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April 21st, 2009

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12:51 am - A tale of two friends
This is a post I've had saved up in me for a very long time. Along with all the other posts.

One of my friends is a colleague of mine. He's been single for a while and he's approached his relationship problem with what he perceives as a logical approach. One of the easiest ways to meet people is to make an impression on them. If you seek to be good at a lot of things that you can show off at, then you can show off a lot and potentially impress a number of people.

I am a man of many talents. Most people are and certainly all of my friends are. I mentioned to him one day that I wouldn't do the things he does to attract someone. It's not a matter of being talented enough at something to do it -- it's a matter of understanding what that relationship is going to be founded on. Trying to impress someone is going to base a relationship on your talents rather than a mutual interest. Ultimately, there's no way to sustain that interest unless you dedicate yourself to it. If you dedicate yourself to it, then you're going to spend your life in the pursuit of someone else's likes and dislikes. It's self defeating.

Furthermore, there are people who spend their lives trying to achieve those talents for the same purpose. This lends itself to a very common pattern in human thought -- that there really are a set of virtues and that achieving them makes your life worthwhile or good. This pattern is pervasive -- it's in almost everything we do. Look at the books out there which tell you what you should see before you die. Consider the number of things that people try to introduce you to on the principle that it'll make your life better in one way or another.

The truth is that there isn't a checklist for life. There isn't even a high score list because there really isn't a way to judge it.

The problem is that we all know of famous people. Moreover, we celebrate the good parts of their lives. In doing so, we associate these with qualities which we'd like to have. Tesla was a genius, but he died penniless and suffered a number of mental illnesses. Edison was driven, but he did a great deal of damage to a number of people's lives. Einstein spent most of his life in a lowly position as a patent clerk -- he didn't manage to do anything major until his 40s.

(This is something that is very easy to lose sight of. My other friend complained that they've reached their mid twenties but they haven't accomplished anything. One of my favorite episodes of the Twilight Zone involved a headmaster's quote: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for mankind."
There's a formulation of that which I prefer from Mark Twain: "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest." This isn't an approach towards a prescription for what is right. This beseeches you to always do what you think to be right in a situation.)

We think about all this in the context of being able to achieve what they did, but without the bad parts. We end up driving ourselves utterly mad. Kant discussed this concept of life in his discussion of morals. Nietzsche saw (in his madness) that this was madness and sought to tear it down by expressing his will to power. These are prisons that we build ourselves. They aren't ladders which we climb. They aren't roads for us to drive. They narrow our pursuits into a small area.

We tend to form plans that we see as ways of achieving our dreams, but we end up with lives like those that John Lennon characterized with his famous quote: "Life is what happens when you're busy doing other things." Jobs with set hours and set schedules lock you into a way of living because they limit your freedom. You see yourself making money and you think about that as a way of paying for the things you enjoy. Moreover, you form a resistance against changing it because you lose sight of ways to pay for the bills.

William Gibson had a couple of interesting characters in his novels. One of which was a martial arts expert. The most interesting part was that whenever he was presented with an objective, he objected to ways of solving it that involved planning. He claimed that it hindered him too much. This was most pressing when he was along with five other people and trying to find a way down from a tower on a bridge and a mob had taken the bridge. The five other people tried to think of a way down and the guy in question said "Meh, too much planning. Too much foresight. I'm going down and I'll find my way out."

Von Moltke once said that "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy". Mike Tyson once said that "Everyone's got plans...until they get hit". I contend that David Farragut answered these quotes after a fashion when he said "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" at the battle of Mobile Bay. We're human beings. We're creatures of habit because habit brings consistent results, but consistent results are not what life is about. Robert Heinlein wrote "Everything in excess! To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites! Moderation is for monks!"

I encourage you all to try not planning things in your life for a period of time. Just go out and do things -- what's the worst that could possibly happen? It is when plans go awry -- and they inevitably do -- that we see objectives slip away and we develop stress.

When I was in Poland and we had several bottles of beer, but no way to open them, I insisted on going out and looking for a bottle opener. On our way to doing this we learned a little bit of Polish that I'll never forget ("Otwarte butel" is how you say "bottle opener" in Polish) and we chatted briefly with an interesting couple. Sure it was around midnight on a Sunday -- but why not? You never know what'll happen unless you go out there and do it. If you learn how to roll with the punches, then why is there a reason to fear the unknown?

The second character that I referred to was a guy named Rudy. Rudy was a very technical person and had a knack for dealing with technology. He collected junk so that he could use it later for projects -- one of which was a series of robots which went around malls looking for people wearing the latest fashions. When it identified them, it would set about the task of insulting them.

Rudy would never be famous, but he had many friends. He lived a life of simple convenience in that he did what he thought would be fun. In many respects, he provided a safe haven for some of Gibson's characters and gave them somewhere they could think things through. In addition, he had a talent for counseling people.

