Chasing the Wind

We never heard the starter gun, but we were in a new race.  One where the finish line was headed right for us.

ALS has always terrified me.  But as I watch this, and listen to the way he talks about how it affected his dad, it just reinforces the idea that the finish line is headed for us regardless.  It came a little earlier than expected for his dad (in a particularly tortuous way), but nobody is guaranteed the 20 or 30 years he missed.

Plus, you know, beautiful cinematography, windsurfing (apparently I want to be a windsurfer), and motorcycles in the desert.  These people know how to get me.

Bonus quote, from the description:

The proper function of man is to live, not exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them, I shall use my time.

Jack London

 

Adaptation

I’ve been sick for the last few days.  I’m really bad at being sick.  When I have a fever, I have stress dreams and can’t tell the difference between dream and reality.  Then when I’m awake, I mostly just lay around and moan, reveling in misery, and bringing down anyone within earshot.

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m sitting in the shower.  The hot water is pouring down over me, and it feels good, but also terrible – my fever means that the water is both uncomfortably hot, but I’m shivering because I’m cold.  The fever and accompanied achiness is bad, but what’s worse is my throat – swollen and inflamed, I haven’t really been able to swallow for a day.  So I’m dehydrated and hungry too.  And all I can think is “Normal is going to feel unimaginably good.”

I almost always have this same thought when I’m sick enough to be really inconvenienced, not just mildly uncomfortable.

Today, Sunday morning, I woke up feeling much better.  The fever is gone.  My throat is still sore, but it’s annoying, not debilitating.  And today, every bite – the waffles with peanut butter at breakfast (yes, you heard me.  Try it),  the leftover pizza at lunch – every bite was glorious.  Euphoric.

The difference in quality of life between yesterday and today is palpable.  It’s almost impossible to forget, to miss. But tomorrow or the next day, I’ll be completely back to normal, and the euphoria, the victory over the illness, the acknowledgement of the difference between how poor things were before, and how good they are now will be past its natural expiration date.  I’ll have adapted again, to normal.

Because that’s what normal is:  just whatever has been happening for long enough to kind of forget about what was happening before.  And we’re great at adapting.

What do We Really Know?

The kids and I sat down tonight to watch “Cosmos”, the reboot of Carl Sagan’s acclaimed from the 80s, now hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I (gasp) never watched the original, and my son Sam, 7, is old enough to actually have it keep his attention, I think. He likes to delay bedtime by asking me questions about space (“Why is the sky blue?” “Tell me that thing about how time changes if you go too fast again.” “I want a new interesting fact about black holes.”). We both know he’s only doing it to delay bedtime, but we also both know it’s going to work every time. Anyway, it seemed like a good time to start the series.

The first episode spends a lot of time focused on the ideas behind the Copernican revolution, in which western civilization traded the older Ptolemaic model of the heavens, in which the Earth is the center, with the Heliocentric model, where the sun is the center. Specifically, the episode delves into the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher who lived after Copernicus, but died before Galileo made his first telescope.
Bruno’s real contributions, which apparently he eventually died for, were a few ideas:

  • The stars are, in fact, the same thing as our sun, just very far away.
  • The stars likely have their own planets around them, and therefore, likely their own life.
  • The universe is essentially uniform and infinite – not existing as a very large sphere around our sun.

I’m sure there was more to it than this, but keep in mind, my knowledge of this topic is essentially 45 minutes of television, plus some light skimming of Wikipedia.

Of course, prior to tonight, I was aware of all this, even if I really only had the bullet points down. People though the earth was flat, then maybe they accepted it was round, but still believed it was the center of the universe, then gradually discovered the nature of the universe as we understand it now. What I never had really considered was this: How difficult would it have been to challenge these theories at the time?

