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.

Beneath The Wheel

The Old Town Astronomical ClockWe are all beneath the wheel, the crush of time, the prolapse of our minds and souls as things change around us.

A Snapshot

The teenager man-boy, a quotient of a fractured home, tries to find his way to manhood in an alien environment where someone who cared enough gave him a roof with conditions, walls with rules, and a freedom to be responsible where before he had none.

He works in the yard under the mock disdain of an elderly gentleman who did not invite the project, but who in his own way wants the best for the young man, suffering the indifference of the teenager to his words.

I am a visitor in this realm, as with most other realms, and I’m supposed to have some purpose here – which, of course, is to find my purpose there, as it is anywhere.

Time is not on the side of anyone.

The elderly man, who we’ll call grandfather, thinks of his downhill slope to the grave. It sits behind his eyes as he looks over the world in front of him – as if it were a story he has seen before, worn, lucid, tired.

The boy – let’s call him the nephew – does not understand that when I look at him, I think of this quotation and ponder:

When a tree is polled, it will sprout new shoots nearer it’s roots. A soul that is ruined in the bud will frequently return to the springtime of it’s beginnings and it’s promise-filled childhood, as though it could discover new hopes and retie the broken threads of life. The shoots grow rapidly and eagerly, but it is only a sham life that will never be a genuine tree. – Hermann Hesse, Beneath The Wheel

He is young and yet he has catching up to do, having missed the starting gun that society fires too often too early for the children it creates.

He is a child in puberty, not yet a young man in mind or spirit. His childhood has not been misplaced, it has been stunted and his misfortune is that given his abilities, he must cast away the slivers of childhood he was left with all the while reshaping into a man before his time. While society creates the children like him, it does not tolerate adults like him.

He feels the crush of the pressure and, being stubborn, pushes back or not at all. He is like a plant that atrophies at the sunlight it needs.

At some point he will bend or he will break, it is the way of the world – a way that is not couched in the anthropomorphized visions  of well intentioned people, but rather the way that is couched in the grand bureaucracies and cultures we use to govern our kind. The same grand bureaucracies and cultures that creates children like him.

And then there I am, an observer and not – an Uncle of sorts, new to his world, young to the older man, trying to have a positive effect all the while considering, thinking about how difficult he was at that age, and how everything that was tried on me didn’t work – and through my own muddlings, I found my answers that became questions of answers, to questions of those, to stand there and not have answers and simply more questions. I see the time short for both, the grandfather and the nephew, and in the reflections of their clocks I see a parallax of my own.

I have no great wisdom to cross the voids, only the knowledge to avoid the cliched mistakes. For self-preservation, I wear the visage of the observer and say things that I hope might make it through in time for the nephew, for he has little time before he too is beneath the crush of the wheel that will only bend him if he learns, but will break him if he does not.

The crush of the world as time ticks onward, and it does not care if you slouch or stand straight. It has no care for what bends or breaks, no empathy, no sympathy. It is the machine, the product of millenia of human generations, an antique as easily found in the basement of humanity as on a museum walls of academia and governance.

The History Rhythm.

Dance!The cliché, “History repeats itself”, is a dull echo of a George Santayana quote and is in itself, timeless – but it has a rhythm of usage throughout history, I’m sure.

I’m sure of this because the study of history is simply the study of mankind dancing to it’s own rhythm.

It’s apparently a really great beat to dance to, so mankind dances.

A culture repeats things, and all around the world, cultures repeated things. As the world began to change, bureaucracies were formed – largely to govern – but bureaucracies were to keep things from changing quickly1. And so they did, and so they do, and so they will. They govern the rhythm of a society, the rhythm the society dances too.

Maybe if we got better DJs we’d have better choreography.

1 Gleick, James Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, Pantheon Books, 1999.

The Technology Dumb

technology and societyIt’s not something new for me to write about – in fact, most of my writing has centered around the constant conflict I feel between technology and… well, just about everything else. I am, at heart, a technology person. By no stretch am I a Luddite, as a Beowulf cluster of Pine64s a few feet away shows.

Our technology seems to continue to surpass our humanity, which really isn’t anything new. But it has become more prevalent and less noticeable because of it’s very nature.

I wrote recently on LinkedIn about technology, democracy and ethics. Almost a month later, “How Technology Disrupted the Truth1 was written about the Brexit vote in Europe… or the part that wants to be a former part that isn’t yet. As I’ve puttered around Facebook between studying, reading and not-writing-enough, I’ve noted a few other things.

