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Aubade

It’s not that we spend so much time on minutia, but that we spend so much time on stuff that isn’t nourishing to us.  Minutia are actually pretty great if you attend to the right things.  

au·bade
ōˈbäd
noun
  1. a poem or piece of music appropriate to the dawn or early morning.  (In the middle ages it referred to lovers needing to part with the dawn.)
    Strolling to the shore

It occurs to me how far we all come in life.  I came across this poem by Philip Larkin, one of the great depressive geniuses I studied in college oh, about a million  years ago.  It seems at once relevant and a bit shocking, the kind of thing a young person would study without any particular grasp, or at least not a visceral one, of what is really going on in the author’s head (and heart).  Here’s an excerpt (I redacted the really awful bits, since it’s a rumination on death, but you can look it up here).

Aubade

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.

In time the curtain-edges will grow light…

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse

—The good not done, the love not given, time

Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because

An only life can take so long to climb

Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;

But at the total emptiness for ever,

The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true…

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,

Have always known, know that we can’t escape,

Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring

Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

Work has to be done.

From this perspective, and not the one I had when I first came across this 40 years ago, I can’t help thinking of this is a call to action rather than an admonishment to acceptance.  What particularly resonates with me is not the idea that the world goes on per se, but the more important one in terms of transitions that a lot of the stuff I (we?) used to worry so much about is pretty irrelevant.  “…telephones crouch, getting ready to ring / In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring / Intricate rented world begins to rouse.”

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It’s not that we spend so much time on minutia, but that we spend so much time on stuff that isn’t nourishing to us.  Minutia are actually pretty great if you attend to the right things.  Think about the following passage from a quite different author, someone who is probably unknown compared to Philip Larkin, writing about the simple wonder of a day from the perspective of a pet:

Crystal Ward Kent

When you bring a pet into your life, you begin a journey – a journey that will bring you more love and devotion than you have ever known, yet also test your strength and courage.

If you allow, the journey will teach you many things, about life, about yourself, and most of all, about love. You will come away changed forever, for one soul cannot touch another without leaving its mark.

Along the way, you will learn much about savoring life’s simple pleasures – jumping in leaves, snoozing in the sun, the joys of puddles, and even the satisfaction of a good scratch behind the ears.

If you spend much time outside, you will be taught how to truly experience every element, for no rock, leaf, or log will go unexamined, no rustling bush will be overlooked, and even the very air will be inhaled, pondered, and noted as being full of valuable information. Your pace may be slower – except when heading home to the food dish – but you will become a better naturalist, having been taught by an expert in the field.

Too many times we hike on automatic pilot, our goal being to complete the trail rather than enjoy the journey. We miss the details – the colorful mushrooms on the rotting log, the honeycomb in the old maple snag, the hawk feather caught on a twig. Once we walk as a dog does, we discover a whole new world. We stop; we browse the landscape, we kick over leaves, peek in tree holes, look up, down, all around. And we learn what any dog knows: that nature has created a marvelously complex world that is full of surprises, that each cycle of the seasons bring ever changing wonders, each day an essence all its own.

You will find yourself watching summer insects collecting on a screen, or noting the flick and flash of fireflies through the dark. You will stop to observe the swirling dance of windblown leaves, or sniff the air after a rain. It does not matter that there is no objective in this; the point is in the doing, in not letting life’s most important details slip by.

dog-sniffing-flowers2In it’s simplest form, this isn’t a novel sentiment; we’ve all heard the expression “take time to smell the roses.”  But it’s really more than that, something that is ageless, timeless and offers possibility in a way that we too often take for granted.  For me, it ratifies the conversation I had with a good friend last night, about moving past the urge to be what I was before, to run things the way I did as a CEO, and perhaps a way of subverting or at least taming the sense of annoyance that surges to the surface whenever something isn’t the way I want it.

I did a google search on aubade as I was writing this.  It’s apparently a sexy French lingerie company.  Who would have thought?  Take that, Philip Larkin.

It’s all good.

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Upside Down and Inside Out

Wouldn’t it be validation that we really have evolved as a species if we took responsibility for our own causal actions?

