The State of Jim

Those of you who are paying attention, and after all this time I expect that’s a low number, are probably wondering what the heck I am up to these days. I thought I might lay it out for you.

In my quasi-professional life, there is an axiom that has held true for over 25 years. If I’m working in technology, the client thinks there is a magic button that handles all the details, even if they are trying to sell 500 products. If I’m working in design, the client thinks there is magic button, that I have some software that makes all the decisions and pops out a nice, shiny result with no real effort on my part. If I’m working in industrial design, which I refer to as “engineering lite,” since I am not an engineer, although I play one on the internet, and I’m pretty good at faking it… Well, you guessed it, once again there is the perception that there is a magic button and that everything should be fast, cheap, and excellent.

Of course the old production rule is that you can have fast, cheap, or good. Pick two. I can tell you from vast experience that it’s almost impossible to get a client past cheap, and if you can, that’s a client you want to keep.

The interesting part is that client concerns are only part of my equation. The other part is my own narrative. Those of you who have been waiting for the rest of the Renewal, including my infinitely patient and likely disillusioned editor, probably think the client concerns come first, and they do in terms of daily survivability, but beyond that threshold, my narrative is king. A good question is why. Why does my narrative even matter? I mean, I’ve been soaking it all in for almost 51 years, and obvious patterns have emerged. We have issues, I would say. We know nothing, I would say, but I would also say that the minute we stop using the observations to drive our decisions into the future, we have lost what it means to be the leading species on the planet.

We could ask all kinds of questions about whether anything we say or think even matters. I cannot affect the political dialog, which I have come to refer to as “the face of madness.” I cannot groan at our President’s tweets without asking whether we would be in far worse shape under the power hungry, amoral alternative. I cannot live in Liberal mecca without keeping very quiet about the logical disconnects that drive the discussion. Someone would probably burn my house down. I cannot look at politics at all without asking the obvious questions about who our politicians actually work to serve, because it sure ain’t us.

The line between fact and opinion is so blurry that no one can realistically be expected to discern the difference. We are all too busy worrying about the vast detail of survival in the most complex system ever devised. Can you do your taxes on a postcard? Nope. Can you have a significant health issue without 20 calls to the insurance company? Probably not. Can you travel within the borders of our own country without being treated like a potential terrorist? No? Is it because we don’t actually have borders? Can you rent a car without a very specific type of plastic card in your wallet? Do your children have more schedule and legal requirements than you can track, much less actually fit into your daily routine? Well, guess what? The answer is, if you follow the herd, you probably can’t keep up. If you have managed to back up a bit and have actually examined the culture we have created, the answer is: possibly. I definitely know people who can spin a lot of plates, and those people are invariably good at knowing which plates need spinning at any given moment.

The end result is one of two things. Either you have no time to really examine the inputs to your belief system, or you check your facts with some level of critical thought intact. In option one, you choose a narrative and go with it. This is the easy way out. It works until it stops working and then you are you recovering from the shock and you go shopping for a new worldview. In option two, you live with the fact that no one’s narrative is satisfying. No one’s narrative answers the important questions. This, of course, leads directly into the pit of despair (Dilly, Dilly!). It invites endless cynicism and self examination, examination of the facts you can obtain, lots of hair splitting and qualifying of information, and frankly it’s hard work. Most of us are too busy dealing with the minutiae to engage in a rigorous debate with reality, and we choose option one. There’s no judgement in that, in my view. Here’s why…

When things get cloudy, I hit rewind. If I say something stupid, I rewind to some point in my life when I said something smarter. If I hit a professional wall, I rewind to some method or process that worked in the past and try to adapt it to the current problem. If someone does something I purely fail to understand, I rifle through the deck of old events and look for a pattern that may fit. The deck of old cards is our lifeline and our adaptive advantage. In tech terms, the value of those memories depends on how well we have tagged them with our own value system, but all of this process is only the first push of the rewind button. The second push involves history. Just like most of you, I sat through high school history half-listening to Mr. Hawkins (shout out to those who remember) drone on about things that I thought had zero value to my all important teenage life. I went on to college and spent more time watching my Western Civ professor (because she was attractive) than listening to the story of the victors she was spinning. My course of study was not history laden. I got the Cliff Notes version. Over time, I finally found the value of history in the practical, “doomed to repeat it” sense, and these many years later, I look back to realize that I am an ardent student of the subject. It comes in very handy when trying to make sense of the world we live in. In the broad strokes, history is a fabulous guide to human nature, which guides us to the depths of depravity and the heights of nobility before we even notice the difference. Push that old rewind button one more time and you can predate history altogether. This is also informative in very practical ways. For those of you who interpret belief to our creation in the knowable past, this whole thread breaks down quickly. I personally have no trouble blending my belief in the Creator with the evidence of deep history, but that’s an argument for another day. For me, it’s very useful to remove every advantage of civilization and to think of us as lonely tribes working hard to survive in a world that treats us no differently than it does any other species. It’s also interesting to note that there are still tribes that operate on that basis. I think it’s probably too much to expect that there are human populations that have had no contact with civilization today, but there are still people who have not been overrun by our modern systems. We can blithely sit back and judge primitive people, but you can’t really dismiss their own version of accomplishment at surviving without the internet, drive-through windows, or a global just-in-time supply chain. There are valuable lessons in the big rewind.

