Sunday, September 25, 2016

New developments

It's been colder the past couple days in Geneva. That's where I live now. And the weather is only the most recent of things that's changed in the last few weeks.

Shortly after the last thing I wrote on here, I was offered a job. And while it was a job I'd been waiting for for months in a sort of limbo since even before I got back to the US, the moment I signed on the dotted line, all the things that had piled up on top of each other waiting to happen happened all at once. I moved to a completely new city. I got a new email address and a new real-world address. A new insurance company. A new phone number—three new phone numbers, really. A new view, and a whole new group of associations.

So the fact that there are geese flying south over the lake and I'm finally thankful I brought my sweater back from Beirut with me is only the most recent iteration in the sequence of change that's been happening.

I think this weekend was the first time that the novelty of all the new positive realities of having a pretty nice apartment all to myself in a beautiful old town and a job that at least sounds quite impressive wore off enough to realize the less positive ones: that I am completely alone and have to work almost all the time.

Neither of those are terrible things. I'd take them over a myriad of other things that have happened to me before.

Still, it's all enough to cause me to reflect. And also to wonder what the next year will bring. The few weeks before I finally got the "yes" for this, I was pretty dead-set on moving to Central America or somewhere equally warm and inexpensive, jotting down my occupation on the immigration card as "Retired YouTube Celebrity," and calling it quits on this place for good.

Now, things seem to be going down an entirely different path. Only I'm not sure yet what that will be. I'm in a line of work now that's uniquely volatile, but paradoxically might promise the most stability I've ever had. Then there's the question of whether I really want that stability—which, given, may itself be only an illusion.

Much has been written about the conflict between freedom and security, but lately, I've been coming to realize there can also be a conflict between freedom and independence. That's a subject for another post, though.

At any rate, I just hope I don't end up wishing I'd headed for Latin America with those geese.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Interest, aptitude & demand in what we do with our lives

I came across an article recently that suggested the primary factor in whether or not person lives a happy life is finding an occupation that involves work he or she enjoys doing. It counseled that people should thus put the pursuit of occupations that would allow them to do things they enjoy over occupations that have a bigger financial reward.

Without getting too deep into arguing about the assumption that the goal of life is to be happy or that that happiness is something that should derive from ourselves—I think very good debates could be had over those things—I have to say that reading it brought up some serious questions I've had over the past decade. More than that, it brought up some doubts that I've had about my ability to ever really be happy or successful.

I agree with the idea that enjoying what you do is important. Let's call that "interest." I also have to agree that the value of what you do to your society, as measured in how much that society is willing to pay for it, is also important. I think most people just think of that as "money," or "financial reward," but I prefer to think of it as demand because that's really ultimately what money represents. One other factor that I don't hear people talk about as much though is having aptitude for what you want to do. You may really, really like professional football, and there may be a strong market demand for professional football players, but if your healthy body weight is 135 pounds, then you're not going to live a happy or successful life by pursuing football as a professional occupation.

So in my mind, there are these three things: interest, aptitude and demand. And in my own assessment, I feel that most of the really successful people that I know are people for whom all three of those things lined up.

One winning combination I know is a person who has an interest in computers and an aptitude for symbolic logic, which both lead naturally into a number of career options in programming and development that are in extremely high demand. The person does a good job at something he loves and is heftily rewarded for it by a society that is demanding his skills.

interest : aptitude : demand

Of course, most people don't get all three, and I have a lot of friends who've had to choose between two. I've had an almost weird amount of friends who were very interested in music, for which there's a low demand, but also had an aptitude for math. They've pretty much all gone into finance, for which there's a high demand. While they may not be super excited about their work routine, they can console themselves that they make a lot of money and are needed by a lot of people.

interest : aptitude : demand

Conversely, I have several friends who were interested in and had an aptitude for music or art, and have gone on to be professional musicians and artists. Most of them aren't that successful, but they generally seem to be pretty happy, because at the end of the day, they are doing a great job at something they love, regardless of whether or not society affirms them financially or not.

interest : aptitude : demand

Then I look at myself—usually a terrible idea, but it has to be done now and then—and realize that not once in my life have even two of those factors ever lined up.

