To Serve Man

A day before my 25th birthday, having been accepted to graduate school, my new bride and I packed up all our belongings into a smallish U-Haul trailer and left town. We had spent all our cash on securing an apartment, and we had no wiggle room for the unexpected, which was bound to happen. With no credit cards and an empty bank account, we took a leap of faith, being assured that some grant money was coming in and we had at least a place to land once we got there.

We arrived later that afternoon and checked in with the apartment manager. She confirmed that our rent was paid up for the duration of our lease – six months. Relieved, we asked for the keys. The manager informed us that we couldn’t move in yet because the apartment was not ready. It seems the carpet needed to be cleaned or something. After a longer-than-was-comfortable episode of pleading she pointed us to a few hotels in the area. We explained that we (unwisely) arrived with no money. Our best bet was the local homeless shelter, a ministry run by a local church group. Reluctantly, we made our way to the inn, as it were, for, at the very least, some sleep.

Years later I would repeat this story with the message that everyone should deign to have that experience, letting go of pride and humbling oneself. Yes, it was only for one night, but my student ID photo the following morning would capture the gravity of the situation. There we were, newlyweds, separated by floors – women on the second floor and men on the third. The accommodations were meager, as you might expect. It was a cold night, and sleeping in the car was out of the question. We were grateful, and a little terrified. The whole shelter was entirely chaotic; people were shouting and having conniptions. I was constantly worried for my wife – that concept had still not sunk in. Was she okay? Was she scared? Then came the delousing.

Many years later (actually, I think it was only 6 or 7) we attended a church in an upper-middle class area. The gentry that made up the congregation formed a shelter ministry group. Those familiar with church-going folk of this mostly white, suburban, middle class ilk will be familiar with the over-achieving endeavors to reach out to the community, or even beyond it, in keeping with several places in the Bible where Jesus tells the people that they should heal the sick and feed the hungry, visit those in prison, and so on. Basically, things people in their 20’s don’t think about, outside of hearing sermons and seeing ads for charities bringing some relief to famine-struck areas in the world. Our particular church’s mission was, in teaming up with other churches in the city, providing a hot meal on Sundays, and making sandwiches that would last until the next weekend. It was unclear just how far those sandwiches went, but the hot meal we ported down there was fully consumed by the men, women, and sometimes homeless children in the shelter by the end of the night.

My wife and I signed up, being the social realists that we are, hoping we were doing enough, inasmuch as we would be returning to our comfortable, if modest, suburban home later that night. As much as I knew it was a good thing, I often would dread it. How much I would rather have been enjoying a Sunday evening, watching TV or some equally banal activity. This was before the web was prevalent, and much before social media and streaming video arrived on the scene, if you can imagine it. Late in the year, it was already dark when we would set out, so it was kind of a drag. But the experience was so fulfilling. I think about how it must sound: schlepping hot food in minivans to an unwholesome district across town to assuage our need to be redeemed. I don’t know why most others did it. But to this day I think I made a difference. The shelter had a couple hundred “beds”, but on cold nights there were close to 300 people. One by one they came through, extremely grateful as they received some hot food and a sandwich. Some of them looked like they could be anyone. And a lot of people in the ‘burbs are one crisis away from such a fate, which is pretty damned scary.

Like I said, I used to tell people they ought to spend a night in a shelter, if only once in their lives, to understand how fortunate we are. But I’ve changed my message over the years. Those bedrolls, cots, and mats are at a premium. Taking a spot from someone who really needs it isn’t proper. If you have a place to stay, go there. I still think we could learn a lot by walking in another’s shoes, but shelters need the space. So, give money. Serve a meal. Donate time and talent. Raise awareness. There is always going to be great need among us.

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CUI BONO?

I’m fortunate that I am the recipient of a liberal arts education. This might seem like a contradiction in terms, since I did not receive specific job training from my university studies, aside from the credentials to teach literature, or having seemingly scattered reference points on the map of human history. Part of my career was in pursuit of the natural sciences, specifically human biology, at which I excelled. Ironically, I work in the field of information technology, which I came into purely by happy accident. So I am particularly blessed that I have a good job in spite of my area of study.

