The Quests To Do ‘Good’

Grave of the unknown ChildThere are some of us that have thoughts and ideas of how the world should be – trying to make something that speaks to our internal canvas, sometimes daring to expand that canvas.

Sometimes the world betrays us – we betray ourselves – by expecting things to work in certain ways when they do not. We might expect that people in authority actually care about what they are responsible for and find that they don’t care about our particular dumpster-fires or don’t see them as important. Maybe they aren’t important in the grand scheme of things, maybe they are.

He felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg.

– P.G. Wodehouse. Eggs, Beans and Crumpets (1940)

Sometimes the things we invest ourselves in do not come to fruition in the way we like – maybe it’s a person we tried to help who keeps finding ways to destroy themselves, maybe it’s rescued animals having a less than pleasant ending, maybe it’s someone simply ignoring us when we try to help them avoid future problems.

The world, despite the stories we’ve been told and the way that we are told society should work, does not work the way we believe. Society is an agreed upon illusion that, when stripped bare of the ideals we superimpose on it, can be uglier than we are taught in schools and by those that love us.

We live in a world where everyone is on a quest to ‘do good’, but ‘good’ is a relative thing. ‘Good’ for someone in poverty might mean being able to eat, ‘good’ for someone who does not have to worry about that food might mean seeing their children go to school and do well. ‘Good’ is a problem because we all don’t agree on what is good. What is fair. What is right. What should be done.

And so we expand our canvases, not shrink them. We find out why the world is not as we think it should be and we try to address that. In the blink of a decade, you can find your canvas has expanded you; you may find yourself doing things that you never planned to and may have made absolutely no progress in making the world a better place.

But you might have accidentally made yourself a better person. You might have made yourself worse. That’s the real journey. That’s the true measure of the world we live in.

The Quest to expand our canvases.

The Expanding of the Canvas

Framed WallI was standing with Tony, who I’d just bought a copy of his book from at the Presentation College Reunion. I mentioned I was battling existence in my mind.

He said we writers look at the world differently and see things differently.

That’s a true statement, I think. I also think that it’s not true enough.

Our world is framed, and when I say that, I mean that your world is framed, my world is framed, and everyone else’s world is framed. There is absolutely nothing in our world that we deal with that isn’t a derived construct of our brains. All of our senses are interpreted, processed and spat out to us as reality. We know what we like and we know what we don’t like.

That physiological limitation is the first frame. We cannot experience things like magnetic waves and radio waves directly; these are things that we have interpreted into motion and sound so that we know that they exist. And all of our frames are slightly different – someone may have better vision, someone else better hearing, and someone else may be more sensitive to touch, smell… the list goes on. And how we interpret these signals, the ratio of these signals, varies our framing.

Then, when we introduce more human beings, it gets more complicated. We have sounds we agree on for language, and around the world we agree on different languages. We agree on things like what the color blue is, even though each one of us might perceive it differently, some of us more sensitive to the visual spectrum than others, but we have this agreement on what we call blue – and if you get into the finer details, you find the disagreements.

We frame our own physiological experiences to each other in the context of what we agree on. We will say that the sky is blue, even though it actually only appears to be what we all agree on as ‘blue’. And that, too, we frame – within our physiological frame. The communication frame, the ability to share things with others and have them shared with us.

Then it gets even more framed with society, with cultures and subcultures, and suddenly we’re looking at the world through shared experiences rather than as we actually see it, the phrase, ‘typing at a keyboard’ only making sense to someone who knows what a keyboard actually is.

So I don’t know that just writers see the world differently. I think we writers simply communicate more differently than others in the written sense, some of us  to expand it because we see the world differently at some level of framing and feel the need to expand the canvas within the frame. Some could argue that artists only see things that way, but that argument is typically made by artists. Scientists also have that issue.

In fact, everyone has that issue. It’s how we expand our canvases… or try to… that allows others to define us so.

Birthday Media

Birthday CakeAt one point, I thought that social media was worthwhile in that I could tell people, “Happy Birthday” at the appropriate time, which I had been unable to do before because I simply don’t remember people’s birthdays – something that some see as a personality flaw. They made me think it was a personality flaw by badgering me about it – particularly the women in my life who, oddly enough, always hated getting older.

You’d think that women would therefore not want to celebrate birthdays, but that is largely not true in my personal dalliances with the female of the species. We’ll get back to that.

