What Dost Thou Do; What Hast Thy Done?

Attempts at Self Portrait (6)Invariably, people who have reconnected or just connected with me have gone through the Q&A with me that I used to find painful.

Whether I’m married (no), how many children I have (looks around), what I’ve been doing with myself (where do I even start?), what I’m doing…

These questions have never made sense to me, particularly the last two. Whether I’m married or not is no gauge of completeness or even content – I have empirical evidence on both ends of the spectrum. Whether I have children assumes that I would want to try to explain the mess of humanity to a little human without having to apologize all the time – and nevermind the biological requirement of said little human having a mother who I would have to put up with, and more importantly, she would have to put up with me… I’m sure I don’t know. Absolutely sure.

The last two, though. Now, all of these questions are related to how people view the world, their lives, and what a life is. In that, the last two are bothersome.

So here’s how I’ve come up with my new answers.

What have I been doing with myself?

How many times have I thought to say, “that’s a rather personal question… what have you been doing with yourself?”, but opted not to?

I’ve been living. I’ve been growing.

No, really, I’ve been living. I’ve been growing.

See, as a kid, when everyone was being asked what they wanted to do, and the answers ranged from policeman to fireman to doctor to lawyer… I wanted to be an oceanographer. And then life happened.

I ended up working with electrical motors, then offset printing, then computer programming, then software engineering (there is a difference, kids)… In college, I started as a EET, then went to CIS, then dropped out. then I joined the Navy as a Sonar Technician, switched over to Naval Nuclear Propulsion, then switched again to Hospital Corpsman.

Then life happened again; I worked at a blood bank where I trained phlebotomists and made custom furniture for mobile blood drives – then went to Honeywell, where I got to play with Inertial Navigation and GPS stuff, then went to…. well, I did a lot of things. And then somewhere along the way, someone started paying me to write, and I picked up photography and people paid me for that, too. Then I inherited some land, and I applied a lot of what I know about learning to learn more about agriculture, land management, and generally, how to get results without confrontation.

Just a few days ago, a lawyer sat across from me and said, “You don’t need me, you do all of this stuff by yourself.” No, no, of course I need her. I just think her talents are wasted on the mundane things I can solve myself by simply not being a jerk and working with people. It’s a novel concept that most religions were centered around at some point – we see how that went. But I digress.

And all this time I’ve been reading, thinking, exploring the world as much as I can in all ways that I can – not just physically. So what have I been doing?

The answer is looking for something. It’s looking for some sort of answer to gauge where I am in society. Am I someone who wields influence? No, not really, I wouldn’t like to think so. Am I rich? No, my bank account is something that I have a detached relationship with. What sort of car do I drive? How big is my house? How much tax do I pay?

So yeah, I’ve been living and growing. I might as well tell people I’m a nomad.

“I’ve been nomadic.” Leave that right there. Give them the hand wave with it and look at them as if they should know what that means. It should be fun.

And…

What am I doing?

Well, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what I’m doing. No one wants to hear that. The truth is that no one knows what they are doing. We’re all winging it. Some are on the beaten paths, though, so that’s what’s really being asked: “Which beaten path are you on?”

Well, I’m not. Truth be told, I never really have been – a few times I tried them, but they just didn’t suit me. They smell wrong, they make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and the authoritarianism within them fills me with dread. Beaten paths are boring, too.

Meanwhile, I’m the sort of person who just pops up out of the brush now and then to see where everyone is.

Clearly I need a better answer than that. Clearly people want me to impress them somehow, tell them how awesome what I’m doing is, but they won’t see the value in not knowing and figuring it out as I go along.

One of my initial thoughts to answer this question was, “Avoiding answering this question”, but that just seems a bit too… jerkish.

I don’t have an answer to this other than moving stones, and I think that’s the answer I’ll go with.

Moving Stones.

bricks and slabsSometime last week, while driving up and down the hill, I ended up sliding sideways in the pickup – and only slowly recovered. And so, I knew it was time to start collecting again.

Before the highway had been run and a house built where my entrance to the same area was, I had a path I drove on the crest of a hill that allowed me to go in during wet season with the old Mazda B2500 4×4. Others without 4×4, and even without the right tires, could not follow. And, as anyone who has driven in mud with mud tires will tell you, they are designed to dig.

