Posts Tagged ‘chad calease’
The way people interact with computers has not changed much in about 70 years. Human interface devices are keyboards, mice and screens, things that allow us to give and get information to and from computers. When my little boy is my age, computers won’t demand that we sit in front of a screen and type on keyboards or move a mouse around. Haptic interfaces have made their way onto the scene in earnest with the iPhone, iPad and others, ostensibly changing the way we give and get information from machines. Still, we are on the verge of an even bigger shift in how we interact with machines.
Voice recognition, for example, including technologies like Siri have made a new leap for the average bear as friendly as can be. Talking to machines, while friendly, still takes a shift in how the average bear thinks about interacting with machines.
While this type of User Interface (UI) will be a lot more natural, it will also be interesting to see how humans will manage their attention spans and the constant multitasking as these tools become pervasive or “always on.” We all know someone who sits down for a coffee with us only half-present, constantly checking their phone or device. When computing is always available will it make more of us less present? Could it make us better at multitasking (or at least by appearances)? If technology is more natural and less intrusive, could it help enable our capacity for communication? The upside, in any case is a more perfected version of UI: there when we need/want and not there when we don’t need/want.
I once bought space in an old factory and designed a loft complete with technology embedded in it, such as audio, video and projection capabilities, all controlled from my phone. The tools were opaque to all who entered but readily available to me at my subtle command. I liked not having to look at technology while having access to its benefits. Thing is, this took many hours of designing, planning, configuring and refining to get it just right. How long until this is possible for the average bear and how long until we learn to use it as simply and elegantly as it is designed to be? Will it make our lives more simple and more elegant or more cluttered with noise of the Internet’s latest zeitgeist?
One of my closest pals gave me J R a while back and I have only just gotten around to reading it. The story and way it was delivered hit me like a freight train. William Gaddis was a visionary in his approach and style, choosing to write the novel in a conversational, stream-of-consciousness way, using no transitions, at least, not in the traditional sense. I loved it and will crave it now wherever I encounter literature.
Instead of tried and true convention, Gaddis was more concerned with rhythm and flow, participation and collaboration, and so led characters to bump into shared situations in a way often confusing to most readers, reminiscent of Altman’s film, Short Cuts, though even more naturally, in my humble opinion.
Without giving the gist of it away, let me just say the 11-year-old boy at the center of J R has been on my mind, asking me questions about myself, my world and the kinds of questions I ask, my sources for answers, overall openness to the world and how I plan to transmit such information, wisdom in my own version of silliness, to my own young son.
Gaddis was a brilliant satirist. I owe my friend a debt of gratitude for turning me onto his work. He was fond of using a certain phrase from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and it goes like this:
“…the unswerving punctuality of chance…“
I love this phrase and seem to easily find elegant ways of working it into my thought processes, regardless of individually problem-solving or collaborating with a team. It reminds me there are many moving pieces, much hidden machinery behind our lives, out of our control, and we simply need be open to the world and possibilities as we saunter through. When we are open, it is then that the most wonderful opportunities present themselves, fill hearts with peace and certainty that all of this, though temporary, is a fragile dance best enjoyed in the moment. The unseen has properties, these moments, they cannot be counted but rather only enjoyed in their fleeting passing.
This particular story is open to interpretation, of course, but what I take from it is this: it is only through the eyes of children that our folly is clearest.
I don’t know what the point of my riff here was other than to share and remember a wondrous writer whose style breaks through to something new, something I had not yet experienced. Thank you, pal. Thank you, Mr. Gaddis. No small feat.
Neil Postman wrote 18 books and more than 200 magazine and newspaper articles for major publications in both the U.S. and Europe. His best known book is Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), about mass media’s inability to share serious ideas. Television turns real, complex issues into superficial images, he argues, less about ideas and thoughts and more about entertainment.
Postman’s definition of media ecology goes like this:
Media ecology looks into the matter of how media of communication affect human perception, understanding, feeling, and value; and how our interaction with media facilitates or impedes our chances of survival. Media ecology tries to find out what roles media force us to play, how media structure what we are seeing, why media make us feel and act as we do.
Amusing Ourselves to Death was translated into eight languages and inspired the 1992 album Amused to Death by Roger Waters.
Popular music’s place in today’s media ecology illustrates Postman’s point. It’s more than different taste that draws us to a type of music. It is, as he says, “how it makes us feel and act as we do.”
Alternative music, on the one hand, seems to pride itself on being abstract. Generally speaking, it strives to alienate audiences, introducing obscure concepts, references. and tries to make its audience feel special, as if their experience is unique, such that no one can possibly relate to it. This sort of fan likes media that are largely unknown by the mainstream.
Country music and Hip Hop, on the other hand, occupy two completely different niches from alternative music. They own their cultures and represent them in earnest. Country generally incorporates the words, phrases and cultural references with which its audience is already intimately familiar. Songs, video and media experiences are straightforward rather than obscure.
Richard Peterson’s 1997 book, Creating Country Music, talks about “inter-textuality” – the interplay between the everyday experiences of artists, audiences and songs and how they feed back into the way genres are produced and represented. The meanings that genres embody ultimately cannot be detached from the forms of emotional investment inscribed in them through the collective act of performance and consumption, he says.
We do not consume media. We, the audience, make up part of the media ecology. With the advent of the read/write Web, we are more integral to its creation than ever. Postman saw this coming. In his 1982 book, The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman wrote: “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”
Meaning is a choice. It is whatever we choose to give value to. Are the values and mythology we are weaving into our own cultures, our families, our friends, our work, our play, the stories we tell, the words we use, all of these choices – is this the meaning we choose to project now and into the future?
Wikipedia defines season like this:
A season is a division of the year, marked by changes in weather, ecology, and hours of daylight. Seasons result from the yearly orbit of the Earth around the Sun and the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis relative to the plane of the orbit. In temperate and polar regions, the seasons are marked by changes in the intensity of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface, variations of which may cause animals to go into hibernation or to migrate, and plants to be dormant.
There is so much more to it than that.
Seasons are the clockwork of memory, the breath of work reflected in lush fields of corn, bags of leaves piled along curbs, frozen mountains of snow pushed up against far reaches of parking lots, sand castles built against tides to dwindle and be built up again, the yield of any temporary labor as all labor is temporary, kites flying like anthems, live music drifting like wind across water, breezes starting up out of stillness over prairies, grasses bending in wind, dust being swept, rocks turning to sand, newborns taking first breaths, sobbing widows looking skyward deciding they did their best, in summer winds, children’s clothing like flags on clotheslines, the smell of fresh laundry mingling with fresh cut grass and wafts of bazooka gum, rains running down streets eventually making it to seas, the struggles and triumphs of transition, turning to find ourselves having made it through something, out of the cabin, to the clearing, into the woods, out of a quarry, standing atop mountains, staring at sunsets, looking down the road, stretched out forever, as seemingly endless opportunity.
These are only scratching the surface of what I am thinking tonight. This is just a riff, a doodle, a memory, sitting here meditating on the end of one and the beginning of another. Season.
Right before you got very ill, Mom, you had already made up your mind. You wanted no funeral. No wake. No trace left behind but the memories you built yourself with each of us. You wrote letters to us to be read after you were gone. You made every consideration to make sure we knew how much you loved us, right up until the very end. It was April 25th, 2013 when you left us but not before you gave us your last wish – to be sure and donate your body to those who would learn most from the offering. You chose the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine.
You were committed to learning throughout your whole life. When I was little in the late seventies, you insisted on enrolling me in a Montessori program, compelled by the merits of Dr. Maria Montessori’s approach to learning as discovery, empowering each child to find their own way. You surrounded me with computers of all makes and models in the eighties, even as they were cost-prohibitive, having the foresight to prepare your son for the coming age of electronic education and commerce. You included me in anything and everything I showed inclination and interest in. Rather than being a nuisance to you, you encouraged my voracious curiosity and modeled an interest in learning about things as a strong character trait. Even in your last years you took computer classes, taught yourself to use the machine to send me letters, pictures and share your life with me even as I was very far away. Your influence on me to build my own fluencies allowed me to write blog posts, letters and send pictures back, and more, all in order to most effectively share my life with you across vast distances. You made up your mind, even at the very beginning of my life, to make learning how to learn a valuable thing, the centerpiece of the example you chose to set for your young son. I owe all I have learned and accomplished to your love, your example and the decisions you made on my behalf.
I am so proud to be your son, Mom. Thank you for being who you were. It is no small thing to have left such resonance behind for me to bask in, to carry on in the spirit you gave me, to keep learning and keep sharing. What tremendous gifts you have given me to share with my own little boy. It is because of the choices you made, such as always ensuring I had access to tools and experiences to optimize my opportunities to learn, that I have all the tools I need to accomplish whatever it is I set my mind to. You have done that so very well. Because of you I possess a great many fluencies. There is no way I could have known or recognized such insight until after you already willed them to me. My heart is filled with so much love and gratitude, Mom. Thank you.