I think it’s easy to assume, through our historical glasses, that people of the time period were just waiting around to disprove the existing theories of how the world worked. That if you or I had been there, surely we’d have realized how silly it was to think the earth was the center of the universe. Except that that made perfect sense. What else could anyone have believed, given what we can observe with the naked eye, from the ground? And – bonus – at the time make an assertion that didn’t agree with the church’s ideas of how things worked, and you’d be ridiculed at best, tortured, imprisoned, and burned at the stake at worst.

But still, in the face of all the opposition, in spite of the fact that it would have been exceedingly easy to worry about the challenges of the day, how to get yourself a new carriage or the hottest chaperon, and not give a second thought to the prevailing theories about how the universe turned, people did it. People asked questions. Hard questions. They thought about things. And they did it without technology, or invented technology to help answer their questions. They just looked up, observed, and then thought.

Similarly, I’ve often wondered how I would have behaved had I been born an affluent white male in the south in the early 19th century. It’s easy now to look back and recognize slavery as cruel, unfair, evil. But if it was all you knew, what you had been raised around, raised to believe – would you question it? Would you even think to question it? I like to tell myself I’d never have stood for it, but I’m afraid that’s too generous.

But there’s good news: Our lives, our societies, are literally full of assumptions, of unquestioned prevailing theories. Universal truths that we all agree on without a second thought. Universal truths that we all agree on because we don’t even recognize that we’re agreeing to them, because they’re so deep that we can’t even recognize there’s an argument to be made. I think sometimes finding the answers is actually easier than finding the questions.

What if the universe is just a simulation? Do you actually agree with your supposed views on political issues like abortion, LGBT rights, or do you just accept what people similar to you say on Facebook? Do you really like chocolate milk? (spoiler: I really, really do)

These are lame questions, but the point is that the interesting questions are the ones that are hard to find, because people aren’t asking them. So, try thinking hard about what you take for granted. The things you’ve never even thought to question. It’s hard. If doing so, even in your own head, doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re probably not digging deep enough.

 

 

Header image by Bartolomeu Velho – Own work, Public Domain

But Why These Shoes?

I’m back on shoes.  I guess I really like shoes.

I’m really interested in shoes, and what they say about their owners.  In theory, they’re inconspicuous, out of the way – as far away from the head, with its facial expressions and speaking as possible.  We pay attention to faces, to upper bodies.

Down there at the lowly Cape Horn of the body sit the shoes, functionally tasked with keeping our oh-so-tender feet safe.

So as I sit in the park, watching the many people go by, I can’t help but wonder about the choices everyone made.  Why those shoes?  What possessed the wearer to choose this shoe instead of any other?  Why does the market support such a wide variety of footwear?

What do my shoes say about me?

When I buy shoes, it’s an almost unconscious decision.  I’ll browse online, or go to a shoe store (gasp) in person, and see what they have.  If asked what I’m interested in, I’ll say “I don’t know”.  I don’t know.  And yet, I’m guided by an invisible will towards specific styles, brands, and types.

The reality is that I’m very specific about what type of shoe I’ll buy and wear, I just don’t like to admit it, even to myself.  Whether or not I like it, whether or not I’ll admit it openly, I’m buying shoes in large part in order to tell you something about myself.  Yes, I have some baseline requirements that don’t relate to other people (do they fit?  Are they comfortable enough?), but the majority of my shoe buying decision comes down to you, and what I want you to think of me.

What do people’s shoes say about them?

Are they comfortable looking?  Are they inconspicuous?  Are they bright and obnoxious?  Are they so obviously ugly that the wearer is either blind, or making some sort of statement about how little they care about what you think? Do they match the wearer’s shirt? Hat? Are they athletic shoes, in spite of the fact that the wearer is not currently doing anything athletic?  Are they leather? Are they not leather, but brown anyway? Are they very obviously brand new? Are they dirty?  Are they all white, but amazingly not dirty?  Can you imagine how much work it is to keep all white shoes clean?  Seriously, think about it, I’ll wait.

So, I don’t know, go look at your shoes.  How much of the decision to buy that particular pair of shoes was about telling people about yourself?  Are you happy with what they say?

