Bulls front office knew the phone number for Jeremy Lin’s agent, so the team panicked).  Some of the team’s rise on defense owes to Lopez, a noted rim protector replacing Pau Gasol, a fine scorer who was a defensive liability.  Last season the Bulls gave up more drives to the rim than any other team.

So have the Bulls joined teams like the Spurs, Mavericks and Rockets as ardent promoters of basketball analytics?  Probably not.  Or at least not yet; the team’s personnel moves all seem to stem from an analysis of data, which is a good sign.  It means that many of the improvements are sustainable, barring injuries to key players like Wade, Lopez or all-star wing Jimmy Butler.  This does suggest that the Bulls front office, which has deserved the ire of many fans, may have gotten this offseason right.

What this may also mean is that the Bulls are a sort of analytics 2.0 team.  These are teams that came late to the data party but have succeeded by adapting strategies that became undervalued in the first wave of analytical teams.  The Kansas City Royals and their reliance on fielding and relief pitching are a great example in baseball of this concept.  The Royals won a title with that roster building philosophy, but it’s far too early to forecast similar glory for these Bulls (Cleveland and Golden State are just too far ahead of them in talent right now), but Chicago has made tremendous improvements and if my deductions are accurate, then their rise isn’t a fluke.  It should propel them to the fringe of the championship conversation, which was unthinkable a few months ago when the franchise seemed mired in a long slow downward spiral.


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These Bulls Are Not a Fluke

The Bulls:  More Than a Surprise

A fifth of the way into the 2016-17 NBA season it’s fair to say that the Chicago Bulls are one of the surprise teams of the Association.  The issue now moves to whether their success marks a paradigm shift in NBA offense.


The Bulls were widely picked by experts to disappoint this season.  The team, which had lingered on the fringe of the championship conversation for years, fell to a dispiriting 42-40 in 2015-16, and their offseason moves to remake the roster seemed unlikely to return them to their previous stature.  Las Vegas oddsmakers put their over/under for the season at 38 wins and most experts took the under (for the record, I was especially pessimistic, forecasting 35 wins and a front office housecleaning).  Their offseason acquisitions, guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo and center Robin Lopez did little to move the team toward the pace and space uptempo, three point shooting model of the Golden State Warriors and other successful offenses in the NBA.  The Bulls ranked 23rd last season in Offensive Rating, if their moves made them less effective offensively then freefall seemed a more likely outcome than contention.

Yet, here we are, the Bulls have completed their usually grueling circus road trip with four wins and two losses and stand 10-6, tied for the second best record in the Eastern Conference.   The single biggest change has been in the offense which has risen from that putrid 23rd ranking to a solid seventh in Offensive Rating.  Initial observations wrote off their rise as a fluke as both Wade and all star wing Jimmy Butler were shooting well above their career averages on three point field goals, but the Bulls current success has little to do with three point shooting.  Yeah, let’s repeat that:  the Chicago Bulls have made a giant step forward offensively without benefit of long distance shooting.  The reason for their rise augurs well for the sustainability of the improvement and suggests the need for more sophisticated analysis of NBA play.

The contemporary NBA offense is usually built around teams racing downcourt with wing players running to spots behind the three point line while the point guard and a big man set up a pick and roll near the free throw line.  The ways in which the defense react dictate which long distance shooter will be free or if one of them will sprint unguarded to the basket in the hopes of receiving a pass and making a layup or dunk.  The concept is simple; the most effective shots in the NBA are three point goals and layups.    This trend has put a premium on wing players who can shoot from distance and guard multiple positions.  The Warriors often feature a lineup that is essentially point guard Steph Curry and four wings, and it is nearly unstoppable.

But what if your roster doesn’t feature multiple wings who can shoot accurately from deep and don’t defend several positions well? That was the Bulls quandary going into this offseason.  They needed to remake a team  and well players like the Warriors Klay Thompson just weren’t available, so they went a different route.  The common thread for their offseason acquisitions is offensive rebounding, and their arrival plus the long overdue promotion of power forward Taj Gibson to the starting five have made the Bulls into the best offensive rebounding team in the Association.  More than 30% of Bulls misses are rebounded by teammates leading to second chances.   The impact is enormous; the Bulls are 21st in the Association in field goal percentage but seventh in offense.  Creating additional opportunities has led directly to a better offense.  Their number one ranking contrasts sharply with their 13th place finish last season.