College may not be for everyone. There are many good-paying careers that do not require a college degree, not in the traditional sense. Electricians, plumbers, and welders, to name a few, while perhaps benefiting from study of a foreign language and some advanced maths, can find work after a one or two year course of study. Culinary arts and other fields promise the same results, with another year of study, possibly. But the traditional four year degree may not be necessary or economically feasible.

When I was an undergraduate back in the 1980’s, attending a school in the state university system, my tuition per semester amounted to about 8 weeks salary, based on minimum wage (then, $3.35 an hour) at 20 hours a week. Of course there was room and board, books, meals, and sundries. But I’m just talking about tuition. Here in 2017, that same state college tuition, based on minimum wage today of $7.25 an hour, will take you at least 60 weeks to pay off. It’s not unheard of for a college grad to be in hock for $100,000 or more in student debt. And if you are the parent of one of these students, you would pray that they have some career lined up, so they can start repaying their debt as soon as possible.

So I was fortunate. I did have to take out student loans, but not for too much. But I would gladly pay it all over again (provided I was paying 1980’s dollars). But reliving those years would offer no guarantee that things would work out the way they had. (Of course, things might have been better.) But was it worth it? Who benefited? (Cui Bono?) What did I really get with my degree? It didn’t provide any training germain to my current career. In fact, client-server software development didn’t really exist as we know it, not that anyone truly understands it now. (Incidentally, I met my wife at college). The skills needed to work in today’s IT world can be obtained from a local community college certificate program. But many companies still look for at least a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent work experience) from their candidates. Equivalent work experience? Abraham Lincoln was self-educated, and many people in their fields are self-taught.

But I would recommend the university experience for some. That experience is unique, and the memories last a lifetime. You may never apply your knowledge gained in that one semester of poli-sci, or remember the French you studied. But you will have benefitted from it. Will that experience be worth the thousands of dollars you will eventually have to pay? That may depend on what happens in the future. As I said, looking back, it seems worthwhile to me. But that was a different time, I suppose. It seems that colleges and universities are not what they used to be, academically speaking. Students may not wish to study literature, and they may see no value in analyzing Othello for hidden meaning.

It’s too bad you can’t simply certify yourself as self-taught. It worked for Lincoln. Why can’t a person study law and attempt the bar exam? What about medicine? Well, some areas of study really need to be at the university level. In the future, a four year degree might cost more than a house. I think we’re starting to see that now. It’s shocking how much tuition has increased over the years. As I mentioned above, calculated in terms of weeks worth of salary, it’s gone up by more than 7 times in 30 years. Is the answer in increasing the minimum wage? Should tuition be regulated? Is Bernie Sanders’ plan feasible? Could the US pay for anyone who wants a college education to receive one? In the meantime, certain skills are hard to come by. Even someone with a masters degree is not automatically qualified. On the other hand, I have a friend who has never set foot on a college campus and excels in the field of technology. But even then, education is the key. Education takes many forms. It can be through diligent observation of the world around us. It can be through books, extension of the great minds of the past. It may be through experience. Education is crucial.

And for you lawyers out there, cui bono does have a specific legal definition, but I am thinking of the broader meaning. Thanks for noticing.

untitled

 

A-ha! “untitled” indeed. Alright, this is about as amusing as the old fake answering machine message where the person sounds like they’ve answered the phone, but about 30 seconds into it, you realize you’re talking to a machine, and you feel both embarrassed and frustrated, which presents itself in the recorded message that you end up leaving. Well, few people have answering machines anymore, so it’s not likely you would run into that particular comic gem. Likewise, the “untitled” post is probably reminiscent to the vaudevillian stage, no longer relevant and altogether unoriginal.