You built our culture on your own without any suggestion. It took a great deal of courage, especially back in your day when women had even less equality. Likewise, making the decision to donate your body, when the time came, to the Carver School of Medicine at the University of Iowa, was a mighty, selfless and generous choice. It is a testament to your will and to your love of learning and sharing that you are honored by them today. Each year, the school holds a memorial to honor and commemorate those who have been so generous and courageous to donate their most precious resource to furthering the learning of others.
I am grateful to you, Mom. Thank you for loving me so much as to embed your passion for learning deep into my culture, so deep, in fact, that it may be that singular greatest characteristic in me, one that has allowed me my own humble success in this life. Thanks to your influence in this way, I have always been able to find meaningful work with other gifted people, equally interested to further our cause. Your passion has empowered me to learn a great many things, not the least of which is adapting to and learning that which is best to accomplish any task with grace, style and craft. Exactly the way you would do it, Mom.
I love you. I miss you.
In this modern, technology-driven age, there are arguably two general types of folks: technical and non-technical. If we ask around, the average bear with little or no technical knowledge may feel that technical folks use esoteric language, are too exacting or insensitive. Meanwhile, the average bear with technical skills stereotypically feels non-technical folks are dishonest, resistant and oversensitive when it comes to matters of technology.
If these perceptions have any validity, how can the two overcome their differences and work together better? Our culture has changed so quickly that we have to find strategies to communicate with each other more effectively in general but especially where building fluency in working together around technology is concerned.
We may not be able to change how anyone else operates, however, we can change our own attitudes and approaches to optimize how we interact and find a way to meet each other half way. What follows are some tried and true suggestions that can help us break through stereotypes on both sides of the coin. Well, mostly. There are no silver bullets. Sometimes the challenge may be bigger than any tip or suggestion, but these are a great place to begin :
1. Number one applies to everyone: When approaching anyone for anything, start with good manners. When walking into a technical person’s office, for example, a brief “good morning” or “sorry to interrupt you” goes a very long way in getting off to a great start. Whenever we bulldoze into a space where someone may be working without first a proper and kind greeting, we can often expect the same result. Jarring anyone out of their train of thought does not work in our favor to inspire empathy in our plight. If we are nice off the bat, people will be grateful because most of our lives are usually a constant barrage of interruptions. Setting ourselves up for success in this way may garner more than just in-kind greeting. It might even begin to foster real rapport.
2. On self-deprecation: when we begin conversations by insulting ourselves (e.g. “I’m such an idiot”), we are not funny or amusing. We typically do not come across as humble that way but rather helpless. For example, calling ourselves “Luddites” may have been acceptable 15-20 years ago but by now it only reveals that we have not taken any initiative to gain fluency in a world that is changing whether we like it or not. Starting out in this way does not do much for us in the eyes of smart technical people who value a solutions-oriented approach to life. If we wish to sound friendly and self-deprecating, a better way to express this is something like, “I am not sure what I did to break it this time but…” and then start in with our question and/or plea for help (remember item #1).
3. Most technical people are okay with the concept of making mistakes. It is how we learn. If machines and technologies worked the way they are supposed to they would not have jobs. Fixing problems and solving puzzles is their job and a vast majority of them genuinely enjoy it. They are not, however, okay with us lying about our mistakes. They appreciate it when we are honest about what we may have done to create a situation where something is no longer working. For example, if we spilled something on the keyboard, we should say something. Otherwise, our technical brethren will be off on a wild goose chase before ultimately figuring it out on their own. Not being forthcoming does two things to add to the problem: It makes more work to resolve and thereby makes the job more difficult. They will find out the truth, anyway, so we might as well be honest up front. We will foster a friend who will be pleasantly surprised by our brave honesty. Who knows? We may even find a special rapport that gains us better attention in the future for being refreshingly easy to work with.
4. We must face facts, there may be no magical way to fix some of our issues. Problems simple and complex both require some amount of time and work to solve. With this in mind, it is important for us to try and determine whether or not our issue is worth fixing. We may ask ourselves, for example, “Is this an issue or just an inconvenience in the way the software works?” If it is not affecting our productivity, it is probably not a big deal. The average technical person can fix things in a general way but cannot re-write the way an application or an operating system works. Sometimes it is helpful for us to ask if it is an issue or just a challenge in perception. Can they help us understand a better way to use the software? Technical folks call these kinds of challenges workflow-related and are usually excited to help out in this way if they can.
5. In any context, it is usually not our best choice to make everything an emergency. Not wanting to be perceived as the girl or boy who cried wolf will work wonders for us when we do indeed have a genuine emergency. When we consistently approach people as if our every problem is an emergency, they will eventually treat us as if they are not.
6. Which leads us to #6: we are never the only ones who need help. Also, we can usually safely bet that we don’t have the most urgent issue. When we give folks some time to address our problem with their full attention it will get fixed and in the best way but only if we treat them like we respect and trust them to do their best (revisit #1 and #5).
7. Contacting our technical folks multiple times over email, tele, chat, etc. about the same issue is not necessary and does not work well for our cause. Technical folks record each issue they encounter and each problem they solve in a database so that they can prioritize in order to keep things equitable for everyone needing help. It also helps ensure they don’t lose track of them (that’s why they typically ask us to email them whenever possible, to help them do so). Depending on the seriousness of our issue, we can expect them to respond as soon as there is a useful update. If our problem is urgent, we should definitely let them know while being mindful of #5.
8. Non-technical folks prefer communicating in person or over the phone. The reasons for this should be self-evident to technical folks. We illustrated why they prefer email to telephone calls in #7. It has nothing to do with their being friendly or not. For them it is about efficiency and prioritization. It is much faster and easier for them to list out a set of questions that they need answers to than it is for them to call and ask one-by-one. We can find the answers at our leisure that way and, for future issues, can refer to them to perhaps even solve it for ourselves. Some technical folks should consider becoming more adaptable. Crafting an approach to each person’s strengths finds solutions faster and friendlier. Face-to-face communication is irreplaceable as a tool to build such confidence and rapport. Being open to this more often is a solution everyone can understand and work with. After all, it’s all about people, people.
9. The two types of people have historically had misunderstandings. Non-technical folks say technical folks are insensitive and technical folks say non-technical folks are oversensitive. Both sides are almost always genuinely trying to help get to a solution. It is important to check ourselves, especially if we become frustrated as we are working to solve a technology-related challenge. If we find we are not moving in a productive direction and mis-communicating, perhaps it is wise to reconvene at another time, once emotions have had a chance to settle. Pushing a situation where one or both parties cannot communicate respectfully only makes finding the answer more work than it needs to be.
10. Finally, perhaps most importantly, be ourselves. We should not try to act as though we know more than we do. If we are honest and clear, we are doing our part. The most gifted technical folks do not use much technical talk at all. Instead, they bend their level of detail as needed, as understood, to each person they work with. Likewise, as non-technical folks, we owe it to ourselves to be honest about what we do not know. As humans, we are generally not good at revealing what we do not know. If we are honest about what we do not know, however, we open ourselves up to a world of knowledge and understanding. If both technical and non-technical folks are genuine and approach each collaboration in this manner, to learn together, we can only expect to gain authentic information and experience.
As we each craft our own approach with these suggestions in mind, we may find ourselves happier in general about learning how to use and fix all of this stuff and enjoy working with each other in the process. Our culture has changed so rapidly, seemingly overnight. Accepting that is no small challenge. Working together to adapt and embrace these changes is our best choice for finding value and purpose in the work into the future. Who knows? We might even offer ourselves a chance to learn something cool.
“Donating your body to science” is a well-known but poorly understood concept, at least, according to my own experience in helping my own Mom accomplish her last wish. It is important to know there are a lot of options out there for donating but there is little, if anything, written about the process and true aftermath, both pro and con, of doing so.
Donating a body to science is a concept most of us are familiar with inasmuch as we have heard of it, but few of us would know how to go about actually doing it. Makes sense, really, as those who do end up leaving their body to science are not around to share their experiences. Meanwhile, the process is not something that is typically discussed by the living anecdotally at dinner parties.
I equate it to being struck by lightning. Many lightning strikes occur each year but no one really knows how many. Most of them are never reported. People who survive them are simply happy to be alive. They go on living their lives and generally no one else is aware anything ever happened.
Donating our bodies to science is not simply a matter of having a carcass dropped off at the nearest medical school. There are legal matters to attend to and, even if there were not, there is not much a typical lab can actually do with a human body unless they are in urgent need of an otherwise cumbersome and morbid paperweight. Donating our body to science is a complex and highly regulated process. There are many ways and levels of involvement one can endeavor to donate. For example, it is possible, to some extent, to let science use a body without being dead.
What follows is an informal guide on the levels of using our bodies for the good of science:
Entry Level – dipping toes in the body-donating pool
At the beginner’s level, it is possible to donate our bodies for research for a short period of time and also while we are still alive and walking around in them. Most all scientific research related to health and longevity requires human volunteers. By seeking out our nearest university with a psychology department, for example, we can find a great need for the study of somewhat normal, healthy people. Typically, this involvement requires only our physical presence to perform some trivial task or another. Such experiments are safe and easy. The risk involved is very low, especially as each initiative must first obtain ethical approval.
