The Calculus Of Life.

butterflyPhoenixDoubleNova_wing_dotdotdot_corniaze_komFiGetSOME_mehrI found myself attempting to help someone with simultaneous equations on a Friday afternoon, scribbling equations on pieces of paper in response to some awful questions with what was reportedly an awful math teacher. But the questions weren’t awful. I’m not sure that the teacher was either.

And this is not about that.

Problems With Math

Because of the exercise, I was reminded of my troubles with math. In grade 4, I was actually placed in the slow class for math because of something I no longer remember. One week in the slow class, and I returned to the regular class and began outperforming everyone. Let’s consider that. I didn’t get something in a regular class, but taught another way, I completely understood it and internalized it.

Later on in life, I would find myself doing horribly in math – calculus, trigonometry, what have you – and I turned 4 years of poor grades into very good Ordinary Level (O Level) math – but this time it was different. I had the same teacher tutoring me. What I needed to do was focus and practice. Math, for very few people, is something that they can immediately grasp concepts of, and in my mind you really don’t do math – or anything, for that matter – until you are challenged to work. It takes a combination of knowledge, imagination and effort to truly get math – it was a rewarding effort for me, something that shaped a large part of my life.

Reflecting on that has made me consider how we approach so many things in life the wrong way. Maybe it’s because we’re in a one-way-fits-all class, maybe it takes us longer than others to grasp an underlying concept, or maybe we’re just too lazy to work at it.

In the great calculus of life where we must be able to differentiate so many things, integrate so many others, triangulate our way through dynamic systems, chart our course and measure ourselves in effective ways before we can think of doing so with others… we seem to fail not because the answers aren’t given to us, but because we don’t seem to understand we need to work for our own answers. The processes in math, in physics, in chemistry… these are not for rote memorization. They require understanding the processes involved, and that takes practice.

It takes effort. It takes working it out on our own. The guidance comes in as just this – “Welcome to this cave. Have fun.”

Like so much else, we have to work to get the results we want, we have to flip things around until we do understand them – bad teachers be damned, it’s not about them. It’s about what we’re willing to do, how hard we’re willing to work, and how resilient we are when faced with a problem.

No more. No less.

Silent Running

UntitledI wake up earlier than most. In fact, I wake up when some are only considering going to bed.

And every morning, where I live, there’s a woman older than I doing a shuffling run past me as I sip my coffee. Every morning. She’s overweight, her clothing baggy – perhaps revealing how well her exercise and perhaps diet is working for her. She sprints up the hill nearby.

The most we have talked is exchanging pleasantries.

I watched her this morning, her shadow running ahead of her figure under the street light, and finally saw her form. Her breathing was right – 1 step, 2 step, 3 step, breath out. Her pace was that of a fast walk, she avoiding bouncing as much as she could – she has a pendulous problem on her chest which must play hell on her back. I almost wanted to tell her that she’s killing her knees on the pavement, but I bit my tongue. She would know after this much time that was the case, she knew what hurt – how could she not? And yet, she was out there doing what she needed to do, avoiding the heat of a tropical sun and also avoiding those that might mock her for what she is seen as and not what she sees for herself.

I’ve been there. I might even argue I’m still there, though running is no longer my thing. And I think back to the first time I saw this in someone else.

It was in Field Medical Service School. Sure, in Navy Boot Camp I saw kids flailing about when running – I was the pacer, and if I caught the straggler as we went round, they went off to remedial where I didn’t see them. That I had become a pacer had been a joke but a good one – at 5’3″, my stride is shorter and therefore I have to work harder to meet the same times. Youth and growing up pedestrian gave me a natural advantage at that age, so it was all good.

Field Medical Service School was different because I had gotten soft since boot camp, but I had started training well before it – enough to pass the physical requirements of an elusive rating that I could not get into because of my myopia.

At Field Medical Service School (FMSS), we had a kid – he was a kid, about 18, the scars of acne still forming on his cratered pink face. He was large. He was, sadly, what every Marine accused sailors of being – and here we were training to be the sailors that were attached to the Marines as their medical support.

This was his 2nd time. He’d failed to graduate the last time. He told us his Master Chief had sent him to FMSS as a punishing joke. And every day, he ran – or better, scuffled with the ground through his feet and boots or running shoes. His toes pointed inward naturally, his frame was large and hidden in fat accrued over a lifetime.

He was, of course, scorned by us – at first. That scorn in a unit meant strengthening the weakest chain, and in a group of young Corpsmen, that can go from being snide now and then to being an outright jerk. But he kept on. We all watched what he ate; he did push-aways at the food table. He was almost always hungry, but he was determined enough to go a little hungry. He ran every day outside of our normal physical training. He kept to himself, but in the common barracks we kept an eye on him. In a way he scared us – he was driving himself into a meltdown, and we’d all seen Full Metal Jacket.