Tune in tomorrow, where I’ll undoubtedly talk more about shoes.

 

Other people

A few days ago I wrote about the phone, and my general desire to not use it.  Ever.  But there’s a little more to it than that – barely under the surface, there’s a general disdain for other people, for human interaction.  I fall into this trap easily, and willingly, fully aware of what I’m doing.  And it’s fine.  I like being alone, and I don’t often feel lonely, or compelled to seek out interaction with other people.

I mentioned a phone call that kicks off the podcast S-Town.  A phone call I would have blown off,  avoided, because the very premise of the call was all wrong – it was obviously not the transactional interaction that I would have wanted it to be.  Of course, the reporter, being a reporter, followed through with a call, and what followed was a wild and baffling exchange that eventually evolved into a long and involved relationship (no, not _that_ kind of relationship) with one of the most interesting people I’ve heard or read about.  Really a fascinating person, the kind that makes you question everything about yourself, or maybe all about the world, _even if_ they’re difficult to be around.  (I’m only 2 episodes in, so maybe by the time I finish the series, I’ll have discovered it wasn’t a real person or something.  Don’t spoil this for me.)

When we interact with no one, or only with a small group of friends and family that we already know well, it’s easy to stay comfortable.  To exist safely in a cocoon of our own ideas and philosophies, safely protected from the difficulty and discomfort of facing interactions and people who don’t share them, might have their own.  This is safe, comfortable, and boring.  To rehash a quote:

When the outcome of a game is certain, we call it quits and begin another. This is why many people object to having their fortunes told: not that fortunetelling is mere superstition or that the predictions would be horrible, but simply that the more surely the future is known, the less surprise and the less fun in living it.

Watts, Alan W | The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Other people are wildcards.  Other people _can’t be controlled_. Other people force us to re-examine our beliefs, and introduce us to new ones.  It can be uncomfortable and embarrassing.  Sometimes it’s useless, because lots of people are actually terribly boring.

But if you want to life the kind of uncertain, adventurous life Watts refers to,  it’s probably worth picking up the phone on occasion, and talking to the clearly crazy person on the other end.

Shoes

I was in New York over the weekend.  I hadn’t ever been to New York.

We spent an afternoon in Central Park.  It was Sunday afternoon, and the weather was nice – and the park was full of people.  More people than a yokel such as myself can really comprehend easily – where did all these people come from? Where do they all live?  Why are they all here?

But one thought kept coming to me:

Look at all these shoes.

It can be difficult to really understand the vast scale and power of the worldwide human economic machine – but if you get thousands and thousands of people together, and then just start paying attention to their shoes, you can start to get a sense for it.  All those shoes.  Very few of them exact duplicates – there are many similar styles, but not so many perfect matches, even in a sample size so large.  Each pair had to be designed, manufactured, packaged, shipped, delivered to a store, then purchased by a person.  So. Many.  Shoes.

What’s more – shoes aren’t exactly a commodity.  People care about their shoes.  They have to be the right size, to start – but more important than that, they have to be the right style.  We expect our shoes to, on some level, reflect who we are.  So now you’ve got to have this massive infrastructure in place for manufacturing, delivering, and selling the shoes, but you’ve also got to close the loop – the customer’s desires have to inform your shoe designs.  And it works!  I saw thousands and thousands of pairs of shoes, and each one somehow spoke to the person who bought them – made them feel a bit more stylish, or more professional, more athletic, more unique – enough to spend some money and take them home.

The sheer volume, the complexity that makes up the industry that has no focus, no concern other than to protect and decorate your feet, is staggering.

Creating

So often when we try to create we judge what we are making before its even had a chance to breathe and grow

Ben posted this in relation to a quote from Sister Corita Kent, who I know nothing about, and now feel compelled to hear more from.

About a month ago, I told my brother that I’d write something meaningful to me every day for 100 days on this blog.  It’s been great, and it’s been terrible.  

