ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Category Archives: Problem-Solving

A Star to Steer By

In lieu of being in Pittsburgh for the December holiday in the wake of my wife’s suicide in June, I am traveling to Ecuador.

The week after I arrive in Quito, I will join a trip to the jungle to a local community in preparation for a medical relief group. In return for a place in a canoe, food and place to sleep, I will take photos and write up the trip for their web site and teach community members some English. Then we will drive back to Quito.

Compass to Steer By

The Tool for the Job

After that the trip is open-ended. For several weeks I will travel and sight -see. I have no idea what I will do and who I will meet. I may visit Machu Picchu. I may go to the Galapagos. I may do something else entirely. I’m creating a new script, navigating without a map. I’m bringing a waterproof journal, my folding compass, my laptop and my harmonica — and the ubiquitous smartphone with camera. (I don’t plan to be constantly taking a lot of selfies, but who knows? You may hear from me.) It’s about being present for the journey, as someone I was close with recently reminded me.

Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes . . . Nay, be a Columbus1 to whole new continents and worlds within you… HDT, Walden

Or, since the Galapagos2 may be on my itinerary:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by… – John Masefield, Sea Fever

Our local Engineers Without Borders chapter has a water project in Curingue Ecuador, and a new one scheduled that I’m the education lead on. Our EWB contact in Quito has been tremendously helpful. I’m grateful for her and others in Pittsburgh who have encouraged me. A number of people have warned me to be careful​. Well, yes. Life is not risk-free. It’s also not a spectator sport. I got a full complement of immunizations this past week, including yellow fever and typhoid. I trust those I’m meeting. I am looking forward to , dare I say, fun after being in a long, dark tunnel. Namaste: Seek the light.– CDL

Sunset in Utah

Sunset in Utah (Photo credit: Cherie Byars, Ph.D.)

1Not the most popular explorer now in South American or anywhere else, but Thoreau was creating a metaphor.

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The Human

Facebook, texts and e-mail optional. Actual conversation recommended.

Greeting [Hug, handshake, secret society signal]

Them: Hey [Bro, Buddy, Honey, My Man, Sweetheart, Sweetcheeks, Hot Stuff or actual name if recalled]. How are you?

You: Meh.

Them: So, my [wife, significant other, family, coffee klatch, coven, paramilitary group, Illuminati subcommittee, tribe, friends, colleagues etc.] and I are headed to [the shore, our camp, Chautauqua, music festival, etc.] next week/weekend/August. It’s a pretty low key interesting crowd. Would like like to come along? You’d be welcome.

You: That sounds nice.

Them: It comes out to about $200-$300 a person. Do you mind sleeping on a sofa?’

You: Sure, I can swing that. No problem.

Them: There’s a hammock out back and canoe/kayak rental and cycling nearby. We’ll cook most of our meals. We might go out to eat once or twice.

Me: Sounds nice. I can bring some groceries and a bottle of wine to share. I can help cook and clean up. I would enjoy that.

Them: We may have some plans. You’re welcome to join us for some or just chill on your own. I know it’s been a rough month/year/life/millenium.

You: Sounds like what I need. I may do some writing if I feel like it, and bring my harmonicas.

Them: Um, yeah. That’d be good to do while we’re out. We’re leaving [date]. We’ll carpool split gas/taking our own cars. Coming back [date].

You: Sounds good. I’ve got plenty of vacation time. Plus I need the break. Feel like I’m going to lose it some days. I’ll go ahead and schedule the time.

Them: Great. Give you call to touch base.

You: Thanks. Looking forward to it.

Parting hug, handshake, fist bump, what-have-you.

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Voodoo ToDo

 Our age of social networking compels us to devote time, effort and attention more into promoting what we are doing than doing it. Add to this the sense that what we have done never quite measures up to the accomplishments of others1, never mind our own hopes and dreams. There be dragons, and a recipe for craziness.

My friends and acquaintances and I interact almost entirely via text and email. We seem always distracted and busy with work, undefined obligations and idolatrous demands. Our conversations – such as they are – are reduced to monosyllabic, abstract exchanges like those between dyslexic telegraph operators.2 Notwithstanding the efficiency this mode of communication offers, indulged in exclusively it shortchanges the ephemeral, non-algorithmic serendipitous aspects of fun, humor, intimacy and creativity that make human life worthwhile. What are we selling to each other and ourselves, to choose such a simulacrum3 of living?

