Doing What You Love, Doing What You Must

Johnny From Asbury ParkThe world is filled with phrases like, “Do what you love and the money will come.”
Maybe that works for some people. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, and a large number of people I know do what they love, but they also do what they must.

The world we live in is one where the majority of people do what they must. That person behind the cash register at that fast food place? I’d bet that they’d be willing to do something else that they loved more, if they could only get paid for it. And that person bagging your groceries? That’s not something many people aspire to, but they do it. Passionate trash collectors do exist, but they’re rare. That plumber that has to clear that toilet for you probably wishes that they were out fishing for fish instead.

Telling people to do what they love is irresponsible in this way. You have to do what you must.

Back in the 1990s, I was restarting my career as a software engineer after the Navy – I got a great job. I also wrote, and I read my own poetry at a few places – good places. I was encouraged, which is healthy – but one man, a jaded boxer of a man, pulled me aside and told me that I couldn’t do both… that I couldn’t be both a software engineer and a writer, that both would consume me. He wasn’t wrong.

But with bills and responsibilities that, in retrospect, weren’t really mine but were labors of love – I had to choose to do what I had to do. I chose to do what I must. Were it just me, I probably would have focused solely on writing, a passion of mine that I would willingly have sacrificed myself for – but not others. Every time I turned around, someone else’s bill needed to be paid, someone needed a car, someone needed help with college, someone… and so, it wasn’t just me. So I did what I had to do, and stayed on the software engineering side of things, making the money while I could, writing as I could.

In all, I ended up doing a lot of things I didn’t like over the years. I don’t know anyone who has lived a full life who hasn’t had to do things that outright sucked. I don’t know anyone of worth that did what they loved alone.

No, everyone does as they must… until the day they can afford to do what they love.

Do what you must. Do what you love as you can.

Citizenship vs. Global Citizen.

UntitledMy personal thoughts on citizenship seems to be an outlier. The idea that a person can belong to one country by accident of where they were pushed or dragged out of a uterus seems strange. It seems peculiar.

It seems wrong. I was born in one city in one country. I left there when I was three and have been in motion ever since. People ask me where I’m from – well, I got out of the uterus there, but that says nothing about me other than where my mother happened to be.

We get tagged with the hard part of the change, the painful part – the part mothers never really let their children forget. We don’t count where someone was conceived – the hopefully fun part – where two people mixed their zygotes to form a human.

That pain just keeps giving. Not born somewhere you want to go? Get a passport from the nation you were dropped off in, get a visa, wait for the TSA to look all that over as well as a lovely scan of your body. Don’t leave those shoes on. Granted, travel wasn’t always that hard if you could avoid it, with the exception of people who had to make those journeys in chains.

All of this got dredged up because of a lot of heated conversations I’ve had in the past day since the passing of Sir VS Naipaul, a man who was born in a colony of the British Empire, that later became Trinidad and Tobago after – well, let’s face it – the UK got bored with their colonies. A few nations became nations after overthrowing a foreign power, Trinidad and Tobago is not one of them.

This is not to say that Trinidad and Tobago doesn’t have it’s charms – I am here, after all – but to claim Naipaul seems, ultimately, petty. If he were not as successful, no one would be claiming him.

And I think – after having traveled, lived in some different countries and traveled to many more… I think after you hit a certain point in traveling, nationality becomes a thing you are tasked with. When I think of people, I tend to think of them globally. I don’t drag up where they were born, where they lived for so many years – that may be a part of their identity, but it’s certainly not their entire identity and it’s sort of insulting to think otherwise. That’s sort of like being prejudiced, isn’t it?

Of course it’s being prejudiced. The Greeks called anyone not from Greece a barbarian.

We live in a world now that, even if we pick up all the trash in a small part of the world – let’s say, the Caribbean – it doesn’t matter that much, there’s not that much of an impact unless the rest of the world is doing it. Ocean currents, winds, etc – these things don’t care about which country you’re in. Economies, too, are breaking through in this.

We are global citizens, whether we are consumed with nationalist pride or patriotism – a thin line between the two –  or not. At least while we’re on this planet, anyway.