I have -- in spite of my words before -- sought to model my life somewhat like Rudy's. I strive not for fame, fortune, or life long relationships. I strive to be happy.

Indeed -- this is the end that Nietzsche thought people should seek. In Zarathustra's speech, he said that people are first camels -- they seek to bear burdens. Following that, they are lions -- they seek to use their strength to conquer burdens. In time, they conquer dragons whose scales are enscribed with "Thou shalt" -- commandments which tell you how you ought to live life. It is only in the end when you conquer those dragons that you become a human child.

It is when you are a child that you are happiest because you haven't a care in the world. Some of this might be because you have your needs fulfilled by your parents and you're free to seek whatever path you wish -- even if that path is watching Saturday morning cartoons with sugar-filled cereal.

(I know mine was.)

But that isn't what's meant. What Nietzsche meant by a human child was the same thing that another Twilight Zone episode tried to demonstrate. Ultimately, you're as young as the things you do. You might be in an old folks home, but if you go out there and play kick the can, you can recapture the same carefree ways that you had when you were a kid.

Friends, look not to your age, salaries, circumstances, or long range plans to provide you with the things you want. Do the unusual things. Don't keep regular hours. Don't keep habits for terribly long. Seek to experience life as other people do.

Go play kick the can. Go do the things that you're too old for. Go do the things that you're too young for. Go out there and live life. Think about it and break yourself out of patterns.

Only good things -- or at least, good stories -- can possibly come of it.

(6 comments | Leave a comment)


(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:April 21st, 2009 11:21 pm (UTC)
This does not mean that one should not make plans for the future, but that one's future should not hinder one's present.

It is my belief that one cannot plan for the future and live in the present on the aforementioned basis that planning for the future has a tendency to make one resort to known behaviors. By planning, you seek to make the future predictable. By making it predictable, we often think that we've made it safe.

By making it predictable, you remove the spontaneity which makes life worth living.

There is also nothing wrong with building a checklist of goals, be these short-term or long-term. One does not have to hold oneself to goals, but capturing what it is that one wants is a useful exercise in and of itself. Anyone who is living in the moment will find these goals changing frequently, but taking a moment to find one's bearings in a moving landscape is still of use. We may not know where we end up, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't steer towards something promising, or try to avoid the rocks.

I wouldn't call those "goals", so much as "desires". Desires are good to have -- they motivate someone. Goals implies milestones, timetables, measures, and all those other things which I think are best left behind us.

People don't base relationships on such skills, but such skills do make excellent ice breakers. They get people talking, and in conversation we find other points of commonality.

Long ago, it was possible for someone to talk directly to someone without requiring a gimmick to break the ice. It's an art that I think is better cultivated than most of the other things one might do.

Incidentally, the friend I was talking about wasn't you, but I can see how it applies.

To begin with, consider the number of random variables in meeting someone, viz.
1) Whether or not there is mutual attraction
2) Whether or not there are shared interests
3) Whether or not you like conversing about those shared interests
4) Whether or not you can start a conversation in such a way that they're interested in following.
5) Whether or not you happen to be in communicational proximity
6) Whether or not you speak the same language...

and this is long before we start considering the things that one typically defers until things seem to be going well.

There are weights attached to a lot of these and infinitesmal weight can be safely attached to things like "how good you are at a skill which breaks the ice". Sure -- I have every major video game console ever made (and some minor ones!), but that doesn't immediately endear me to anyone who might have an interest in that area. Nor does it ascribe me a better chance of success than someone who only has one console.

It follows a pattern similar to the one that Gladwell described in Outliers for basketball players. It's helpful to be tall if you're a basketball player, but there's a certain point at which the correlation between being good at basketball and being tall falls off rapidly. Essentially, there's a point where you're tall enough, and after that, it does almost no good to be taller.

In relationships, like in the game of Fluxx, the overwhelming number of things which are out of your control means that the best strategy is to gain as many cards as possible and attempt to play the winning sequence all at once.

In reality -- staying home and learning a girl's favorite song is likely to be the worst thing you could do for that strategy.
[User Picture]
Date:April 21st, 2009 08:09 pm (UTC)
Though you make some points that are good to think about and keep in mind, I generally agree with what uniheliodem stated about planning. I know that I have a tendency to over-schedule (a bit different in my mind from planning) my life so I end up with a packed month as soon as it's started and no down time. Because of this, I get super stressed. But a little bit of planning is fine, I think. Knowing when BART runs and parking in downtown SF on a late Saturday night out ensures that you get back to the East Bay reliably at 2am. Looking at the schedule of concerts and buying a ticket ahead of time guarantees that you can see the concert that will be sold out two days before the show. Things like this just help make life a bit easier- I don't think they necessarily constrain it.