Originality might be overrated; it’s refreshing sometimes to hear someone’s interpretation of an old song or a reimagining of a classic movie. But after a while it does get old. I mean really old. Take, for instance, the film “Ben-Hur”, currently in theaters, which is a remake of the 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston in the titular role. Only, that was a remake of the silent 1925 film “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ“, starring Ramon Novarro. I found it on Youtube, but I won’t link it here because it’s likely to be taken down. But, since this film is over 90 old, it could be considered in the public domain. Both the 1925 and the 1959 films were monumental achievements, especially considering the astounding number of extras, horses and other animals, not to mention the massive sets, the chariot races, as well as all the costumes and other scenery. Nowadays, many movies incorporate CGI – computer-generated imagery – to produce the effect of crowded streets or a naval battle. Back then, you had to hire hundreds of people and build ships, or at least model ships.

Stories like that of Judah Ben-Hur, or Dorothy Gale and the Wizard are bound to be retold, and retold. Sometimes people are not even aware they are watching a remake. In fact, the original “Ben-Hur” was filmed in 1907. That film is surreal in that it seems to have been filmed with a single stationary camera, and there were no closeups or cut-aways. Early days. Even with all these remakes, and all the repackaging of other iconic figures, like Beau Geste or Figaro, lack of originality is rarely mentioned. It appears to be predicated on the staying power of the original. I guess that’s why so many films have been made from Bible stories or Greek mythology. (How many times are they going to remake “Clash of the Titans”?)

I’ll admit, being original is very difficult. Even John Williams, composer of film scores for movies like “Star Wars”, “ET”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Superman”, has been criticized for being derivative. But truly innovative composers are like rare gems. That’s why people remember names like Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt. Even Johannes Brahms “lifted” a bit of Haydn’s original work, but he did it with authenticity. His “Variations on a Theme” is actually pretty inventive and full of surprises. (Well, there I go linking to Youtube).

I guess you don’t have to be original all the time. You do have to be genuine, and people will always be able to tell when you’re trying to be someone or something you’re not. But like wearing a mask at Carnivàle, or doing cosplay at a convention, or whatever at Burning Man, you can make it your own.

Ilia attacks Shocktopus - Burning Man 2013

Photo by Kristina Reed/Flickr.com

 

Living Wage

What if everything were free? I find myself offering my services free of charge from time to time. As a photographer, I have tried to practise a philosophy that dictates that no one should work for free. It is argued that you wouldn’t expect to go to a restaurant, have a nice meal, and leave, expecting not to be charged one cent. But many photographers complain that they are asked to provide their services for free by family and friends, as well as others. It’s commonly assumed that taking photos doesn’t really cost anything in the digital age; therefore, any time spent would not constitute an unfair burden. We weren’t doing anything that day anyway. But if a photographer were spending the day on a shoot for free, they could not possibly make any money that day. And that’s a problem in this economy.

Courtesy Flickr.com

But what if everything were free of charge? What if I could go to the supermarket, fill my basket, and leave without having to pay? How would that business pay their employees and buy products to stock their shelves? Well, what if they didn’t have to pay for labor or merchandise? Furthermore, what if the employees lived rent-free and never had to worry about paying for food and clothing?

You can see where this is going. I hate to delve into science fiction for an example, but here I go. If you have ever watched Star Trek, particularly, Star Trek: The Next Generation, you may notice, after watching several episodes, that members of the crew don’t worry about money, for the most part. There have been some curious moments, breaking up the continuity of this idealistic concept. But, overall, the creator of this world, Gene Roddenberry, must have imagined a future where money was irrelevant, and there was no accumulation of wealth. Evidently, greed will someday be a thing of the past. But until that time, human flaws are still very much with us.

The fact that economies exist is remarkable. No other species engages in this kind of enterprise. Some species, like squirrels, collect food and store it, or they hide it well. But, for the most part, only humans are concerned about amassing wealth, trading and building it up. Commerce is very much a human activity. It probably goes back beyond Homo Sapiens. Perhaps Neanderthals engaged in trade to some extent. Right now, here in this world, at least in the US, bartering is all but abolished. Shopping involves no haggling, no bargaining. But retailers know that customers shop for the best deal. Brick-and-mortar shops are finding it more difficult to compete with online merchants. And nobody knows how it will work out.