If you fancy something a bit more involved or “hi-tech”, the nearest neuroscience department has interesting offerings. You may, for example, have parts of the brain shut down by TMS and spend a long afternoon in an fMRI scanner. The possibilities are interesting wherever the brain is involved but, yes, at a somewhat greater degree of risk.
There are undoubtedly other methods and formats to volunteer for but, at the outset, these entry level types are a good way to donate our body without losing any of it, more or less.
Novice Level: Mid to long-term bodies for hire
More invasive experiments technically do not require we lose any part of our body, but our body is used more intensively. Drugs for example. Trials, whether by hospitals or pharmaceutical companies, are performed on animals before people well in advance of being released onto the market. We can volunteer our body to do this. I had a roommate years ago who augmented his income in this way. He was literally paid to allow testing of pre-FDA-approved drugs on his body on a regular basis. He made, as I recall, about $500 a week. I always thought he should renegotiate. The downside of suffering potentially negative side effects from putting an experimental compound in his body, with likely metabolic or physiological consequences that could be potentially quite damaging, seemed worth more than that to me.
On rare occasions drug trials go wrong and make the news. Have you ever heard someone say “They should not test these things until they can be absolutely sure they are safe.” A statement like this misses the point. Still, if we are willing to accept such risks (which are are more typically quite minor) then there are plenty of places to sign up for participcation in such trials.
Takeaway: entering the Novice Level may carry a financial reward but requires greater risk. We get to keep all our body but it most likely may be changed in some way.
Mid-Level: Partial donation (but temporary)
If we are hungry for the next level, willing to actually surrender some of our physical body for the good of science, well luckily there are ways to donate bits of oursleves to science that regenerate in time.
The most obvious and noble of these is donating blood. Everyone might consider doing this as a matter of course. I donate regularly and giving blood is an innocuous experience. It requires very little on the part of the giver yet can be the difference between life or death for the receiver. Please do consider doing it. It may not be scientific in the sense of research, but as most body donation goes into research towards saving lives, it is just cutting out the middleman and getting to the task of sustainability when someone is in dire straits. It is as old as the hills (as far as science goes) and simply works. It doesn’t hurt, either. Plus, we get snacks and juice and we feel like we deserve them for once.
From a certain perspective, we do get to see some decent science while we donate blood, too. Data collection is important as they need our medical histories and schwack like that. They also need to check our blood iron levels. I expected some high tech scanning device but, alas, they used the copper sulphate test, a brilliantly elegant and simple test whereby they put a drop of our blood into a tube of copper sulphate and wait to see how long it takes to sink. The more iron, the faster it sinks.
We can donate bodily tissues to science, too, which are more involved depending on what sort of tissue we donate. The blood donating thing is important, though, so do that first as a kicking-off point before advancing to the next level.
Advanced Level: Partial tissue or organ donation (this is permanent)
It is possible to donate one or many of our organs to science. Typically, this has to be done posthumously but we can also do it while still alive. One of our “spare” organs, for example, can be donated exclusively for use in transplants. If we wish to donate organs posthumously for transplant, then we can do so simply by joining the organ donor database. There is still the debate as to whether organ donation should be opt-in or opt-out. A tough debate, that one.
Should we wish to donate our organs to science, there are ways of doing this, particularly if we want to leave our brain to research. There are many people to contact if we wish to do this. I will stress, based on experiences I’ve had, that you shouldn’t try leaving your brain to the charities dedicated to fighting Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s etc. Charities are usually dedicated to funding research into the condition and raising awareness, they don’t actually have any use for the organs they focus on. Cancer research charities don’t actually want people’s tumors, it’s the same logic here. Please see the appropriate organisations in the link above should you opt for level 4 body donation.
Expert Level: Full Body Donation
This is what Mom chose to do, well ahead of when the time came. She was dedicated to donating her entire body to be used for scientific research and teaching. Always committed to learning, it is thanks to her I am not afraid to admit what I do not know and to ask questions, even ones that reveal my ignorance, in order not to miss a teachable moment. It’s how she operated. She knew most donations will be used for students to practice perfecting surgical techniques and procedures. If our remains are going to be dissected and studied by numerous young medical students or trainees, their safety is paramount. Ergo, we can’t donate our bodies if we succumbed to some rare and communicable virus or anything that doesn’t have a known cause. This means most terminal brain disorders exclude us.
For the sake of medical teaching, a human body also has to be as intact and as “normal” as possible, to reflect the majority of people a typical medic will encounter, so any particularly disfiguring illnesses (internally or externally) may also rule us out of donating. In a way, to successfully donate our body, we have to be in near-perfect health. Dead, but otherwise generally healthy.
She had already done her own research and had made up her mind. She knew, too, her mind was succumbing to Vascular Dementia, and knew the time she had to actively participate in such decisions was running out. I found out exactly how aware she was of this after she died. She had written letters saying goodbye to each of us, speaking directly as if sitting beside us, walking us through the process of her passing. Talk about planning. That woman loved us so much she planned everything in the most mindful and intentional way possible.
None of us could have known how her choice would affect us later on. As we began to get some time and distance from her death, it would be a source of comfort that she believed in the power of learning right through to the very end. At the moment, it may have meant simply beginning to prepare for her absence, and it was certainly frustrating to many family members. There would be no service, no funeral, no formal goodbye other than the ones we would have with her over the course of her decline as she meandered in and out of consciousness towards the end, sometimes aware of our presence, sometimes not. In time, however, we would come to discover that the aftermath of her decision was one of her greatest gifts.
The downsides to this kind of choice are obvious (and shocking especially to very religious people, which Mom actually was) but the upside is this: giving us prior knowledge of her wish meant we were able to do some of our own planning and learning in advance of her passing. In retrospect, it was a gift on so many levels. She gave us the gift of control, in the sense of learning about death in the empirical or scientific context, even as we knew the situation was completely out of our control. We were along for the ride and had to adjust to it as best we could. Grief is a strange animal, so she gave us as much lead time as she could in her decision. Even in her suffering she was present enough still, incredibly mindful, to give us everything she could to prepare us for the number one item on The Top Ten List of Things That Do Not Get Easier With Practice: Saying Goodbye.
The Top Ten List of Things That Do Not Get Easier With Practice Part IV: Saying Goodbye to Uncle Mike
On an incredibly cold and windy day in December of 1995, I was standing atop some forty-plus feet of scaffolding, perched vicariously near the edge of a river, another 20 feet below where the scaffolding’s feet stood in the wind, shaking slightly from my tinkering about at the top. Just outside the small town of Denver, Iowa, I was busy, employed to construct a Lindal Cedar Home. The land was secluded, a 5-acre spread along the bank (literally) of a picturesque river, current still flowing, effortlessly moving against the frozen air. The grey water moved below me like so many mirrors, memories of winters past, the sounds of it barely audible in the high winds.
At the particular moment I am imagining, I was busy trying to complete the soffit beneath the roof’s overhang. Four-inch, tongue-and-groove cedar is painstakingly difficult to finish well under ideal conditions, let alone in roaring winds in near-zero-temperatures, upside down, forty feet up. No doubt, the results of our efforts would be breathtaking, however, the hours, days, and weeks it took us to complete the exterior before the worst of winter hit were character building, to say the least. The immediate goal that day to was handle all loose ends of the exterior so we could move indoors for the rest of winter, completing all that yet remained to be done inside. The nearly seven-thousand-square-foot floor plan illustrated a 40-foot peak in the main living room. The house, constructed almost entirely of cedar and glass, turned its glassiest side to the West, looking over the Iowa River. Breathtaking, indeed.
Before that experience, looking upon such structures, I had imagined a small army was required for such feats. I came to find out first hand it took only the three of us, led by my Uncle Mike, a Jedi-class woodworker and experienced private contractor. He was also a spiritual mentor, who had earned the greatest respect of myself and my closest pals of that age: his two sons, Adam and Ben, along with their childhood pal, Joe. We looked up to Uncle Mike and he never took it for granted. Rather, he was one of the most kind, patient, and empathetic men I have ever known, one of my first mentors. Mike always encouraged us to tinker in his metal and wood shops, equipped with the tools and organization of a true craftsman, a mindful and dedicated artist. His influence on us in those days informs each our own respective pursuits today.
Meanwhile, it was my first house building experience as a carpenter. Since I was the newb I had all the jobs no one else wanted for two reasons: 1. I had much to learn and 2. That’s just the way it goes. I called myself the “King of Visqueen” (I even made up a song). Visqueen, for the uninitiated, is the plastic sheeting used to seal insulation into the frame of a wall. Visqueen is not the culprit, or that which makes that job a living hell. Insulation, at least at that time, was made of fiberglass, which is the bane of the existence of any residential carpenter. Its fibers are microscopic and, no matter how well we attempt to cover ourselves up and hide our skin from its perilous burn and itch, it seeps into cracks big enough only for air to fit. It is impossible to insulate a house, let alone a massive one, without being completely overrun by fiberglass and driven to near-madness by the pain and itch that ensues. The only relief upon arriving home at the end of a long day is taking a cold shower to close the pores, forcing the fibers out, followed in quick succession by a hot shower, to flush them away before embedding themselves, once more. In short, nasty stuff. Work I shall not soon forget.