It's a nice thought to hope that everyone can hold irregular hours and just forget about their set work schedules, but a lot of the world doesn't work this way, and not for purposes of restraining the population. For example, rare books librarians must keep set hours because they have public service duties at specified times of the day. They must monitor the patrons and books during research, so they *must* be there at the same time. For this reason, a patron can't just come in at any time of the day and look at a 14th century book, and the librarians can't arbitrarily choose their work hours. And libraries will NEVER have the funds to hire staff to be there 24/7. So there are some things that just can't change *that* much.

That said, I appreciate your thoughts on not doing things entirely for the express purpose of meeting people or partners. It could be easy to lose your own identity doing that. And, as you say, it's important to get out there, live life and have fun.

Edited at 2009-04-21 08:11 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:April 21st, 2009 10:04 pm (UTC)
Knowing when BART runs and parking in downtown SF on a late Saturday night out ensures that you get back to the East Bay reliably at 2am. Looking at the schedule of concerts and buying a ticket ahead of time guarantees that you can see the concert that will be sold out two days before the show.

There's a big difference between being aware of constraints and planning ahead.

BART is a constraint. Constraints shape the ways in which you can react to situations -- planned or unplanned. Knowing constraints is a good thing.

Buying a concert ticket is a plan. It's not necessarily a bad one, I'll allow, but it does constrain you. To put this a little more in your experience, going to prom was a plan, but it was a plan that restricted you from going to that Eagles concert. 8)

It's a nice thought to hope that everyone can hold irregular hours and just forget about their set work schedules, but a lot of the world doesn't work this way, and not for purposes of restraining the population.

Maybe not for the express purpose of "restraining the population" (I'm certainly not suggesting there's a conspiracy or anything), but it does stop people from doing things they like. Consider that if one wanted to check out the Heinlein archives, one would have to take time off of work which might not be a possibility for them.
[User Picture]
Date:April 22nd, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure the Eagles concert is the best example of a constraint- things can crop up at any time to present a more attractive option. You could, theoretically, have a ticket to see San Jose win the Stanley Cup and an opportunity for something you would rather do *could* present itself at the last minute. Then that ticket would be constraining you. But if you didn't buy the ticket beforehand, they'd all be sold out and you wouldn't see the game at all and perhaps this other thing wouldn't happen either. It's all a gamble.

I think the prom/concert was more a matter of circumstance and information. I didn't know about the concert when I bought the prom ticket, so I can't really say the prom constrained me. I only found out about the concert as two friends ran into the prom hotel, so at the time, I made the best decision given the information I had. I *could* have ditched prom and gone to the concert, but at the time, I just didn't want to deal with the hassle from my folks. That was my choice and I'm okay with it. I figured I could see the Eagles some other time. Prom was still a good experience.

Yeah, I was sorry that I didn't go, but it really wasn't a big deal, didn't end up being a major life's regret or anything. Now, if I had done a little planning and *realized* beforehand that the concert was happening that night, I wouldn't have gone to prom.

On this second point, there is a give and take in things in life. Not everyone can do 100% of the things they'd like to do when they'd like to do them- that's just life. But if it's something you *really* want to do, you find a way to do it. Yeah, you might have to take time off work to see the RAH collection, but I have to take time off work to go to the post office or make it to a CA Book Club event. Eventually, it all evens out. Everyone eventually has to take time off work for something- fun, personal things, responsibilities, whatever. Just a normal part of life.

And no, not everyone can afford to take time off work for various reasons.... but we each have perks to our lives. I could see the RAH collection often, but you can set your own hours and go in whenever you'd like- those are respective luxuries for our jobs. There are pros and cons, giving and taking to every situation.

A little advance planning can help you deal with it- "where there's a will, there's a way". If you know you can't take time off a workday to see RAH, come in during the open weekend hours or call the librarian and schedule an appointment. If I know I need to go to the post office, I combine it with a trip to the doctor's or something, or come in to work earlier and leave later. Or you just decide that the activity in question is worthwhile enough to use a bit of vacation time- I did that to take half a day off to see Sara's fashion show last Spring. You just accept the challenge and *deal* with it. It seems to me to be a bit like solving a puzzle, which I would think you'd enjoy since that's one of the reasons you claim to love video games so much.

I don't disagree with your proposals that people should slow down, unwind, enjoy the here and now, enjoy life to its fullest, do things that they enjoy for the sake of doing them instead of for others' sake, and that over-planning or scheduling can create stress and tension. However, I do disagree with your suggestion that we can all do entirely without ANY planning, timetables, milestones, etc.