I’m thinking today about things that cause other things to happen, vs. things that are a symptom of other things happening. It seems like a pretty basic distinction, but it seems to be one that’s beyond the grasp these days of everyone from students to “high-level” policy-makers. In the business classroom, it’s the difference between a poor strategy or execution, such as a decision to use lower quality materials (the cause) which leads to reduced product reliability, more consumer complaints and ultimately fewer purchases – and the decline in sales itself (the symptom). In public policy (yes, I know I shouldn’t go here but I’m having flashbacks of “duck and cover” this week) it’s the difference between deciding to use impulsive and bellicose language (the cause) that prompts an escalation in geopolitical tensions – and the inability a few weeks from now to find Guam on a satellite image of the Pacific Ocean (the symptom).

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I think we as a society used to know this stuff and approach things in a more informed and sober fashion. If you have a problem with your spouse or kids, it’s probably not because they are intrinsically problematic people, but because you have stopped communicating effectively. It you have a problem with your job, it’s probably not because it’s intrinsically a place no one can work, but because it’s a bad fit with your temperament and interests. If you have a problem with the leader of the free world it’s probably not because democracy is a bad idea but because the job is beyond someone with the depth and worldview of a toddler. You might try to solve the first problem with communication or counseling rather than divorce or disinheriting; the second one by figuring out what kind of environment fits you better rather than blackmailing your boss into treating you better; and the third one by invoking Article 25 rather than trying to retrofit the job.

blindspot2I don’t know for sure, but people’s behavior suggests a loss of the ability to distinguish cause and effect. It’s like the guy who swerves out of his lane on the highway and complains about the driver he sideswiped having been in his blind spot. I came across an article some weeks ago that seems to amplify this idea of a blind spot.

“As you travel this summer you may be required to remove your Kindle, paperback book, food and any tech item larger than a cellphone from your carry-on bag….The TSA pilot program is to address an increase in passengers cramming more and more stuff into their carry-on bags…The tight packing makes it harder for screeners to properly inspect bags using the X-ray machine and has increased the number of bags sent on for an additional manual inspection.”

Deconstruct this for a minute. What’s the problem? Well, the immediate one is that bad people seem to have come up with a new way to get bombs into laptops. The secondary one is that carry-on bags are packed too tightly to detect the bombs using traditional airport screening devices. The obvious and painfully superficial “solution” devised by TSA? Coerce people into packing less in their carry-on bags by making the trip through airport security even more miserable than it already is.

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What this completely fails to recognize is what’s causing the problem. This isn’t an issue of ability to detect per se but of ability to detect given overstuffed bags. Why are the bags overstuffed? Because airlines make more money from checked bag charges than they do from selling seats. So everyone either under-packs for their needs or stuffs everything they can into a carry-on. Is the solution to this really to further disenfranchise travelers from their belongings by shaming them in the TSA screening line (I mean even further than having to undress and be intimately patted down by a stranger.)

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If you’re reading this you’re probably old enough to remember the halcyon days of being treated like something other than a canned anchovy when you travel. When airline employees were rewarded for treating passengers well, instead of herding them like cattle (and dragging the occasional errant one off the airplane). How’s this for cause and effect: if you beat up your employees in the name of efficiency, they’ll take it out on your customers in the name of catharsis. If you force people to protect their economic interests by jamming everything they own into a carry-on, they’ll jam everything they own into a carry-on. If you deregulate to the point of allowing companies to act like jerks in the service of their shareholder dividends and stock price, they will act accordingly.

The financial metrics are of course good. Once-struggling industries like the airlines have consolidated into a domestic oligopoly and are flush with cash. The market is good. Passenger volume is at an all-time high…

And while travel destinations are still as wonderful as ever, unless you have a private plane or the resources for first-class service getting there, travel has become something to be endured. We’ve displaced civility, which it seems to me is a pretty important societal glue, with economic efficiency – which produces stupid group think.

I read something else yesterday, about the way bodies were recovered following the sinking of the Titanic. (I should note that I haven’t independently verified this, but it’s not an unlikely picture of events.) Understandably overwhelmed and distressed, the crew on the rescue and recovery ships were instructed to handle things based on commonly held and generally accepted rules of class hierarchy. They’d register the manner of dress and go through the pockets of the victims and if there was evidence of higher social class, they would be recovered. If they seemed to be steerage, they were chucked back into the sea.

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“Passengers chances of surviving the sinking of the S.S. Titanic were related to their sex and their social class: females were more likely to survive than males, and the chances of survival declined with social class as measured by the class in which the passenger travelled. The probable reasons for these differences in rates of survival are discussed as are the reasons accepted by the Mersey Committee of Inquiry into the sinking.”

