Waffling

Yesterday, in a footnote, I mentioned that I was clearly contradicting myself from a few days before.  At the time, I just meant it as a joke – but I think there’s more to it.

I dislike being wrong.  I dislike admitting I’m wrong.  I think stereotypically when I imagine a person who doesn’t want to admit they’re wrong, I imagine the school know-it-all, or the arrogant boss: so smug in their superiority that they can’t imagine a scenario where they’d be wrong.

Maybe that’s not actually how it is, at least not always.  My discomfort with admitting I’m wrong doesn’t come from a place of arrogance, an assumption that I do know everything.  It comes from insecurity – the fear that you’ll realize I know far less than you assumed – or worse, less than I lead you to believe.  To be discovered to know less than I’ve implied is literally a worst case scenario for me.  It’s the kind of thing that will keep me up at night.

As with any insecurity, in time you begin to build walls around it.  Once a feeling you don’t like is identified, you start changing your behavior in order to make sure you’ll never have to feel that way.  So I stopped having opinions on all but the safest topics – or those that could reasonably be argued in either direction.  To take a stand on a topic and be proven wrong, or to change your mind, was unthinkable.

But once you start down this path, the topics you can comfortably have an opinion on shrinks.  And as it shrinks, your ability to have interesting conversations shrink.  Interesting conversations are built around honesty and vulnerability, and avoiding sharing an opinion – avoiding even having an opinion out of fear is about as far from vulnerable as you can get.

Writing this is my immersion therapy.  I’m here, sharing half baked ideas.  Most of them aren’t as safe as I’d like.  It’s uncomfortable.  I’ll turn on some of them in days, or weeks, and decide the opposite true, or discover I didn’t have the whole story, that I hadn’t thought things through all the way.

But here’s why I’ve decided it’s ok, and why I’m writing anyway:  Constant adherence to who you were yesterday is dishonest.  It’s ok to contradict yourself.  We all change.  We get new information, we have new ideas.  If we only share the ones we’re absolutely sure of, or force ourselves to maintain opinions we had yesterday, last week, last year, and make a point of crucifying those around us who don’t, we’ll all be absolutely right, absolutely static, and absolutely boring.

Hard.

Tonight I went for a run.  But in order to prop that run up as something meaningful and noteworthy, and significant enough to expend all these precious keystrokes on, I have to lay out the rest of my day:

I didn’t sleep well last night.  I don’t know why – I got to bed later than I wanted to, a certain child kept showing up in my bed with bony knees jabbing into my side, and I had to pee several times, because I guess I have the bladder of a 70 year old man.

This evening was kindergarten orientation.  There seem to be multiple versions of this leading up to the school year.  This was the one where you don’t bring the dagger-kneed child.  So we dropped the kids off at my parents, and endured enjoyed a run through of what kindergarten is about, how to make sure our little angels are properly prepared, and a tour of the school.  After that, seeing as we had no children handy, we went to dinner, during which I consumed entirely too much sushi.  It was delicious, and I can’t say that given the opportunity I’d do anything differently, but by the end of the meal, it was apparent that I’d made a mistake.

We left dinner and picked up the kids.  Somehow, in the hours since dropping them off, the temperature dropped 30 degrees, and gusty winds started blowing.  It got cold.

We got home, the kids reluctantly went to sleep.  I was sleepy, uncomfortable from overeating, and just generally grouchy.  And I remembered that I have to run tonight.

I’m not generally a person who “has to” run.  I’ve never met a training plan I’m unwilling to ignore.  But last weekend, for reasons I can’t remember, I stumbled on Pact, a website that forces you to stick to your plans by charging you $5 every time you don’t.  And, because I was probably bored, and it was a Saturday, I went ahead and signed up, said I’d run every day this week, and then gave them a credit card.  Weekends are strange, dangerous times for me.

So that brings me back to tonight.  I’m grouchy and uncomfortable, it’s cold and windy outside, and I have to run.  I’m not going to pay $5.

So I dutifully put on my shorts, running shoes, headphones, and step outside.  And it starts to rain.

At this point, of course, I’m spectacularly annoyed.  But I go anyway.  And almost immediately, something magical happens:  It feels good.  I still don’t feel good – I’m cold and now wet and I feel a bit like I’m going to barf – but forcing myself to do something I don’t really want to do, when I had every reason not to do it feels good.  And soon I’m running too fast, forcing myself to slow down to avoid getting hurt, or bonking before I get home.

Sometimes hard is good.  Maybe sometimes hard is to be sought after.  Maybe it makes us better, gives us a reason to fight.  Maybe there was something off about that sushi.  Regardless, tonight’s run was good.