If you walk back through your own life, you will see the patterns. Good decisions, bad decisions, decisions that had a much bigger effect than you would have predicted when you made them. A narrative of your own life develops. You can chain together your own events in a way that has meaning. How you interpret that meaning is largely dependent on your values and beliefs. When you put it all together, you have a story with meaning. Think about it. Your life has meaning. I don’t care who you are or what you have done, if you apply a set of values over the events of your life, meaning emerges. I can sit back from my perspective and apply my own values to your life, and that has meaning too. As a believer in the inherent goodness of humanity, noting of course that goodness is a value judgment, I expect to find a meaning in your life that is worthwhile, and only rarely am I disappointed. Pretty cool, huh?

Where does that leave us? First off, we like to think we all operate from provable facts and logic, and that is patently false. We operate from belief. All of us, myself included, adopt beliefs for whatever reason, and bend the facts to fit that set of beliefs. I can prove this in the negative by saying that if we all operated purely from the facts available, we would all find ourselves in agreement. Two humans in total agreement is historically impossible, so we can safely say that we do not operate from facts and logic. We all have our beliefs, and we work very hard to twist the available facts to support our beliefs. Period. If you and I are sitting across the table at Thanksgiving and discussing world issues we will get along by belief, not fact. You hand pick facts to support your beliefs, and I can hand pick facts to support mine. If I’m feeling devious, I can support a view that I don’t actually believe. For clarity, an example… If you believe that prison serves as rehabilitation and I believe that prison is intended to be so painful that it will serve as a deterrent, then you and I will disagree on almost every point of what should be part of the daily existence of a prisoner. This example can be expanded to touch every point of life in today’s America. Policy, Culture, Procedure, Tax money, Expenditure priority, and so on…

But back to the state of me… I’m writing. So much writing… In fact, I’m busy thinking up ways to stuff more writing into my life. Let me be clear. Writing is a game of mind management. I suspect there are writers out there with much more practical models for what is worth writing. My motivation is mine. What makes a person sit down and think up an entire cast of characters, inject them into a plot designed to make a point that matters enough to the writer to keep going? I can think of a metric ton of motivations that work for me. Unfortunately, making money is not one of them, with apologies to my wife who has supported my bizarre worldview in superlative fashion. Here’s the thing. I care about the outcome. I really care.

What matters? Happiness, contentment, challenge, what comes next? Who really knows? One of my pet peeves is the overuse of the word “experience.” Watch any block of commercials and you will hear the word “experience” these days. It has become one of those amorphous words that means nothing unless it motivates you to spend money in a directed fashion. Traditionally, experience was a lesson, something that happened that taught you something you didn’t know. Usually it came with a painful cost. Nowadays, it’s a cozy place in a totally safe, all-inclusive resort that teaches you that for that for the right price, life becomes idyllic. The worst that can happen is that you miss the bus to the other resort. That’s a long way from the version of experience that teaches you when to plant your crops.

What matters is, who are we? Where are we going? How do we gain the most from the benefits, and perhaps more importantly, the limits of human nature? I believe (operating from a belief model here) that human nature is not something that we can decide to ignore. It is inherent to our existence – for good or bad. I happen to encapsulate both. I am good and bad. If you happen to tip the scales into my version of bad, I will happily write you off. If you tip into my version of good, I will work my butt off to support you. It’s not for me to make the final analysis; I’m sure that at any given moment, there are people who judge me either way. My wife is much better. She begins with the assumption that you are good by her definitions and she will try to help you. I used to be that way, but I became more cynical and realized that I needed a harder filter. People are fully capable of the sublime, and people of are fully capable of the suck, usually in the same person.

One piece of human nature is sex. We cannot ignore it. It happens before thought even intervenes. It makes perfect sense. If sex were not inherent to our existence, we would not exist. As far as we know, sex is still the only way we make new humans. That serves as no excuse to the dirtbags who happily blend money and power into the sex equation in a forceful way. Those losers are bubbling up like the oil in the Beverly Hillbillies opening theme. Look it up, young’uns! In evolutionary terms, if you cannot attract sex on some merit that involves a woman choosing you, then you do not deserve to procreate. Speaking as a man here, which makes me the lowest form of observer in today’s model… A woman can choose you to fulfill any number of roles: friend, helper, supportive listener, protector, lover, person who agrees with her, her child’s father, provider, some subliminal chemical cue, whatever works for her; you do not have the right to subvert that choice through power. Men, be worthy. Women, pick your terms, but don’t be surprised if you fail to gain respect for your choices. It’s your right to say no, and men should absolutely respect that (even the dirtbags who don’t recognize the obvious fact), but it’s your burden to live with your ‘yes’.