It has always been the case that older generations have been criticized by younger ones for a rose-colored and objectively inaccurate memory of how things were. I think there’s always been a human tendency to emphasize expediency, but it’s often enough tempered with essential decency that we can characterize the worst offenders as outside the range of acceptable civility. The Titanic story is evidence of changing attitudes toward what is acceptable, but the extraordinary efforts of rescuers over a hundred years ago is also evidence of our better nature.

The TSA’s new policy is the opposite. I know it’s a rhetorical question and the answer is “probably not,” but wouldn’t it be validation that we really have evolved as a species if we took responsibility for our own causal actions, and stopped putting the burden on the victims?

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The Intrinsic Worth of Gratification

Nevertheless, I am feeling a strong need to do something with the rest of the time, and an equally strong need to break with the things that formerly defined me. Those have always been work, integrity of intent, and despite an equivocal ability to consistently demonstrate it, a desire to take care of other people.

So here I sit at the cusp of something new. I haven’t figured it out yet, and I’m afraid that AARP’s Life Reimagined doesn’t quite cut it for me personally, though the concept is probably on point. Not going to get overly political here, but the news this week continues to highlight an administration swirling in chaos, one that abuses our allies, struts with imperialist privilege, and is apparently happy to pitch our entire democracy in the dumpster if it’s good for their personal business interests. I’m pretty sure they executed the Rosenbergs for a lot less.

That’s not the point of this post, though. The reason I mentioned it at all is that it fired off some synapses in my head about the future. More specifically, the future my children and their yet-to-be-born children will inherit. And what I want to do with the remains of an hourglass that has undeniably drained more than half it’s sand. While I was ruminating, a commercial came on for Campaign for Nursing’s Future.

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Sponsored by Johnson and Johnson, beautifully crafted with just the right touch of hope, humanity and pathos, about a nurse helping a little girl through an administration of chemo. I got a dopamine surge (or whatever it is that causes chemical surges in the brain of a need to do good), and not for the first time decided that I want to do something to help children who are in trouble.

Now this impulse isn’t exactly Gandhi-level philanthropic. The fact is, I love my own children more than life but I really am not overly enamored of other people’s kids. Babies are okay, because they don’t cause much trouble, and they’re often cute and I get whatever the male equivalent is of maternal feelings when I see them – up to about the age of two. After that, they really do need to accept responsibility for their sometimes awful behavior, and intrusion on my own peace and contentment.

children-at-restaurants-featured.jpgI once told a little boy who was bouncing around a restaurant and repeatedly interrupting a dinner I was having with friends, because his laid-back parents couldn’t be bothered to contain him, to go back to his parents. This of course set him off crying, and as they finally, mercifully got up to go the father called me a prick as he raced for the door.

Nevertheless, I am feeling a strong need to do something with the rest of the time, and an equally strong need to break with the things that formerly defined me. Those have always been work, integrity of intent, and despite an equivocal ability to consistently demonstrate it, a desire to take care of other people. Here’s the thing: The work doesn’t carry the same gravitas with me anymore. Sorry, clients, but it’s not my life’s highest priority whether your new device does whatever it is your new device does. I’ll do a great job, but I’m not invested in your mission the way you are, especially if it has more to do with dollars than improving lives. Nor has teaching, my nominal adjunct “second career” proven much of a panacea.   The give-back aspect is appealing, and I love the classroom, and there are a few really outstanding students that make it all worthwhile, but far too many of them just aren’t worth the expenditure of brain chemicals and oxygen.

oxygen-bar

So what to do?

I’m not brave or adventurous enough to go solve world hunger in under-developed nations, and I’m disinclined to try to reverse the catastrophic effects of negative socialization in the inner city.  Too much like tilting windmills. But I read the Vanity Fair cover story about Angelina Jolie this morning, and whatever else you might want to say about her, she is a woman who has dedicated a tremendous amount of time and wealth to a mission. There really is something to helping other people.

Angelina-Jolie--Vanity-Fair-2017--04-662x1007Look, I’ve got a theory – no, make that a conviction – that philanthropy isn’t the selfless thing people assume it is. We are all the victims of being the species we are, and for humans that means we seek gratification in the things that light up our pleasure centers. Sometimes that means some of us do extraordinary things that make a dent in the goodness ledger of the universe. But even Mother Theresa, selfless as she was, did it for a reason, and my theory is it lit up the gratification centers in her brain.