The beauty of a commitment like that is that I have to write and publish every day.  And a lot of days, the thoughts I’ve had, whatever I’ve written down, I don’t like them.  They’re boring, they’re hard to make sense of, they’re pretentious, or they’re just poorly written.  And I don’t want to post them.  But I do. I thrust them on you poor people, and then I (usually) have them automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter to seal the deal, and ensure people revel in the mediocrity with me.

Just as Ben describes, my default state would be to never publish anything except things that I really like, and I’m really excited about – which means I’d basically never post anything at all.  I’m glad to be forced to follow his advice – to be forced to write, create, and avoid judging too much during the process – something just has to get posted every day.

So take Ben’s advice.  Go make something, and don’t let yourself judge it along the way – just go until you’re done, and let it turn out how it turns out.  Whatever it is, you’ll end up better than when you started.

The phone.

I just started the podcast S-town, put on by the producers of This American Life, and Serial. It’s come up several times over the past few weeks, most recently when my wife recommended it to me this morning. So I gave it a listen.
In the first episode, the host describes an exchange he had with a listener over the past year or two. It started with emails alleging that something was afoot in a small town in the South. 

Eventually, one of the stories is corroborated, and the reporter takes the bait. Upon contacting the listener to get more details, he gets a response: “I would like to talk to you by phone if possible. This is just too much to type.”
When does something become “too much to type”? And why? What conversations necessitate a phone call instead of an email?
I’ll state my bias right up front: I communicate all day long via text. Email, text message, slack, etc – the vast majority of my interaction with other humans – personal and professional- is via text. Text is powerful. In the right hands, it is precise and exact, and ranges from emotionally charged to strictly factual.
So when I hear “This is just too much to type”, I hear “my thoughts are unclear, and I’m interested in having you listen to me ramble”. By the way, my fears are immediately confirmed on the show when the listener launches into descriptions of his mothers dimentia, and the number of stray dogs in the callers house, and town more broadly. You can get away with rambling on he phone, or in person – but in text? In text you don’t have a monopoly on my attention. I can scan ahead, to look for when or if this tangent will wrap back around to the reason for us communicating. The inability to do so means you can hold me hostage indefinitely, or until I’m so annoyed I’ll interrupt.
Speaking on the phone or face to face is far higher bandwidth than text. This is generally touted as a blessing, but let’s consider it more thoroughly, with some examples. Have you ever wondered why salesmen always want to “schedule a call” or meet in person? Why do door to door salesmen still exist, in an age where communicating with anyone without leaving your desk is simple and ubiquitous?
The added bandwidth gives whoever you’re talking to a wealth of information about you (are you nervous? Timid? Eager to please? Uncomfortable with confrontation?), plus an array of tools to use against you to get you to agree. Remember chad? He sold us a standing ovation we didn’t want, but he could only do so because we were in the same room.
For these same reasons, often text is the wrong answer – it is harder to communicate emotion, to foster a connection over text. When I call my kids because I miss them, I want to see their faces, i don’t want to send a text.
But don’t tell me that you need to meet face to face or on the phone to schedule a meeting, or discuss something. Text fits the bill just fine, thanks.

Human Work

The so-called rich elite are in actuality poor as well, disengaged from real human work and therefore from real human accomplishment

Robinson, Kim Stanley | Red Mars (p. 375)

I’ve taken this quote completely out of context, because it’s been so long since I read it that I’ve forgotten the context.  But that’s ok, because I think it stands on its own.

I write code and talk to people for a living.  And those are valuable, fulfilling, enjoyable tasks – writing code is creation, in a very literal sense. Even so, sometimes I feel like I’m “disengaged from real human work”.

Building things is fun.  It’s satisfying.  Handling physical objects, making things that can be seen, touched, admired, used, repaired – it’s a different kind of satisfaction – in some ways it feels more real, maybe more “human”.

Doing human work can help keep us human.   Go bake some bread.  Or build a chair.  Or fix a door that squeaks.