When I was a kid, I dreamed about being a scientist and spent hours ever day in the summer just sitting next to ponds watching different animals going about life. I'd build vivariums (which is what biosphere terrariums were called before they were cool) out of Rubbermaid containers on my deck and be really proud of how many different organisms I could get to all coexist together in six cubic feet of space. My favorite VHS tapes were all NOVA and PBS documentaries about different scientific topics.

But then I took algebra 1 (for what was to be the first of approximately six times between high school and the end of my undergrad), and worse yet, chemistry a year later. I maintained some ideas about majoring in biology until my junior year of high school, when my abysmal SAT math score made me realize my chances of making it in any science or technically focused program were about as high as my chances of getting that football scholarship.

At some point after discovering what I didn't have any aptitude for, I slowly started to find some things that I did. Gen.-ed. English professors kept on telling me I should switch to their department. Communication professors said the same thing—and eventually I did. I spent enough time hanging around comm. computer labs that I eventually started dabbling with video editing software, not because I had any great interest in film, but—perhaps ironically—I felt I should eventually learn some kind of marketable skill. So that was that. Going strictly off what others have told me, I seem to be good at writing. I'm also, in the perhaps slightly begrudging words of one filmmaker that I really respect, at least a "pretty good" editor.

Unfortunately—and I know some people are surprised to hear this—I've always been kind of apathetic toward both those things. I didn't grow up dreaming of being a photographer or film director. In fact, I rarely watch movies. Nor do I have any ambition of becoming a "published author" beyond the emotional outlet that this blog sometimes provides.

That might not be a problem if it were just a question of choosing between interest and demand, like my cohort of musician-turned investment banker friends. But that's not where it ends, because the things that I'm not interested in but have an aptitude for are also almost completely unneeded in our present society.

I wasn't hoping to be a writer, but if I was, then I was born in the wrong century. Writers are getting fired, not hired, and I've made more money in an hour as a salad-assembler at a floundering upscale dining establishment than I've ever been or ever will be paid to write anything. As far as film-making goes, there is demand, but the problem is there are also so many people with such a strong interest—passion, really—for it, who are willing to work for literally nothing in the interest of "building their portfolio" that the industry doesn't have an inch or a second to give anyone like me who's like, "I'm good at this, but I'm not that excited about it."

In the end, it seems that I have have no aptitude for the things I had an interest in, and that the things I do have an aptitude for are relatively worthless. [I'm considering using that as a pull-quote that on my LinkdIn, for all the good it's ever done me]

interest : aptitude : demand

So, it's always been very difficult for me to imagine having a job that would be either personally rewarding or economically needed. And it's not that I'm afraid I'd have to choose between the two: I actually don't see how it could be either. And in light of that, it's sometimes hard for me to imagine what building a "happy" or "successful" life would even look like.

I'm not saying it's not possible, and I'd actually appreciate your thoughts.

I also apologize for using myself as the example for so much of this, but I do really feel like there are these several pretty distinct combinations that I outlined above that most people I know fall into. So if you feel the same way as me, or if you feel like you fall into a different one, or if you feel like the whole model is fundamentally flawed or overlooks something important, then I'd love to hear what you think. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

You can't get an Uber in Upstate New York

Wait, let me say that again. You can't get an Uber in Upstate New York.

I've been told there are good reasons for this.

You can get an Uber in Seattle, WA, Greenville, SC, Pensacola, FL, Moscow, Russia, Guangzhou, China, and Mombasa, Kenya.  

You can't get an Uber in Upstate New York.

I've been told there are good reasons for this.  

This is a list of all the places in the world you can get an Uber:

None of these places had good reasons for not being able to get an Uber. 

You can't get an Uber in Upstate New York. 

This is the end of my post.

Monday, August 01, 2016

In defense of not speaking one's mind

At what point is saying what you think actually worth it? I tend to torture myself with that question every election year.

I'm usually a big fan of not saying anything. That's not because I don't have strong feelings or decisive thoughts about things. Rather, I'm just never so totally convinced that I'm correct that I want to risk making authoritative statements about it. I've always had a great respect for quiet people. That's because there's a certain intellectual humility about never being that sure that you're right. Tragically, I'm afraid this was almost completely dismissed as relativism by our parents' generation. It's not an un-biblical idea, though. It says in Proverbs:

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
  and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
 Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
  when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
Unfortunately, for these next few months, we're in a season of finding out who the fools among us are. And we will be (or are already) disappointed to learn how many of our own friends and relatives are among them. Even worse, as November gets closer, we will learn that more and more people that we (did) hold in great respect—authors and teachers and leaders and more—are really blithering idiots that we should've never listened to about anything.