A Literary Character

VS_Naipaul_2016_Dhaka
VS Naipaul in Dhaka, 2016. Photo courtesy Faizul Latif Chowdhury, through a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

The news yesterday was that Sir VS Naipaul had passed away. Only the day before I had been in West Mall, in North Trinidad, and had glanced at some of his books. ‘Soon’, I thought, since my reading stack is larger than my time to read these days.

When I first got published, I went around to my father’s siblings and got almost the same response every single time.

“VS Naipaul is your uncle, you know. It’s in your genes.”

It was very matter of fact, dismissive and as supportive as I would find could be expected from my family. I retorted every time, “My mother is a writer too.” All of them nodded quietly, dismissively, and went on with their lives.

Clearly, I kept writing. After all,  if he’s my Uncle and that’s their logic to dismiss that accomplishment, all the cousins I know and all the cousins I don’t know also have him as an Uncle. In fact, a lot of people in Trinidad and Tobago are related to him. None that I know of, including myself, actually knew him. He didn’t help me with my homework, or give me a talking-to when I needed it.

To me, Sir VS Naipaul was simply a literary character that existed in the minds of others. Over the course of the years, I read a few of his books. I was told some of his history and life by someone who knew of him and might have met him a few times as a child.

This is the core of the issue I consider when people in Trinidad and Tobago try to claim Sir VS Naipaul. Here’s this author who had the opportunity to leave Trinidad and Tobago with British citizenship. He did. He did well with it. Would he have done as well were he in Trinidad and Tobago? Probably not. He traveled, he lived his life, and that was that.

What did Trinidad and Tobago do for him to get him where he was? And Trinidad and Tobago tried to give him a prize that he declined, which further stirred some negative sentiment. And yet, the Trinidad he left was very different, a Trinidad under British rule. Why wouldn’t he leave given the opportunity? To this day, people still aspire to leave.

My paternal grandmother’s brother, Ram Singh, was this source. So he told me of his memories of the Lion House, of his few meetings with this literary character. That was kind of boring, really, because he didn’t have much to say on the topic other than, “He was always upstairs writing.”

And that’s all I really know. I do know that of the books of his I’ve read, they were good. He didn’t write the sort of things I enjoyed reading, and the Internet will be full enough of his praises.

What I do like about him is that he did what he did on his own, despite what others said or did. And, through references to him, I got to hear more about a very different Trinidad and Tobago. People like Uncle Ram would tell me about how they would ride to Carlsen Field on bicycles to get chewing gum from the U.S. Army base, from well-intentioned soldiers through the fence. He laughed about that when he told me, even as I thought of a poor East Indian boy on a bicycle begging at a fence at a U.S. military installation. I’ve been on the other side of those fences.

It was a very different Trinidad and Tobago. A pre-Independence era, a post WWII era. Rations. Bicycle licenses. Things that they never teach of in school.

In turn, I spoke with Great Uncle John – my paternal grandfather’s friend. In his 90s at the time, he had served as the Master-at-Arms at the Chaguramas base, had been involved in politics in a small way right after Independence… he had met his wife when he was out patrolling on an Estate… and she was washing clothes in the river. I learned a lot by simply listening to him – about how there was so much water at Chaguramas, so many wells, and that the country had water. A man of few words, I would simply sit there and listen to someone who was happy to have someone there to talk to. There was a  time he was working in Port of Spain and missed the last taxi, so he walked to Chaguanas through the canefields, got home at sunrise, showered and went back to work by taxi again.

There are many colorful stories, many literary characters, but right now everyone’s concerned about Sir VS Naipaul – about what he wrote, about how he wrote it, about why he wrote it… just like any other author. In the end, yes, geographically he was from an island in the Caribbean that was then under British rule, and he went on to do great things.

But it wasn’t for him to make Trinidad and Tobago better. It wasn’t for him to make Trinidad and Tobago more recognized for literature – in this regard, he stands largely alone and as a borrowed literary figure that left Trinidad and Tobago long ago, from a different era, who made his own way as so many others who leave Trinidad and Tobago do. Everyone wants to claim the successes, no one wants to claim the failures.

Einstein noted this sort of thing himself:

If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.

– Albert Einstein.