So I’m struggling to sort this, like so many of us are, and I think I’m on to something of a clue. I’m going to find something that involves helping those who are hurting and blameless in their pain. So no, I won’t give a helping hand to the 14-year old with a zip gun; I’m thinking more about that little kid getting chemo in the J&J ad. It’s not inconsistent – I’ve spent my professional life helping to commercialize medical advances because they carry an intrinsic good. It’s just a small door of insight, but I’m going to try to crack it open.

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“Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open”   

~John Barrymore

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Lack of Disinterest

There are paths, they’re just different. Smaller. Ones that lead to quieter places instead of ambitious leaps. And maybe we build up to something bigger again.

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I woke up a little while ago, let the dogs out for their morning potty run, and sat down at the laptop to write. Not sure what I’m going to do today, but this is a start. It’s also the second entry of the morning, so I’m on a bit of a roll.

I just stumbled across an article in Psychology Today, home of BS psychobabble, that describes anhedonia. It’s a term I’d not previously heard of, a depressive-like state that “comes not from a reduced capacity to experience pleasure, but instead from an inability to sustain good feelings over time…maybe pleasure is experienced fully, but only briefly.” I like this better than depression, a nasty catch-all label if there ever was one, and one that ignores most people’s ability to experience at least transient pleasure even in the throes of chronic and refractory moodiness.

As I googled for related articles, I came across this idea: “…my hobbies and interests are sleeping under my skin.” It’s one of those aha phrases, the ones that are at once succinct and (just maybe) profound. I don’t want to believe that being over 60 means we’ve lost the desire to do stuff we’ve always like to do, but rather that the paths we used to follow have gone from a bit overgrown and hard to follow, to so full of brambles and fallen tree trunks that they’re impossible to navigate anymore.

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Self-help for seniors suggests there are so many cool other paths to follow, if we just open ourselves up to them. Things like gardening. And starting a lifestyle company. Or giving back by mentoring the younger generation with advice they rightly put into the category of obsolete. How about putting on a blue vest and greeting people at Wal-Mart? Okay, that last one was a bit snarky, but it leads to my next point.

Which is this: Just because traditional paths to gratification are limited or closed, doesn’t mean we suddenly become capable of taking the new ones. People with social anxiety don’t acquire gregariousness because they need something new to do. People reticent to try new things don’t become adventurous because they’re too bored to live in stasis. People who worked for someone else, being told what to do throughout their working lives don’t suddenly become entrepreneurs because they have become otherwise unemployable.

My wife reminded me the other day of an experience that seems apropos. We were hiking to Delicate Arch in Utah a number of years ago. It wasn’t a particularly challenging hike, and we paced ourselves and reached the top of the trail in due course. Off to the right from the path we took was the arch itself, maybe a couple hundred yards away across a natural bowl in the sandstone. The natural bowl, which was hundreds of feet across and on a gentle slope, ultimately fell off to a thousand-foot precipice. My wife, who has no problem piloting a small plane but doesn’t like other kinds of heights, nevertheless bounded across to the arch itself. I, on the other hand, who generally have no issue with heights per se but have a very big issue with edges into the abyss, literally cowered behind a boulder. I.could.not.help.myself.

Delicate arch bowl

There’s a song by the Drive by Truckers I like, called “I used to be a Cop.” Well, I used to be a CEO. Nominally, I still am, but it’s as the head of a small lifestyle company, not the big consultancy I once ran that I built from scratch. I know how to be a CEO, I like it, but I’m not much of a mind to build the company out that much. Well, I am intermittently, but not on a daily basis. That’s over; I just don’t care enough to work that hard anymore. But I do like to think, and to make things happen, and I don’t like working for anyone else after much of a lifetime working for myself.

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I’ve compartmentalized this in order to do thinks like teach and run a program helping new startup companies, both inside a university.  I don’t have to pay much attention under these circumstances to bureaucratic nonsense, other than go through the necessary motions. I’ve had a good career, I’m comfortable in semi-retirement, and most of all I’m not dependent on their money so I don’t have to put up with anyone’s bullsh-t.