There are secondary factors in the rise of the Chicago offense.  Wade and Butler are among the league’s best at drawing fouls from their defenders and getting to the free throw line and that too shows in the Bulls team stats.  The team ranks eighth in free throws attempted as a percentage of field goals.  That’s up from 26th last season.  Lastly the Bulls take care of the basketball.  Last season, they were 12th in percentage of possessions that ended in turnovers; this season they are sixth.

Offensive Rating, points scored per 100 possessions, correlates to four factors, Effective Field Goal percentage (a calculation that includes the extra point for made three point attempts), Offensive Rebounding Percentage, Turnover Percentage and Ratio of Free Throws to Field Goals taken.  The usual shorthand for looking at offensive performance is to judge by Effective Field Goal percentage or its cousin, True Shooting Percentage (which factors in free throws).  The dramatic improvement in the Bulls offense has come by improving the other three categories.  Their eFG% has improved this year but it has gone from 26th last season to 23rd this season.

Based on the first 16 games of this season, the Bulls offense has illustrated an appealing logic.  Unable to improve dramatically in the most prominent approach, long distance shooting, the team improved in all of the secondary components to a good offense, and it is paying off.

It is worth noting that the Bulls 10-6 mark has been accomplished against a middling slate of opponents, only seven of the Bulls games have been against teams with .500 records or better.  There are games against powerhouses like Cleveland and San Antonio in December.  Also the Bulls have stayed healthy; an injury to any of their starters, especially Butler, Wade or Gibson, could collapse their run in a hurry.  But until then and perhaps beyond, the Bulls have shown that there is more to NBA offense than three point shooting.




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At WSJ on the Mary Halvorson Octet and Taylor Ho Bynum’s PlusTet

‘Enter the PlusTet’ and ‘Away With You’ Reviews: Making Space for Large Ensembles

Two recordings offer new sounds coming from bigger bands.

Guitarist Mary Halvorson plays on ‘Enter the PlusTet’ by Taylor Ho Bynum and ‘Away With You’ by her own octet. ENLARGE
Guitarist Mary Halvorson plays on ‘Enter the PlusTet’ by Taylor Ho Bynum and ‘Away With You’ by her own octet. Photo: Kelly Jenson

For the past 10 years or so, many of the most interesting large ensembles in jazz have sounded small. Rather than flex the muscles of horn sections and celebrate rich, diverse harmonies created by a multitude of instruments, large ensembles focused on minute and unusual unisons with a compelling use of space. That has been changing recently. Earlier this year, two superb recordings—“The Distance” (ECM) by Michael Formanek’s aptly named Ensemble Kolossus and “Real Enemies” (New Amsterdam) by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society—have supplied some much needed force and power to the large ensemble sound with no loss of subtlety. Two new recordings on Firehouse 12 featuring the stellar guitarist Mary Halvorson, “Enter the PlusTet” by Taylor Ho Bynum and “Away With You” by her own octet, continue this trend in fascinating ways.

Mr. Bynum, who is 41, is a cornetist who has made his mark both with a series of impressive small groups and in his work with the Tri-Centric Foundation, an organization dedicated to realizing the large-scale works of

composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. “Sleeping Giant,” the first track on the 44-minute “Enter the Plus Tet,” offers the same ambitious sprawl as Braxton’s early work. Fanfares build slowly behind Mr. Bynum’s gritty solo, and the music moves gracefully with nods to the large ensemble music of Muhal Richard Abrams and the pointed funk of Prince. “Three (For Me We & Them)” is a dedication to James Jabbo Ware’s Me We & Them Orchestra, a band that deftly combined the profound elegance of the Duke Ellington band and the earthy swing of the Sun Ra Arkestra. The piece is highlighted by solos from drummer Tomas Fujiwara and vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, each capturing the sweeping spirit of the piece.

Ms. Halvorson, who is 36, plays in Mr. Bynum’s sextet, and she has been developing her own voice in bands that have grown steadily over the past six or seven years. Her octet began as a quintet and expanded to a septet before arriving in its present form. With each of the ensembles her writing has become stronger and more diverse. While her other bands offered conventional lineups, the octet features two guitarists, an unusual setting

in jazz. The music on “Away With You” is playful then knotty, bright then brooding without becoming pastiche. This is especially evident on the title track when contrapuntal guitar lines provide the foundation for catchy musical dialogue between the drums and guitars and boisterous harmonies from the horn section. Another track, “The Absolute Almost (No. 52),” is slower and reflective with a pensive guitar duet at the start that shifts into an exuberant passage with intertwining horn lines and ringing guitars.

