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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)


[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.

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