So I bring us back to the notion of never paying for anything. Of course, that means you can’t get paid, either. All of a sudden, money is irrelevant, as long as this ideal holds out. Karl Marx might have approved of the “Star Trek economy” where everybody has a job to do, and they do it for the good of the “state” (the Federation).  Since money was unnecessary, no one worried about earning. But would people still work hard knowing they could be slackers and still be able to eat? The threat of starvation is a huge motivation for all organisms. Sharks are on a constant prowl for food. Bears forage continually to store up for the winter. The same goes for seagulls, bacteria, mollusks, oak trees, and humans. We fight for our survival. Plants will dig deep to stretch their roots down to find water. And they reach to soak up as much sun as they possibly can. But all these organisms do this without spending a penny.

Like I said, imagine how it might work. I realise it smacks of communism, or more accurately, Marxism. And for ‘Muricans, that’s like the worst thing you could be, except for being a terrorist. But I imagine proposing to people in the 1880’s the notion that women should be able to vote, much less run for public office. You might have the same difficulty convincing the public during the 1950’s that people with light skin could marry people with dark skin. Progress is inevitable, but not everything just works itself out. Economic revolution is something that will be opposed, especially by the wealthy. The biggest problem I can see from something like this is that people who work hard will feel that they deserve more that people who are perceived to work less. Mark Twain writes about this in The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He suggests that a person who toils in the heat, digging and hauling and moving, ought to make more money than the person sitting behind a desk.

The problem is that certain trades are worth more to society than others. And we in the capitalist society seem to agree that this is fair. We say that anyone can dig a ditch. Not just anybody can fix a computer. Economic logic says that the computer specialist will make more money because there is more demand for his or her skills. I find this to be true, because I have that skill. Therefore, I can afford a bigger house and a nicer car. Is this fair? Is it fair that the next person is working for minimum wage, and he can’t afford to feed his family? Does he deserve this? Some would say he has the same opportunity as I do, but I’m not sold on this.

So, how bad would it be if I lived in a smaller house so someone else could have a house at all? How much food do I really need? I’m overweight as it is, mainly because I eat extremely well, and I drive to work, only walking when I want to. It’s embarrassing, really. Meanwhile, thousands of people are walking from Syria to Germany in hopes of, well, continuing to live. What if they could get what they need while I could have what I need?

What if no one had to pay for anything? What if money didn’t matter? I wonder how in the world it could happen?

Is This Clean?

I am a guy, and guys have a different perspective on many things than women do. This goes for a lot of things that are often chalked up to men being insensitive Neanderthals. But men and women simply see things differently. It’s how we’re programmed, if you will. You no doubt will find a lot of examples of this as you love your life. You learn to cope with the chasm that lies between men and women in terms of perspective, and you will build a bridge eventually, if you work together.

This brings me to the little pile of clothes I have on the floor on my side of the bed. On any given day there might be a pair of trousers, a t-shirt, and some socks. This is not a discard pile. These are clothes that are wearable, but they’re not clean enough to go back into a drawer or be hung up and put in the closet. Now, the socks are going to be the first items I concede. They get a lot of punishment, stuffed into smelly shoes and walked around in all day. But sometimes, socks can stay. Jeans are very re-wearable. But I am not a jeans kind of guy. That said, I have a favorite pair of khakis, and they are often found in the “special” pile.

The test for determining if something can be worn again before it is washed is slightly complicated. The wearing of a garment at any time is dependent on the context. Am I going to wear these to work? Am I going to the hardware store? Dining outdoors? Another factor is the degree of wear. How long did I actually have this shirt on? All day? Just a couple of hours? Also to for consideration are the item’s appearance and, well, smell.

Yes, you want to smell it. Stick your face in there and get a good whiff. By this point, if you have any doubts, by all means throw the stuff into the hamper. I’m not condoning being a slob and parading around in dirty clothes. And naturally, I put on fresh garments for work and church. In fact, in the summer, I have been known to change clothes a couple times in a day. But that’s just me. I can’t bring myself to go to dinner wearing shorts and a t-shirt, unless we’re going to Fuzzy’s Tacos.