Among the uckiest jobs, though, there is, of course, an upside. For example, I discovered I had a knack for interior trim work. The satisfaction of getting it just right is unparalleled by arguably any other task in the trade. We spent the remainder of the winter finishing out the interior, complete with dark room and media center. Uncle Mike often reminded me how building a house is a good metaphor for life. Day-to-day it is easy to lose sight of the goal, to feel as if little or no progress is being made. That is why, every few weeks, I would follow Uncle Mike out, beyond the property to view it from afar. It was an occasion to do so. Even as we walked a quarter mile away, we could still smell the cedar. When the house was finally completed, we walked out there once more. What we saw there was, in the words of Uncle Mike, “no half castle.”
I write about him like this now as a farewell. Michael Clore left us today. Fortunately, we all had a chance to have those last conversations in time, in preparation for what he assured us only a few short months ago was inevitable. He was brave in his choice to live his life out on his own terms, freeing himself from the burden and stress of treatments that most likely would have robbed him of these past few months wherein he traveled and saw to it he lived them to the absolute fullest.
In time, we are fortunate if we have a few gurus, mentors who show us the door, even as we stumble around in the dark to find the key to open it. Uncle Mike led me to more than one. As we rode to work in the dark of the early mornings, building that giant house, day after day, we rode quietly together drinking coffee, staring off across towards sunrise on the prairie, meditating on building something, inch-by-inch, moment-by-moment. No half-castles.
Perceptions sure are funny things. Everything depends on them. Especially outcomes. This is one for the memory banks.
Here is some context: last weekend, my little boy and I had just gotten home. We were unloading our bikes from the day’s festivities (it was Memorial Day Weekend), carrying stuff back into the house: he his stuffed animals, water bottle, toys, and treats, while I carried in the picnic lunchins, blanket, camera, etc. That’s when a woman came to the back fence and asked, “Does this little girl belong to you?”
Dash and I went to the gate. We found ourselves looking at an adorable little girl, probably 2, along with a woman and her daughter, maybe 7 years old, holding their dog on a leash.
I asked, “This little one, here? She’s not with anyone?”
“I found her at the end of the alley,” the woman replied. Our alley is a quaint dirt road that runs behind a row of houses on a residential street here in a quiet part of Evanston. Generally safe but not for a 2-year-old all alone. There is a minimal amount of residential traffic but it is traffic, nonetheless. How did this little girl get here and where were her people?
“I’m calling 9-1-1,” the woman said, and took her phone out of her pocket.
“Wait,” I said. I looked at the little girl and said, “let’s see if we aren’t able to find your people first, huh?”
The woman held her phone handy but seemed almost miffed.
My mind was full of thoughts at this point but I will get back to that.
First thing was first, I took Dash by the hand and we went out of the gate to the little girl.
Dash walked right up to her and took her hand. I just love how kids often act way more calm, cool, and collected than adults when the pressure is on.
At this point, I had Dash’s hand and he had the little girl’s hand as we stood behind the house with the woman, her daughter, and their dog looking on. I asked the little girl, “Where is everybody?”
She was cool as a cucumber. Not visibly worried at all. She pointed.
I said, “Let’s go find ‘em, shall we?”
Surest thing you know, the little one looked at Dash and started walking. The three of us sauntered along. As we were walking, Dash began to sing and hum. If anyone was worried, it wasn’t us. The little girl smiled big at Dash as he hummed and chortled down the way until, three houses down, the girl led us up to another gate, this one slightly ajar. Wouldn’t you know it, just wide enough for a little girl to get through.
The woman, her daughter, and their dog were right behind us and she shouted, “EXCUSE ME!!! EXCUSE ME!!!”
A woman came to the screen door, then out onto the deck and said, “Yes?”
“IS THIS LITTLE GIRL IN THE RIGHT PLACE?”
The woman on the deck looked REALLY confused. She had been given no context, whatsoever. That’s when I spoke up.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m sorry to interrupt you. Do you have a moment?”
“Sure,” she said, and came down the steps, across the yard to the gate.
By the time anyone started saying anything at all in this, the little girl had already wiggled back inside the gate, still holding Dash’s hand. I said, “Stick around, please,” and he let go, though, not without some reticence. He wanted to follow her but was a good sport about it.
The woman came to the gate and the woman behind me said, “WE FOUND THIS LITTLE GIRL AT THE END OF THE ALLEY WITHOUT ANY SUPERVISION,” in a most confrontational tone. The woman behind the gate looked stunned. All she knew was that, last she probably knew, the little girl was inside the fence and now, as if she had never left, appeared to STILL be inside the fence.
I said, “See here?” I drew her attention to the gateway, that it opened against a railroad tie along a small garden bed outside the gate but just enough that her little girl could get out.
“Oh my!” said the woman. She looked down sweetly at her little girl, now standing just on the other side of the fence from Dash. “23 months old? So that’s when you made your first successful jailbreak?” The little girl flashed a big, toothy smile and ran back into the yard giggling. “I am so grateful! Thank you for finding her and getting her home safely! Thank you!” she said, looking down at Dash.
“Your welcome!” said Dash, two-year-old style. This kid!
The woman went back inside, calling after who I presume was her husband to secure the gateway and chuckling about the little girl’s resourcefulness and good fortune to be found and back home safely.
I was grateful Dash and I were there. I was so surprised, though. I would expect another mother, especially, to be empathetic to another parent’s wonky situation. Calling 9-1-1 as a first effort could have gone a number of different ways, mostly wrong. I could not conjure her logic, myself. The woman could not communicate with a two-year-old enough to figure out where she belonged? It seemed natural to me to make every effort to locate the little girl’s home before creating such a drastic intervention. Why is my definition of best intentions so different? Calling the police on such a simple matter could have led to further misunderstanding, even so far as to get DFYS involved, creating unwarranted problems for that family. Who knows?
Communication is such an art form. Why is it so easy to misunderstand an audience? Does it take something special to apply empathy in a situation like that? I certainly felt, right away, “What would I feel like as the parent of this little one?” and “What is a logical explanation for this?” because no one would intentionally leave a two-year-old alone on their own like that. As a parent, I immediately felt there was something I could do to help. Calling the police was the last thing on my mind. How was it the first thing on hers? The snide way in which the woman spoke was also disappointing. I have on occasion witnessed the motherly competitiveness among females but this seemed waaay overblown. In addition, she also did not consider the woman she was shouting at had no context to answer her question of whether or not the little girl was “IN THE RIGHT PLACE.”
Dash and I were certainly in the right place that day. I was proud as can be. I loved the way he responded to that little girl in such a comforting and empathetic manner. I loved the way he pretty much shouted with glee, “You’re welcome!” to her mother who genuinely thanked us, clearly surprised at what had happened. It could have happened to anyone.
As we walked, we caught up with the woman, her daughter, and their cute dog. Dash wanted to pet the dog but neither the woman nor the daughter made any gesture to facilitate it so we kept walking. “All’s well that ends well,” I said. Nothing. No one said anything, except Dash, who said, “High tower, papa?” which meant he wanted me to lift him up so he could ride on my shoulders. “Okay!” I said and lifted that sweet little boy up there.
Dash started to hum, again. We had helped our neighbors. We had shown compassion but even better – empathy. We were problem solvers. I was grateful we were there, grateful we could communicate well with both the little girl and her mother. We walked home but then kept on walking, onward around the neighborhood, into the evening, humming and chortling together, feeling good. Tall as towers.
Curation is fundamental to how we process messages in the world. There is simply just too much information to process without filtering it for content and quality. Curating it. We curate all over the place. Social networks are among the most well-known of curation tools. That is coming under some threat, however.
Twitter is now even threatening to curate our curation. Please don’t do it, Dick. Don’t turn other social networks into Facebooks. Facebook has its robot-fed feeds and everyone loves/hates them. Please don’t ruin Twitter with that schwack, Dick. Let us keep Twitter what we want it to be. Please. True curation is the art of usability. </rant>
Let’s go waaay back to the beginning, shall we?
Social curation of the Web
In the beginning of the Web, many of us created webpages. Many more, however, recoiled from such freedom. As algorithms matured (ie PageRank, et al), mere fluency in HTML & CSS could not guarantee our user-generated pages would retain relevancy or be easily found as such virtual real estate began popping up in exponential growth ratios. New sciences, such as SEO suddenly came to be new fluencies required to maintain relevancy as the online world evolved faster than it could be studied.
This is exactly how Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and other pre-fab platforms took hold in the first place even amidst privacy and IP concerns. It was easy for the average bear to quickly see their name up in lights.
