Feeling the Riptide

I don’t follow a lot of blogs. The ones that I do follow are mostly personal journals and (IMHO) especially well written. Life is too short for any-old prosaic prose. In one of those blogs recently there was a post where the young(ish) author was wondering if her parents might be headed for divorce because she observed that they seemed to be arguing and fighting with each other far more than she ever recalled. I considered writing a direct response, but my style tends to be too verbose for a mere “comment”.

I, myself, will turn 61 this month and my last wedding anniversary was the “pearl” one (not that we honored that archaic tradition), so I am probably much closer to that author’s parents in age and status than to her and I may have a deeper perspective on these things.

I have noticed in myself that as I get older I am becoming increasingly less and less “tolerant” toward many things. Although I would smugly contend that it is not true in me, one of the more obvious ways that this can manifest in some people is as more conservative political views and stands on the social issues of the day. It is the cliché that “old people” tend to be right-wing, Fox-News types desperate to return to the “Good Old Days”, no matter how unnaturally rose-colored those hindsight views might be. This seems to be as evermore when seeing the liberal-progressive beatniks of the 50’s and flower-children of the 60’s (and whatever the 70’s and 80’s had) morph into solid, upstanding, flag-waving Republicans. And yes, dear children, this is a natural progression and it too will more-than-likely be your fate in another 40-years or so – mark my words.

I really do think that this creeping intolerance naturally affects us all as we age and the consequences can manifest themselves in other more personal ways as well. There seems to be a general attitudinal sclerosis that develops right along with the physiologic symptoms of arthritic joints, paunch and dry wrinkling skin. By the time we turn 60 we know what we like and that’s what we want and any deviation from it is simply annoying. At the interpersonal level, the quirks of a partner that used to be invisible or even endearing become so much sandpaper scraping across our ever more sensitive nerves. Some completely unconscious habits of my wife that I know she has had for 30-years have now become so irritating to me that I cannot stand to be in the room with her during an outbreak. To be fair – I am quite positive that I too have such habits that grate equally hard on her. In the case of our relationship we have always adhered to a strict non-critical approach however. It is not true that marriage gives anyone the right to “mold” another person to be an extension of them, or even that it involves subscribing to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Even within a decades-long marriage the key to happiness is to view the other person as a completely separate and independent individual to be shown all the rights and courtesies (and hopefully even more) that you would extend to a casual acquaintance. If you wouldn’t pick at and fuss with and bark at and criticize a co-worker for some silly if annoying behavior, then for God’s Sake don’t do that bullshit to your spouse, of all people!

I have declared that “attitudinal sclerosis” is natural, and I believe that there is a natural explanation for it too. Something that I am only now beginning to truly appreciate is that as we get older, life gets harder (sorry all you 20-somethings – but your own future-self will confirm that all you’re “going through” now is a piece-of-cake compared to what awaits you). As our bodies begin to deteriorate and our mental acuity declines many people will go into denial, but whether we acknowledge it or not, the result is that we have to work harder and harder just to get up each morning and make our way through the world and function in society. Simple little things that used to be thoughtless reflex now take more concentration and effort. It’s not that we “mature adults”  can’t do things; we just have to apply more focus and energy to those simple everyday tasks. The more effort that we must expend on the basics of navigating life, the less we can tolerate deviations because we just don’t have the spare “cycles” to process it anymore. We want everything to be as easy (read: “familiar”) as possible because that requires the least amount of energy and we need every ounce of that energy to overcome the ever-increasing inertia that each new day brings.

It is like swimming in the ocean and feeling the tug of a riptide at your feet. You need to stay focused on keeping your head above water and it takes all of your effort to keep moving forward, and you just can’t tolerate any distraction from that objective even as others continue to “fool around” about you, oblivious to and unconcerned by this existential threat that you, perhaps even unconsciously, can feel. As we age we naturally become more and more intolerant of any disturbance from the well-known and comfortable because at its ultimate extent such distrait can threaten to tear away our faltering grasp on life itself.

Ritual

I really don’t understand “ritual”. I mean; I understand what it is intellectually and I can even imagine why some (many?) people want it (need it?), but it doesn’t “do” anything for me and I simply don’t feel an attraction to any of it. Maybe this is another function of my schizoid personality.

I would define ritual as a gathering of people to engage in a commonly understood and choreographed process of interacting with each other. It really is like a dance with certain defined steps and “rules” and roles that the participants are supposed to know and observe, very much like a ballet or opera.

There are many forms of ritual in human society. Obviously there is religious ritual, but other common forms include courtship rituals, marriage rituals, generic social rituals like attending work-organized “Holiday” parties, or going on the classic family summer-vacation – and then there are death rituals. I am reminded of this because the other day we had a sudden and high-profile death at the place where I work. There was an immediate scurry (and I mean within a couple of hours) to set up a tribute web-page and a place for “quiet communal reflection” and within about 12-hours there was a community gathering complete with local TV-news coverage and memorial address by the widow. I passed on all of it.