(Address to the French Philosophical Society at the Sorbonne (6 April 1922); French press clipping (7 April 1922) [Einstein Archive 36-378] and Berliner Tageblatt (8 April 1922) [Einstein Archive 79-535])

There are many literary characters running around Trinidad and Tobago. Sir VS Naipaul was one of them during the British era, but not after.

His successes remain his own. As it should be.

The Long Secret to a Boot Shine – and other more important things.

Doc MartensRecently, I got a new pair of boots. The last pair, despite my best efforts, had worn out in ways that were testament to the work I’ve done on land – hard work.

I take care of my footwear. Mink oil. Polish. Things I learned over the years.

These new boots typically hold a spit-shine after I broke them in. It’s just my thing, something I do, something I’ve done over the years. It’s a meditation by itself, a focus on the moment, in the moment, completely about the moment – mindfulness in one of it’s forms.

Someone recently asked me here in Trinidad and Tobago how I get my boots to shine like that. I thought nothing of it; I said, “Polish.” They responded that they knew that, that the shine I got was different than the ones they saw.

I explained the mechanics of a spit-shine as a short explanation, knowing they probably wouldn’t get it right. It takes practice. It takes continuous improvement – Kaizen –  practice and more practice on the boots, an evolving landscape of polish and leather.

The truth of how I do it is much longer. These days it takes me minutes to get the boots up to my standard – but it’s really taken me my lifetime to get it right, and it never started with polishing boots. That came much, much later.

This is the longer story of why my boots shine.

The Root In Youth

When I was transplanted into Trinidad and Tobago, I didn’t feel like I fit, and people gave me great pains to remind me of that. I had a strong sense of self even then, of who I was even when I didn’t fit in – I defined myself by my own standards. This is said to be common amongst Third Culture Kids (TCKs),  I don’t know. I only know one – me.

So, surrounded by other culture, removed from another, and with solace found mostly in books, I found James Clavell’s “Shogun” to be an introduction to concepts that worked for a young man. Honor. Commitment. These sorts of things have a strong appeal. The world around me made little sense, and the people around me made less sense – but the book made sense.

In the 1980s, too, Japan was forging ahead in technology, thanks in part to Deming – something I didn’t know at the time. They were dealing with what they called 5th generation computing at the time, and I was an aspiring young computer programmer that had given up fitting in where I was and where I wasn’t. I was defining myself, as most teenagers do, but without the support systems most people take for granted. I built my own internal ones.

This all lead me down paths into things of Japan. I read everything I could get my hands on, which was a sad amount in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1980s. Anime wasn’t even a thing yet (and I’m still not into that). But I found comfort and solid footing in Miyamoto Musashi’s, “The Book of Five Rings”, an accidental find at an old bookstore named Manhin’s on High Street in San Fernando.

“Practice” became about everything I did, constantly seeking to improve things not for anyone else – it seemed I could never please anyone else – but I could please myself by getting better at even the smallest thing every day.

My father back then insisted I polish my shoes back then, and I didn’t know how to do it. He was, of course, upset with me – but he never showed me how. No one ever showed me how until years later.

The Twenties: The Navy, The Marines.

Life happened, and then I was in boot camp – back then we had boots and shoes we had to polish; I’m not sure what they do now. I was clueless. Everyone in the barracks was doing strange things – some were heating the wax on provided irons for lack of an open flame, some weren’t heating the wax – but everyone was trying to polish their boondockers- the Navy workboots we wore.

I tried my own way and was pretty consistent at failing to do it right. A friend of mine, Russell, saw me struggling and tried to help me – showing me the mechanics of it as in the link above, working one of my boondockers to a shine that boggled my mind. He talked me through the leather being porous, the wax being pushed in… the use of the water to lightly strip, that too much water stripped too much wax, that too little didn’t strip enough  – and all of this was a lot for a tired Seaman Recruit.

He finished one boot in maybe 30 minutes. I watched everything during that time. Then, I was tasked with making the other boot shine as well. 5 hours later, in the head (bathroom for you landlubbers), I got close enough and tired enough to get some sleep. It was an imperfect match the next morning, but Russell had given me what I needed to know.

I just needed to practice.

I don’t know how many hours I spent in boot camp alone with some polish, some water and those boondockers. I know that they got better and better as I practiced – sometimes I had to strip wax, sometimes I had to simply buff, sometimes I needed to add wax… but I got better. Kaizen.