People aren’t just having issues related to their writing – they’re having trouble with their reading comprehension. I read about it and went introspective about it. I’ve been writing less over the last few years, true, but I also noted that my writing mistakes had increased – and my capacity to find them required me to not be interacting with the Internet. That’s me, and it’s impossible to extrapolate anything of use from my own experience2, but I see it in all sorts of things from people I know.

And then we get into the misleading headlines that have been popping around social networks, that people share without even considering the larger impact it will have. Where gossip has always been a human problem, we not only have increased it exponentially – we’ve made it a solid business model for clickbait companies.

Some say that all of this is even making us stupid, which is a catchy headline, but for those who make the effort to read the link:

…What we seem to be sacrificing in our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection. The web never encourages us to slow down. It keeps us in a state of perpetual mental locomotion. The rise of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which pump out streams of brief messages, has only exacerbated the problem.

There’s nothing wrong with absorbing information quickly and in bits and pieces. We’ve always skimmed newspapers more than we’ve read them, and we routinely run our eyes over books and magazines to get the gist of a piece of writing and decide whether it warrants more thorough reading. The ability to scan and browse is as important as the ability to read deeply and think attentively. What’s disturbing is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of thought. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for further study, it’s becoming an end in itself — our preferred method of both learning and analysis. Dazzled by the net’s treasures, we have been blind to the damage we may be doing to our intellectual lives and even our culture…

Skimming doesn’t really help with critical thought when clickbait headlines travel faster than the speed of light. So what’s the answer?

Slow down. Don’t read everything. And take the trouble to read actual writing instead of the drivel that passes for it… if you can tell the difference in modern writing anymore.

1 And I’m tired of letting ‘disruptive’ being batted around so much; I’ll write about that on KnowProSE.com.
2 People who write knowing that would lead to an intense recovery of memory usage on the Internet, I’m sure. We’re all individuals but not one of us has an omniscient perspective.

The Elephants On Parade.

Afterwards Tom and Eric weren't exactly sure at which point during their discussion the elephant had entered the roomIt has been a crazy week around the world, and the facade’s paint has worn thin enough for it to become more undeniable that what was painted over is a bit rotten. The trouble isn’t necessarily the elephants in the rooms, the trouble is the rooms can no longer hold the elephants.

It’s easy to talk about the slaying of innocents when the rhetoric dehumanizes broad swaths of people by a flawed design while people argue over the intent. Whether the intent was there or not when these systems were designed, the elephants threaten to get out of their rooms and that can mean the end of structures as we know them. As it should be, maybe, but the bureaucracy has it’s carpenters, welders and construction workers with Law texts and legal precedents given voice with those armed with cattle prods.

I imagine using a cattle prod on an elephant isn’t too smart, but then I have a bias toward self-preservation.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Society’s self-image and it’s increasingly apparent conflicts between groups within it makes me wonder whether people realize what they’re pretending to be. Cognitive dissonance is a currency traded upon by politicians, be they professional or otherwise, and the tools of society are mocked. We design solutions that create new problems; we create movements that by their very names are divisive.

Equality. Is that such a hard concept? Why is it that every ‘solution’ actually attempts to elevate some group above others to make things more fair when there are many groups who are treated unfairly? It’s an engine that opposes itself, burning itself out and boiling over into more wear and less actual progress than could happen if people worked all together.

Maybe when the elephants get out, they might see each other for elephants. Maybe the walls that separate them blind them to the fact that they are not alone, which some might argue is by design? And when the structures do come down, as they will over time, what will be left?

Society remains conflicted. Should we fix this and make a bigger door? Whatever should we do? Yet the focus seems to be now shifting between whether the elephants should be in rooms at all, or whether the elephants should be kept separate. Oddly, the elephants themselves seem intent on keeping themselves separate while well-wishers seem intent on freeing them.

There’s more than one elephant, and would they actually work together… but instead, they maintain the divisions built around them. At that rate, they will ever struggle and never parade except when let out for their exercise. Whenever that happens.

Thoughts On Independence Day 2016

4th of JulyIt’s Independence Day – the 4th of July, 2016, and I’ve been thinking a lot about things related to it. Here in New Smyrna Beach, the beach is full of people from all over Florida – mainly Orlando, I’d wager. I’m in a coffee shop writing this – a coffee shop open today. I had breakfast today at another place that was open – all getting the tourist traffic while they can.

The city of New Smyrna Beach is of more than 2 minds. Places on the main drag of Canal Street were closed yesterday and today because of the holiday while the town filled with people from outside of the city. On one hand, the wish for development and the want for tourist money for local businesses, on the other, the closed local businesses. Hibernating while hungry.