Dig they do. And when that happens, you clean the tires by spinning them faster, so they dig more and mud goes flying in all directions. It’s messy enough fun where people do it just to do it – and I understand why – but when you have a freshly graded road, you don’t want to dig into it.

I had a freshly graded road I didn’t want to destroy. So I slid down, and as I was doing that I decided it was time to start doing what I had done before – picking up odd pieces of concrete here and there, stones, whatever, and throwing them on the road for better traction.

Someone with more money would have someone come by and drop off some material. I had tried to get some, but my personal time was simply too scarce for that to happen. With no one you can truly depend on to do things for you, you learn to do things piece by piece and develop habits.

One habit was looking for pieces of concrete and rock and tossing them in the tray of the pickup to later toss them onto the road. It plods along, but what’s interesting is how many stones and pieces of concrete one can find laying around. All this detritus from other places slowly begins forming the foundation for a road, one stone at a time.

This sort of thing would drive my father crazy. He wanted tangible results immediately, and there I was, just doing little things every day that eventually gave the desired result without denting my pocket and time too much.

Later in his life, a few years before he passed away, he would tell me that he wished he had learned how to ‘plod’. I asked him what he meant, and he mentioned how I had filled the eroded bit of the yard in the back with no vehicle, no money spent, and how it was no longer eroded. His answer had been for years, “When the money comes in I’ll drop some material there.”

My answer had been to do something every day that would give the result. It also allowed me to tailor how I did things to give that result. And then, too, there was the tree.

His money never came in, or ended up being used for other things, so he never got to do it. He almost seemed to respect what I had done. A small effort daily can give you the same results as a massive effort at one time.

We move stones every day. We make piles of these stones every day. Some of us hope for an immediate pile, and some of us, every day, bring a few stones and drop them on the road.

There is no one coming to make everything alright. There is no one you can truly depend on to accomplish what you need. There is never enough time.

And.

Never wait for progress, never wait for something to happen. Make progress. Make it happen. One stone at a time, move them to where they are needed – some will be large and heavy, some will be light, but everyday, move one to where it needs to be.

Patience and habit finds the result.

Influence: Buddha; The Concept of Anatta (Non-Self)

253/365:ShortcutRecently, I believe I irked a few people who had said that they would do things by telling them not to worry about them since they hadn’t yet done them. There was no anger in this. It was simply accepting that they were not doing those things, that time had a different meaning to them, and they may have been over-committed. They weren’t moving in the same direction at this time.

It wasn’t personal, just as their non-action toward me wasn’t personal. It was simply what it was – and since I view everyone as fluid… well, now we get to the topic at hand.

In my travels, a much younger version of me was reading up on Buddhism. I happened to be in Okinawa/Japan at the time, and one of my fellow Corpsmen was a Buddhist, so I read up about it – and one of the more useful things I picked up from it was the concept of Anatta (Non-Self). Recent science seems to back the theory of non-self.

It wasn’t too hard to grasp for me because I already saw how I had changed in the past, and when faced with issues how I changed in the present. The idea that the self is dynamic rather than static became a foundation. And the idea that since the self changes from moment to moment not only in ourselves but those around us, it is fickle to believe what people say that they will do unless they prove otherwise, and even then it is fickle.

And then there’s the fact that people are simply horrible about over-commitment, but that’s off topic.

When I do become angry with people – it happens less often these days – it’s usually because they are forcing my ‘self’ down a path I was trying to avoid because I know what I will be during that part of life and that may not be what I want to be – but, what is to be is to be.

When I started thinking about all of this stuff in the 90s, I recognized the changes happening and why they were happening. Then I thought I understood it all because a part of my self was… monitoring my self, and that seemed to be the answer – I thought I understood, but that understanding was superfluous. The part of yourself that monitors yourself also changes. It all churns and mixes, and until you actually work your way through that you’re just a surface swimmer when you have to plumb the depths.

Things done to me are done based on perceptions of me, and as flawed as those have been over the years I am unsurprised when those perceptions lead to the wrong conclusions for others. So I ask myself why those things are done, and if I think it worthwhile I change, and if not I do not.

Some parts of me do not change, such as sticking to my word, and I used to expect that from others. I no longer do. When they do not keep their word, I simply remove my expectation. There are times when the expectation is necessary, when there are expectations of me, and so I have to translate that to something tangible to someone else using the tools at my disposal – but if I can forego the expectations of my self, I can forego the derived expectations of others.