Later on I would end up working with the Marines as a Corpsman, and I was fortunate that I spent so much time out in the field because I was nowhere near as good as those Marines at polishing boots for inspection. Quietly, over the years, I practiced. Even when the military and I parted ways, it became something to do while thinking. Something that, originally, I was terrible at. Something that other people I know have simply stopped doing.

Later Years

Over the course of the years, I owned many pair of leather footwear, and I’d practice on them – different grains of leather, experimenting with different methods, different ways of breaking in leather…

When I returned to Trinidad and Tobago, my father had a pair of boots that he went stomping off in the dirt with. One day, mainly out of boredom though a part of me wanted to get back to his earlier disappointment, I polished his work boots to a point where he didn’t recognize them as the same. They soaked polish in, one small layer at a time, but within a few hours they were done. I left them there quietly, feeling that decades later I had accomplished something… except for one thing.

I still wasn’t happy with them. Kaizen.

Present Day

It’s been about 30 years since my first attempt at polishing leather. I’m still not ‘the best’ at it, and I expect I never will be – but I can make my boots shine, it protects them, and while every morning some people think making their beds is the accomplishment that you should hold dear, I make sure my boots are serviceable to my standards every day.

So no, it’s not as simple as a mechanical process I can explain to someone. It took 30 years for me to have my boots as serviceable as they are now – others just see the shine – and I know that should I last another 10 years, they will be better.

How do you make your boots shine? The way you do everything else.

You get in there. You do it. And every chance you get, you try to do it better.

Everything matters.

Every moment matters.

Improve on all fronts and your weaknesses will be stronger than the strengths you may lose.

Plus, your boots will last longer.

How To Make Awkward More Awkward

So long!Maybe you’re like me. An introvert who has learned to deal with people without anxiety. If you’re like me, you don’t need to read this and you can carry on with your lives.

If you’re an extrovert, don’t read further either – but I can depend on you to tell everyone about this wonderful article you were discouraged reading and how you feel about it. Extroverts are good like that.

Anyone who made it through the last few paragraphs, here are a few fun things to do when in public. The idea is to given into that social anxiety and share it in your own controlled way.

Disclaimer: Of course, I’m not responsible for anything that happens by you do any of these things.

The Chameleon
The Victoria Butterfly GardenWhen entering a large room full of humans that you don’t know, repeat in a low and firm voice, “blending, blending, blending…”.

This will let people know who are interested that you are attempting to blend in. You’ll probably that the garrulous people won’t even notice – which means you’ve been successful!

Trust me. You didn’t want to talk to the garrulous people anyway. Only garrulous people like each other, everyone else either tolerates them or doesn’t.

The Mingle

minglingSooner or later, one of your well intentioned friends may first suggest, then plead, then force you to mingle. They’re well intentioned, don’t get upset with them.

Simply wander around, repeating in a low and firm voice, “mingling, mingling, mingling…” This will let everyone in earshot know that you’re open to a social mingle – and ‘mingle’ is about combining.

Should someone accept the mingle offer, you can proceed to talk about most things other than how much you hate mingling. If they didn’t, you tried. However, this can lead to problems, so your last gift from me is my last bit of advice.

The Bad Mingle Strategy

AwkwardBad mingles happen. It’s awkward. And, really, it’s just a bad combination – that’s what a mingle is.

There are a variety of strategies here – one being the “What’s that over there?” while-pointing-then-running-away strategy, which is pretty cowardly and doesn’t always work. This leaves people with a view of your buttocks as you duck for cover.

Do you want to be remembered by your backside? Well, barring the Kardashians, of course.

The way to deal with this is to look the person straight in the eye – this part can be hard – and say, “This is socially awkward. I’m leaving.” Then leave, calmly.

You can even do it when they’re talking, particularly the ones who are always talking. In this way, they will remember you as being a socially awkward mingle partner and will leave you alone in the future.

There. Not so bad, is it?

Certifying the Negatives

blank certificateWe live in a strange society. People are running around getting certified for all sorts of things to prove to other people that they can do them. There are certificates of achievement, completion, graduation… and so on, and so forth.