Standing Ovations

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself at a David Copperfield show.  Yes, that David Copperfield.  I’m not a magic aficionado, but the show was fun – well produced, polished, and generally entertaining.

I’ll admit that half the fun of the show was not the show itself, but watching it and figuring out how it was produced.  I don’t really mean the magic – figuring out how the tricks worked – that was mostly beyond me.  I’m perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief and just agree that he’s sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a full head of thick black hair, and the ability to make big stuff show up where big stuff could not possibly have been moments before.

What I found interesting was the sheer amount of production that went into the show.  Everything was rehearsed, and rehearsed thoroughly (and repeated several nights a week, I guess).  Nothing went wrong – and when it seemed like things might be going wrong (as it sometimes does whenever members of the audience get involved), Copperfield’s experience as a performer and manager of audiences, clearly extensive, took care of it.

Everything had a place.  Every step, every trick, every word.  It felt like watching a TV show in person.  The entire thing had been crafted – designed to direct our eyes, our attention, and our emotions.

The end of the show rolled around, and with it some kind of 2 part finale.  I don’t actually remember what the tricks were, I just remember that there were 2 standing ovations. I’m always intrigued by the concept of the standing ovation.  You go to a show, you get to the end, you’re already applauding, but it’s not enough.  You’ve got to really let the performer(s) know that they were so compelling, so amazing, that you cannot stay in your seat.  You have to stand up, clap wildly, even whistle, if you’re one of those people blessed with the ability to make a shrill, fingers in your mouth whistle.  And it’s never just one person.  The whole crowd gets up, or at least the front section (why is it always the front section?) in a nearly unanimous decision that the performance was too amazing – butts cannot remain in chairs.

So I was particularly surprised when, at the end of this show, not one but two standing ovations took place.  The show was nice, I enjoyed it, but I would not put it in the category of “to applaud this man while sitting would be a travesty”.  And everyone in front of us stood up to clap.  Twice.

But I noticed something during the first standing ovation.  Being alert for this kind of thing (I’m always keen to try to work out the motivations of that first person who stands up during the applause.  What a weight on their shoulders!), I watched the first dude stand up.  He was young-ish, probably early to mid 20s.  But what struck me was the fact that after the applause, he left, like he had to go to the bathroom or something.  Then the second standing ovation rolls around, and lo and behold, it’s the same dude.  Stands up, gets the ovation going, and leaves.

So clearly, he’s part of the show.  And his role is: Trick (guilt?) the people in the front section into standing up and clapping.  And that doesn’t sound so surprising, but think through how this went – they planned this.  They sat down at some point before the show, and somebody said

“Alright, Chad, you’re on ovation duty tonight.  I want you to sell it.  Don’t be a Zack.  We all saw what happened to Zack.  I’ll give you a crisp $5 bill if you can squeeze a tear out.” 

 And he went out there and did it.  And dutifully, the people around him bought it, and stood up.  

Chad here, who showed up 38 seconds ago, found this performance worthy of a stand-and-clap.  Good enough for Chad, good enough for me.”  

Or maybe they didn’t buy it.  Maybe they saw through it, but somehow felt like it was their job to stand, and Chad was their leader – giving them non-verbal cues on how they were expected to behave for their privileged position at the front of the theater.  Maybe they felt bad for Chad, standing all alone, and quickly got up so he didn’t feel silly, or, you know, suffer the same fate as Zack. I don’t know.

Regardless, the lesson was:  Don’t trust Chad.  And maybe don’t trust our deeply ingrained, follow-the-leader instincts.  Because apparently (I learned after the show), this is so common, it’s a thing, with a name.  We’re all so willing to follow the Chads of the world, who will head to his next job, resume in hand, listing his exemplary skills in “Leadership in standing up”.

Don’t follow Chad.  Watch out for Chad.  He’s at the theater, where he’s innocuous, but I’m guessing he’s elsewhere too, preying on us psychologically, convincing us of what to care about, what to do.  And he’s doing so with his own motivations, his own goals, his own agenda.

I’m watching you, Chad.