Another aspect of human nature we can’t ignore is the big WHY. This is a question that exists on a million levels. If you don’t believe in a higher power of any kind, then it’s an existential dilemma. Literally every choice you make is universal. You can rail and shout at the sky all you want. The problem is that the choices are sitting atop the proverbial house of cards. I can sit in a restaurant and listen to people having conversations that sound like critical decisions in life. The tone is that of people trying to make life-scale decisions; the subject is which app they use on their phone, or what someone said on Facebook. Again, I’m not judging. It’s entirely possible that someone said something on social media that changes your life, but if that’s the case, perhaps you should just call that person and have a conversation. Better yet, meet that person and have a face to face conversation so that you can take advantage of all the non-verbal cues that come with actual human interaction. It’s all too easy to forget that we live in a world that depends on a lot of technological systems working correctly to derive meaning in our lives. If the person in question makes that impossible, then it is credible that a higher order of values come into play, and that person is no longer worth your time, attention, and concern. If you do believe in a higher power, then you can offload some of the outcomes to a greater cause. Is that cause intended to work out in your favor? It’s like the two high school teams who pray before the game. They are both praying for victory in some form, but only one will win on the scoreboard. What is the preferred outcome for your higher power, and does it supersede mine? I like to run with this concept. I’m willing to listen to your beliefs as long as they don’t directly involve harming people with other beliefs. The beauty of beliefs, and the risk, is that we can’t prove them in this lifetime. If we believe in an infinite creator, yet we live finite lives, then it’s fairly logical to assume that we don’t have all the facts. We live in a box of existence that is intended to be measured within the dimensions of that box. The creator of the box makes the rules. We don’t know the rules, and we can’t say that we are winning or losing until we escape the box. In other words, everything we decide is important is a box within a box within a box, ad infinitum.

Do we then fall to an innate sense of rightness? Is that a real thing? God, I hope so. Otherwise, we are lost. Without that sense of right and wrong, it’s all too easy to imagine that we don’t deserve to survive as a species. Using the big rewind button, we know that entire species have disappeared from the Earth. They are disappearing as we sit here, looking at our high definition screens. What if 65.1 million years ago, there were dinosaurs that had decoded morality completely. They had it figured out, and they were destroyed by a wayward asteroid. Does that mean that we are not intended to understand the big picture, or does it mean that those dinosaurs had it wrong? If we have it wrong, does the logic, the hard rules of the cosmos, mean that our view gets replaced by that of dogs? I mean, dogs are far more reliable than we are. If you were a god, choosing between our moral flexibility and the stalwart dedication of a dog, would you choose the random nature of human morality over a being that expresses dedication to its master in unfailing service? The life of a god would be far better served by dog values than human ones. On the other hand, perhaps the hierarchy was intended from the beginning. We serve a higher purpose, and dogs serve us. If that were the case, perhaps we are intended to learn from dogs even as we master them. It’s entirely possible that dogs serve as training for a low order of control over our existence. Which means that we should be paying attention… Just in case.

Control, as in that of a master over a dog, god over a people, or parent over a child, is a delicate balance. In any of those cases, pushing too hard results in rebellion. Those of you with teenage children are nodding your heads vigorously. Pushing your dog too hard in training doesn’t result in rebellion, it results in confusion. That dog is entirely willing to follow your lead, it is simply unsure of what you want. What if you believed in a god named Dewey, and Dewey’s commandments included a clause that required you to do a literal song and dance every time you crossed a threshold? This performance requires 3 minutes of your time, literally every time you moved from one room to another. The rebellion against this commandment would be that we all live in giant rooms to avoid the threshold ritual. We would forsake bathroom privacy to save those 3 minutes, four times per day. Our value system would be literally warped around Dewey’s rules. This is an entirely fictional and exaggerated example of how strong our belief systems are against practical considerations. If you are a parent, you already know these things. I have been a step parent but not a parent of my own offspring (why would I propagate heart disease and diabetes,  not to mention the lessons of my father?) , which means that my entire reference comes from being the offspring of typically flawed human beings. Grain of salt factor … As a side note, being married to a very intelligent and analytical woman means that I qualify every bit of data that I share. I may be guessing, fairly confident, or totally certain. I’ll qualify it in some way. As I tell my wife, if I don’t qualify it, you should treat it as the truth. As the ultimate hedge, my truth is probably not your truth. Luckily, I know my wife well enough to define the truth in her terms. She’s good that way.

I have wandered far afield. Let’s just call it an anchor in the “face of madness” of current events. What you really need to know is that I am writing in several venues. One is the Renewal universe, which is built on a lot of what I have shared in this piece. The biggest struggle with Renewal is that the reference line keeps shifting. 2017 is not 2011. As I wrestle with the story, I keep having to shift my focus into broader realms to accomplish what I intended from the beginning. The current truth is not the broader truth. Two is the Definition universe. It accomplishes a few things in my motivational structure. One is that I have a basic optimism for the future. Two is that historically and currently, we know nothing. This could be a very pessimistic view, but I see it as an optimistic view. If we limit our future based on what we know now, then it is very limited indeed. If we assume that we know nothing, then we have an unlimited future. I prefer that we will continue to re-frame our understanding until we open the doors to the universe.

Keep that in mind the next time you encounter the idiot who doesn’t know how to work a four-way stop.