Friday, October 31. 2008
On the afternoon of Halloween, Aidan came home looking tired, and with almost no voice. He went to bed for a couple hours, and when he got up he had a fever of 102. "nnnnnnnooooooooOOOOOOOO! I have to go trick or treating!" His mom smiled a gentle sad smile: "I don't see how we can let him . . . "
But in the end, we let him. What the heck. There are all of six houses on our street. He'll survive. He put on his goblin costume. It looked remarkably like the costume of a homeless person, except for the green mask. He took the green mask off after the first house -- he was too hot in it. This is the third year, I think, he ditched the mask. (Note to self: no more masks.) He troops along, without the wild screaming enthusiasm of his cousins, but still glad to be there. I ask him, before the last house, "How you doing, Boo?" "Tired." Janet had noted earlier: "You know, he's actually a lot easier to get along with when he's sick. Takes the edge off."
He has exactly one piece of candy at home, and then he goes to bed and passes out instantly. There is no fanfare, but I sense a sort of victory.
We work so hard to give our kids safety, the right food, the right education . . . and yet still, so much of their happiness comes down to getting to trick-or-treat when you're seven and have a 102-degree fever. We came so close to making the wrong decision.
Thursday, October 30. 2008
I've been sick today . . . the in-bed, sleep-all-day-and-still-feel-like-hell kind of sick. So I don't have much to say about meaning or purpose today, other than that I simply don't care right now.
But that in itself should be telling. When we're healthy and awake, we have all kinds of notions of the Good and the Right and the True . . . only to have all of it go out the window when we're in pain.
This is only an extreme example of problem we have all the time. Our values -- our conscious, thoughtful evaluations of what's most important -- are supposedly fixed and constant, but our priorities -- the things we actually care about in the moment -- are constantly shifting. One measure of our character is how much our day-to-day priorities drift from our true values.
If you live a good life, supposedly you can lie on your deathbed with ease, knowing you lived a good life. But I'm afraid the only thing I'm really going to be thinking about is, "Arrgg, ouch . . . when will this be over?"
Wednesday, October 29. 2008
A couple years ago I reviewed Appleseed, the movie incarnation of the mech manga. I liked it. So then I saw that NetFlix Instant had a sequel, Appleseed: Ex Machina, that fans raved about, and I thought it would be fun.
My God, how much has changed about computer animation, and yet how much has stayed the same.
The imitation of the physical world has gotten phenomenally good. Computers can make water, smoke, rain, reflections, sunlight and sound effects are unspeakably real. The imitation of human beings, however, remains tantalizingly stalled in the "eerie chasm" – simulations that are almost-but-not-quite human are more disturbing to look at than simpler animation. There are moments in the movie when Briareos or Deunan moved with startling naturalness, and my human-detectors scream, "That's it! That's a human being moving!" But then, just as quickly, it's gone, replaced by that floaty, gliding movement you see in video games. (There's something about big, tough he-man characters walking with the light evenness of a ballet dancer that's so -- and I must say this -- gay.)
Appleseed: Ex Machina was good. It would have been great, except that it borrowed so shamelessly from every other major sci-fi action film that it was mildly pathetic. It became a game of spot-the-ripped-off-scene:
It was all well done, but by the end I felt like no good action sequence had gone unrecycled . . . Including sequences from the original Appleseed, which also opens with a fast-paced fire-fight in an empty cathedral against ruthless cyborgs. To its credit, while the movie might pillage all it can from the Wachowskis, it also avoids their sins: repetitive fight scenes, talky philosophic tirades, and confusing plot-lines. This is straight action with just a little philosophy for flavor.
There was one part of the plot that I found surprisingly, startlingly true. I won't spoil anything by telling you about it, because it's so freaking obvious. The bad guys do some mind-control on an unwitting population through a popular PDA-like device called a Connexus. Anyone wearing the Bluetoothy earpiece gets turned into a zombie when the evil signal is broadcast. That part wasn't surprising. What was surprising -- and true -- was that even after the good guys figure it out and tell the world it's dangerous, you still have lots of users saying, "What?!? I can't live without this thing." If word got out that Steve Jobs was controlling people's minds through their iPods and iPhones, you would still see people wearing them. Kinda gives new meaning to the term, "killer app."