How old are you? Oh, you have a birth certificate – which you only get once. You get death certificates once as well, but typically only posthumously.

You can get certified on all sorts of things. People will ask you, “So, are you any good at this?”, and you’re prepared: Just whip out a certificate on whatever this is.

But we don’t certify the bad things, such as:

  • Can’t keep a secret.
  • ‘Great personality’.
  • Being over 5 feet tall.
  • Being under 5 feet tall.
  • Exceptional Procrastination.

Think about it. Someone asks you to do something: You tell them you’re procrastinating. By the Laws of Certification, they should then wonder if you have the capacity to procrastinate effectively. Can you? Why don’t you?

“It’s clear you never took the time to get a certificate of procrastination, which tells me…”

The point is, we use certificates for things that we think are positives, but what did those certificates cost you? Did a Certificate of Perfect Attention cost you a Certificate in being a happy and healthy human being?

When you really think about it, certificates are silly things. Either you did something or you didn’t, either you are good at something or you’re not.

And don’t even get me started on degrees…

The point is, if we’re going to certify some things, maybe we should be certifying everything else.

Beyond The Puddle

PuddleWe humans collectively have a worldview of that of the sentient puddle that Douglas Adams describes. It’s a powerful metaphor for so many things.

There’s some discussion here and there as to whether we’re still in the Holocene epoch – a time where everything is supposed to be in the right balance to sustain the world we know.

There are some that suggest we’re no longer in the Holocene epoch, and that we’re in the Anthropocene epoch, a period where we humans have affected the world on many levels.

This is all about ‘climate change’. The main argument about climate change seems to revolve around whether we humans have been naughty or not during our stay on the planet.

The planet we call Earth is fine, barring a supernova of our sun or something we can’t predict. The Earth doesn’t really care too much whether we’re here or not. It’s happily spinning around the Sun, which in turn spins around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which in turn doesn’t seem to orbit anything we have found… yet.

That’s the point, really. We’re pretty good at knowing what we do know, but as a society we’re awful at knowing what we don’t know. We’re so bad at this that we have specialized groups of people that try to figure out what questions to ask so that we can know more. We call them scientists, and we trot them out when their opinions and our opinions agree.

We accept Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on faith now, largely, but when it fell out of his head it was questioned. Of course, it didn’t affect the planet as much as the things surrounding the present discussions. To do that would require people to learn a new name.

Dr Clair Cameron Patterson
A rendition of Dr. Clair Cameron Patterson from the television series Cosmos. Originally aired on April 20th, 2014

Dr. Clair Cameron Patterson. This geochemist did something that most people don’t even think about. We used to have leaded gas, done to keep internal combustion engines from ‘knocking’.

Dr. Patterson started by trying to determine the age of the Earth, and being a scientist he noted enough discrepancies in his data that he began a campaign to remove lead from gasoline in 1965. In 1986, lead was no longer available in gasoline – and it took over 20 years from the beginning of his campaign to accomplish that. As a result, the lead in the blood of the average American is said to have dropped 80% by the 1990s.

In other words, by measuring one thing he found other things – he found the questions to ask and answer that ultimately affected the entire world and how livable it is.

That’s really the core of the climate change ‘debate’. About how livable the Earth is. And since the Holocene, our metaphorical puddle, is at least being discussed as ‘over’, we don’t need to think so much about the intentionality of things. We don’t need to debate how fast we can positively impact the environment. That’s too long and detailed for most people, and the choices for people are between convenience or not instead of whether we’re assuring that generations to come will have a livable planet.

We all know that the climate is changing simply by going outside. We can’t comprehend ‘global warming’ when our personal experience is that it’s colder outside, or ‘global cooling’ when it’s warming outside.

We can comprehend that our environment is becoming less livable.

Like it or not, the planet we call home is changing – maybe some of it is natural, maybe not, but that’s immaterial. If we want our species – we are a single species – to have a future on this planet, we need to accept that how we have existed during the Holocene Epoch prior to us finding questions and answering them… we need to accept that how we have lived is not the way we should live, and that we need to pay more attention.

All the rest is politics, and by definition, there is no agreement in politics. Self-interest for ourselves lasts only as long as we do, perhaps further in some cases.

Being interested in our species, on the other hand, is where we should start.