Point is: given a choice of social freedom or curation, the herd chooses curation, so now we’re dealing with the ripple effects of those choices. Could it have been better? Sure. But it’s not all bad.
Curation or Criticism?
An interesting comparison is the beginning of the music industry. We (fans) actually paid for albums. We had to be mindful of our choices because there was overhead. “Music critics” emerged as publications saw opportunity to influence purchasing decisions. At the time, how something sounded on our own systems was part of the magic, unless we just happened to hear it on the radio or at a record store. Now, we can discover how anything sounds in mere seconds, via YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, etc. Curation effectively neutralized the music critic. That any blogs mention an album at all is more important than what is written about it. We can download, listen, and decide for ourselves.
Publication vs. Filtration.
Before the Web as we know it at the moment, we typically got news from one or two publications, completely closed systems, typically tuned in to a single culture, devoid of diversity of perspective. When newspapers began to die and the content went online, another new word, aggregation, came into play. This allowed for sources to be more distributed and, arguably, somewhat more egalitarian.
By now, any search on current events typically reveals thousands of articles on the same topic. The sheer number of reports on a current, happening event skyrockets. Curation of that aggregated data is crucial in order to find value in any of it. Without filtering to find the relevant, true and/or interesting bits, readers whose days are dedicated to other matters would have to manage that on their own in addition to all the other schwack they gotta do.
Original reporting is still as important as it was before — perhaps even more so, because being “patient zero” on a story is a great way to get everyone else to link back to you.
Consumption devices curate functionality.
Finally, we arrive at the sort of curation Sarah Rotman Epps talks about. The Kindle, cellphone, MP3 player, GPS, and other purpose-specific devices curate functionality in order to deliver a better experience than a general-purpose desktop or laptop computer ever could. This holds especially true for devices designed around consumption, such as big-screen televisions. For example, iPads are merely recent tools designed to curate content on a personal level. Is it still curation? Tough question. Even before them, we could read any link later using Instapaper, or from a Twitter account, or ancient RSS feeds (some of the earliest forms of curation), which could then be read on whatever device we choose.
Content on tablets, by design, are generally curated via their relative manufacturer “stores” like the App Store, which has specific criteria, quality standards, etc, before apps and content of any kind are allowed in. As such, Apple initially took curation a bit further, following a model of integrated experience, retaining more control over the content available to the device in the name of optimal user experience. This is a fierce debate, while other companies have little or no scruples regarding what they allow into and onto their devices. This sort of culture continues to unfold but the battles of taste will surely never be won.
In light of all this, it is worth pointing out something: non-curated computing will never cease to exist. Just because we can make a Facebook page, a Tumblr blog, and countless lists on Pinterest doesn’t mean we can’t still create and post to our own website, silo’d off somewhere in the deep Web where algorithms and search strategies are irrelevant, useless things, incapable of finding such hidden gems. There is something quite comforting and mythical in that. Like finding a cool rock on the edge of the sea, worn smooth from years of being present but only just found to be admired by someone walking alone on the beach at dawn who, upon putting it in their pocket, assigns a value intrinsic only to their own, secret economy.
So, what’s my point? This: algorithms, app stores, etc. are nifty and all but real curation is the true art of Web usability. Want to get good at it? Find someone who is great at search and finding the best schwack on the Internet and watch how they do it. Humans are still better at it than machines. So far, so good.
I was married to my first wife for 10 years. We were together for 3 before we married. It was a fabulous adventure, a tale to tell, full of ups, downs, and everything in between. We lived all over the place, followed our hearts, made sacrifices to spend time with friends in far-flung parts of the world, lived and worked overseas, found pleasure in the things that matter most. I thought we would be together forever.
R. Buckminster Fuller knew a thing or two about failure as a part of success. I am fond of his idea that “If the solution is not simple and elegant, it is not the right one.”
As my then wife and I approached our 10th anniversary of being together, I asked her, “How are we doing? Are you still getting what you need from this?” I asked because I, myself, was trying to figure out how I was feeling. We told each other at our wedding that we would check in every ten years or so. It was a joke. Kind of.
At the time, my experience was that we were going pro at misunderstanding each other. We were both moody, prone to swings of withdrawing, frustration, being dishonest about our feelings, things that were seemingly spawned out of thin air. In a word: unhappy.
I cannot speak for her, but here is where I know I went wrong in it: I let that energy affect me. I channeled it back at her. Instead of distinguishing it and extinguishing it, which is what we both wanted, after all, I only coasted on it. I am a most effective antenna, capable of not only picking up on the true feelings of others, but also have to be mindful so as to not let someone else’s energy affect me.
It took a total overhaul, a complete reboot of my life to learn to start to get it right.
Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” His dedication to science is creedo to a whole creative class of knowledge professionals. No doubt, Mr. Edison would be surprised at how it now resonates within historically conservative spheres of business in the US. Companies like Pixar, for example, are radically contributing to the shift. They do not simply encourage their small army of creatives to “fail early and often” but mandate them to. How many years will we have to wait for a complete overhaul, a total reboot whereby successful companies all over the globe begin to find that the best way to succeed is to fail, again and again, until we get it right? Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, recently published a book, Creativity, Inc., that speaks to this so well it’s worthy of its own post.
People who rise to true greatness are intimately familiar with this, even should they keep it on the down low. Seems it is all about being willing to admit failure, own the mistake, and get back up and try again. Most of us will do anything to appear “normal”, though, whatever the heck that means.
As for me, I was not a fit in school. I knew nothing about “normal” because I was most always the new kid. In addition to that, I was too excitable for the classroom, unable to contain my enthusiasm for topics of interest. I wanted to be immersed in conversation, intellectual conversations about things. I wanted to find the smartest people in the room and get my butt kicked about until I was as smart. Smarter. Dad always said, “Want to get good at something? Find someone who is and let them kick your butt at it, over and over, until you are, too.” Great advice. Thanks, Dad.
Even at a young age, it was clear I was not a good fit for the pace of learning in traditional settings. That we moved around a lot probably did much to protect me from otherwise being pigeon-holed as a problem child. I was constantly trying things, failing, trying more things, until making breakthroughs, big and small, in my own learning. I loved project-based learning, labs, and other such opportunities for this reason. I had to make my own mistakes on the slow rise to comprehension and ascension to learning.
If failing is conducive to success, why are so many so resistant to the idea? Are we really that generally self-conscious as an entire race? Guess so.
If this is too much, let’s give it some context any sized brain can get interested in: Money.
Where does this idea leave companies? As more and more get hip and secure in this concept of encouraging experimentation, they will need more and more employees like me who aren’t afraid to fail on the way to success. Like my little boy, 2-and-a-half, who I can already tell can barely contain his enthusiasm for what is happening all around him. His passion is so self-evident, his likeness staggering as I watch him learn to learn, see him right in front of me develop his own, unique tools for interpreting and navigating the world around him. There may not be a thing more captivating to me. 2-year-olds are relentless problem solvers. He is, however, learning to ask for help, but that is another post, too ; )
“If we could think of failing as a path towards success, then I think we would all be better off,” said John Krumboltz, an author of Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win, and a Professor of Education and Psychology at Stanford University.
The longevity of a trend like this will depend, in part, on positive reinforcement from more than just hiring managers. Parents will need to motivate their young children by protecting them from too much “no” or “never” or “can’t” and “no” and “don’t” and “won’t” and any and all negative notion early on. Parents, don’t laugh at your kids when they fail. Even if it’s cute, be mindful of what message you may be sending. To boot, companies, too, will need to convince prospective hires that they are serious and committed to supporting failure and not just paying trendy lip service to it as a concept or “initiative.”
When my first wife and I divorced, I went on a walkabout. I had the world to carve out, able to craft and build it the way I wanted. You know what? It was too easy. Any of my own, modest successes were too small-minded. I wanted to build something selfless, something larger than myself. I still wanted a family. As the gods would have it, a wonky series of events led to this special little guy showing up in my life. Unplanned? Perhaps. Unexpected? No. I have always known I would be a papa, even as my first wife was staunch about not wanting kids and even as I tried zealously to get on board with that. It was not a question of if, merely when.
Companies on the brink of success need to convince their investors they can rebound after each failure. VCs often learn way more about a company from its failures. It’s the same as play. We can tell way more about someone in 10 minutes of playing with them than in 20 years of working together. Still, finding success through failure is not limited only to companies with billions at their disposal. Any sized business can learn from what Krumboltz calls the “small failures that we should be encouraging.”
It is some years later now and my first wife and I are better friends than ever, having moved beyond our values changing, changes of all sorts and degrees. We talk like two people who might have saved each others’ lives in a war. We are. We set each other free rather than staying together out of fear of the unknown. We are better for it. Want to know what? Relationships between people? They don’t ever really end. They only begin. What we do with them, what we get out of them, as they succeed, as they fail, like business, like learning, like simply living well, is all in how we handle the rebound.