So here I was, thinking all these social media services actually were doing me a favor, covering a personality flaw – largely so people wouldn’t think I don’t have this personality flaw, that I cared enough to stick calendar dates in a rolodex in my head for people I care about. And it became easier and easier – to the point where Facebook offers me to post on someone’s page something witty like, “Happy Birthday”, or something wittier that I might come up with in the time it takes me to read and react. I think I’ve written some atrocious things that way, but everyone seems happy enough.

This all came to a head today because LinkedIn offers me to ‘like’ someone’s birthday. How cheap is that? All I have to do is click ‘Like’, and presto magico, I have conveyed that I care that you were born a certain amount of years ago.

Yay.

So here’s the truth. While I am no longer someone who subscribes to religion, I had the misfortune of being born into a Jehovah’s Witness sort of background – I had no choice. And while not having that choice, we didn’t celebrate birthdays. Why? Well, as I recall the rhetoric, “Jesus Christ didn’t celebrate his birthdays!”. Thus the same rhetoric for Christmas.

I’m not sure that celebrating them should be a sin in any religion, really, but hey, whatever makes you happy… I’m also not into a few other things being a sin, either. But let’s pretend for a moment that Jesus didn’t celebrate birthdays, even if it’s not true and there were omissions in the Bible (there weren’t potty breaks either, as I recall, so pooping could be a sin.) This leads us down a path where a calendar was set up BECAUSE the big J.C. was born, and a count was begun known as A.D. – anything beforehand, B.C. But that’s not accurate either if J.C. were born on Dec 25th, because then that would be the end and beginning of the year… and… that’s open to dispute too.

In other words, the reasoning behind not celebrating birthdays that I was presented with simply doesn’t make sense. Of course, they celebrate the death of Christ as well, as well as his resurrection. Absolutely nothing about his visit from the Tooth Fairy, or about a bunny hanging out, or elves… so let’s not go there because we may end up in a Mordor trying to get a ring into a volcano.

I eventually did have birthday parties, when people got together and acted like I was special one day out of the year. Just one. And I thought they sucked – not because people showed that they cared on that day, but because of the surrounding 364.25 days where I wasn’t.

So after all of that, here’s the thing. The only birthday I really cared about was when I was 21. I think the 23rd my auto insurance went down slightly in the U.S. – or was it 28? – and then the only way the auto insurance went down is by getting married. Clearly that wasn’t enough of an inducement for me…

And now, here I am, in my 40s, and I don’t care about my birthday. Sometimes I’m not even sure how old I am and have to do math – fortunately, we count 13th birthdays unlike how we count 13th floors in buildings, so the math isn’t tricky at all – and at a moment’s notice, I can figure out how old I am.

And I don’t care about how old anyone around me really is either. It’s not like it tells you how long you have to live – it doesn’t – but like Bayesian probability, it lets you know that the more years you live the more likely you are to die within the coming year. Think on that a moment.

So what are birthdays really about? About making people feel special, like you care. Like they matter to you on a deep level. How wonky is that? And this is why I think women seem so agreeable to birthdays despite the landmark of growing older.

Here’s my thing. If I’m not there for you for the rest of the year – if I don’t treat you like you’re special for the rest of the year – is this sort of like accepting your deity of choice, and begging forgiveness for all those times you masturbated, before you die? Try that last one without the Oxford comma. New dimensions to death. 

So, no. I’ve stopped clicking ‘Like’, and I’ve stopped posting atrocious things when forced to treat people like real human beings on what are allegedly joyous occasions.

The truth about me – as ugly as it may seem – is that I don’t care about your birthday. I don’t care about Valentine’s Day, for that matter, or Anniversary dates, and so on. I just don’t. Relationships are fluid.

If I like you, I at least try to be nice to you throughout the year.

If I don’t, I don’t.

And that’s that. So, I won’t apologize for not liking your birthday, or posting something on your Facebook wall, or tweeting something, or sending you nude pictures of me, or dressing in a clown costume, or whatever else, on your birthday.

Truth be told, you won’t even see me at your funeral.

Even if I show up.

 

Influence: Douglas Adams

Ready To Leave The Planet.Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, may have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say.

– Douglas Adams, Speech at Digital Biota 2, Cambridge, UK, (1998)

I was introduced to the works of Douglas Adams in my youth, and his dark satire suited me well – but he was larger than that in many ways. He also happened to be alive when I was reading his works, and in that he held a fairly lonely spot. So lonely, in fact, he left it in 2001.

His non-fictional work is worth seeking out.  He played with Pink Floyd, co-wrote a Monty Python skit, worked with the BBC in educating the public about wild life… he was far from just a boring human being.

People should know where their towels are. They should also not panic all the time.

Building A Home.