Tuesday, October 28. 2008
We need to be needed, and yet too much necessity results in slavery. A meaningful life needs to have an element of necessity (something that needs to be done) and also freedom (you freely, willingly choose to do it.) How do we resolve the tension between the two?
Most people skip to the end with the most obvious answer: "Let's just balance necessity and freedom. You work hard at something that needs doing, but allow yourself some free time to play and enjoy yourself." Especially in the New Age, people love to talk about balance. "Everything in moderation" was the height of wisdom among the Greeks, and the "middle way" was central to the Buddha's approach as well. So . . . why not?
The problem is that "balance" and "moderation" can so easily slide into "mediocrity" and "hopelessly compromised." When I look at the vast majority of people in our society, they seem to have plenty of balance: they go to work, and then they come home and watch TV. And yet I don't get the impression that most of them are filled with meaning and purpose. The ones who seem the most purposeful, the ones putting off the most "heat," are those who are pushing the extremes of necessity or freedom. You have your Mother Teresa, going to the utmost in her saintly duty, for whom "free time" is a perfectly useless notion . . . or you have someone like Christopher McCandless, who casts off all his ties to the civilized world in search of his own essential nature. These are not studies in "balance" . . . and I can't think of any inspiring examples of meaningful lives that are.
What's even more bothersome for me is that these two components both seem so essential to a meaningful life, and yet they also seem to be entirely contradictory. How can you "do what needs to be done," and yet be perfectly free to do it?
Monday, October 27. 2008
So . . . we need to be needed. But if we're needed too much, we become slaves to necessity. Shouldn't a human being be free?
Freedom is another basis on which people try to establish meaning. You hear it when people say things like, "I've got to follow my dream," or "I want to create something new." Especially in Western culture, any claim to meaning requires a certain claim to specialness, uniqueness, and individual determination. "I don't want to be like all the others. I want to be my own man." Even the most necessity-driven spiritual traditions (think fundamentalist Baptist) feel the need for human freedom (a.k.a. "free will") to be a part of the picture. If everything you do is done out of necessity, and you are not free to choose it, then in what way can it be considered yours? If your whole life is a mechanical, determined response to necessity, in what way can it hold individual meaning?
We can flee from the burden of necessity into self-creating freedom. We can declare, along with Jean-Paul Sartre and Ayn Rand and a whole passel of secular atheists, that we create our own meaning, that no one else can lay claim to our lives, that we will be our people. Hmmm . . . so, how is that workin' for ya?
If you follow freedom to its extreme, you find a person who does nothing to serve the needs of others, but instead does only what they want to do, whatever their inner desires direct. They never get out of bed thinking, "Oh, ugh, I need to do X today," but only ask themselves, "What do I feel like doing today?" They have no ties, no obligations, no duties, just themselves. You have, in other words, a useless playboy. A narcissist. Such a lifestyle might occasionally look like fun, but would you call it meaningful? Do such people ever look happy? Maybe some brilliant artists would fit this path of freedom and still look significant and purposeful, but they are outliers, extreme examples that we probably wouldn't want to imitate, even if we could.
So . . . too much necessity is tedious slavery, and too much freedom is . . . tedious slavery, but of a different kind. Can we balance the opposing needs for necessity and freedom? Tune in tomorrow . . .
Sunday, October 26. 2008
I have a new theory of human meaning, and human happiness.
It sprung from contemplating my "need to be needed." (See my previous post, "The Geek Shall Inherit…") I think at some level everyone feels a need to be needed. "Being needed" is almost synonymous with "being significant"; if you aren't needed, then you are superfluous, unnecessary, insignificant, and therefore meaningless. If you are needed, that means you are fulfilling a necessary role in the world. People care who you are and what you do. They are counting on you. They rejoice in your victories and bemoan your losses. When you listen to people who are obviously galvanized by a compelling purpose, you hear the language of need: "They really need me here." "They can't make it without me." Even if it's not directly stated, the necessity of your activity is implied. When one says, "I'm making a difference here," it implies the necessity of your action-- because, if you're action was unnecessary, could you say you're making a difference?