TAG transcends cultures, ages, races, and politics. Long after childhood it remains an innate part of us as we discover our identities and pursue whatever it is we choose throughout the rest of our lives.
Enjoy this brief, stream-of-consciousness meditation on TAG, featuring stories from the voices of people of all ages and cultures around the world sharing their names and rules, just some of the infinite variants of this game that is a part of each of us.
(best with headphones in a quiet room)
The dream of falling startled me awake in the strangeness of that place, on the edge of the bed. So familiar and solid, though, for such a shaky thing, that dream.
The night, it did not change. It remained, by measure of all physical senses, intact. Cars passed outside, tires whispered on streets, headlights glimmered through the window, panned across the wall. The room still smelled of clean laundry, burnt coffee. Trees swayed in the breeze, branches danced shadows in light of the Moon. Hands in my hair, flat and greasy, through the coiff of sleep deprivation. The seconds hand continued a barely-audible tick-tock rotation around the clock, hanging on the wall over a table overcrowded with flower arrangements, cards, and photographs.
Our Mother was gone.
Slipped away in the stillness.
In between moments. I knew it was coming. Now, the moment had come.
Some time has passed. Yesterday marked an entire year since her passing. I am grateful. The first year is the hardest. The first Mother’s Day without Mom, first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, et al. We, those of us left in our family, celebrated each of these alone, probably so we would not stare at each other from across the table, sighing to fill the emptiness that is her absence. That is not what I had expected we would do but that is how the story goes.
Since she left us, we have been busy as bees, survivors rebuilding our respective hives, far-flung here and there. ‘Home’ is no longer a centralized reference point we once kept somewhere safe in a room in our minds. When the matriarch dies, it changes everything. This is magnified by the way everyone deals with grief in their own way.
At first it is startling, in that Unknown River. The current of being awash in a new paradigm grabbed me and left me often feeling lost. The center is dispersed. Everything feels fractured. No point of reference. In our case, Mom asked there be no funeral. No grave. Sometimes I crave it, though. Sometimes I wish there was a single place I could go and talk to her. Then, again, in the next breath I remind myself: anywhere. After a while it is not as scary as it is at the outset. It is just getting past the beginning that is rough. Pretty rough, yeah.
Things will disperse, given enough time. Is it true to say that it is the default? Is it only by real intervention something will hold still for any time at all? Is it the nature of most things to mingle back into the fray of time and memory?
Fortunately, given enough time, the frayed can also be arranged back into some semblance of order. It is what I seem to spend my energies doing, lately. There is comfort in it, even though deep down, beneath the hidden machinery, I am aware of its temporalness. Is that even a word? Guess so.
I channel the discomfort into celebrating her life, our life, LIFE, especially with my little boy. The world is only new with a two-year-old, and there is no better ballast than the extreme wonder he brings full-on into each and every moment. Lately, the only tears I have are sheer joy and awe. I thank him constantly.
The upside is this: grief is as often inspiring as it is daunting. It is work, tinkering, learning new technologies, writing, music, creative projects. The heavy stuff of life is also the greatest muse. I have learned some good, hard-won lessons. Keeping them close is just as important and I am grateful they are there.
Oh, funny life. The unknown. Call it home.
The Top Ten List of Things That Do Not Get Any Easier With Practice: Saying Goodbye PART III – One Year
It started the evening of April 23rd. I was in Chicago, on a conference call with some people. We were collaborating on a volunteer project for an inner city youth program, a very ambitious project to say the least, one we were pow-wowing over passionately when, suddenly, I received a text from Dad:
Mom’s vitals declining rapidly. Best be on your way
I had been making the five-and-a-half-hour-each-way journey to Cedar Falls, Iowa for months. I had, in fact, just made it the day before, having spent a long weekend into Monday there in hospice with her and Dad. The doctor reassured us she had at least another week in her before the final decline. At that point, she had been in hospice for three months. We were all on edge, fatigued, jumpy each time our phones buzzed, during the day and/or during the night.
I hung up with the conference call and called Dad. He was there alone as the others in the family had left from the weekend. She was one of eleven siblings so the visitors had been steady week after week. Some of them were returning upon hearing the news but likely would not arrive until after it all had gone down. I reassured Dad that I was on my way. I called hospice and spoke with the nurse. She said Mom’s blood pressure was 30 over something, barely enough to even feel a pulse. She said it was imminent. I swallowed the last sip of water from my water bottle, looked out at the night and collected myself. I had to get ready to go.
I made a step to the kitchen and the phone rang again. This time it was related to my then 18-month-old son. His mother was panicked in tone and informed me that he had diarrhea and had been vomiting all evening. Being that the tiny Wisconsin berg she was in with him (not my favorite whenever she insisted on taking him with her) was about an hour from the nearest Target, she worried about having access to Pedialite or some other hydrating solution for little ones should he need it. She asked if I would come, bring some Pedialite, and help her take care of him. She made it very clear she could not take him to daycare in the morning if he had had diarrhea within 24 hours of arriving there. The option of her staying home from work never entered the conversation, so I agreed. Fortunately, I work for and with a community that values family and what comes first. Besides, what is more important than taking care of your child, even as your own Momma is taking her last breaths? It is what Momma would have done, after all.
So the choice was clear. I only thought for a moment how I would feel if Mom passed away while I was en route to rural Wisconsin, well out of the way to her side in Cedar Falls. I knew exactly what I would do. I would silently pray/communicate to her the whole way that she might hang on until I got there. If it worked out, great. If not, I would be okay, too. I would have done what she would have done – make my son the priority at all costs, in any case. This was not, after all, the first or last time I would drive through the night to be at his side when push came to shove. I deeply enjoyed it. Not his being sick, of course, but feeling that useful, that needed, and that important to the survival of a little life like his. I was on the team, all the way. These are moments I will remember for the rest of my life. Is that why I write them here, now? It is not as if I could or would ever forget. I suppose I write this here now to help begin to process. Grief is such a bizarre animal.
I casually mentioned the state of affairs with Mom, so as not to seem selfish yet respectful of its gravity, collected myself, hung up and in about 10 minutes had packed an austere bag of necessities for the next few days. I had phone calls to make before I left, assistants to notify, superiors to inform, last minute things to do, domestically. I could not have known how the next day would unfold but I was ready for the river, whatever current was waiting for me. I shut off the lights, made sure the doors were locked, and jumped into it. It was startling.
First, was the three-and-a-half-hour drive from the city to the middle of Nowhereville, WI, but only after retrieving Pedialite from insert big box retail store name here. There was construction and deer crossings, and phone calls from friends that left me at moments too tearful to see straight, hence pulling over a couple of times, and mostly a lot of silence as I drove. And prayed or whatever it is we do to communicate to something larger than ourselves. What music do you listen to on such occasions? When I could not settle on anything I mostly just kept the music off. Although, at one point in my shuffling, a Christmas carol by John Denver and the Muppets was rather oddly soothing. Weird.
Upon arriving in that small, Wisconsin town in the middle of the night (shortly after 3am), I could already tell my son was beginning to feel better. By morning, he was snoozing comfortably beside me as his mother left for work. After our snooze, he woke smiling and then we danced to a new song I turned him on to and we made breakfast, hung out, danced some more, made a doctor appointment to make sure we was a-ok, and generally enjoyed the morning together. There is no better way to endure grief than in the company of a child.
By the time the doctor appointment came around, late morning, he was definitely feeling better and took the biggest, healthiest greezer in his pants in the lobby while we waited. One of the nurses was kind enough to let me change him in one of the unused examination rooms. Good thing, too. Stinkeeeeeeee. I knew right then that he was on the mend. Question I had for the doctor now was, can I travel with him? Is there a chance we can make it to Mom’s side before she slips away?
The doctor, upon examining him, taking a gander at that diaper, gave us a resounding, “Go. Now. There is nothing more important and he is fine to travel. Go!” We were up and out of there in a flash. We packed up all the stuff a little boy needs into our trusted Subaru wagon and drove off towards Iowa and Mom. Dad was not answering his phone. No way to know what the river looked like up ahead. No matter, the little boy and I rock and rolled down that road as if there was nothing else. He was still really digging that song. I was grateful and tearing up now for the sheer joy of him.
Upon arriving, it was self-evident that it was imminent. Mom was not responsive (had not been consistently for a few days now), though something had changed: her breathing. She was breathing so shallowly now. Her whole chest seemed to heave with the effort of merely maintaining stasis. Her eyes did not flicker beneath their lids. Her skin was grey and patchy. It felt like paper.
I had not slept much, save for an hour or so with the little boy earlier that morning, so was beginning to feel the effects of 36 hours of sleep deprivation. As a young man I was built for this. Now, it was wonky. My senses were caving in on me. I was experiencing audible distortions, seeing things, shadows running out of my peripheral vision, and I was trying with all my might to be present. I wanted to feel all of this but was collapsing under the weight of it. Isn’t it remarkable, though, how much we can take?