That Kind of Day.I am here to build a home.

When people spoke about home, I often wondered what they meant. I even wrote a little about my thoughts on it in, “You Can Never Go Home.

And I’m in the process of building a home – from, quite literally, the ground up, sometimes just moving stones.

A place for me to be in a very Erich Fromm sense. It’s not about having, it’s about being.

Since childhood, I’ve wandered. It was compulsory as a child – I had no real say in the matter, though I joke that I did if you corner me into that story. I was born there, moved to another there, then have lived at other there’s ever since. I think it’s been about 20 countries, 2 of which I’m actually a citizen of, and one of which has 50 states that I have been to 49 of. Sorry, Washington.

I look around, and I see I do not belong anywhere and I belong everywhere – but there is something about a home I have grown to know. A home is where you can be yourself, unconditionally (to the extent that you don’t attract the attention of law enforcement or armed services). You don’t have to live within someone else’s framework, there is no sense that you have to keep your bags packed, etc.

Even as I write this, my bags are at the ready in an adjoining room. I’ve lived a very temporary life, and that has forced a personal minimalism in it’s own way, but that personal minimalism is larger than that. I am used to living this way.

A house that was allegedly supposed to be mine was never transferred to my father and rots empty with a tree behind it, being caretaken by someone who sees it as the burden it is to him as it’s ownership is best described as bardo: in between states. But truly, it was never mine.

Another house was sold some time ago after water pipes froze and exploded – along with the marriage of my parents – but I was no longer living there.

Other places in my life include apartments, barracks with itchy standard issue blankets, and hotels. Sleeping was done in cots, sleeping bags, hammocks, couches and futons – there’s a crib or two in there somewhere, but that hardly matters.

So now I’m building a home on land I own. That’s mine. And admittedly, I’m pretty single-minded about going about it – but going about it is more complex than simply laying a foundation of concrete and adding bricks. It’s about getting a government to pay me what it owes, about making neighbors of tenants, and about people who just like me are trying to accomplish something – whatever that something may be, be it not going to jail for maintenance (child support), to making sure children and grandchildren get what they can use, to plain greed. Oh, the stories I could write – and perhaps might – but that’s beside the point.

Today, I moved stones to the driveway I’m building, by hand, as I watched concrete poured out of a machine at a house nearby. Someone mentioned it to me.

“Don’t you own that land over there too where the concrete is being poured?”
“Yes, they’re buying it. Waiting for money to come in.”
“And you’re taking stones in your pickup to do that?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You real stupid, boy.”
“Thanks.”

The idea about the two things being related is passing. It strikes me as funny when some people think I should be angry. I have my own things to do. I’m not worried about what others do – I see what they’re doing, but that doesn’t change what I have to do to build my home. When I’m done, I get to say that I did what I did, and I know how I did it. If I lived my life worrying about what others did, I would be very angry and would accomplish less. I’m working toward something. And I know how things work; it’s likely that they had an opportunity that they took – just as I do, just as everyone else does.

To write about all of that would be to condemn a system that probably should be condemned in the world of idealists and people of uncompromising principle that the world eventually breaks or disdains unless they deal in fiction that causes these myths to persist. The world is imperfect. Everywhere I have been, the world is imperfect, and to some extent that is what makes the world so interesting.

And here I am, building a home. Since the government agencies are denying responsibility for just about everything so far, water and electricity aren’t yet on the board – and if they are, my finances aren’t (which takes us back to the government). Rather than do nothing, I do what I can. I clear bush by hand, even weaponized chlorophyll. I move stones. I plant trees that I get, I plant crops that I can, I get fields plowed when the ground is right, and I move forward – ratcheting. Because…

I’m building a home.

A home where I do not have to worry about a lease being up, or someone with their name on the deed putting me out (family’s a great thing to have, let me tell you), or some other nonsense. Living in places as cluttered as the minds of others, screaming to be ordered but outside of my sphere to influence. Being unable to cook a hot meal sometimes, or having to sacrifice one thing or the other. Having to wait for someone to do things. Having actual privacy, not what is given. Not sharing a bathroom or toilet. Being able to write without having to leave where I’m staying because there’s no space to think, or even sit and read.

Things people seem to take for granted.

People have been telling me for decades to settle down with their words – they’re all dead now, oddly enough – but they hampered my efforts to do just that through their actions.

So what I am doing now – from managing land, to trying to encourage the government to pay me, to making sure that people within my sphere of influence can do the same – is all toward building that home.

I’m committed.

I’ve overcome greater obstacles for less incentive.

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.