A table away, there’s a woman reading a paper on taxes in preparation for a conference. The irony of that is something I didn’t mention – part of our independence was about taxation without representation, and in my mind the representation we get for our taxation may as well be to King George. The gap is no longer the Atlantic Ocean, it is the bureaucracy and 3 ring circus of presidential candidates and the media whose journalistic integrity has decided to be below rather than above reproach.

I think of this even as I think of a friend messaging me today, thanking me for my service. My response was that we all do our part, and in turn thanked him for his, a matter of responding with respect to someone I do respect rather than a the shallow response I give to the shallow thanks I have heard at times. I think of those who did much more, paying the ultimate price, and my problem with thinking that our military does anything in recent memory about protecting our freedom. It seems a popular illusion, or maybe it’s something that isn’t what I think it should be.

We’re less free now than when I was growing up, less free than when I signed up with the Navy, less free than I wandered around dressed like a shrub, not quite tall enough to be a tree. Less free than when the Twin Towers were still standing. All throughout every election and the space in between the elections, I have heard fear given voice about terrorists, terrorism, and anyone that is associated with these acts.

Travel is annoying with the TSA, laws exist now so that moving from one state to another can be a nightmare simply to open a bank account or even a driver’s license changed – where the law requires it be done in 30 days of moving to a state, but it can take 90 days to meet the pre-requisites to actually change the license (something I learned in 2010 from Wisconsin). People talk quietly about whoever they consider the enemy to be and when I overhear, I can’t help but consider Cavafy’s, “Waiting for the Barbarians“.

Sometimes surrounded by those who have been well educated, I suffer many who are not well read. Independence Day, a day where we overthrew tyranny as an act of treason that we remember as breaking of shackles. Which is right? Both.

And these days, I see the tyranny of prejudice on the lips of almost everyone. Even those against one candidate who has become a lightning rod for those uncomfortable with those of pigmentation have their own prejudice that makes conversation between the two poles magnetically inconvenient for true social discourse. And those same who call others bigots have no trouble casting their own bigotry about this demographic at that, not realizing their own irony. There is no equal opportunity, there is ‘flavor of the century’. Some will say it’s getting better, but really, it depends on the flavor and how much of it is available.

The tyranny of financial markets and algorithmic trading, of toxic financial instruments. The tyranny of the homeless and despondent, be they they veterans or not; the tyranny of a bureaucracy of poor treatment of those we have put into the harm’s way when they’re supposed to be back safe and home when they aren’t safe and whole. We casually call this the V.A., but it’s larger than that and it’s a fool’s errand to fix just the VA.

There’s the tyranny of those not making a livable wage, and the derived tyrannies of the unfair comparisons between groups that all need a livable wage – including our active duty military, wandering around protecting whatever freedom we have need of in the Middle East. I’m not sure that we need that freedom, but we apparently believe we do and send our younger men and women to go protect it at the cost of parts of their lives. The tyranny of 22 veterans committing suicide every day, with one likely having taken their own life while I write this. How awful. That’s a damned tyranny.

I see the tyranny of poorly informed people voting – sure, we could talk about Brexit, but let’s instead talk about stupid things right here in the United States, where even those who accuse themselves with intelligence mistake health insurance for health care, where they’ll do anything to support a candidate – even ignore their own issues. Like rowdy supporters of a football team, it seems we’re on the precipice of getting to the level that British football fans are still trying to either live up to or down to (I’m not sure). In this presidential election so far, we’ve had blood spilled.

We’ve had blood spilled by supporters of presidential candidates. People on the left and the right feel so disconnected with government that it’s amazing what they will say and do.

A month ago, I had two Trump supporters at a burger place tell me that Trump isn’t a politician. I said, “Well, he is now, he’s running for President.” Then they claimed him a great business man, to which I brought up the bankruptcies, and their response was that he himself never went bankrupt. “Fair enough”, I said, “so if he runs the economy into the ground, we can be certain he won’t be bankrupt.” A pause, then, “Well, he’s better than the other.”

I wandered across to a coffee shop and there sat a circle of Bernie Sanders supporters having an open meeting. I listened; they were desperately unhappy that Hillary Clinton had gotten their party’s nomination but generally stopped when it came to criticizing the party. One said he would vote for Hillary just so that Trump didn’t win, the guy after said, “no way, he was voting his conscience”. When asked about what he would do if Trump won, his response had me wondering if I was inadvertently a witness to conspiracy.

Those two camps  – and there are more than two – are so busy talking about what the politicians and media want them to talk about, they’re not talking about their own issues. I heard someone who claimed that ‘Obamacare is great’ complaining about having to go to Winter Park because their insurance didn’t allow them to visit a specialist in town. They saw it as inconvenience, but not an issue. Why? Frankly, because elections are not about rationality, it would seem.