My sister, Kelly, arrived then and we sat on either side of the bed with Mom. This was one of the most beautiful moments of the experience of Mom’s decline: my sister and I, sitting on either side of her, telling her how much we loved her. We thanked her for being so gracious and kind and for teaching us so much. We told her it was okay for her to leave now. We would not be upset. We told her she had earned it. Time to go.
Another breathtaking (literally) beautiful moment was the weekend before. Mom was still responsive at times and I had had a particularly emotional stay of it that weekend as I knew it was getting close. It was indisputable at this point. Any day now. With tear-soaked eyes, I was able to say,
“Momma, when you get wherever it is you are going, please tell them thank you from us. Please tell them we said ‘thank you for our Momma.’”
At that, she acted as if she was trying to sit up, opened her wide, blue eyes widely, madly, and looked at me deeply as they welled up with huge tears that streamed down her face.
That is the last time I ever spoke to her and can be certain she heard me.
Now, I sat beside her at approximately 10:30pm on April 24th. Everyone was heading back to Mom and Dad’s new apartment. It was a place we had no memories of as Dad had moved them into it during the beginning of Mom’s decline. Once she had become mostly unable to walk, he made the tough choice to move to a place where she could live as independently as possible. It would hardly make a difference it was such a short amount of time. Within only a few months, we were faced with moving Mom to a nursing home. It was one of the toughest days of our lives.
Now, here we were some months ever further down the river. As everyone was fixing to leave, it was clear to me that I would stay. I knew in my heart she would not make it through the night. I was so tired I could not see straight. My son’s mother arrived and informed me she could stay through the night but had to be back at work early the next morning. I was grateful.
After everyone was gone, I left Momma’s side for a few minutes to get something to eat across the street at the nurse’s insistence, returning with some noodles from a Chinese restaurant at that late hour. I sat beside her and talked as I ate. I talked about how grateful I was. For her teaching me to play baseball. For teaching me about music. For her kindness and dedication. I apologized for my stubbornness and willful irritability during my twenties (we had already had this conversation it seemed like so many times but I was doing a full-on inventory), and mostly told her of everything wonderful about her heart, her soul, and her love for her family. She had the done very best she could. I know no one more devout and true to her family, her God, or her privacy.
She lay there, silently. Chest heaving. Breath shallow. I could not eat but a couple bites, after all. The exhaustion of the previous night’s journey was overpowering me. The moment hardly lent itself to appetite.
Even though I was running out of steam, memories inside me stirred from a long slumber. Out of my control they ran rampant through the rooms in my mind. Next thing I knew I was relaying one of them to her out loud.
When I was very young, around eleven, I remember Mom being famous in our neighborhood at the time for her homemade pizza. Every kid we knew would constantly vie for an opportunity to come to dinner on a night when she was making it. The smell of it wafted across the streets and yards of our neighbors, so it was difficult not to detect. She made it more frequently in the summer, often sending me out with bundles of the stuff, leftovers, wrapped in aluminum foil, to be delivered to this pal or that. It was the most happy time in her life. She loved that place, that house, that chapter in our lives. She held those memories closer than the rest of us did. The smell of those pies sticks in my head like glue to this day, along with the words she used to say whenever I went out to play, because it was also one of the last things she would say to me, “Don’t wander too far from the house.”
As I told this story that was the end of the noodles. I chucked the lot of them into the trash as I said, “Nothing compared to the love you put into those pizzas, Momma. I will make pizzas, too, but of course they won’t be like the ones you make.”
I sat there, spent, my arms folded on the side of her bed with my chin resting on them, a wet, soppy mess of me. I was in between moments. I did not want to sleep but at the same time was so ready for her to let go. We were all exhausted from the journey down the river that led to this moment. It is a hard way to live, waiting for someone you love to pass on. It is a cruel struggle between wanting them to hold on, even come around, and battling feelings of relief from when it is over. Oh, funny life.
I last looked at the clock at 1:45a. I told her, “Momma, I am beat. I am going to get some sleep, too, okay? Let’s take a little snooze. I am going to hunker down here next to you (one of the nurses had extended the chair and made a comfy bed of it for me), but before I do I am going to say goodnight like we used to, k?”
At that, I realized it had been almost 25 years since I had done what I was about to do.
As children, upon preparing to sleep, we had a ritual identical to the Waltons. I would typically start it out, until my little sister got older and would make an equal contribution to getting it rolling before we retired each night. It went like this:
“Good night, Momma”
Upon which she would reply from her room, “Good night, Chad.”
“Thank you, God, for Momma.”
“Thank you, God, for Chad.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she would reply (or Dad, too, when he was home).
“See you in the morning light.”
“See you in the morning light, too.”
On this night, however, as she lay there, quiet, motionless, and grey, it was only I:
“Good night, Momma.”
“Thank you, God, for Momma.”
“I love you bigger than the whole wide world.”
I fell asleep. It felt like I had been asleep for a very long time when the nurse nudged me gently at 2:30am, only forty-five minutes later. She whispered kindly, “She’s gone.”
It was April 25th, 2013. One year ago today.
Momma, I love you.
I miss you.
I am grateful to be your son.
I am grateful, also, to have the first year behind me. The first year is so rough, with all the “firsts” – the first Mother’s Day without Mom, the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, all of it. It seems like a constant battle, getting used to the matriarch’s absence.
It does not get any easier with practice, however, I am grateful for the gifts you have left behind, the letters, the photos, the memories, the lessons. I carry them, and you, with me. I am grateful, Mom. I love you. I miss you.
Are not scientists, more than anyone, acutely aware that the data tells only a slice of the story? Would not anyone truly, passionately in search of an answer (an accurate one) be more likely to ask themselves something like:
Only the whole story tells the whole story?
And would it be worthwhile to ask something like:
Even though largely at odds with one another, the “hard” and “soft” sciences need each other?
Storytelling may very well be the oddball cousin of the two that bridges them more successfully than any other? If so, for good storytellers the future seems to be very bright, indeed.
While a nice spreadsheet or graph might be a quick read and enable us to draw fast conclusions, reassuring us with a false sense of control, only the whole story tells the whole story. Infographics sort of work better, at least tell us more but only if we possess the right kind of visual literacy. That is another post, though, so let us not be distracted. This post is about storytelling and the underestimated power of it. To hear a whole story? Well, it takes as long as it takes. Someone has to listen. To. The. Whole. Story.
Have we been warned enough already against such paraphrasing of knowledge? Lots of people, smart, accomplished people have tried to tell us, and we even throw those quotes around like cocktail party anecdotes. Is data alone ironic? Is it like measuring the weight of all the water coming into the boat?
It bears repeating: only the whole story tells the whole story. Storytelling is gaining real street cred, emerging as a hard science right in front of our eyes.
It is an understatement to say YouTube has changed things. It has replaced Encyclopedia Britannica (merely an artifact from another age of learning) as the de-facto go-to resource for everything everyone may want to know, including how to fix an engine, cook dinner using a recipe, even how to tie our shoes. It is a utility, now. Like turning on a faucet, we expect water to come out.
For better or worse, YouTube may be best described as a showcase of fandom, attempts at something indescribable but driven largely by simply being a fan. A kind of fandom that morphs meaning, bends perception, voices expression, and yes, sometimes dilutes meaning. Still, each misguided attempt, flat-out mistake, or gleaming triumph of these efforts teaches, distracts, entertains, annoys, and surprises us. When was the last time a young human shared their favorite YouTube video with you? Next time it happens, instead of watching the video, watch them watch it. Watch them revel in it. Watch them be a fan.
The definition of fan is tricky. Most think of it in the context of sports or entertainment. In that context, it can be both good and bad to be a fan. It can be psychologically unhealthy. It can also be positive. All things in moderation. This is not the kind of fandom I am talking about.
For me, being a fan is something very diferent. It involves unbridled curiosity and the confidence to express it whenever and wherever we experience it. I think of it as a miniature and earnest expression that says, “I bow down to you and your awesomeness.”
Finding awesomeness in such moments leads us to joy, to humour, to the fine appreciation for all that is right and good in the world – to fandom. It is this spirit that is our best defense against the tough parts of living, the grumpy moods, dealing with bullies, and even our own self-doubt. It is contagious. No one would be inspired to do or make anything if they had no sense of it and were not a fan of other people and their actions or ideas. Can following that spirit lead to other ideas, invention, and potentially innovation?
Fandom and humour are cousins, whimsical and mischievous. Even at their worst, they create bonds between us. At their best, laughter, and where there is laughter, is there not promise?
It’s the 27th day of the month today. Turns out, the number 27 is singular. The Internet can tell us why, mathematically, the number 27 is so unique. For example, 27 is a perfect cube (3 cubed), a completely balanced equation. In math, that is truly saying something.
The number 27 pops up a lot, which is what led me to learn more about it. While I was at it, just for kicks, I made a list of 27 things my ideal 27-sided-self values. Please note, I do not take myself too seriously here, rather this is simply an exercise, a playlist, of thoughts and notions on moving the ball closer to the goal of growth, being a better communicator: a better pal, partner, father, son, and generally well-balanced cube, er, dude:
1 – Arguably, one of the greatest strengths may be helping others feel more comfortable being themselves. This does not imply enabling others to cultivate their hurtful traits, rather their best, most productive and positive ones.