But there's the trap. As the lunacy coming from people we thought better of piles up so high that it threatens to topple under the weight of its own colossal ridiculousness and has to be shored up by name-calling and non-logical platitudes shouted by all the people we never even thought were smart (at least they didn't disappoint), the temptation to set them all straight by stating the obvious becomes severe. Like, hellishly severe.

Yet that's the very temptation that all those people that we are so disappointed in eventually succumbed to, perhaps after much struggle and self-torment and frustration with people that they were disappointed in. And so they went and did it. They said something.

Now, there's this very strong argument: In a world where we can influence others' thoughts and shape the course of events, if we really believe that we are right, don't we have the moral obligation to stand up and say something? Perhaps. Perhaps we do. And perhaps I shall.

The only counterpoint standing between myself and that is this: All the people who are now loudly making it known to us that they are completely wrong about everything also used that argument. And in a universe as vast and maddeningly interconnected as our own, while it may be that the emperor has no clothes, it's entirely possible that we don't either.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Writing letters

I often really wish I lived in a time when people still wrote letters. I'm not very good at a lot of things, but—for what it's worth—I think I write some pretty decent letters.

Like most people, though, I haven't sent a letter in years.

It's not that the new mediums that we use don't have a space for written communication. In fact, I really appreciate the fact that I almost never have to talk on the phone now. It's just that when it comes to saying anything that's half-important, I don't think being a really good text-message writer gets me nearly as far in life as being a really good letter writer would have.

I think there are a couple reasons for this.

The first is obvious I think: it just takes some effort to write and send a letter, so the fact that you did it lends an amount of authority to whatever it was you were trying to say. At the same time, sitting down to read and understand a letter takes some effort as well, and knowing that I'm asking that commitment of someone usually causes me to think harder about how I'm trying to say whatever it is I'm trying to say.

There's another reason, though, that I think is even more important. Letters are just a longer form of writing than we use for any kind of personal communication today. And, while I don't deny there's an art form in writing devastatingly concise tweets, I think being able to wrestle with thoughts and ideas through a long-form letter, in which you actually take the time to care for all the premises and assumptions and room for misunderstanding or hurt feelings that get thrown to the wind in the text message, and then still ultimately say exactly what you want to, is incomparably better.

It's like being a master go-kart driver, vs. a master F-1 driver.

Of course, there are exceptional situations where I send someone a 200+ word email or Facebook message. But those are extremely rare, and I always feel like it's awkward afterword, like "why didn't we just have a chat about this? The technology is there."

But I'm really bad at having chats. So where in another place and time, expressing a complicated series of thoughts or emotions to someone in writing would have been a great skill, I feel like now it's inevitably just seen as something that I hide behind. Because, really, in light of how quickly and easily I could talk to anyone at anytime, it really is.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016


I used to think that I was addicted to going places, but more recently I've come to realize that the addiction is really to leaving them. These days there's almost no sense of elation like the one that I get when the plane lifts off, or the border checkpoint disappears in the rear-view-mirror, or I charge up the on-ramp like all the hordes of hell are in pursuit of my subcompact.

To be fair, a lot of the places that I've been recently were places most people would be excited to leave, and there was often a good deal of question leading up to the departure as to whether it would even happen. On the way out of Juba I was completely non-metaphorically being hounded by plainclothes police as I made each step of the quarter mile walk from the terminal [line of shipping containers] to the Egypt Air jumbo jet which looked absurdly as if it had fallen from the sky and landed in the middle of nowhere [it basically had]. But then, I can't remember a more collectively ecstatic feeling in a plane cabin than the few moments after we somehow got airborne.

It got to the point that I almost craved going rough places just because how I knew it would feel to leave.

It's not just the really obviously rough places, though. It's anywhere that there's any hurt, or disappointment, or anxiety. And unfortunately, that's everywhere that I've found yet. Which is why I can't seem to stop.

It's not that I have any pretenses about the grass being greener on the other side. I know it's not, and even if it were I'd still be the same person when I got there, which really makes it pointless. But that doesn't change anything about how good it feels to leave.