Outside of the echo chambers of social networks and cable news networks where opinion is manufactured, people are stubbing their toes on all sorts of issues that they should be talking about but only speak of that which they are told are issues. It’s the tyranny of being lost from ourselves, lost from the reality so many of us live in.

I read this article on Star Wars and the Fantasy of American Violence – perhaps too high brow for most voters out there, at least partly because of an education system that needs more sense than dollars. The ending of that article:

…There is another version of America beyond the noise our fireworks make: not military strength, but the deliberate commitment to collective self-determination. Perhaps this Fourth of July we could commemorate that. Instead of celebrating American violence, we might celebrate our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the ideals those documents invoke of an educated citizenry deciding its fate not through war but through civil disagreement. Instead of honoring our troops, whose chief virtues are obedience and aggressiveness, we could honor our great dissenters and conscientious objectors. And instead of blowing things up, maybe we could try building something.

It’s our choice. We make our myths. We show by our actions what our holy days mean. Forty years after the American Bicentennial, 13 years after I stood on a rooftop in Baghdad, and 10 years after getting out of the Army, I won’t be out under the fire, cheering our explosions. I won’t be watching “Star Wars” either. My America isn’t an empire or a rebellion, but an ideal; it’s not a conquest, nor a liberation, but a commitment.

I’d like a commitment for us to stop creating our own tyrannies, but I think that may be a bridge too far. The tyranny of the lack of self-determination needs to be the first thing to go, and it shouldn’t just be here in the United States but instead around the world.

But today is Independence Day, the 4th of July, so I think of America, and I think of the freedom from our self-imposed tyrannies, for their is no other group or nation powerful enough to impose tyranny on us. We’re fools to think otherwise.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

 

 

 

Slices of Life

1957... After the Prom - by Norman RockwellWhen I was growing up in Trinidad, uprooted from the United States, one of the few treasure I counted was a book of the art of Norman Rockwell. His work shows pieces of his life during his lifetime; casting everyday life into a full featured image that spoke volumes of the era.

It wasn’t all pretty, either. He had no trouble capturing the troubles of his time, but more often than not he portrayed the good parts of America.

You can find it in barber shops and pizzerias, small stores and small towns. A recent visit to a New York pizzeria in Edgewater reminded me of these and the value of them. The owner was talking to a teenage boy when I walked in; he was saying, “You have to care. We’re all connected. You can’t tell me you don’t care.”

“But I really don’t care.”

“What do you mean you don’t care? You come here, you have friends, you’re smart. Are you telling me you don’t care about any of that?”

“Yes.”

The big man wearing the floured apron shakes his head, looks at me and his eyes light up with recognition, “Hey, how you doin’?”

“Doin’ good, doin’ good. Go ahead, I’m figuring it out”. He knew I meant the food, but the side glance also told me he understood I was listening, “OK, shout when you know”.

This kid left with his friend soon after. An older gentleman, his blue collar creased, gets a phone call. His voice changes, we look at him. “I gotta go. Mother-in-law stopped breathing.”
“Wow. Going to the hospital?”

“No, going to find her insurance. They’ll want her insurance, and I gotta pull things together in case the worst happens.”

“Yeah. Everyone will be at the hospital, someone’s got to see about the other stuff.”
“Yeah, did it with my Dad.”

I think to myself that the guy looking after the practicalities is almost always me, and when everyone else is done with whatever mourning, that’s when I usually start. I say that, and we all kind of look at each other. “Yeah.”

He leaves. The owner and I talk about the kid; the kid had said he didn’t care, he’d walk through any neighborhood, that he could hold his own. We look at each other and shake our heads. I say, “He’ll learn one way or the other.”

“Yeah, but you know, he’s a good kid, he’s smart, but the only time he left home was when he probably went to Disney or sumthin’. He doesn’t know. The world isn’t like here.”

I nod agreement, thinking of the Allegory of the Cave for a split second, realizing that there was nothing to be said. I think about the difference between schooling and education, I think about how insulated the world is despite the wonders of our technology and how even our social networks cause us to be even more insulated from people who think different, who are different. And I come back to the moment, to a pizzeria in Edgewater, Florida, owned by a guy who left New York as a kid, who is a fixture of the neighborhood – more so than any Walmart. I think about my old barber in Beloit, Wisconsin, and about how such small businesses are the unspoken glue of culture in a society. Bastions of humanity and life in microcosm.

I order my spaghetti and sausage. A lady walks in, she says, “I always order from you but this is my first time in here! I like it!” He thanks her.

I smile and say, “It’s a slice of life.”