2 – “Please” and “thank you” are two of the best parts of any language.
3 – Good moods are contagious. Spread them like colds.
4 – Be mindful of others’ aural, physical, and visual space. We all have different boundaries.
5 – Respect and trust require respect and trust.
6 – Words and tone of voice deliver packages to others. Stop sometimes and wonder what it may be like to receive them.
7 – Short fuses burn ourselves and others. Take a moment, get all the facts, or step away until it passes.
8 – Being open to constructive criticism is worth risking the initial discomfort of trying it on. Nothing to lose.
9 – Read, preserve, and share books and stories. Like music, they are the crux of so many good things.
10 – Good aesthetics are like good manners. Create atmospheres that foster acceptance. See #1.
11 – Any voices inside that say “You are not good enough” are illusions, shadows of fear. Break through them.
12 – Skills are not demonstrated better than by putting them to good use for a good cause.
13 – Laugh. Play. Pause objectives. Let fun in. It is not irresponsible or a waste of time.
14 – When I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders, pause and read #24.
15 – Keep moving forward. Giving up is easy. Building anything good takes compromise, resources, and work.
16 – Things work out whether I like it or not. Do not underestimate the “unswerving punctuality of chance.”
17 – Do not be afraid to accept or admit we each need someone who does not give up easily.
18 – Forgive ourselves. Moments of weakness do not make us fundamentally weak, only fundamentally human.
19 – Make and share good, healthy, and tasty food with friends whenever possible.
20 – Risk being affectionate and vulnerable.
21 – Keep money and ‘need vs. want’ in perspective. Measuring against others is an empty pursuit. See #11.
22 – A brief stop to smell the roses is worth being ever-so-slightly late for on occasion.
23 – Values only mean something if stood by when inconvenient.
24 – Stress kills slowly and silently. Reduce it by taking a break, a walk, reading, writing, or something else. Don’t do too much of any one thing all the time. Try to find balance in work and play.
25 – Music in any shape or form helps everything.
26 – Stop and listen. A clear mind is open to ideas.
27 – Keep it simple. Show up and do your best.
Certainly, there are many moving parts to our success in pushing the envelope of what is possible, how fast we can go, how far we can push, how much we can take to exceed our previous attempts. Fear and anxiety, and our capacity to overcome them, are key. Physicality, mental toughness, preparation, are all important ingredients that separate good from great. In addition to these, however, is technology and some say it is disrupting the integrity of competition. Some disagree, saying it is only driving us to greater heights, faster times, higher achievement.
Over time, technology has played a deeper and deeper role in the overall performance of what athletes are capable of. From the obvious gear-driven needs, wants and wishlists of the elite, trickle down conventions that change the game, literally, for the masses.
Consider any sport, from skiing to basketball, race car driving to swimming. Each and every sport is touched in some way by technology, even if not visible on the surface. Doping affects the metabolism of athletes, allowing them greater lung capacity or overall strength and endurance. Biological, chemical, and mechanical technologies are playing key roles in competition now, whether we like it or not. Have they always?
There are many examples to think about. Just in my own lifetime, the introduction of instant replay changed everything. When Speedo introduced Shark Suit technology, the swimming world was turned upside down, while records were being broken by larger-than-ever-margins. Likewise, the ski world has been revolutionized from long, stiff skis like the Volkl P9s of the 80′s to today’s parabolic designs that accommodate all-mountain competition, which means one pair does it all: bumps, steep and deep, or GS. Whatever you want. Radical. Radical? That’s not really radical anymore. This is radical.
While all of these advancements are cool, they are each and every one moving closer and closer towards the same question, I think:
when will it open the conversation for a complete and total permissive class of competition, one that allows for any and all-out enhancement, whatever the risk or cost?
Imagine a class of competition in every sport like open classes in auto racing where anything goes. What would that look like? The most radical and extreme would compete against each other, offering a true spectacle. With Olympic and pro athletes already pushing the limits of what conventional rules allow for, such a thing may not far away. Ethics could play a role but – ticket sales often trump them.
So imagine we are there now. What would it look like? I imagine a sort of International Race of Champions (where each driver races the exact same car), for every sport emerging where each competitor is offered the same enhancements and technology. Imagine each takes the same performance-optimizing drugs, suits up with the latest state-of-the-art gear, modifications, etc. Then, these humans compete in exactly the same vein as the original IROC drivers. Let them modify to the hilt and go for it. See who comes out on top in every sport imaginable. Some would argue it’s already happening but only behind the scenes. Who knows?
It was discontinued in 2006, but in each of the IROC races, each driver had the exact same car: same chassis, same engine, same modifications, same tires, everything. So, in the end, it came down to the drivers. A great driver never blames the car.
You’re a ghost driving a meat-coated skeleton made from stardust. What do you have to be scared of?
Buddhists sometimes meditate on the vision of their own corpse. Imagine that for a moment. That this whole thing is temporary, accepting the inevitability of death is an act of courage that opens life up to even more capacity for joy by basking in the fleeting nature of it. No one makes it out of here alive, as Dad says.
How counter-intuitive. Perhaps that’s why I find this particular assembly of words so motivating and beautiful.
Buddhists also believe the soul never dies. Giving in to the impermanence of the idea of life, at least in the sense most of us think of it, is incredibly liberating.
With so many of our loved ones passing on in front our eyes, it helps to bend the days thinking in a more conducive way, thereby approaching, processing, and getting on with what we have left of it.
Keeping fear at bay is a life pursuit for most of us. Fear is the mind-killer. This phrase that so conveniently spread around the internets over the past year has brought me much comfort, not to mention, something to meditate on. What is left to fear when the odds of such an odd combination of forces have converged to give me even just a quick passage of life here on this strange, blue planet.
We have no idea what we are doing here, really, so there is no manual, no proper-way, no right or wrong way to do anything we do. We are pioneers falling, spinning, floating, on a sphere within a sphere, within a sphere, stuck to this particular sphere by gravity? All the while, inside, a ghost of some kind drives our meat-coated skeleton made from dust fallen from the stars? Really? What do we have to be afraid of?
Building things is an existential endeavor. It takes mettle. Mettle requires an optimism inherent in the doing. It is the spirit within which the work is done that makes something great and powers said mettle. It is a self-powering process that feeds itself forward.
My new favorite form of building is taking an idea that is not so good off the start and making it great. Spending so much time these days playing with a 2-year-old, I notice how much better I am getting at letting him lead the play, come up with the ideas, and then we build on them. This is not to say he only comes up with not-so-great ideas. Quite the contrary. His ideas are generally incomplete, mostly. He is the perfect collaborator for this. He has no ego in the way, yet. In fact, he’s a little idea machine. His ideas just need a little help being shaped is all. That’s where I get to come in.
Puppet shows are a good example. He will choose a toy. Lately his favorite is Dora, followed distantly by “Country Bear,” a stuffed bear who talks only with a Southern accent. He will start it off, chatting them up. I will wait and see if it sticks. Sometimes he’s only into it for literally a few moments. If it sticks, before we know it we have a full-blown puppet show going on behind the couch and the stories get pretty far out there. He’s two so anything goes but the atmosphere we create feels more improv than toddler’s play space.
Any process of creating an unassuming atmosphere is pretty much a perfect approach to any problem-solving scenario. I think back on some of my experiences in various fields and recall how I solved this problem or that. It is clear to me that what is really going on here, what this sweet little boy is teaching me, is showing me how to collaborate in a new and highly effective way. I have always been a pretty playful type when it comes to solving creative problems but this experience has gratefully taken it all to a new level. It has less to do with control and more to do with building trust through fun and letting the idea meander – even if it isn’t particularly interesting at first. In short order, it will turn into something playful and fun and then the real rubber begins to hit the road.
Figures Plato would say something like this:
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
As grown-ups we tend to glob onto specific ways of doing most everything. The more we age and the more we get set in those ways, the less magic we allow into the whole experience, perhaps, because we begin to start thinking we have seen it all or have run out of interesting new ideas. Who needs new ideas?
What I mean is, I remember when this little boy first showed up. I was frightened that I would run out of ideas. I honestly did. I can clearly see what I was looking at when I thought I would most definitely run out of cool things to do and say and teach this little life. What a bunch of malarky – number one – but number two is the best part. Number two is: what about taking an idea that is not so hot and slowly, intentionally making it great? That’s where it’s at. Let the not-so-awesome ideas come out. What a great framework within which to build something that is truly great. Intentionally start with an idea that isn’t awesome? Talk about taking the pressure off.
Not so sure why I was ever so afraid of sharing ideas that were less-than-stellar. Now, thanks to the influence of Little Mister New to Everything, I have a new perspective on how to approach building things, creative work specifically and problem solving in general.
That’s how it’s done.