So there’s the push-me-pull-you of this part of my life. I want the CEO-ness and I know how but I don’t want the burden of it. I want to do something with my in-the-trenches knowledge of business, but many of the students I’m charged with teaching aren’t very good at learning. And I don’t want to work for anyone, because I’m too much of a control junkie to follow any directions that don’t make sense to me. (Not that this is a particular problem given rampant age-discrimination that ultimately puts everybody except the self-employed out to pasture.)

In other words, a lot of us are faced with a bunch of overgrown paths that used to be clear and tangle-free. So we tease in our minds other ones. I clicked on a link in Facebook yesterday that took me to the lifestyle in New Zealand. I saw an ad for St. Jude’s Research Hospital that made me want to help children with cancer. I wrote a manifesto for a new political party out of desperation for the direction our hopeless, inane government is taking us – that is, over that precipice I talked about earlier. And I ultimately landed on the baby step of writing this blog. It’s not big like I’m used to. But it does enable me to express myself, and maybe it draws in and creates a conversation around shared experience, and it gives me an outlet for writing (pending the emergence of that novel I’ve been saying I want to write since college).

Big - Tom Hanks

There are paths, they’re just different. Smaller. Ones that lead to quieter places instead of ambitious leaps. And maybe we build up to something bigger again.  Or not. I’m coming around to the idea that it’s all good.

Tapping

We can search for whatever lights up our brain all we want, but the reality is the best way to get there is to find it in front of us.

I’m compiling entries. I want to get a bunch of them done before I start publishing, so I have a backlog for when I get writer’s block.  What I noticed as I wrote two entries this morning is that mental acuity is variable and dependent on active engagement.  I was running on eight cylinders as I worked to finish a book last year, then more or less went into neutral with intermittent consulting sputtering the neurons back into life.  It’s easy to convince yourself you’re not as quick or as sure as before, but the reality is that it’s just inertia and just requires a downshift to higher rpms. For example, I did almost nothing yesterday (unless you count cleaning up after the nest full of starlings that’s been decorating our back porch), before I got things running again this morning. Such behavior is of course reinforced if we’re around others with a tendency to do the same.

Buick Fireball
Buick Fireball

It wasn’t inertia but weather that pushed me into neutral last week.  It was too rainy and cold to ride the two-wheeler much, but Sunday began with a glorious ride that took me past a Long Pond, a lake not far from here that was still and sparkling in the morning sun. I didn’t grow up around water, but there’s truth to the womb-like effect it has on most of us. My favorite place of stillness in the world is a magical, pristine lake on top of a mountain that I’ll only identify as somewhere in the northeast.

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I took a picture off the deck of our house a couple of weeks ago; we were at extreme high tide and the water was almost to our fence line in the back. Combine that with the climate predictions and breakaway Antarctic ice shelves and I guess in a few years we’ll be waterfront.  Depending on the timing and progression of age, that could be very convenient for putting me on a raft and pushing it out to sea.   (Kidding.)

It’s quite nice being away for the summer, but I tend to hang around the house more, and there’s an occasional feeling of displacement and pull to “go home” at least for a few days. I recognize the symptom as a desire for change rather than escape, because really what is there to escape from?  It’s pretty chill up here, nobody’s bugging me with any deadlines at the moment, and I’m having a really good time rehearsing for my second appearance in a community theater gig this summer. There’s a heap of dogs and cat around us in the evening, after a glass of wine and episode of House of Cards (we all thought it was just a TV fantasy), and the biggest thing likely to disturb my sleep is the early sunrise and chirping outside the bedroom window.  (I confess to being the “Princess and a Pea” when there’s any noise or light filtering into the room.)

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The only thing that’s really missing is a jolt of oxytocin (that’s not the same as oxycontin, look it up). We all seem to be most alive when we feel acutely in lust/love, because it’s the ultimate unbounded intermingling of desire and purpose. We feel it in a less acute sense but as the underlying drive behind other things we do, whether that’s as mundane as fixing something that’s broken, as mood-lifting as cocktails with friends, as psychically gratifying as getting on stage, or as professionally satisfying as getting plaudits for completing a client’s project, the finish line is feeling a sense of purpose.  It’s all perfectly explicable as behavioral science, but of course it’s really all determined by dopamine, endorphins, serotonin and other brain chemicals.

I reached a point after an unsatisfying spring in the classroom where I was feeling teaching to be pointless, and was pretty sure I didn’t want to do it anymore. I’ve been wrestling with this over the summer, and haven’t yet found the right, so I’ve been rationalizing the possibility of continuing based on loving the classroom and providing value to the subset of students that actually take some benefit from learning.

