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I had a very interesting conversation with Sonya Opal, the lady from Electro-LadyLux, who was currently carving into my leg with black ink and a tattoo gun.

Her answer to “Why get a tattoo?” was—and do realize that this is a paraphrase of a conversation that I was having while being carved up slowly, so forgive me if it’s not 100% exact—How is that even a question? That’s like saying, why have sex, why create art, why get up in the morning? Why do we have emotions, why do we have free will? She said, roughly, that there can be specific answers to the question, why get THIS tattoo, why get a tattoo NOW, but the general question, why get a tattoo, to her, was simply: You do.

And as for the next question that she said everyone will be asking me, of the meaning of a tattoo, she said that’s premature. Tattoos are art, and much art doesn’t have a particular meaning. What does the Mona Lisa mean? What does Starry Night mean? You should first determine if the tattoo HAS meaning, before you ask what does it mean.

And with that revelation, and some endorphins and adrenalin and a lot of sugary soda—don’t want my blood sugar to drop while I’m on the table—I realized that I, in fact, didn’t have A reason or A meaning, in the tattoo I was getting.  And that, in turn, helped me understand the many reasons and meanings to what is now, permanently, indelibly, visibly engraved on my legs. My tattoo is a symbol of the philosophy of life I’m trying to live by; or at least, to a particular part of it, and though it’s a textual tattoo, its meaning is not in its words, but rather, in what those words do.

This is my tattoo:

I have been dreaming about this particular idea and having it on me for several years, but haven’t ever found the spark, the impetus, to get it done.  Fear, hesitation, timing, and other pressures have all had me put this off.  But this week, for some unknown reason, I had it done.

It didn’t hurt very much. Really. Calves are meaty, and not too covered with nerves. It hurt worse when I wasn’t watching, and unfortunately, I mostly had to not watch because of how I was laying. And interestingly, one word hurt much worse that the other, relatively speaking, and no, I’m not going to tell you which one it was, because the whole point of the tattoo is about balance, and it irks me that they didn’t hurt the same.

I learned French at a young age. I went to bilingual school for the first four years of my life, and spent half the day in mathématique and literature. French was the language I studied in high school and in college, and I did a semester abroad in Paris.

I then moved back to Paris for a year with Susie in 1998 when we were young and adventurous. (Now we’re old and adventurous.)

The verbs “Avoir” and “Être” are French’s core auxillary verbs (you might also call them helping verbs). Much more than in English, they are the two words you must know to be able to express the past, to be able to explain who you are, how you are, and what you are. They power the French language. In English, you can say “I worked” or “He arrived”—in French, you must say “J’ai travaillé” or “Il est arrivé”. Without avoir and être, nothing happens, nothing is.


Être means “to be”. To me, it describes what the Taoists call pu, “the uncarved block”—the original essence of what I am, the first principles that I try to live by, that are unchanging.

It also means, to me, that one should strive* to be satisfied with oneself, with the moment, with what I am given, with the joys (and troubles) life gives to me. It’s not easy for me to simply “be”—I tend to forget how—and this is my way of reminding myself that there is strength and happiness in simply existing.

*striving, paradoxically, being an active effort, not something I can just “be”


Avoir means “to have.” As Gordon Gecko said: “Greed ... is good. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind[.]” In this sense, for me, “to have” is not about possessions—though it surely encompasses physical things.

For me, Having means bringing new things into my life, and valuing the things I do have. Everything that makes “being” pleasant, was at some point something I didn’t have.  Shelter, food, friends, even health—no one is healthy without striving to be that way.

And everything that comes into my life, everything worthwhile, changes me—or I have to change to keep it. If I didn’t change and grow, I’d have none of the experiences that make me who I am, that bring me joy when I remember them. I wouldn’t have the amazing people in my life that I cherish and value and love.

And, to be frank, I want more than I already have. I’m not ashamed of this; I think it’s what being alive is all about. If I stop acquiring (energy, money, experiences), I will wither, fade and die. Nothing alive is static, nor should it be.

* * *

So there is this tension between the two, a conflict present in many philosophies and religions. On the one hand, I should be happy with the things I have. I can’t spend my life pining, coveting, wishing and being unsatisfied. I have to live in the present, not the past or the future. I have to re-realize each moment that I am, in fact, here by the slimmest of probabilities that got me to this place and time, and that each experience I’m in is precious and to be savored, not overlooked.

On the other, I should always strive to improve my lot in life (and the lot of others, too—having a good community in which to live is important to living well). I can’t just float through life and ignore the things around me that could use my assistance. I can’t just “be” content and know that I’ll continue to be content, because if I’d been content with just “being” 20 years ago, I wouldn’t be in this moment now, the one that’s so amazing.

So, if you ask me what my tattoo means—that’s what it means.  It’s complicated. It’s a statement to the world about the balance in life that’s required to achieve happiness, about trying to live in the moment while simultaneously striving to create the next better moment with and for the people I love.

* * *

Oh, and it’s on my calves because I think I have nice calves. 😊


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