Restlessness

I’m driving, heading up the highway, into the mountains.  It’s morning, and snow is falling heavily.  It’s cold out – probably about 10 degrees – so the snowflakes are light and dry.  The road ahead is slowly accumulating snow, but only on the edges of the road, and in between the lanes – not where the wheels hit.

I always notice this.  It’s not always snow – maybe it’s dirt blowing across the road from a dust storm.  Maybe it’s debris from a car accident. Maybe it’s gravel that fell off a passing truck.  Whatever it is, by the time I see it, it’s always cleared itself out of the tire tracks.  That always strikes me, because it feels like there’s sentience there.  How did the rocks know to get out of the tire tracks?  Why aren’t the rocks just scattered evenly across the road – surely that’s how they fell?

And it is how they fell.  And it’s how snow falls too – evenly across the road.  But even so, it manages to organize itself outside of the tire tracks.  Why?  How?

The rock that is in the tire tracks, unsurprisingly, gets run over – hit, over and over again.  And every time it gets hit, it moves – thrown forward as though it was kicked.  And as it tumbles forward, it bounces randomly to the left, or to the right.  And it keeps doing this – getting hit, moving forward, bouncing laterally, until eventually, it’s not in the tire tracks anymore.  Not by conscious decision, but because by chance, randomly, it happened to not be in the tire tracks anymore.

So that’s where it stays.  Out of the tracks.  Not getting run over anymore Also not moving. Stuck.

And whenever I notice this, I can’t help but assign some deeper philosophical meaning to it.  Tire tracks are a violent, unpredictable place to be. But as soon as you find yourself outside the tracks, comfortable, settled, you’re no longer moving.

Perspectives

Those who have read some of my former books … find things that seem to be total contradictions of much that I have said before. This, however, is true only in some minor respects. For I have discovered that the essence and crux of what I was trying to say in those books was seldom understood … My intention here is to approach the same meaning from entirely different premises…

Watts, Alan W. The Wisdom of Insecurity

I’m still of the opinion that Alan Watts is mostly crazy, but apparently not so crazy that I’ll stop reading what he wrote.  Also, I found this particular thing interesting.

Code is interesting.  When you write code, you get to build something from nothing, totally out of thin air. Notably, it’s entirely made up.  It has no physical manifestation – the real shape of it, the ideas that it imbues exist only in your head.  But even so, there are rules.  There are patterns that come up, that start to reveal themselves as they are repeated through different problems.

For the uninitiated, when you write code, you talk to the computer in any of a variety of particular languages, each with their own syntax and idiosyncrasies.  There are a lot of them – and much like regular, talking-to-each-other-by-flapping-our-mouths languages, they all attempt to do the same thing – tell the computer what to do.  They all have their own nuance, flavor, quirks and sharp edges.

As a result, any problem or idea that is built in a single, particular programming language is going to pick up that nuance, those quirks, those sharp edges – the ones from the language itself.  Identifying which sharp edges actually belong to your idea, your coding style, what you were trying to build, and which ones come by nature of the programming language you chose can be almost impossible – until you write the same thing in another language.  Getting across the same idea, solving the same problem in another language begins to give the real shape of a thing – which difficulties are inherent in the problem you’re solving, or your approach, and which come from the language you chose.

Back to Watts. Watts wrote a bunch of ideas down, in two books.  But he did so from a particular perspective – at the time, he was an Episcopal priest.  As a result, his ideas got all wrapped up in that – the language he used, the perspective he was writing from – and he felt like what he was really trying to get at, really trying to explain or at least explore, was lost.  The sharp quirks of his perspective and the language he used became indistinguishable from the quirks of his ideas.  So he had to try again, from a new perspective, to get at the truth of what he was actually trying to convey.  Because communication is hard, but maybe it’s worth it.

Ideas and the language, metaphors, or perspective used to describe them are inseparable.  The only way to communicate or understand the real shape of a thing is to come at it repeatedly, from different perspectives.

Damned Civilized

He was becoming damned civilized; and soon, he suspected, would come acceptance… then complacency… then the death of creativity.

Arthur C. Clarke | Richter 10

Richter 10 is ostensibly about earthquakes, but really it’s about a crazy, broken man.  Totally nuts.  Unreasonable, and driven well beyond the safety of normalcy by his passion.  His eccentricities also drive his greatness – his creativity, his fight.  Unshackled by the confines and expectations of polite, socially acceptable society, he’s free to chase what’s important to him.

It seems to me that those willing to be a little abnormal, or maybe even willing to actively fight against being normal, are the ones who do the most interesting things.

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.

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.

Passion

In the past fifteen years, the only time I didn’t look at my bank account every day was when I was doing something I was passionate about.

Altucher, James | Choose Yourself (p. 130)

Everything seems really important.  Your job, your bank account, your house, your car, your clothes.  Your TV.  The shows you watch on your TV.  Your furniture.

I walk around my suburban neighborhood in the summer, and it’s all pristine yards.  Green grass, well trimmed.  Well maintained landscaping.  To be clear, this includes my house.  And I walk around, and I can’t help but wonder:  Do we all care this much about our lawns?  Is this really important enough to justify the amount of time and money spent?

I think most people don’t actually care about these things, at all – or, put more honestly, I don’t think I care about these things at all, in spite of the fact that they feel important to me.  You probably have a different set of things that feel important but you don’t care about, which overlaps to some degree with mine.

I have an actual list titled “things I don’t care about”, which includes the things above.  Making that list is difficult, because if you want it to be meaningful, you have to be really painfully honest about it.  And maybe I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t care about how my yard looks, but I do.  I actually love yardwork.  That’s ok.  Making a conscious decision, giving it some actual thought is what is valuable.

Here’s what I find more interesting, day to day: the amount of time and effort I spend thinking about or working on the things that are on my “things I don’t care about” list is directly related to how excited I am about whatever else I’m doing in my life.  I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how justifiable it would be to buy a new car?  Perusing luxury home listings and thinking about how to get rich?  Probably a good indicator that I don’t really care about what I’m doing with the rest of my day.

” … for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Jobs, Steve | Stanford Commencement Speech, 2005

 

Kilian

When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out. That’s never the way.

Pirsig, Robert M. | Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Every time Kilian Jornet pops up in a video, I’m entertained by him.  In today’s sampling, he attempts the Seven Summits of Romsdalen in Norway, a 77km route, in a single day, using only skis and feet as transport.  but my favorite part is (spoiler) when he fails – conditions aren’t quite right, and he can’t make it in a day.   He admits it, maybe he’s a little defeated, but it’s ok.  It’s a huge day just the same, and he’s expended a huge amount of effort.  And the cameraman asks him “What now?” and he replies

Kilian: Shower… Eat… And then just, I don’t know like, just to plan for tomorrow, ah?

Cameraman: (laughing) Are you serious?

The best part is that he’s completely oblivious to how nuts everyone else thinks this is.  It’s not nuts to him because it’s who he is.  To take the ZAMM quote literally, he wasn’t climbing the mountain to prove who he is, he was climbing the mountain _because_of who he is.  He had a goal, it was hard, he couldn’t reach it – but the point was not really the goal, the point was a fun day in the mountains, and tomorrow is no different.