There was a Marine Corporal instructor who was a complete jerk to everyone, but amplified times ten with this poor kid. The kid could do nothing right for this Corporal, even when he did right. As someone of equal rank of the Corporal at the time, I wanted to throttle him a few times. He sensed this; it’s hard not to see when I dislike something – and he was acting the bully, and acting the bully is something I can never stand. I did end up getting the upper hand after I graduated. There’s a good story. Maybe another time. 

One day, someone called out to me in the barracks – I was the Master-at-Arms for the class, and what happened in the barracks was my problem. The kid’s rack-mate called me over and I found myself staring at the kid’s feet. It was pure, deep infected blisters. With the experience I’d already built up as a Corpsman, I broke the news to him that he shouldn’t be running, that he needed to be on light duty for a while to heal up. He wouldn’t have it. He wanted to run. He wanted to get out of FMSS. He wanted to get out of FMSS that we all worried how much he wanted to get out.

I called in the Corpsman instructor after at least 10 Corpsmen in training looked at the kid’s feet. Light duty it was, for a while, but I no longer shunned the kid. I took an interest in him – the weak link in the chain of ‘3rd herd’. When he got off light duty, we ran together – his pace was hard on me, that slow pace, but it was good for me. Others took over, and slowly more and more of 3rd herd was working with the kid. We wanted him to graduate. He was one of us. Sure, he might have a past at his last command, but while he was with us he worked harder than any of us.

In the end, he failed the required run for graduation by one second. We were crestfallen – we pleaded, collectively, for him to have another chance – and that same Corporal refused.  One second. But a second is a second, and there were no second chances. He would be held back to go through FMSS a third time. There was nothing to be done. He was moved into a separate barracks even as all of us celebrated passing – salt in his wounds.

I wonder sometimes how that kid fared. I do know that the Corporal, that pudgy fellow, got his come-uppance through myself and a few others as well as the Command, but years later I realized that he was such a jerk not because he didn’t like the kid, but because he was just a jerk who had probably had to go through Parris Island as that kid.

Yet I remember that kid’s spirit – the eyes that shone through tears with a burning desire. He had decided somewhere along the line that he would not break, that he would do everything to achieve what he had to. But even then, he was put into a position where he was forced to.

And this woman shuffling every morning? She wasn’t being forced. Purely voluntary, much like me going and working on my land every morning while others are comfortably in bed. While people younger than us with similar complaints, more overweight than us, read books, try diets, watch instructional videos and buy gym memberships that they never use (a boon for gyms everywhere) but but don’t actually do anything.

We all have this idea of who we are but very few of us meet who we really are, where we push our grit to the limits – where we fail every day at something just so we fail less every day. Where we command our lives while others do not, who plot our courses one foot over another while others stare at the ground worried about their footprints.

That woman is deserving of more respect than most people I know. She has decided to do something, she is doing something and over the months she has continued doing something. Silent running, her grit driving her forward to whatever lays beyond.


The PondWet season in Trinidad. The grass has overgrown, the cassava risen taller than me in some places, shorter than me in others. The road progresses despite challenges, materials coming from a sandblasting company that needs a place to put it – my road will eventually benefit, but not right now. It’s all dependent on the weather, and for the last few weeks I’ve been paralyzed.

Yesterday, the sun finally came out and I went for the wayward center of the cassava and papaya (paw paw) to spray, disentangling the crops and other trees from weeds – pushing back against the inevitable march of a tropical climate.

Even with my experience and Artsy (a Ford Ranger I so named), there are places I don’t go in Wet Season – the valley almost completely off limits for someone who doesn’t know where to put the tires, and even then not casually. The wayward excavator that had pulled out the hog plum tree from the pond had created it’s own drain, a tribute to no one else doing anything on my land without my presence, making the area around the pond an unnecessary quagmire in wet season.

The sand dropped on the road despite my saying not to drop it on the road further underlines the need for my presence when people come to do things on my land. It’s a silent rage that steers me when I see these things, a thought of how people don’t think before they do things, of how people don’t listen to directions.

And yesterday, driving over the pile of sand an idiot driver left at the top of my drive, compressing it slowly as I drive in and out every time, I managed – of all places – to get stuck. I laughed, immediately grabbing my spade from the back of the pickup, and began shoveling Artsy out of the sand. In it’s own way, the sand pile does something for me – and me getting stuck was something I expected at some point – the tires on the pickup are for mud, not sand. Having just sprayed weedicide, I didn’t want to handle the camera so there are no pictures of this.

A half hour of shoveling at least showed me the problem. The weight of the pickup was on the sand around the center of the chassis, the right side of the pickup unable to get purchase with its tires. A break; the sun had come out completely, a phone call to someone who might be able to help with a tractor – useless. As usual, this person was telling me what they couldn’t do instead of what they could. Back to shoveling.