There's a part of me that hopes eventually I'll find something that makes staying worth it, but there's another part of me that has no intention of even looking for it.

So on it goes. 

Friday, July 08, 2016

Our response to tragedy

Three weeks ago I came back the the US for the first time after nearly two years in Lebanon. I spent the first two weeks with my immediate family, but now I'm on a somewhat spontaneous zigzag across the country to reconnect with extended family and old friends. As I'm introduced to new people along the way, the subject of where I spent the last 22 month inevitably comes up. When it's not greeted by blank stares, it's usually responded to by something like: "Well thank God you made it back here safe!" I always taste a little bit of irony on the air whenever I hear that, but last night, it was especially strong.

I was sitting on a sagging overstuffed couch in the dimly lit interior of an eclectically antique-themed establishment in an eclectically antique-themed town in north Texas. I was with some old friends who moved there years ago, catching up on life.

At some point, the conversation was broken when my friend started getting local news alerts that there had been a mass shooting of police officers 30 miles south in Dallas. While the details were still fuzzy, it was clear within the next couple of hours that close to a dozen policemen had been shot by sniper[s] at a Black Lives Matter event.

I'd been vaguely aware of the several police shootings over the previous 24 hours (not to mention years) that had triggered the event. These, taken together with meeting several people at my previous stop in Orlando last week who had lost friends at the Pulse night club shooting, made the recent wave of "glad you're back safe" sentiments seem especially ridiculous to me. So I took to that post-modern acropolis of public discourse known as Facebook with the following words:

Pretty sure more people were shot in the last hour here than in the whole two years I was in Beirut. Thank goodness I made it back to America safe.

Like most things things I write when I've been drinking, it was not entirely accurate—but at the same time scratched at the surface of something deeper that I've been feeling but wouldn't have otherwise ever talked about.

Lebanon is a violent place in its own way—even if the violence looks and happens differently than it does here. And in many ways it's a socially and racially fractured society that rivals or surpasses even the most divided parts of the US. There wasn't a functioning government during the entire time that I spent there, and mounds a garbage were piling up on the streets and sidewalks—making it difficult for the powers-that-be to park their Range Rovers and Ferraris, and creating a massive health hazard for everyone who had to walk. There were over a million refugee's in the country from the war in Syria without work, and a permanent underclass of African and south Asians who were brought in to do the jobs no one else would do and then became stuck there without any legal rights or protection from basic crime and abuse.

The first year that I was there, I occasionally got overwhelmed by it all and wondered how people couldn't just stop everything they were doing and cry. But somehow no matter how dysfunctional things continued to get, everyone just went about their business as usual with the same goals, the same seemingly petty quarrels and the same contentment with the same theories to explain the way things were. People stuck to the same political parties and leaders that were developed during the war in the 80s even though they were doing nothing to address the issues facing the country now. Perhaps that's a kind of resilience that lets people survive bad situations that refuse to change, but I think it's also the blindness that keeps them from changing.

As I've said before though, it wasn't my country, and I didn't think it was my place to judge or even to be one of the people calling for a reevaluation of things.

But America is my country—I care about it—and over these past three weeks, I've started to have the same feeling here. That's what really hit me last night.

We are getting hit again and again and again by ever worsening violence. Events small and large that should cause our communities and country to be overwhelmed with grief. That should cause us to look inside ourselves and ask how we have been part of creating a society where these things happen. That should cause us to reevaluate everything that we think.

But instead, the opposite is happening. Instead of grief, our first response is defensiveness. Instead of introspection, we are drawing battle lines. Instead of reevaluating what we think, we are just clinging harder and harder to the beliefs, parties and leaders that are obviously failing to address the problems that we face in this country today. You can hear it on the news. You can see it in the mindless demagogues that we've selected for the next election. You can feel it and taste it in how people relate to each other in public.

This place is going to hell just as fast as any scary far away place you see on TV. I can say that with certainty, not because I understand the issues that it's facing, but because I can fully and totally understand our response to them. And the response is ultimately what determines where we go from here.

So I'm asking today: Are we really so sure of our beliefs that we are willing to let others die before we reconsider them? Do we really care so little for each other that we can go about our business as usual as things slide further and further out of control? Can we really not set aside our opinions long enough to even recognize the pain of a tragedy and cry about it?

I think our future depends quite a bit on our answers to those questions.