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).

guamig3.png

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.

tsa-scanner-1.jpg

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.)

sardines

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.

mrs-_charlotte_collyer_1915-e1502542704546.jpg

“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?

74514-John-F-Kennedy-Quote-Civility-is-not-a-sign-of-weakness

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.

IceFloe4Elderly-e1442499052147-300x212

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.)

boost-oxytocin-levels

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.

lanark-maple-syrup_fortunefarms-150405-0030

Intensity

Age Spots is a forum for anything and everything that details and reflects change. It’s dedicated to those of us in the second half, not the first.

Ah, the joys of waking up from a great dream about people you’ve loved, or things you’ve achieved … and feeling every joint you didn’t even know you had.

There’s nothing wrong per se with feeling a bit wistful about the past. It’s all true, we’re 60- or 70- or 80- something, and it’s not the same thing as being 20 or 30 or 40. But here’s the thing. What if, instead of bemoaning what’s in the past – interests, people, experiences we can’t replicate anymore – we spent more time focusing on intensity of the moment.

I’m not just talking about smelling the roses. I mean an alternative, a substitute if you will, for the mission that once drove us. Because that mission, however exhilarating, even fulfilling from a distance, cost us in proximity. Stress, interpersonal tension, willful or blithe inattention to people we could have been more in the moment with. They are the collateral damage of being driven.

I’m a recovering Type A and I know. Like the time I found myself completing a client project at 2 in the morning while my mother was in the last week of her life. Stupid. And for reasons better explained by social psychologists and evolutionary biologists, somehow unavoidable mistakes we all sometimes make.

Kayaking2

I’m hardly stretched out on the gurney at this point in my life, but unmistakably diminishing capacities are real. (I went kayaking yesterday and it hurts this morning.)  I find myself hating aging. But the worst is not the change in body or muscle tone or speed of cognition. No, the hardest thing about this aging stuff is the loss of interest in some things that used to be interesting. It’s not that I don’t want to ski anymore, or that I rationalize it by saying my knees don’t like moguls, it’s that I can’t seem to get up the head of steam to go out and do it.

I was talking to my oldest friend about this. He’s struggled with change, and through losses I’ve been fortunate to avoid. But he’s found the only prescription I’ve heard that’s actually worth anything. I always chased something, and I’m persistent and bullheaded enough that I almost always achieved my goals. So not having something to aim for is absolute hell for me. But what if, as my friend suggested, I change the depth of field from that longer-range ambition (because really, the range has ineluctably shortened to maybe a couple of decades) to a very short focal point of here and now?

Again, I’m not talking about those damned roses, what I mean is concentrating the focus from the lighthouse in the distance to what I’m doing right now, today, this minute. You can’t force yourself to be happy, but what’s always made me happiest is doing something meaningful and with satisfying immediacy. The shift in thinking is it doesn’t have to be meaningful in anybody else’s mind field, just in mine. I don’t know whether I can successfully do this, but it’s sure worth a try.

So thanks to that conversation late last year, I finally sat down and executed on this idea I’ve been kicking around for months now. Age Spots.

Age Spots is a forum for anything and everything that details and reflects change. It’s dedicated to those of us in the second half, not the first. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I don’t think this is a space for 30-somethings to reflect on their transition from 20-somethings.

I’ll write a blog post, probably not daily but I hope a few days a week, and you’ll be able to post your own experience, emotions, perspectives – either in response to what I or someone else has written, or just as a personal reflection. I want this to be affirming, but I’m not going to set any rules other than civility and honest reflection. So if you’re having a bad day and just need to vent, well that’s obviously part of it too.

At the end of the day, I’m hoping that for you and for me, the opportunity to express ourselves, to those of us in the same stage of the journey, could provide just the intensity that defines and lifts us.

Scott@agespots