And ultimately, I surround myself with people who are similar – who keep to their word, who are authentic, and who add to the value around me rather than simply promising to – and I fill that role as well, or I expect the same treatment. It’s about trust, priorities, and being true to the self.

That I do not believe in supreme beings is superfluous as well in all of this, since those that do surround me and often keep true to themselves as well.

Regardless of what happens in the world, the fluid self must move on and it cannot do so by holding the hands of those that are not moving in the same direction.

 

Influence: Nikola Tesla

Tesla-bulbUntil the last decade or so, Nikola Tesla‘s place in history was paid lip service. Growing up around a motor rewinding shop, I was surrounded by the children of his works just about every day. When I found out that one man had come up with all these ideas, I had to know more about him – and there certainly is a lot to know. His grounding in science and technology was one thing – but a lot of people don’t know that he also translated poems, and that he also was a friend of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).

Grounded in science, he visualized things people couldn’t ‘see’  – magnetic fields, the flow of electricity. This is a man who created alternating current, something that many people can’t wrap their heads around. Increasingly, people can’t get their heads around any electrical thoughts, it seems, but… 

Beyond his science, he was a visionary who consistently put his castles firmly in the sky and then managed to build solid foundations under them. He lived a solitary life, which to an extent I understand – how do you share the kind of thoughts you have with someone else? How could anyone truly be close to someone who worked so hard to make his visions real? A solid work ethic, a solid scientific background, and the willingness to do what it took to see his vision through.

And people have begun to realize that. I could write more, but why would I when The Oatmeal pretty much nails it?

To understand reality is the drive in science, to dream and build in that reality is engineering.

Influence: Richard Feynman

Everyone has influences, and I’ve decided to write about a few of mine. Outside of Physics circles, few people seem to know about Richard Feynman – which is a shame. The majority of Feynman’s written works are not hard for people without a scientific background to read, and they all entail a philosophy well summed up here:

feynman-1981-2

Without a doubt, his writings have influenced me. In some places they resonated because they made sense to me on an intuitive level and allowed me to grow beyond that. In other places, such as Ethics, it opened me up to new possibilities in looking at situations though I didn’t necessarily agree with him but have no space to argue with.

As an example, his work on the Manhattan Project was something that he thought about with this logic: He and others were scientists working on a project, and the greater society was responsible for how that work was used (A summary from ‘The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist‘). This is a straightforward way of looking at things that can assist in dealing with paralysis when trying to move forward, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily correct. Ultimately, in this example, he was right – particularly since there was a race at the time to have atomic weapons and someone else would eventually have them and use them.

Yet his way of looking at the world beyond the matters of people was less problematic and more supportive to my own life in that there is beauty in science, particularly since I have always existed within technology and art. Some of the greatest works of art around us are explained by science – the simple flower as an example:

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. … There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
— Richard Feynman, What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988)

Quite an interesting man – a curious man – was Mr. Feynman, unabashedly so, and one of the great communicators in Science. These days there are greats such as Neil deGrasse Tyson to keep an eye on – but I do not know the body of his work well, and he is not done yet – he’s certainly not as dead as Feynman.

Some more quotes that I think are of worth from Feynman:

Well, we’re getting a little philosophical and serious, ok? Let’s go back to what we’re doing. One day we look at a map and this capital is K-Y-Z-Y-L and we decided it would be fun to go there because it’s so obscure and peculiar. It’s a game. It’s not serious. It doesn’t involve some deep philosophical point of view about authority or anything. It’s just the fun of having an adventure to try to go to a land that we’d never heard of, that we knew was an independent country once, no longer an independent country, find out what it’s like. And discover as we went along that nobody went there for a long time and it’s isolated made it more interesting. But, you know, many explorers liked to go to places that are unusual. And, it’s only for the fun of it. I don’t go for this philosophical interpretation of “our deeper understanding of what we’re doing.” We haven’t any deep understanding of what we’re doing. If we tried to understand what we’re doing, we’d go nutty.
— Richard Feynman, p. 236, from interview two weeks before his death in “The Quest for Tannu Tuva” (1989)

I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything. There are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask “Why are we here?” I might think about it a little bit, and if I can’t figure it out then I go on to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose — which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell. Possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.
— Richard Feynman, p. 239, from interview in “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” (1981)

Scorned Dreams

Commercial Seafront

“ I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. Goddamn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
Tyler Durden (Fight Club, 1999)

People are angry. At the turn of the millenium, though, just about every model showed that there would be more social unrest.