You've expressed admiration in the past for people who have been married for decades- that's a milestone. How do you then justify admiring that accomplishment? If you want to entirely disregard any timetables, why is game night held on the same day at the same time at the same place? Why not just arbitrarily wake up and decide, "Hmm. I think I'll hold game day on Friday at 2pm?"

I *sincerely* don't want to start a long argument, just to mention some things you might consider.
[User Picture]
Date:April 23rd, 2009 12:01 am (UTC)
I have a lot to say about this, but moving is hard right now, so I will just say a few things:

I think you are basically right in noting that we ought to abandon plans (and in abandoning plans we precisely abandon this "ought"), but perhaps there is one exception to this rule; if your only plan is to continue living, maybe you should not abandon this plan. I say this in the midst of a debilitating depression. Right now I am looking at what is by turns a Kafkaesque nightmare-scape of bureaucrats and doctors in the days and months to come, and a divine comedy of errors only seeking its own resolution. My biggest problem has been with finding reasons to continue living. At this point the only reason I have is that I might eventually have a reason, that I might eventually feel like moving again, that I might eventually feel something again, if only pain. If only I could feel pain! Then at least that would be something. But I wonder if I can ever even feel pain without the prospect of pleasure. I wondered if I would ever feel good ever again. I wondered also, if I only had a choice between total resignation (hollowness, death) and a life of pain, which would I choose? I ask this full of a laughter so effortless it is almost frightening. I suppose Hamlet was asking himself the same question.

I am taking time off from school and I have what I think will be more than enough time and money to get through this for the time being. But I worry that in the future I may have people dependent on me, I may not have resources available, and what if this happens again? This is why I am trying to become as informed as possible, about my disease, about my options, about what could happen, what to expect. The problem with depression is that it is caused by itself. This makes it very hard to get out of. After losing almost every source of pride and pleasure I had had and resigning myself to near total dysfunction, I began to wonder what the point was of continuing living. I realized that the only reason I had left was a sense of duty to others, who would be devastated if I died. And then I realized that this too would become a matter of unconcern for me, if I dealt with it in the same fashion with which I dealt with all of my other problems: by ceasing to care.

I realize now that the one thing I want in this life is a sense of my own agency, however limited, however futile, however doomed. I want to feel capable of being a rational human being, but everywhere I feel confronted by unreason. It is precisely in my confrontations with unreason that I feel most animate; there is a sense in which I could approach life with the utmost equanimity if only I could just be animate again, if I could confront unreason with reason, instead of more apathy. I have already stared the prospect of death in the face. It does not frighten me any more. The only thing that does frighten me is the fact that I am not afraid of death. I have come to realize that all plans are futile, but planning is necessary. We must approach life with authenticity, but authenticity can only be realized in inauthenticity. We can approach life authentically, but that means approaching life. As Nietzsche said: the good thing about nihilism is that in nihilism, the weak either die or they become strong. But the reality of death must be there, in order for the possibility of strength to be real.
[User Picture]
Date:April 24th, 2009 06:14 am (UTC)
Guys, I don't think the intent was to order and expect everyone to drop every and all planning ever and never plan again. Sometimes things need to be planned - like to go on a trip across the ocean, or visit family across the country, or what have you. I don't think a job is a plan so much as a way to earn money to spend in your off time. But you don't work 24/7. You always have time that you don't need to plan for. So don't. Don't plan to go to a movie on Friday, wait for Friday to get here then go out and do something. Don't plan every single evening out on a calendar, just do what you feel like doing that evening. Sure, plan some things, since, as stated, some things need to be planned - but don't plan too much.

The sentiments behind the post are great, and if people thought about them instead of taking them so literal and seriously, they'd find a way or a few ways to actually partake of them. Habits tend to lead to a life of monotonous chores, doing the same things over and over every day or weekend, so change them. Instead of reading a book an hour before bed every single night, write something, or do a crossword puzzle, or watch a cartoon. Instead of baking the same thing every other weekend, bake something different. Switch cookies into cupcakes, or find a recipe for something you really really want to learn how to make and -make it-. Try dutch sugar cake, or something. Mix things up a bit, rather than focussing on the 'it's impossible to live every moment of your life without planning'.

I think it's a great sentiment, and certainly something I've been striving for the past week, since I've started to get sucked into a horrible slump that'll only lead to depression if I don't do -something-. One of the random things I did? Cleaned the kitchen from head to toe. Sure, it's chores, but it was energizing and envigorating, and I feel proud of having accomplished it. It won't get me anywhere in life but it made me happy. I wrote a story for my boyfriend a couple of weeks ago on a whim. He loved it. We've teased each other about it since, and it makes me smile every time he brings it up. That made, and still makes, me happy. I randomly bought a couple of wordsearch puzzle books while I was grocery shopping, which is something everyone needs to do, and I've been enjoying them whenever I wish since. They make me happy. Do things that make you happy, randomly, when you can.

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