Another break. I looked across where I knew another tractor was, but they are related to the people who had built a house on my land without permission and who said they were going to buy but instead decided to continue working on their mansion – swimming pool included – instead of begin paying for the land, and had the gall to complain about a price 1/8th of the market value. Next year it goes to 1/4. I would see no help there, even with the best relationship, such help would be seen as a betrayal of family.

I laughed.  No doubt someone over there was watching. A few more phone calls. More people telling me what they couldn’t do instead of what they could do. Here I was, the dependable person surrounded by undependables. Another call, an offer to call someone else… I could chase that ball of twine like a kitten, but all that happens when you chase a ball of twine is you get twine.

Shovel. Shovel. Shovel. Stones, wood, under the tire. No purchase yet. Break. Shovel, shovel, shovel. Purchase. 2 hours and elbow grease got me free of my dilemma, not a soul having lifted a finger despite calls – an array of platitudes, explanations… but no actual action except a promise of one I explicitly asked for, from the one person who doesn’t let me down when I need it but who was in a tight spot.

With the rear tires on top of the pile of sand, I laughed. Once again, I solved my own problem, once again, I had negotiated a compromise with the land – an inanimate object that I could depend on as opposed to all the bipeds I could call. Understanding it and basic physics had gotten me out. Not the winch I didn’t get just the day before. A cutlass, a spade, and grit.

All someone really has, all someone can really depend on, is themselves – a lesson learned in childhood, a lesson re-emphasized more than once, a strength gained by pulling dead weight, a determination forged in heat and tempered in extremes.

And by getting out, I know that they all think now in the back of their heads that they don’t need to help should I call. That I will find my way as I always do while they cannot, that they call upon me when they have a problem because I am dependable – and maybe, just maybe, my dependability ruins their dependability, making them dependent and weak when I need them.

I should work on that.

On Success

Money PropAn article yesterday had a headline along the lines of, “If you’re intelligent, why aren’t you rich?”. The teaser asked, “Why don’t people with high intelligence become successful?” I won’t bother linking the article because I didn’t read it – all because of the headline and teaser. There are so many things wrong with these things that I decided not to waste my time.

First of all, measures of intelligence are flawed. Secondly, success isn’t necessarily being rich – society may believe that, but individuals may not. Third, because of the prior 2 points, who is to say whether those with an incisive (unmeasured, immeasurable) intellect in certain areas or on a broad spectrum are actually unsuccessful?

There was a time I aspired to be both intelligent and successful in these contexts. I recall staring at a MENSA letter in the late 1980s and wondering, at that point, what being a member would mean to me. The idea that intelligent people should only hang around intelligent people didn’t really rub me the right way – because of my personality and the way I grew up (we could argue chicken and egg here), I counted loyalty and honesty to be the most important thing for social connections. My experience with those accused of intelligence did not demonstrate either of these things. I tossed that invitation in the bin. It was a big moment – a decision that to be intelligent I didn’t have to be recognized as intelligent by some group of people who sat around doing puzzles.

I hated writing that paragraph because in it’s way it’s self-defeating, but I believe it adds value in context. 

I’d already figured out life was a puzzle, a puzzle provided with no answer to work toward. There was no image on the box to guide me- society had one, but it assumed certain conditions that simply did not exist for me. When I applied for financial aid at college, as an example, I had the misfortune of not being of African or Hispanic descent and an inability to be dishonest about it. And yet I was a minority. Society didn’t care about minorities, it cared about appearing to care about minorities.

Churchill success quotationThere was little that I tried that I couldn’t do. This, in retrospect, came down to grit. Grit is what got me through my life so far; intelligence was only a tool. I can’t tell you the number of times friends and family told me that I would fail. Every time, without exception, I succeeded. Did I make lots of money? Sometimes. Did I spend it on the same people who thought I would fail? Sometimes. Why? Why would I help those who wouldn’t even give emotional support? That question haunts me.

I’m no dullard, yet I have met people who are – at least in some regards, if not many  – are more intelligent than I am. Being intelligent doesn’t actually mean anything, particularly in a standardized education system where intelligence is anything but standard. The world needs all kinds of minds (read that link).

And what, really, is success? Is it fighting to accumulate things that mean nothing to you when dead? Is it really all about accumulating wealth? Society largely says so.

SuccessI measure success differently. My success is about being able to look myself in the mirror and like what I see – not physically (as we get older, we appreciate that disappointment more) but emotionally and mentally. I am successful.

But financially? Well, that’s another story entirely. But because of how I gauge success, I owe no one anything. People owe me.

And their success determines my financial success, but does not determine my success.

I do that. And that’s my real success – not being tied to society’s version of success.