It is not that I had anything against this guy; he seemed quite pleasant personally and I think that he did a great job and was very good for the institution, but he was about 4 or 5 levels above me in the organizational hierarchy and other than saying hello to him twice in the last 2-years as we walked past each other, I had no contact with him.

I suppose that the reason why people like to gather together to memorialize someone who has died is because – to put it crassly – misery loves company. I guess that when you are sad and upset it makes many people feel better to know that others are feeling the same way. I really didn’t know this guy at a personal level however, so there is a limit to how “bad” I can feel about his demise, unfortunate as it may be for him and his family. I also find it hard to believe that very many of the hundreds of people (literally) who are involving themselves in these rituals knew this guy any better than I did. What compels them to participate in this? Is it supposed to make his family feel better that these hundreds of nameless strangers are willing to stand around and listen to eulogies about him? Is it that folks are afraid of being labeled a weird-o and sociopath if they don’t go-along and do the “normal thing” (something that I have no concern about for myself)? Maybe it is just that this is An Event and people like to see-and-be-seen in any crowd so that they can think of themselves as safely nestled in the bosom of The Human Herd.

I remember when my father died a dozen years ago. I loved my father very much and I still miss him today, but I was entirely lost and confused by the rituals involved with his passing. His second wife organized a memorial service for him some time after his death and insisted that I travel hundreds of miles to attend, which I did to gratify her. I was completely befuddled by the expectations that everyone seemed to have for me as the sole surviving blood-family though. I guess that I was supposed to “just know about these things”, but I was unprepared when the minister announced moments before the service was to begin that I should stand up and Say A Few Words about my father to this gathering of people who I had never met before. Had I realized this some time earlier, I might have been able to organize my thoughts into a presentable form, but being surprised by this unexpected obligation, I simply refused. As I sat there silently in the service listening to others blather I started to feel downright annoyed by what was going on. This was my father after all and I had a closer connection to him than any of these other people did. My relationship with him and my memories of him were deeply personal and I felt insulted that these strangers wanted me to expose these feelings publicly for their perusal and judgement. How dare they make such demands at a difficult time like this? It was as if they wanted me to strip naked and run around the block a few times for their puerile satisfaction.

On the other hand, ritual is just supposed to be about participating in the communal dance and going through the motions dictated by the formulaic rules, it isn’t really about actual “meaning” at all.

Savvy? …Or Is It Oblivious?

There is a cliché that youth tends to be “tech-savvy” and that they somehow have a congenital understanding of all manner of sophisticated electronics and computer gear. Well, I work in the IT-department at a college and I can assure anyone who is interested that this is simply not true based on my own direct observation.

I run the computer and wireless network on our campus and with the fledgling school semester now underway we need to respond to a typical rush of complaints about “The Network”. Some of these whines turn out to be legitimate, and others not. This is to be expected, but the thing that strikes me is how many of this Great Online Generation are completely ignorant to how any of their beloved e-gadgets actually work. It seems to me that the only real affinity that youth has to electronics is the ability to stand in line to buy the latest toy on the first day it is released, and the ability to push the buttons that some design-engineer thinks that they should push. There is, however, no real understanding of what those button-pushes are actually doing “under the covers” and for the most part they are as lost and bewildered as their grandparents might be when something isn’t right with their plaything.

I have been working in the field of computer networking for a long time and I certainly know more about this stuff than the average Wal-Mart shopper, but there is a societal impression that all members of The Borg Generation naturally “know stuff” about this stuff. I was on a call to a dorm-room on Friday to look a report that “the Internet is broken” because the student’s Playstation wasn’t behaving (horrors!), and to pass the time as I was investigating what was happening I gave a running commentary of what I was looking at and what I was doing. The student was utterly lost and confused by what I was saying, which didn’t strike me as too odd, until he let drop that he was an upper-classman and Comp-Sci major. Uh, really, dude? The stuff I was looking at here wasn’t bleeding edge high-tech either; it was just DHCP (if you know what that is) and fundamental to how almost every “connected” device anywhere operates these days. I didn’t expect this student to debug his own problem because as the network manager I have access to tools that he doesn’t, but this was like someone who claims to be a race-car driver not having any idea what a “cylinder” or “spark-plug” is. I guess that you don’t need that knowledge if you are just going to work the gas pedal and steering wheel, but this belies the “tech expert” reputation of the whole generation and it makes me wonder what our Comp-Sci department is really teaching out there. I suppose that the professors assume, like so many others, that Youth picks up the boring basics by osmosis and so they start off the “101” computer class with sexy advanced theory for next-gen products not yet even designed. After all, us hands-on Morlocks are out there to fix those pesky gaming-consoles for them when they act up.

I think that there may have been a time in the past when simply using an electronic gadget like a personal-computer meant that you needed to know a lot about how it operated, because it so frequently didn’t. These days however, being a mere user of high-tech gear generally doesn’t require that you actually know anything at all beyond the assumptions of the GUI – and if the device stops working? Meh – there is probably a new version out there by now anyway and so it is a good excuse to just throw the thing away and be super-cool with the latest-and-greatest. After all, you want your friends and family to think that you are sophisticated and hip and tuned-in to the newest tech – even if you don’t really have a clue.