The members of Ms. Halvorson’s septet—trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Jacob Garchik, bassist John Herbert, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Ches Smith—have all achieved deserved renown with their own groups. For this band, Ms. Halvorson added slide guitarist Susan Alcorn—and the impact is immense. Ms.

Alcorn is an innovator, and Ms. Halvorson’s writing for her steers well clear of the familiar keening sounds that almost reflexively bring to mind sunsets in the western sky. Instead, both guitarists engage in pithy interplay that contrasts starkly with the horns. This results in a more robust sound from Ms. Halvorson’s ensemble.

Both Ms Halvorson and Mr. Bynum studied at Wesleyan University with Mr. Braxton. Although he is known as a pioneer of jazz’s mid-’60s avant-garde movement, his music passionately embraced a broad array of styles from Sousa marches to 12-tone Serialism. On their new recordings, two of his prize students are showing exceptional facility with a diverse range of styles and smartly presenting them in large ensemble settings

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal and he blogs about music, sports and more rotations.wordpress.com.

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At The Root on the 25th Anniversary of Daughters of the Dust

dotdDaughters of the Dust is one of the best films of the ’90s.  Directed by Julie Dash, it broke new ground esthetically and racially (it was the first feature film directed by an African American woman) then it disappeared.  It’s 25th Anniversary is being celebrated with a new 2K print and a reissue that begins at Film Forum on November 18.

I spoke to Dash, Nelson George and Greg Tate about the film last week for the Root.


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Sports: Can the Chicago Bulls Be Relevant This Season?



Yeah, when it comes to hoops, I’m old school.  If only I could find a Walter Kennedy model…


Nate Silver’s site 538 is widely regarded as the gold standard in parsing poll numbers and projecting politics, but he got his start projecting sports performance.  With the accuracy his site has displayed (except for overlooking the staying power of some guy named Trump), the projections that he and his staff make carry great weight.  Thus, it was more than a little surprising that their NBA preview figured the Chicago Bulls to finish 45-37; this is far more optimistic than most systems and even Vegas has their over/under at 38 wins.  I figured them to win 35 and finish in that dreaded position of drafting late in the 2017 Lottery.

But what if 538 is right?  It seems inconceivable.  The Bulls won 42 games last season and parted ways with several of the team’s best known players, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol.  Their lone reliable outside shooter, Mike Dunleavy also left via free agency.  In their stead, the Bulls signed free agent guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade.  The signings were head scratchers since Wade plays the same position as Jimmy Butler, the Bulls all-star guard, and Rondo is the NBA’s leading malcontent and the once stalwart defender is now one of the worst defensive players in the Association.  During the summer, when friends asked me what the Bulls were doing, I’d put my head in my hands and change the subject to the Cubs.

But…but…what if 538 is right?  What has to happen?  I love an exercise in contrarianism, so let’s posit these three things have to happen.

Coach Fred Hoiberg Rebounds from an Awful Rookie Season

In the summer of 2015, when Fred Hoiberg took over the Bulls coaching job, he inherited a veteran team that had made the playoffs for six straight seasons under his predecessor Tom Thibodeau.  It was a sturdy team built on rock solid defensive play and somewhat resourceful offense.  However, the team was beginning to show cracks in the foundation.  The initial narrative was that Hoiberg, whose Iowa State teams were among the top college offenses, would repair the cracks and install a more exciting ball movement-based offense.  It was a nice idea but in reality, Hoiberg was overrun by the veteran players and the offense resembled Thibodeau’s minus the production. The team slipped to 23rd in Offense and 15th in Defense after ranking 11th on both sides of the ball in 2014-15. They slipped eight games in the standings and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.  Hoiberg’s schemes were miserable, and night after night, he stood on the sideline with a deer in headlights expression of confused horror.

The success of Brad Stevens in Boston notwithstanding, the history of NCAA coaches moving into NBA gigs and succeeding isn’t pretty; top college coaches like Rick Pitino (twice), John Calapari and Mike Montgomery all tried the NBA and then retreated back to the college ranks.  Hoiberg could easily have resigned and fled back to the NCAA after his first chaotic season.  Either he’s a glutton for agony or he sees something that can be built into a successful team.

The Mid-Range Matters

It took several decades but everyone in the NBA has figured it out: three points are more than two.  Thus teams seek to shoot three pointers and capitalize on a spread out defense by attacking the rim for easy two point shots.  As Jeff Van Gundy told me in an interview last year, “it used to be that what you wanted was an open mid range shot. Now that’s what the defense will concede.”