"Nonsense!" declares the hard-charging businessman with his copy of Atlas Shrugged in his briefcase. "I don't do this stuff to be needed! I just want to be the best! I'm doing this for myself!" Hmmm . . . Well, the businessman might think he's in it just for himself, but empirically it doesn't seem to hold up. If you dig into his definition of what "being the best" means, you will ultimately find that it involves filling someone's need. The railroad he builds, or the media empire, or the work of art, is ultimately judged as "good" or even "great" to the extent that it fulfills some human need.
So . . . We need to be needed. And with that need comes the burden of necessity. When your action is required, it becomes a duty, something you have to do. (Never mind, for the moment, that you might also want to do it; it still remains a necessity, a have-to-do.) Now, the burden of necessity can be a blessing; lots of people talk about "having a reason to get out of bed in the morning." They want to have some necessity to compel them to action. Some people even find a certain intensity and bliss in all their actions coming from sheer necessity. Soldiers and others in life-and-death struggles often report a lightness in their being, a clarity unclouded by doubt. They know what they need to do, and they do it . . . which is more than many of us can claim for our day-to-day lives.
Over time, though, the burden of necessity can ultimately lead to being enslaved by necessity. Unless the necessity we serve is completely in accord with our true desires, we find ourselves feeling trapped by our duties and obligations. Think of Steve Martin's character in Parenthood, snarling to his wife: "My whole life is 'have to' !" We feel deprived of freedom, deprived of choice, a mere cog in the works of society.
So . . . we can look to the other side of meaning, which is freedom. I'll take that up tomorrow.
Saturday, October 25. 2008
"What happened to the blog?" I'll tell you: I was overcome by my inner geek.
The stereotype is that geeks are social outcasts -- awkward, repulsive people who cultivate relationships with machines because they can't relate to other people. And yet, as technology becomes a bigger and bigger part of the popular culture and everyday life, people with technological skill are generally well-loved and respected. I have no lack of fans, at least among those who need my help.
And . . . There is always a need for technological help. Confessing to be a techno-geek at a party is almost as bad as being a doctor; people immediately start telling you about their computer problems and asking you to help them.
And the geeks do help. I've rarely found a geek who wasn't willing, nay, dying to share his expertise with others. That is, after all, how they constitute their self image. In our own minds, we are super-heroes. I am not exaggerating; we really do see ourselves as the specially-endowed saviors of humanity.
Consider the following scene:
Someone cries for help. Something awful has happened. Their world has turned upside down. Something very dear to them is terribly imperiled by a threat they do not understand, some kind of monster, and nobody around them can help. Others have been powerless to help. The victim is on the verge of despair. Suddenly, someone new arrives . . . Someone who is not afraid. "I've seen this sort of thing before, ma'am." Using powers that seem mystical and strange, the stranger banishes the evil, restores balance and peace to the world. The rescued victims are so thankful. "However can I repay you . . . ?"
This is a stock scene from Superman, yes? It is also what happens when you recover someone's email files from a corrupted hard disk. The thrill of power and purpose is probably about the same.
I used to think that the pull of being a superhero was only a small part of my motivation. Surely I have other motives -- personal profit, intellectual interest. But the drive to be the super-hero consistently trumps all other desires. I will give up billable hours, even my own free time, even food and sleep, all for the sake of hearing someone say, "You saved me. You're awesome."
No doubt lots of good comes from it. And yet, it is an unmanageable addiction, one that leads to over-commitment, poorly planned projects, and misplaced priorities. My boss once told a customer: "Don't ask Georg to do anything that's not on this list . . . Because saying 'please' to him is, like, kryptonite. He loses all willpower, he does whatever anyone says."
So . . . As I started making free time to pursue my writing, I was filling it instead with more technical heroics . . . This time unpaid technical heroics for my kids school. It all needed doing, and I'm glad I did it, but it's not what I set out to do. It's time to change that.
My thanks, as always, to the friends and colleagues who kept asking me, "Where's the blog?" Sadly, I need that. I need that a lot.
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