Anyone who knows me can hear me quoting Thoreau: ‘We have traded our birthright for a mess of pottage .‘ Or perhaps, Do we run on the railway, or does the railway run on us?

Let me take a step back from this harried, hypnotic, delusional state we allow ourselves to become heir to. I spent the past few months doing fun, creative and worthwhile activities with those same friends and acquaintances. I helped organize and participated in Lawrenceville’s Art All Night event in April, and serve as education lead for a non-profit engineering group conducting a water project in Ecuador. I play harmonica with a local music group. In May I lectured on the depiction of technology in film, literature and popular culture to a science fiction and fantasy group. And I start a local arts residency this week that includes a canoe trip on the Youghiogheny River.

So why do I feel inadequate for (until now) not sharing these activities on a public forum with people who may not care to give a damn? Why do I feel constantly that there is something else I need to do? (Oh, wait. My laundry needs to go in the dryer.).

I’ll admit these activities sometimes offer displacement from the anxious, frustrating, lacking or painful aspects of my life. They tend to cost money, effort and time without any obvious or immediate financial gain. They do not advance what is euphemistically termed my career path, at least at present. They might be regarded merely as Quixotic, fanciful pursuits. Except that they represent a choice to connect to human aspects of myself and others and direct my energy in purposeful ways, if only in fits and starts. To me that beats the hell out of getting a fidget bit. HDT again:  All our inventions are but improved means to unimproved ends.

Just say ‘No’.

I recently had a birthday. I am more aware than ever of the time and energy we devote to vain tasks masquerading as productivity in our lives and work.4 There is dignity and sacredness in chopping wood and carrying water: Trash does not take itself out. Dishes must be washed. Bills must be paid (don’t they?). But when we program ourselves to press a virtual pressbar as the chief end of our humanity, who profits?5

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1 See also FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

2 Note that our texts often leave out names and personal pronouns – just saying. I cannot claim this comparison as original. Read Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet

3 A representation or imitation of a person or thing that becomes accepted as real. (Thanks to artist buddy Chris McGinnis for pointing me to this reference by Jean Baudrillard.)

5For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?, Mark 8:36, KJV

Attachment & Being Human

I’ve seen a lot of advice lately against getting ‘too attached’ — to people, desires, hopes. Is there’s a gauge like a radiation badge to measure how much is enough, or too much? Is our chief end to control our unruly natures and turn our emotions on and off like robots.1)

Emily Dickinson on Hope

Emily Says —

Something bugs me about non-attachment as a blanket answer to all human desire for connection, never mind the notion of karma. These can become unthinking dogma like anything else. The following nails something self-evident, however much we try to deny it, about our desire to connect:

… It is in our biology, in the fabric of us, to connect to other human beings, and anything which tries to insert shame and doubt into that instinct is bound to always twist us… If the thought, “I am happy right now”, can never occur without an accompanying, “And I am just delaying my ultimate fulfillment in being so”, then what, essentially, has life become? I’ve seen it in action – people reaching out for connection, and then pulling back reflexively, forever caught in a life of half-gestures that can’t ever quite settle down to pure contemplation or gain a moment of genuine absolute enjoyment.Dale DeBakcsy, New Humanist

The idea of non-attachment is useful in the right context. But we are human. We do grow attached to kids, loved ones, hopes, pleasures, ideas, beliefs pursuits large and small.2 Also toxic things. There are a lot of mixed messages in the Buddhist, Christian and New Age traditions. Maybe our goal should be to be more choosy about holding on and letting go and how. And savoring and enjoying worthwhile attachments while we’re here. And not putting so much energy and effort into stupid and harmful ones. — DA

1See most religion, utopian experiments, contemporary psychology, scientific futurism, psychotropic medication, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

2E.g. Wallace Shawn’s appreciation of a cold cup of coffee in My Dinner With Andre

A Nation of Laws

‘Next!’ (Cartoon by Udo J. Keppler, Puck Magazine)

Who is left to uphold [the law]? The lawyers? Some of the best lawyers in this country are hired, not to go to court to defend cases, but to advise corporations and business firms how they can get around the law without too great a risk of punishment. The judges? Too many of them so respect the laws that for some ‘error’ or quibble they restore to office and liberty men convicted on evidence overwhelmingly convincing to common sense. The churches? We know of one…which had to be compelled by… a health officer to put its tenements in sanitary condition. The colleges? They do not understand. There is no one left; none but all of us.