One of the primary criticisms of the Bulls offseason acquisitions is that it did little to bolster their three point shooting.  What if the Bulls plan to capitalize on the midrange shots?  With defenses conceding them (my eye test agrees with JVG’s contention).  Although he is an indifferent defender and a lousy shooter, Rondo is still great at setting teammates up for open shots, and Wade remains a elite midrange shooter.   Lastly, if the Bulls braintrust, GM Gar Forman and Team President John Paxson concluded that they didn’t have the talent to be the pace and space Warriors of the Midwest then pursuing a different style is prudent.

They’re Young

The public face of the Bulls is two veteran players, Wade and Rondo and one player in his prime, Butler, but the bulk of the roster is comprised of promising young players who have only scratched the surface of their potential:  third year forwards, Niko Mirotic and Doug McDermott; second year forward Bobby Portis;  third year guard Michael Carter Williams, second year big man Cristiano Felicio and rookie Denzel Valentine.  They are moving into minutes vacated by veterans like Mike Dunleavy Jr., Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose.  Any good college coach has to excel at talent development.  Perhaps with a clearer path to minutes, Hoiberg can help these players grow.  The Bulls organization has done an excellent job of talent development in the past.

Lastly, the pressure is off.  Last season the Bulls were on the fringes of the championship conversation.  This year most pundits outside of 538 peg them for the lottery.  This may create an easier environment to engage in team development.   I’m not saying that the Bulls will win 45 games, but if you look more closely—and seriously this isn’t squinting—then you can see the road to a successful season here.  The pieces are present; it will just be a matter of utilizing them correctly.

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Sports: 3 Reasons to Like This NBA Season


Donald Trump isn’t the only one who needs to stop whining.  Ever since July, when Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors, all but ensuring that next year’s finals will be the re-rematch of the Dubs and LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers, fans, pundits, bloggers, just about anyone with an opinion on sports has moaned about the lack of drama in the coming season.

Please.  30 of the best basketball teams in the world are about to spend six months playing 82 games each.  There will be plenty of drama.  Let me count  just a few of the ways.

There’s Drama Down the Ticket

Just as the Congressional, state and local races matter on Election Day, the upward mobility of certain teams will go far to define this season.  Remember, the Warriors didn’t become champions overnight.  They rose from a decrepit team annually bound for the Lottery, to a solid playoff team first.  Several teams are looking to make that step.  For instance, will the New York Knicks be relevant?  They can be if Krystaps Porzingis develop his game before Carmelo Anthony’s knees wear down?  And if he can, can they augment that impressive duo with championship caliber role players.  Or will Melo be the Jay Cutler of the NBA, a star caliber player stuck on mediocre franchises. Or can the Boston Celtics become more than a nice bunch of overachievers and barge into the championship conversation.  In the Western Conference, will the massive amounts of young talent on the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz begin to cohere into playoff teams?

Who is on the Way Down?

The San Antonio Spurs have been in the championship conversation since Hillary Clinton was First Lady and Mariah Carey made music that people actually cared about.  Yet, in last season’s playoffs, they were a clear third in the Western Conference to the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder.  The Warriors got better in the offseason; the Spurs lost Tim Duncan to retirement.  Now rumors are wafting from Texas that the Spurs are keeping the reset button handy.  A slow start might mean it’s time to hit it and rebuild around superstar Kawhi Leonard.  He’s an MVP caliber player but the lessons of the Spurs resilient excellence is that it takes a roster of championship caliber players not just one.  Meanwhile, the Clippers have a similar problem, put the Warriors in the Eastern Conference and Los Angeles might have hosted some Finals games. Instead, the Clippers are getting older and the Warriors are getting better.  Their time as the only relevant team at Staples Center may be ending.   Meanwhile perennially older teams like the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies remain one major injury from the lottery.

This is What a Golden Age Looks Like

Look, the NBA isn’t like the NFL where there’s so much volatility from year to year that the standings seem to vary as much as an office fantasy football league.  The three golden eras of the NBA were defined by hegemony among the elite.  In the ‘60s, most of the Finals matchups were between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.  In the ‘80s those two teams held sway again the Finals.  In the ‘90s, it was some team from the West versus the Chicago Bulls.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Great teams force their rivals to be great to compete, and that’s what we’re seeing this season.  Several teams are taking different routes to compete with Golden State and Cleveland.  They probably won’t get there this year, but it should be fun to measure the progress.