My wife doesn’t understand my complex algorithm for judging an item’s wearability. That’s okay. I just ask that she not disturb my pile. If she insists on washing everything in the house, I am grateful. But she doesn’t have to worry about those clothes over there. It’s okay. They’re not clean, but they’re not dirty either. It’s a guy thing, you know.

Clothes Make the Man

Earlier this month I talked about the Pioneer 10 mission, which sent an unmanned probe beyond our solar system and to the stars. Affixed to this probe was the famous Pioneer Plaque, depicting two human figures, one male and one female. The significance of the plaque, from a scientific standpoint, is the pictorial representation of its origins, and how to find us. Also significant is that the humans pictures are naked. Naturally, many people were upset by this back in 1972 when the probe was launched, while others lampooned the hieroglyphic image as being earth-centric. Indeed, great thought went into designing the plaque and its message to whomever would ultimately find it. Would extraterrestrials even understand its intended meaning? The human figures being nude certainly raised eyebrows, suggesting perhaps that we all walk around naked, the males raising their right hand as if taking an oath. (And considering that more than half the world’s population is either African or Asian, the caucasian complexion and appearance of the Pioneer-ing couple might be somewhat misleading to our other-worldly visitors.)

Why naked? Why would the plaque portray us as if we don’t wear clothes? Humans have been wearing clothing since the beginning of civilization. Ancient Egyptian fashions were actually more sophisticated than Hollywood and history books would have us believe. Of course there are the occasional deviations to fashion, like the trend of Minoan women to expose their breasts wearing a V-shaped, split garment with mid-length sleeves. Most cultures throughout history have placed great importance on dress. Traditional dress has often been used to identify national origin, from the Bunad in Norway to the Sari in India, for centuries upon centuries. Clothing styles help us to distinguish ourselves from one generation to another. You wouldn’t often see a man in his 70’s wearing cargo shorts and sporting a backwards cap and a Hollister t-shirt. Likewise, few 19-year-old males are comfortable wearing a suit and tie. Just as age determines appropriate dress, so do occupation, gender, socioeconomic status, class, and day of the week.

Europeans can easily identify when an American is in their midst (the white socks are usually a give-away). Actually, we stand out like a wine stain on a white shirt pretty much everywhere we go. Speaking of white shirts, I was mildly admonished (as a technical consultant) that my attire was not conservative enough for the place I worked (finance). That same attire would have been completely inappropriate for a Rush concert. Contrary to what your mother may have told you, appearances do matter.

When I was going to my first job interview out of college, my step dad took one look at my shoes and told me no one would hire me. They were certainly not shined, but I felt my black oxfords were in good enough shape for a sit-down with school administrators. He would not hear of it, and made me shine them before leaving the house. I now understand where he was coming from, he being a veteran and of another generation. Back then, people made more of an effort than we do these days. And it changes as you get older. Lately, I do take the time to shine my shoes for special occasions, or when they look like crap. Most men, I believe, do not own shoes that can be shined. And they probably don’t own a suit, either.

Abraham Maslow, in his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation” (commonly referred to as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”), supposed that humans are driven by having needs met on a tiered basis, the most basic set being “physiological” in nature, those related to being fed, avoiding dehydration, and protection from the elements. The basic need of “homeostasis” – maintaining body temperature – is as crucial as the needs for food and water, sleep, sex, and breathing. On a purely individual level, the need for clothing is simple: cover the body adequately to protect from frostbite or sunburn and everything in between. But once a person, an individual, becomes part of a collective, part of a village or a city, he is within the constraints of that society. Social needs are much different.

Society dictates that clothing is more than something to cover yourself. Social ideals and limitations are very difficult to overcome. (You can test this by wearing a burqa in Fort Worth, Texas. You will soon realize that your appearance really does matter.) While the clothes we wear are a reflection of who we are as individuals, the styles we choose are determined by our culture. Naturally, young people move in a direction that separates them from their parents, but Americans dress like Americans, and Nepalese dress like Nepalese, but with blue jeans, lately. Here in the 21st century, you can wear whatever you like, within reason (you apparently are not allowed to hike in the nude in Switzerland anymore.) If clothes make the man, what can be said about the trend-setter? What can we say about the rank and file?