And before someone tries to call me out on the fact that 2 days ago I mocked suffering for the sake of suffering, let me announce: I’m aware.  And I don’t care.  Looking at you, Mazur.

Fiber

 “None of them would ever volunteer to go get his legs shot off in the jungle, just to piss off his old man. They lack a certain fiber. They are lifeless and beaten down.”

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash (p. 170).

To me, strangely, this quote goes hand in hand with the “Into the Wild” quote from the other day.  Sure, that one was an actual quote, from an actual person (who was a little crazy), with some serious actual followthrough, and this one comes from a fictional mobster to a teenage girl in a post apocalyptic, virtual reality obsessed wasteland – but they share something important.

There’s something beautiful about reckless defiance mixed with conviction.  For McCandless, it was about rebelling against society and social mores.  For Uncle Enzo (who is speaking in this quote), it was about rebelling against his father.  Both took risks that were likely pointless, and incredibly dangerous.  But the value wasn’t in the specific rebellious act – Uncle Enzo didn’t make a significant difference in (fictional) Vietnam, and we all still measure our self worth in new cars in spite of the fact that McCandless died for his choices – the value was in their willingness to rebel, their willingness to accept hardship (or death) for something they cared about regardless of what the thing they cared about was.

I’ve tried several times, unsuccessfully, to write a conclusion to that – to wrap this up in what it means to me, what this class of person is.  Should they be looked up to?  Scorned? Ignored?  I don’t know.  Having convictions and being willing to make real sacrifices for those convictions – regardless of what they are, or if they’re broadly considered valuable or foolhardy – there’s something to that.  As uncle Enzo says, it “gives a person a certain fiber”.  I like the sound of that.

I’m sure I’ll write more about this topic, I don’t seem to be able to stay away from it.

Advice from the Young and Dead

So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.

Jon Krakauer | Into the Wild (p. 58)

It’s worth noting, before getting too carried away with what a glorious quote this is, that it’s not actually Jon Krakauer speaking, but Christopher McCandless.  The same Christopher McCandless who chose the name Alexander Supertramp, and, depending on who you ask, either arrogantly set out into a harsh Alaskan wilderness inexperienced and unprepared, or courageously threw off the shackles of modern society for a grand, romantic adventure to find something deeper and more fulfilling than the life of security, conformity, and conservatism he railed against.

Further clouding the value of this quote – he was 24 at the time he wrote it.  How much deep, life changing advice are you willing to take from your closest 24 year old?

Finally, he died for it.  The sentiment in this quote literally lead to his demise.

So on it’s face, there’s a lot going against it.  And in spite of all that, I’ll be honest:  I don’t care.  If I knew a 24 year old who called himself “Alexander Supertramp”, hitchhiked around the country taking odd jobs and convincing anyone he talked to that modern life was of questionable value before taking off with meager supplies and questionable training to survive an Alaskan winter (we’ll ignore the bit where he dies, because lets be real: poisoned by wild potato seeds?  That’s just a bad draw.), I’d listen to anything he wanted to talk about.

None of my ramblings thus far have even addressed the content of the quote.  There’s a lot going on here, and I’ve now tired myself out just discussing the context for it.  So I’ll just let it soak.  Drink it in.

Death

A year or so ago, a guy I didn’t like died. We used to argue all the time over our opinions. Now he’s dead. I guess I won.

James Altucher | Choose Yourself (p. 163)

This made me giggle.  That’s all.

Of course, as I’m prone to telling anyone who will listen, we’re all dying,  right now.  I’ll save ruminations on that for another post.

I won’t even give the original context for this quote, because honestly, I didn’t find it very interesting – but as I mentioned with regards to Alan Watts, sometimes there’s a golden nugget of a sentence or idea in an otherwise boring, or nonsense paragraph, chapter, book (or person), and I’m not inclined to throw it out just because of where it lives.

For now, rest easy in the fact that some of the people you don’t like will die before you.  It won’t be your fault, you certainly would never hope for such a thing (you’re not a monster), but it will happen anyway.

And you’ll never admit it, but you’ll have won.

Why Write?

I’ve been writing a lot lately.  Some of it good, some of it.. less.. good.  And slowly, consistently, I’ve been getting messages.  Some from people I talk to often, some from people I don’t talk to so often.  The gist is almost always the same: they want to ask what has caused the sudden change from 1 post per year (maybe), to a post per day.  Generally the subtle undertone to these conversations is “Are you ok? What is going on?”

So yes, I’m ok.  And yes, I’m writing a lot, often half formed ideas, sometimes ideas that make people vaguely uncomfortable.  Why?