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The Do Over 04: Goals

The Do Over 04: Goals

Is 56 the new 26?  It seems that way for me as my current professional and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago.  These posts are a series of ponderings trying parse the difference between now and then.

Most of the things that were easier at 26 than 56 are physical.  For instance, my first apartment in the East Village in the ‘80s was a fifth floor walkup.  I owned a bicycle and 13th and Avenue B wasn’t the sort of place where you left a bike on the street, not even with a heavy chain or a guard dog or perhaps armed militia (though I never quite went that far), so there were days where I happily lugged the two wheeled creature upstairs and down many times.  Nothing to do it!

One mental thing that was substantially easier then than now is maintaining faith in my narrative.  When I was a young adult I was ascending the ladders of my chosen professions, journalism and artisan cheese.  I expected bumps and bruises along the way.  I knew that progress at best was two steps forward and one step back (this was the ‘80s, long before the dotcom concept of 17 steps forward, sell and retire).

At 56, I’m familiar with a more complicated sequence of success: say two steps forward, one step back; two steps forward, six steps back (yes the Gang of 4 knew what they were talking about); two steps forward, hold; two steps forward, one step back; three steps forward two steps back.  In other words to travel the same distance entails a much more arduous path and sequence.   And of course by this age, I’m keenly aware that this *is* progress.  I’ve now spent far too many years where the only options were holding ground or moving backward.


The soundtrack for this dispatch was the new disc from Johnathan Finlayson and Sicilian Defense

And of course even in the process of a little forward, a little regression, there’s a different feeling.  When I was younger, the steps back were part of the game, something to note and be aware of next time.  Now, a certain panic sets in.  A weary, “oh no, I’m still not doing it right!” set of anxieties flood my body.  On the one hand, my businesses, winning over editors then winning assignments is the same, selling food—or rather now, beverages–to New Yorkers is the same, but the stakes are different.  When I was 26, I figured I had a decade or so of struggle ahead of me.  Now, I’m struggle fatigued after more than a decade of scrambling to survive.  I tend to think that there’s no way I can endure another five years like this, but then again, I’m sure I thought the same thing five years ago.

I often regard the survival strategies of my youth as foibles of a younger iteration of Martin.  However, I’ve begun thinking that one habit needs revival.  When I was younger-not necessarily 26 but maybe 34, young enough still to bound up several flights of steps repeatedly with a bicycle in hand—I used to frequent Starbucks Astor Place by day (at that time it was a nice coffee bar not an emblem of the corporatization of Manhattan) and d.b.a by night (it was the city’s leading beer bar at the time) and gameplan.  I’d both plan my time for the coming days, but far more importantly, I’d weigh my short term endeavors against my long term ambitions.

That I reached those ambitions should be a triumph that I celebrate but because they fell apart with alarming speed, first during the media crashes of the ‘00s then during the less well publicized cheese job squeeze of the ‘10s, I tend to regard the successes as failures.  It’s made me reluctant to game plan toward an actual goal and rather simply game plan to not be where I don’t want to be.  In other words, rather than playing to win, I’m playing not to lose.  You don’t have to be a legendary sports coach like Gregg Popovich to recognize the weakness of that strategy.

The revelation occurred to me last week.  A customer brought me gifts of beer from Russian River and described a vacation he took that involved driving the PCH from L.A. to Northern California.  It was a vacation, I’d thought about in my bike lugging days.  I thought it would be a great trip to take in my 40s as some sort of emblem of having made it (I did *make it* but not long enough to plan cross country vacations).  That’s when I realized that I no longer think of my life very much in terms of what I want it to be.  I have short term goals like resuming yoga and spinning classes by the end of the year, but long term ones seem to have been obscured if not forgotten amid the struggle to avoid ruin.  Maybe it’s the PTSD that comes from enduring years and years of personal economic chaos.

As I shared my bottle of Blind Pig with a buddy that evening, I began to think about *what* I want to do and *how* I want to get it done.  I can see a difference already, not in a swelling bank account (ah, wouldn’t that be nice) but rather at night, in my dreams.  I’m far less prone to have bad dreams about being out on a ledge, and instead I have pleasant ones about doing some of the things that I’ve thought about doing but didn’t regard as attainable goals.

I have no idea if embracing a larger range of possibilities will make them into realities, but I’m pretty clear that not embracing them wasn’t.  I think my 26 year old self would have known that, and I’m happy the middle aged iteration is catching on.

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