Which brings me back to Agespots. We can search for whatever lights up our brain all we want, but the reality is the best way to get there is to find it in front of us. My wife once brought me a t-shirt from a trip she took that was a parody of the “Life is good” brand – it said “Life is crap.” I felt curmudgeonly and ungrateful after being visibly underwhelmed by the gift, and I’m not sure in retrospect why I reacted the way I did…either something about it rubbed me the wrong way or maybe I just felt it wasn’t a message I wanted to billboard. Because even on those days when it really all feels like a nadir, there’s a recognition in some remote part of my head that it’s just not true.

Okay, we’re all aging (better than the alternative), and the joints need a little Tin Man “oil can” attention in the morning, and it’s a pain in the arms to lift the kayak onto the roof, and if we don’t keep thinking about cool stuff our brains get a little lazy. And I’m not even going to go there about the interesting conversations we have lately about not being able to hear each other. But it’s really all more good than bad. So what if I did almost nothing productive yesterday? It’s hardly a sin.

People have different ways of dealing with this thing called age. A buddy of mine, older than me, is concertedly sowing his oats and claims to be acting like a syrup tap in a forest full of maple trees. I get it, but I think I like the idea of that more than I’d like the reality, as it would surely make your back hurt afterward.

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Two Wheels and Freedom

I’ve resolved, at least intellectually, to stop wasting my time on activities that are not worthwhile, even if they are nominally gratifying in the moment. I’m going to try to move in another direction. To begin, I’m planning to raise some hell on two wheels this weekend.

I bought a motorcycle this summer. It’s a retro-styled Triumph, a “Bobber” in model name and vernacular. When I get off the bike after an hour or two I’m likely to be sore. But those couple of hours are joy. I think I’m younger, not 20 but maybe 40ish. I feel an affinity with Sons of Anarchy (absent the violence and incredibly vigorous sex.) I’m growing my beard back and my wife wouldn’t mind at all if I counterbalanced my diminishing feathering of hair on top with a ponytail in back.

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This is aging for me. I’m not athletic and perhaps less adventurous than I was once, but I want to continue doing the things I’ve always done – like motorcycling since I assembled my first mini-bike at 10 and got my first Honda at 13. I feel guilty that my skis are leaning against my closet wall instead of strapped to my feet. I need to come to terms with this: if I do this stuff there will be a price to pay in aches and pains. I might even break something, hopefully nothing critical. But to do otherwise is to give up the flavor. And while there are days without an inclination to even taste it, there are others where the need is overwhelming.

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I have been a CEO for many years, now of a lifestyle company but once of a large information company that I built out of a bedroom startup and fueled by raw ambition. It’s kind of a meaningless title now, unsupported by the scaffolding of employees and infrastructure, but it reminds me of whom I still am at some level. I don’t want the stress and burden of responsibility for employees’ livelihoods anymore, but I believe I still have the decision capacity and usually clarity of vision to realize important or at least personally meaningful things. If that’s a leather jacket and riding boots, well it’s something. I published a “business” book last year, and that was something else. It’s not the one I’ve wanted to write for 60+ years, which is a novel or collection of novellas, or something professionally informed but entertaining (along the lines of Oliver Sachs) – but the possibility is validated by the empiric evidence that I have done it.

My current conundrum is this: I’ve resolved, at least intellectually, to stop wasting my time on activities that are not worthwhile, even if they are nominally gratifying in the moment. I’ve been teaching occasionally for most of my adult life, and more regularly the last 10 years. I like smart college students, it gives me pleasure to be in a classroom and to tell them what it’s really like in business instead of spouting theory from a textbook. It’s gratifying to mentor and see those efforts pay off in new skills, a job obtained, a personal accomplishment. But I am firmly of a mind now that much of the student body politic has been allowed to morph into a “Confederacy of Dunces.” There are multiple causes of this – the idiocy of the Common Core curriculum in public schools, the overstimulation of an always-on electronic barrage of useless non-information, a generalized anti-intellectualism that has sprouted from the uncivilized discourse of politics – but that’s philosophical, causative and beside the point to my nominal decision. Too many students suck. They’re there because they don’t know where else to be, because there are no jobs if you don’t have a degree, because their parents want them to do well … whatever. But they really could give a rat’s orifice about actually learning anything, didactic spoon feeding is the pabulum they’re used to consuming, and creative thinking is a largely alien concept.