Serendipitously, a coworker shared a video on Facebook last week, which was specifically about how good the movie Arrival is.  Not necessarily good like entertaining (although it is), but good as in well crafted.  Thoroughly thought out.  Compelling.  It’s an interesting video (embedded at the bottom of the post), but it leads with an idea that got to the heart of why I keep vomiting words every day:

An idea, no matter how profound it feels to you, does not exist until you can write it down or… put it on film.

I have a lot of ideas.  I like to think.  I like to question, I like to get to the heart of things.  And I spend a lot of time doing it – walking, running, laying in bed.  But the ideas, when they’re just cycled through a quiet head on a walk, or mumbled to yourself while doing the dishes – even if they’re discussed briefly with a close friend – tend to be ephemeral.  They’re here, they feel important while they’re around, and then the next hour, or the next day, or the next week, they’re gone.  I’m on to something else, having almost entirely lost all the ideas or mental exploration I found so profound just a short time earlier.  Then in, time, I’ll loop back around, and think through the same problems again – with a slightly changed perspective, maybe – but with almost no lasting benefit from the previous round.

So I want to write.  Writing, especially writing in a context where other people might (gasp) actually read it and try to make sense of what I’m thinking, forces a different approach.  Suddenly things have to make sense, they have to go together, there has to be a reason for the idea, and maybe (ok, rarely) a conclusion to them.  And I think that, similar to physically writing notes during a lecture you actually want to remember, forcing this change in perspective, this requirement to actually form thoughts fully (half-fully?) means there’s some traction.  The ideas are better.  They stick with me further.

What’s more, I get better at explaining things – at forming thoughts at making sense of them.

So you’ll get more writing from me.  Maybe, if we all just really believe, the writing and/or ideas will even improve.  In the meantime, watch these well formed and interesting ideas about the movie “Arrival”:

Dishonest Diplomacy

It was a mistake to speak one’s mind at any time, unless it perfectly matched your political purpose; and it never did. Best to strip all statements of real content, this was a basic law of diplomacy.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Red Mars (p. 414)

I enjoyed Red Mars well enough, but apparently not so well as to read the sequels.  It was long, and slow in parts.

This quote is good, though.  While it first feels like the author is only talking about actual politics (or maybe political correctness), I think it’s applicable far wider.  How often do we strip statements of real content, and for what reasons?

At the very least, I do it:

  • To avoid offending.
  • To avoid hurt feelings.
  • To avoid looking dumb.
  • To avoid being vulnerable.

Conversely, this kind of shallow, vanilla, no-chance-anyone-could-take-offense discourse is useless.  It’s guaranteed to avoid real connection or understanding.  At best it’s a waste of both parties’ time, at worst it’s one more offending action in a greater pattern of soul crushing, whitewashed dishonesty.

So go say something real, honest, and maybe offensive.  Do it thoughtfully, to an appropriate audience (read:  not facebook), and be ready to listen and discuss why you might be wrong – but do it.

What am I going to do today?

It’s Saturday.

I woke up this morning, and rolled over:  7:15.  I get up, go to the bathroom, and come out – directionless.  On a weekday, I’d be headed to the gym, or making the kids breakfast before school – something.  But it’s not a weekday.  I pull up some sweatpants, wander out of the bedroom and into the kitchen.  I look out the kitchen window.  The sun is already up, but the day looks dull and gray.  And I’m faced with the question: “What am I going to do today?”

This is an easy question to avoid on weekdays:  I’m going to work.  What exactly I’m going to do at work is often up in the air – but that’s ok.  I’m working.  I’ll sit down in front of my computer, talk to people, read things, write a post or two, review some code, maybe have a few calls. But no matter what I do, I’m safe from the dreaded question “What am I going to do today?” – I’m going to work, and work is safe.  Unquestionable.  I have to work to pay for this house, food for my kids, life.  So there’s no decision.  I work.  5 or 6 rolls around, and I can go relax with the kids, have some dinner, maybe go for a run or watch TV.  It’s all safe, because I’ve already done what I’m supposed to that day, so now I can indulge, without pesky questions about how I’m spending my time.

But that’s not today.  Today as a weekend, and in theory, I’m not working.  So I have to make decisions.

On it’s face, “What am I going to do today” is not so hard – I can do any number of things, and I have a lot of ideas:  I can sit around the house and read.  I can play video games (with or without the kids).  I can exercise.  I can plan a trip with the family – maybe a drive to the mountains, or to the trampoline park for the kids.  I can cook – maybe it would be nice to have a couple of loaves of homemade bread this week?  I can clean the garage, or do yardwork.  I can build furniture, or start on some other creative project.