I ask myself, am I just meeting my basic need, am I a follower of societal norms, or am I going to wear that silver lamé jacket to the office on Halloween?

How to Juggle Chainsaws

Multitasking, believed to be a myth by some, and blamed for learning problems by others, is actually quite common and, I believe, improves mental function. In the above article, published by the Psychology Department at UCLA, Russell Poldrack explains how the brain cannot store information as easily while multitasking, trading flexibility and mental nimbleness for the sake of performing two things at once. I suppose it is possible that singular focus is better for achieving mastery of a task, but then I thought about playing the piano.

chainsaws are for pussies
Photo by Klaus Friese (Flickr)

I am a self-taught pianist, although I did take a couple semesters of piano technique in college. The tasks associated with learning to play are centered around muscle-memory application of the piano keys. One basic principle of playing is that your left hand and your right hand are doing different things simultaneously. The first piece I learned was Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (No. 14 in C♯ minor “Quasi una fantasia”, op. 27). Well, I learned the first two movements, anyway. But I learned them on my own, which astonished me and my brother. I remember sitting at  the piano, showing him what my right hand would play while my left hand was playing something else. He thought it couldn’t be done. Then I learned it. Wow! Now, I never played it nearly as well as Andrea Romano does, but I did okay. The second movement is my favorite. The third eludes me.

Another multitasking activity that I enjoy is cooking. I dare say I’m a better cook than a pianist. I mean, I actually did win an award for my cheesecake, if you’ll forgive my conceit. True multitasking may not actually be achieved while making even two or three dishes. But certain menus I’ve created did require me to do several things all at once, and the practice of mise en place is essential. I especially employ this technique when I cook Chinese cuisine, because things are happening fast, and you can’t stop to chop onions or mince ginger while chowing vegetables.

I multitask in my work as a database administrator, and as a photographer, but here, I can tell you, it definitely works against you sometimes. Having multiple projects can be overwhelming, and it’s easy for things to get out of control. But certain occupations require people to perform several tasks at once or to be flexible enough to fill multiple roles, especially in today’s business environment, where companies are unlikely to be overstaffed. It often feels like I’m juggling, and this is a metaphor often used to describe our 21st-century lives. It feels like it has gotten worse over the years, even though technological advances were expected to improve our lives by relieving burdens from our hands. You know, we were supposed to have robotic helpers and little machines to do everything from shining our shoes to flossing our teeth. But how often do I wear patent leather shoes? (I do floss, by the way.)

I have these little quirks like listening to music while I type this blog. Right now, I’m listening to Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. (The 4th movement is unbelievable!) Maybe it’s because I’ve heard it so many times before, but I can type this sentence and follow the delicate chord progression in the strings. Now, when I listen to Green Day, I really can’t concentrate. And I figure this is because the lyrics distract me. Or maybe it’s because Billie Joe Armstrong is making my ears bleed. Not sure.

When I am overwhelmed, and critical servers are crashing, people are lined up outside my cube, and my phones are ringing in collisions of terse dissonance, attempting to satisfy all interested parties indeed feels like juggling chainsaws (which happen to be on fire). Did I mention they’re chainsaws? The analogy may be hyperbolic, but remember, this is how it feels. (I’ll tell you about the Emotional Couch someday.)

My first foray into multitasking, I guess, was in high school. I joined the marching band my freshman year, performing at every football game – save one – for the next four years. The experience of performing music that you have to memorize while moving across a football field – turn right at measure 41, speed up, move backward for 12 beats – did not seem so difficult to me, even at only 14 years old. My young brain must have been rewiring itself each night as I slept. New pathways were being carved along my temporal lobe, while the frontal region was processing new and exciting impulses and ways to override them. 14-year-old boys are conflicted, you understand. But that’s a topic for another post.

Perhaps multitasking is helpful at certain stages of development. Not being a clinical psychologist, I don’t pretend to understand this stuff, but I think those guys at UCLA ought to spend some time in a professional kitchen or watching the Phantom Regiment. Or just witness anyone who works in the real world, outside the lab, doing what they have to do to put food on the table. But really, PR is awesome.