Eclipsed

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have an intracontinental eclipse, or it’s equivalent, a lot more often than every few decades?

Social Media Today published a description this week of social media habits by age group. (Thanks to Mark D for the link.)  Two-thirds of people 50 to 64 but only one third of those 65+ use social media. By contrast, the overall rate of social media consumption is 86% for those under 30.

Those numbers aren’t exactly surprising, and no one’s going to lose sleep over a bunch of technologically tuned-out boomers, but the follow-on data give pause. The same article reports that while 9 out of 10 boomers are “interested in the news,” only half again as many are interested in the under 30 bracket.  More than half of those 60 and over vs. only 25% of people under 30 go “in depth.” Consumption habits show adults reading digital and online content and the “kids” predominantly watching videos.

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So as bad as you thought the problem is with people getting their impressions of the world through sound bites, you have to wonder what will happen when those who can only consume information by video get their hands on the levers of government and industry. My observations as both a manager and an educator (not necessary at the same time) are that we’re becoming, or perhaps have already fully become, a transactional society.  That means acting on the basis of immediate, short-term outcomes rather than taking the long view. It means treating interactions with other people as discrete events rather than as parts of an ongoing relationship. It means losing of threads of human contact and experience which have historically been the ties that bind. Little wonder that someone who views the world as a purely transactional, zero-sum game is sitting in the oval office.

It’s not news that we’re living in a highly fragmented time, and just plain sad that we so infrequently experience common purpose or experience. This hasn’t always been the case; there as a time when it clearly wasn’t.

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The last year in particular has seen families and friendships damaged, often irrevocably, by anger and politically-instigated intolerance. I’m not suggesting everybody ought to be friends, or that we normalize a bunch of vicious morons marching through their free country carrying the flags of mass murderers. Or that we act like a bunch of ostriches like a Facebook acquaintance who keeps celebrating her ignorance of world events like the objective is to have a nice dinner party. The damage is there, and it’s real, and I’m not ever going to pal around with a skinhead flying a confederate flag from the back of his truck. But I am happy to discuss substantive problems and solutions with thoughtful people, whatever their political persuasion.

brotherI have no idea how they teach it now, and shudder that there are lots of people who think of the Civil War as the “war of northern aggression,” but when I was growing up in Philadelphia they talked a lot about the Civil War being a “brother against brother” affair. As kids, we couldn’t understand how family members could end up figuratively or literally shooting at each other. It’s sadly not hard to see how that could come about through the dark lens of 2017.

So it was heartening yesterday, to watch the coverage of millions of people in cities across the eclipse’s path sharing awe and wonder, at the simple natural phenomenon of a celestial shadow. People clapped and hooted and exclaimed silly things, and in large measure fell silent as the moon fully “ate” the sun. Really, it was a spectacular day in so many ways. Apart from watching the real-time NASA footage, a lot of us got to play junior scientists with our homemade viewers, and a lot of others got to wear silly glasses that looked for all the world like a 1950’s audience at a 3D movie. It was all quite wonderful in a simpler time kind of way and revealed that there’s still some underlying visceral connection we can all spontaneously tap into…some shared humanity that, at least for a few minutes, renders us all part of the same whole.

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Maybe I’m a bit of a dinosaur in my thinking here (though 25 years ago I was incorporating leading edge technology into my startup company), but I think social media, an extension of electronic rather than paper or voice communication, has really screwed us up as a civilization. It enables the worst human instincts to propagate at the speed of light, it demands complexity be reduced to 140 character superficialities, it fractures personal interaction into impersonal fragments, it substitutes mass acquaintances for friendships, it causes us all to burrow deeper into isolation rather than collective experience. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have an intracontinental eclipse, or it’s equivalent, a lot more often than every few decades? Now that would be one hell of a totality.

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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.

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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

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

Intellectual Vitality

It’s the knowing. What the sounds mean. Who you can trust. When a molehill is a mountain – and more importantly, when it isn’t. When something is broken, how to fix it. How to love. When to stay in place and when to go. When to say no and who to say no to.

I love this post from AARP’s Disrupt Aging:

Aging measured by one’s ability to jump up and down misses the point. You can jump up and down and do push ups while your brain turns to oatmeal mush. For example, I haven’t been able to jump up and down for years, I hate to go down escalators, but my IQ hasn’t dropped more than 10-12 points.

Some days oatmeal mush doesn’t sound so bad, but of course that’s fatalistic thinking and the reality is the loss of snap crackle pop is probably what is most frightening. Accustomed to thinking quickly, spontaneously, it’s more than a bit disconcerting to be looking around for words or names that should be right there. It’s pretty classic “senior moment” stuff, but uncomfortably noticeable as it progresses from occasional annoyance to regular state of being.

We’re used as a culture to thinking about vitality as physical, but I think the blog comment above puts a fine point on the relatively higher importance of – I don’t know, whatever the opposite of vacuity is. The value of age, apart from the actinic keratosis and disintegrating menisci and creaking joints, all of which point out how great a day is when you wake up and everything doesn’t hurt, is that our minds are incredible intuitive machines that have rebalanced their act in favor of reflecting over reacting.

On the emotional front, frustration has context, anger is less persistent, action is so neatly tempered by consideration. It’s not a black-and-white thing, of course, but it’s every bit as much in evidence as the physical signs or aging. On the intellectual front, things that are just plain hard to know what to do about when you’re coming up are obvious and easy, philosophical positions may not be any more logical but they are confident and clear, and the trade-off of absolute cognitive speed against just knowing isn’t ultimately such a bad one. Not being able to do things, whether skiing a black diamond trail or doing mental calculations, just don’t matter the same way.

OwlIn other words, we have finally figured out what brings us joy and what is not worth worrying (so much) about. Here’s another quote from the Disrupt Aging blog:

I’m 70 and I’m constantly learning because I still teach and do tutoring.  I used to repair my own ’66 Mustang and it proves valuable that I know mechanics when discussing repairs with a mechanic, especially since I’m a woman. 

Recently one mechanic told me that I needed a new catalytic converter.  Yes, I knew that the sounds I heard from under the hood were indicative of a possible distributor failure.  Yep, another mechanic (without my prompt) said that the problem was the distributor.

 It’s the knowing. What the sounds mean. Who you can trust. When a molehill is a mountain – and more importantly, when it isn’t. When something is broken, how to fix it. How to love. When to stay in place and when to go. When to say no and who to say no to.

It’s not perfect, it won’t ever be perfect, but it’s progress. And not so bad at all in the universal accounting of things.

Scott@agespots