But it turns out the difficulty of the question is not about the actual actions I’m going to take – the feeling of dread that comes with it is not about a lack of options, or impending boredom.  The issue, the real question, comes later: “Am I satisfied with what I did today?”  Especially on a weekend: if you accept “workdays” as free from this kind of personal scrutiny (which is an idea that deserves more thought and a separate blog post), then the weekends are particularly important – the 2 days out of 7 that you get to choose entirely how your time is spent.  What are we, if not how we spend our free time, without constraints, without direction or duties to hide behind?

Is it ok to sit and watch TV all day?

Cleaning is safe, right?  Nobody can question if the guy cleaning his garage is using his limited time wisely.  Right?

I don’t have an answers here, this isn’t that kind of post.  What I think I know is this:  a day that does not that move you meaningfully toward your goals, or fulfill you in some way, is wasted.  And we only get so many.

Boredom

I think often about boredom.  I do this because I am bored.  Often.

If you really dig into it, I think boredom is actually pretty interesting.  Whenever I tell someone I’m bored, or hear that they are, I’m skeptical that we’re actually talking about the same thing.  I think language is pretty interesting that way, but I’ll save exploring that for another post.

So lets talk about the same thing:

boredom

noun
1. the state of being bored; tedium; ennui.

 Thanks, dictionary.com, super useful.  Lets try again.

bore

verb (used with object), bored, boring.

1. to weary by dullness, tedious repetition, unwelcome attentions, etc.:

The long speech bored me.

So, I think that’s a useful starting point, at least for identifying the specific feeling.  But it’s superficial – really superficial.  Like it could be cured, or at least papered over by a particularly exciting show on TV.  I don’t think that covers it.

I think boredom is more nuanced.  It’s not a switch – you’re bored or you’re not.  I think boredom is a symptom of deeper longing for something – sometimes acute, but often not.

While we tend to think specific actions will cure our boredom, the reality is probably that we’re looking for specific feelings – adventure, excitement, fulfillment, responsibility, coziness, quiet, danger, etc. The actions are merely a catalyst for these feelings.

Why is the distinction important?  You identify that you’re bored, you do something – go for a walk, watch TV, eat (I’m a particular fan of eating as a treatment to boredom), and then you go on with your day.

Being forced to identify why you’re bored means admitting what you want, and what is lacking.  Maybe it’s as simple as “I need to be relax entertained for a few minutes by something on YouTube, because I’ve been responding to emails for an hour, and my brain is tired.”  Fine.

But maybe it’s not so simple.  Maybe it’s “I need to do something big, out of the ordinary, because my day to day is too routine.”  Or “I need to do something meaningful – I need to really feel like I’m making a difference in someone’s life, because it’s been too long since I’ve felt that way.”  But it’s subtle. In the moment, it doesn’t feel so different from when you’ve been responding to emails for an hour.

So you watch something on YouTube.

Indifference

Indifferent people are afraid of the world and the repercussions of their own choices. That’s why they don’t make any meaningful choices. They hide in a gray, emotionless pit of their own making, self-absorbed and self-pitying, perpetually distracting themselves from this unfortunate thing demanding their time and energy called life.

Manson, Mark (2016-09-13). The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (p. 15). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I’m a follower.  Sometimes I blame this on the fact that I’m the last of 4 siblings – I had several people more than willing to make plans and decisions growing up, all I had to do was sit back and go with the flow.  Going with the flow can be a useful trait, and one I value pretty highly – but when I ran across this paragraph, it hit me pretty hard.

I don’t make choices.  Sometimes I don’t make choices because I just legitimately don’t care.  Want to go out to dinner?  I’ll go literally anywhere.  Anywhere.  And I’ll be fine with it.  Want to make plans?  I don’t have any, but whatever you want to do is fine.

I’ve become suspicious that long term, there’s a cost to living this way – to constantly going with the flow, and relying on others to make plans or take charge. Moment to moment, it’s convenient.  But, while there’s value in the ability to be content with whatever choice is made, at the end of the day, I’m living with someone else’s choices, not making them myself.  At some point, I fear that results in living someone else’s life – or worse, living an average of the life of all the people I interact with. Life by committee.

The alternative, for me, or people like me, is scary – for exactly the reasons Manson describes. Indifferent people are afraid of the world and the repercussions of their own choices.   Choosing means being willing to deal with the consequences of my choices.  Even something as simple as dinner bears consequences.  What if it’s bad, or people don’t like it?

Maybe more significantly, publicly making a choice means being vulnerable. Indifference is a shield, ready to be wielded to ward off prying eyes into who I am and what I value – and by extension, avoiding criticism on those things.  It’s safer to stay indifferent – to feel out what other people think or feel before speaking, and lessen the risk of saying or doing anything particularly authentic.

The next time you and I go out to dinner, and it comes time to choose a place, and I inevitably tell you “I don’t care”, or “I’m game for anything”,  just leave without me.