Every day, my generation and those after are inundated with marketing about how products and services are going to make their lives better – with the goalpost of better being set culturally by old ideas that bureaucracies were built to attain. They grew like trees, twisting and turning with the weather of domestic politics in every nation until the Internet, where global politics still sways them like a hurricane force wind.

These are largely all flawed systems that some have grown to depend on. The systems are sometimes failures, based on notions that no longer seem to apply in society, but citizens around the world were told that the benefits of the systems outweighed any negatives. There are generations now that beg to differ.

And they’re angry. Sad. Disillusioned. In the U.S., I’ve seen people my age working 2 and sometimes 3 fast food jobs at a time in a downturned economy where the banking systems quite literally strip-mined people of latent wealth through bad mortgages and loans. In the Caribbean and Latin America, I’ve seen the shifts of global politics make economies tumbleweeds. In Trinidad and Tobago, where the economy was never diversified as it should have, I contrast the people at Starbucks with the people that still use outdoor latrines almost daily.

And they are all told that the world is better than the lives that they have – and they are all lead to believe that things are better than their situation and that if they work just a little harder so that they can spend just a little more, they’ll rise to better lives.

Ahh, marketing. Immigration becomes an issue for the mass media producing countries- the world looks so much better on a flat screen, which used to be only a large white screen for a projector but now includes wall displays, computers and yes, even phones. “We’re wonderful. You’re not allowed here. Special terms and conditions apply.”

And if you do get there, a different reality sets in.

People all around are figuring this stuff out – that they can’t have what is being branded as developed nations. Terrorists, for all the wrong reasons and for imagined good ones, started attacking these ‘evils’ that they see just like a crab drags other crabs down in the barrel. “It is our reality, let us share it with you…” – horrible atrocities, branded under religious fervor but really just really, really bad marketing that directly kills people – a waste of life – too combat the overly good marketing that indirectly robs the majority of the human population with a sense of value.

Every bright eyed idealist and gilded futurist looks forward optimistically. I do so myself, though I’m careful with expressing my thoughts since all these flawed systems came from people not thinking things through beyond political terms, or because of emergencies.

We have been walking into thorny bushes. It might be time to reassess the systems we’re using that lead to all these injuries on our more sensitive parts of society.

The Stone.

A long time ago, my father and I were up on the North Coast Road in Trinidad and Tobago. We’d had a few drinks and were in that zone where we could go either way – either best friends, or worst enemies. He and I were fickle like that.

And we came across a stone protruding into the road. A hazard of sorts. It was daylight, and I thought that it was a black-silver shale, probably high in illite. On further inspection, it could be slate. There was nothing particularly appealing about the rock, but it was silver-ish, it was hard and didn’t flake. All of this probably would have bored my father to death; he hated that the books I read were what everyone else considers textbooks, and he was a big fan of novels. I love science because it requires depth and breadth of knowledge to decipher more and more.

It looked heavy.  It was about a foot and a half in diameter, and oddly shaped.

I made up my mind. I would find a use for it. No one else wanted it. It was clear it had fallen from the Northern Range during a mudslide, and that it was a hazard on the road to everyone.

“I want to take this rock home.”

My father laughed at me, then saw that I was serious.

He knew me for picking up a stone, however small, at places I visited and depositing them in the yard at the house, a house everyone claimed but I had grown up in. He never understood why I simply enjoyed looking at things that had been formed under pressure, with whatever was at hand, to create these structures. I saw something else.

“Fine”, he said a bit smugly. “If you can get it in the tray of the pickup by yourself, we’ll take it home.”

And so I did. Into the back of the L200. I figure it weighed about 170 lbs, but I never weighed it.

He shook his head. We drove home, and I picked it up and walked it to the other garage. He shook his head. I adjusted it in one of the front gardens, nodded at it and went off.

When you want something, no matter how fickle, you get it.

Later, after he died, I stuck it under the tree. I used other rocks I had picked up, and I made a nice little waterfall that I could watch when it rained (it’s the 2nd from top in the picture). The tree was much younger then, only a sapling. Now I can’t get my arms around it.

Continued Waterfall

Today I moved the rock again – driving it from that last house where I had grown up to the pond dug recently, to sit on in the shade. It’s finally on land I own.

In time, it will find itself under another tree.