Editorial by Samuel McClure, McClure’s Magazine, January 1903 (the same issue that published Ida Tarbell’s article on Standard Oil and Ray Stannard Baker’s exposé of union practices) — DA

Me Talk to Me

We tell ourselves stories in order to succeed:  The virtues of self-talk in sports, work and life. (Op-Ed piece by Charles Fernyhough, Los Angeles Times)

Received Wisdom: Return to Sender

A few years ago I bought a bicycle carrier for the car. The carrier was made in Sweden and well-designed. The Swedish generally seem to know what they’re doing: See Volvo, Ikea, Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman.

I’m not an engineer, nor do I play one on TV. I’ve worked as a business analyst and technical writer. I’m pretty good at figuring out how at least most non-human things work. The carrier never seemed to fit quite right. The bike stayed on the car and didn’t end up under the wheels of an eighteen-wheeler or in a ditch. But it scraped paint off parts of the car and off parts of my psyche it shouldn’t have. I fussed with the straps and adjusted various angles. I read the instructions – both online and printed. Tears were shed. Curse words were said. I passed from denial through bargaining to acceptance. Bitching and moaning gave way to muttering under my breath. I used the rack only now and then, anyway. We rarely experience the ideal in life, and I had done the best I could. Still, I cringed every time I put the carrier on.

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in March of this year I joined the local chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The group’s regional and international goals are to get water and other necessities of life to people who don’t have them. EWB projects are self-funded. Volunteer members work in partnership with domestic and overseas communities to dig holes, pour concrete and lay pipelines. Disciplines range from mechanical and civil to electrical, nuclear and software engineering. A fair number of women serve as members. Perhaps their estrogen-inspired desire to measure twice, cut once balances male members’ testosterone-fueled impulse to to ‘get ‘er done.’ But that’s a generalization. Since spending time with them, I’ve learned about elevations, hydraulic pressure (including ‘water hammer’), water treatment and local whiskey distilleries. The chapter holds periodic happy hours and fundraisers at local watering holes and other establishments.

Maybe some of that engineering expertise rubbed off on me. The next time I hauled out my bike carrier, I looked at it — I mean looked at it — and said, ‘Hold on, this just can’t be right. I’m going to find out what it is.

The cult of presumed expertise and received wisdom increasingly monopolizes our society: the notion that someone else always knows better than we do. I won’t say it’s making us stupid1, but the accoutrements we must master to live our lives grow daily more complicated (or so we tell ourselves). The sheer cognitive and emotional overhead of everything from keeping track of our ‘friends” exploits on Facebook to deciding what car to buy threatens to overwhelm us, resulting in a loss of confidence in ourselves and our abilities. This in turn undermines the self-reliance and individual liberty that democracy depends upon. There used to be a quaint expression called Yankee Ingenuity for taking the initiative and making things better ourselves rather than passively accepting the status quo or deferring to someone else. In the global marketplace this could now now just as easily include Southern Ingenuity, Goth Ingenuity, Muslim Ingenuity, LGBT Ingenuity or Indian Ingenuity.

When I took the dirty carrier off the car and laid it on the bedroom carpet (which I covered with newspapers), I found whoever assembled it at the factory or the store reversed two parts, putting them on opposite sides. I had simply accepted the state of affairs (or been too worn down to change it), assuming whoever put it together knew what they were doing. I scrounged for some metric wrenches. I disassembled the offending parts and carefully put them back together again (watching out for leftovers). This was no small task, and I shouldn’t have had to do it.2 But when I was done, the carrier fit properly on the car the way it should be.

What caused the ‘Hold on, here’, the ‘ah ha’ moment (which wasn’t that sudden, really) that caused me to go to the factory web site once more and compare what I saw to what was on the screen?

I like to think spending time with my engineering colleagues helped inspire me. Putting the carrier on the carpet allowed me to step back and reframe the problem (even if it left a smudge or two to clean up). Problem-solving is not (and cannot) simply be the domain of experts –- who themselves can get it wrong. We can all be victims of passivity or of received wisdom and arrogance: consequences simply of being human. When things don’t go according to plan, we must reserve the prerogative to try and figure out problems for ourselves. This realization can threaten the status quo and involves risk3, but can also empower us. — CDL

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1Others do that. See recent references to Google, Wikipedia and other recent phenomena supposedly making us stupid. See also deskilling.
2Whatever sense of accomplishment I experienced was mitigated by frustration and the damage done to the car.
3Of failure, transgression and accountability.

 

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