The fact that I get some satisfaction from being in a classroom is secondary to the frustration of trying to teach the willfully uneducable. So I’m going to try to move in another direction. Of which this blog is one piece. Like the first step in a twelve-step program. I’ll keep you posted as the other steps develop.

Meanwhile, I’m planning to raise some hell on two wheels this weekend.

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Scott@agespots

Ties that Bind

Maybe, just maybe there’s an answer in our shared history of growing up in the amazing second half of the twentieth century. The wiring is still there. And more important than the specifics. It’s not particularly helpful to wistfully stare at the past, but that doesn’t make the past less valuable. The neural wiring of past experience, of shared memory is still there. The future doesn’t need to fixate on precedent, but our past is not a bad guide in considering what we should hold onto.

Immediacy.

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I think it’s overrated. Yes, it’s quite wonderful and gratifying in a subversive way to be able to access the universe on a 4×7 sliver of technology in your pocket. But is it really so great to be able to know everything there is to know about anything on a moment’s whim?

You don’t have to be very old to remember a time of card catalogs and trips to the library; of asking someone with more knowledge about a subject than you; for that matter of the “phone a friend” option on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” The universe still had mysteries, and specialization meant unique access and value. Instant access to everything there is to know may be a form of democratization but it has diminished the value of expertise, with devastatingly predictable results. Fake news. Zero quality control on published information. Less person-to-person communication. Access to weapon-making skills on the part of insane people who always should have been locked away from society, but who now have the ability to cause untold damage because skills are at their fingertips that were formerly reserved for professional war-making machines like governments.

switchboard

Now it seems the only way to actually possess an information advantage, at least in terms of raw information, is to become an expert in something so arcane and technical that no one without formal training can actually understand it. Like nuclear physics. Or molecular biology. Or how the damn smartphone actually accesses a universe full of information virtually instantaneously. (Lots of us remember a quaint construct called a switchboard where wires had to be connected to make things work.)

I’m not railing against modernity, or being overly wistful about some gauzy mental movie set in the past. I am, however, suggesting that technology has got us all by the throat with an ever-tightening noose. We are at once able to access all of the information in the universe and, if the college students I teach are any indication, becoming completely unable to hold or articulate a substantive body of knowledge about anything. This is probably the inevitable outcome of the loss of a common body of experience.

Take the news, for example. Three channels of vetted, professional, credible evening news and major newspapers in every city once provided a common body of information. Today it’s 24/7 muckraking, with a focus determined by the ability to titillate rather than the obligation to inform. Or consider public service. We have a government that’s been so shredded by decades of prevaricating and dishonesty that we have no expectation that either political party is acting in the interests of the people. We were once horrified to the point of expulsion by Nixon. Today we’re barraged with horrifyingly obvious misbehavior, yet can’t muster more than a news cycle’s indignation over a candidate punching out a reporter. A frightening proportion of the “body politic” probably couldn’t name the three branches of government.

And it’s not just public issues. The loss of an essential knowledge base has swept into our personal lives as well in the age of apps that do it all. We’ve abrogated responsibility for such basics as monitoring our personal expenditures and budgets to the point that lots of college graduates can’t even balance a checkbook. Worried about something so basic no longer being taught … hell, how about basic arithmetic? Or that basic social interaction on a face-to face basis has been replaced by Instagram? Look, we’re all guilty to some extent; you’ve probably stared at your phone instead of your dinner companion at least once in the last few weeks.

What happened to thinking? Caring? Mattering? It’s all being swept away in a continually cresting tidal wave of information and misinformation. There’s a play I have acted in a couple of times called Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, where the protagonist goes on a 15-minute rant about the loss of shared experience. The essential message is the one that’s common to those who look behind them for meaning: We’ve lost the ties that bind. It’s not the things we do or the tools we use but the importance of a common body of knowledge, purpose, and meaning.

knowledge

Maybe, just maybe there’s an answer in our shared history of growing up in the amazing second half of the twentieth century. The wiring is still there. And more important than the specifics. It’s not particularly helpful to wistfully stare at the past, but that doesn’t make the past less valuable. The neural wiring of past experience, of shared memory is still there. The future doesn’t need to fixate on precedent, but our past is not a bad guide in considering what we should hold onto.