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Being in Paris

October 23, 2016 Leave a comment

I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
No one calling me up for favors
No one’s future to decide
You know I’d go back there tomorrow
But for the work I’ve taken on
Stoking the star making machinery
Behind the popular songs.

– Joni Mitchell

My wife has been aching to go to Paris for the entire 20 years we’ve been married. I have never had any objection to going. I like to travel. On the other hand, I didn’t know enough about Paris to ever develop an interest. I was also concerned that my wife had grown so much baggage, invested so much anticipation, the reality of going might be a let down. So when the trip came up as a possible way to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, I threw my enthusiasm behind it, determined that if we were going to do this, we would do it right.

We dropped the big dime on Business Class so we would not arrive exhausted. We took enough tech so she could run her business on the road, which meant she could enjoy herself not worrying about lost deals back home. I also understand big experiences are made up of small moments. So to maximize the Paris experience, I quietly made sure she got the window seats and the seats that faced the best sightseeing and people watching. I did not deny myself anything. I got to see and do everything fully. On the other hand, I wasn’t the one with a dream to live up to.

I think the thing I least understood about Paris is its complexity. The crisscrossing one way crowded streets, the over-complicated metro rail system, the reliance the language puts the slightest inflection and pronunciation, the cosmopolitan melting pot of races and places of origin. After a few days, what had first looked like a blur began to emerge as an impossibly intricate clockwork, like the magnum opus of an obsessed engraver; the longer you look, the more you see and the more it makes sense.

Moreover, I realized the thing that holds it all together, the answer to why all these people come from all over the world to live with the noise and the high prices and the frustrations, is their joy. Everyone is just so happy to be a part of Paris.

You can see it in their faces. They get off work and hang out with friends, filling up bistros on sidewalks, not eating dinner until nine or ten, as if they don’t want to let the day end without one more round of celebration. Despite the insane tangle that masquerades as a street map, taxi drivers are genuinely courteous to one another. Pedicab drivers laugh at themselves for getting stuck in wrong way traffic. Waiters maintain a level of service that far outstrips the fact that tipping is unusual. Folks hold impromptu dance parties on the river bank. Parisians just love being in Paris. And it is infectious.

Picturesque? Beautiful? Fascinating? Yes. Yes. Yes. Romantic? Clearly. But when they call Paris the City of Love, a big piece of that is the love the people have for their city. I’ve seen and lived in a lot of cities. I have never seen or felt this vibe on this scale before except in places where employees are paid to look happy like Disneyland.

On my last full day in Paris I found myself reflecting on how I would transition back to my usual life. I don’t take vacations often enough to be familiar with exiting and re-entering my life in progress. The song lyrics above randomly floated into my mind and I realized I had been swept up in the joy that is Paris. I also realized how little of that joy was in my usual life.

I take on too much responsibility. I joke that I can’t complain about the difficulties in my life because I make all my own trouble. I firmly believe we are primarily limited by self doubt. At the same time I feel obligated to honor this gift of intelligence I was given by doing something constructive with it. So I pick up the slack. For everyone. My wife is on call 24/7, so I often act as a single parent to our two active daughters. My own job has me assisting literally everyone in the company to get their projects done within government specifications. I exercise my hero complex on my own time too, whether it is having someone over to dinner nearly every week, or helping a friend finish a costume before a show, or writing advice for aspiring writers, I find great satisfaction being the grease in other people’s machines. I also try to leave the world a better place through my storytelling.

While all of this activity pushes my usefulness buttons, I have come to see that satisfaction is not joy. Late at night when everything is done and everyone is asleep and I sit down to commit my thoughts to paper, like now, the fun I have and the warm fuzzies I feel are from doing something. The joy of Paris was to just be in Paris. Is it possible to be happy just being in your life?

Diversions bring joy without work. Watching a film or a game, reading a book, or hanging out with friends all bring an effortless happiness. Growing up near a coast, I recall wiling away hours on the beach. But even these things require going somewhere and exiting your usual life for a spell.

Is appreciation the key to finding joy in just being in your life? Does counting your blessings and checking your privilege give you a better perspective to see how happy you should be?

Was it the buzz? Lord knows my sphere of contact in the Bay Area is as busy as central Paris, even if I can, by contrast, navigate it adroitly. Lost or not, I don’t think the buzz was what set Paris apart.

I do hope you’re not expecting me to solve this puzzle because I do not have a solution. Maybe it is unsolvable because it’s not Paris but rather the way I have learned to live my life.

When Superman isn’t helping other people, by rescuing treed kittens or repelling alien invasions, he enjoys loving Lois Lane and visiting his mom on her farm. He is capable of so much, in his down time how does he decide not to do anything and just be happy?

The Dalai Lama, who I do believe has lived fourteen lives and retained all that wisdom, says our purpose on Earth is to be happy. He defines happy in the highest ethical standards of harming no one or anything, and he talks a lot about leaving the world a better place than you found it. On the other hand, all eight Buddhist paths (right speech, right thought, right work, etc.) require doing something.

What combination of right attitude, right appreciation, and right perspective brings you to a nirvana of taking a big breath full of simply glad-to-be-here?

I do not want to unpack my life of obligations. Adulting is hard but very satisfying. Even though I am inevitably the one who picks up the dirty dishes, I honestly do not resent folks taking a break when there is work to be done. Sometimes it’s okay for work to wait. People need breaks. I take breaks. Breaks lead to rest, not joy.

I was chatting with a friend who has been to Paris a few times and loves it. He summed up the Parisian joie d’vie saying, “They know how to live.” One of the 400 pictures I took was an empty bottle sitting on a curb at the north Paris flea market. It was Vieve Cliquet champagne.

Although I am still processing all of this, I think I may have found a starting place. They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. This axiom is only useful if you know where you’re going. My first step is to re-prioritize. Yes, there will still be 150 mile days of running the kids to too many activities while still working. But instead of spending the unexpected free half hour catching up on Facebook, there will be more poetry reading, lovemaking, and wine drinking. Instead of staying up late trying to get one more thing done to make the day count, there will be more listening to music and cuddling the cat. I don’t think I will find the contentment I seek unless I first slow down and stop constantly challenging myself to do more. Less can be more. Tomorrow is another day. Today doesn’t have to have skid marks on it for tomorrow to start well. We’ll see if an accomplishment junkie can find happiness purposely accomplishing less.

As much as less sounds like a working key to happiness, I have to be honest about how I spent that enlightened week in Paris. I was busy. We saw a museum and took in sights every day. We were in motion all the time. We had to buy better walking shoes for my wife. Yet the joy seeped into me all the same.

There was a difference. Being addicted to “done” and being the parent of teens, I work logistics like an air traffic controller. If something slips off the rails I normally stress until I can juggle a new sequence into place. When we were in Paris, setbacks upset our plans several times. A Metro line we were recommended to was on strike for the summer. A church we planned to see closed earlier than we thought. That put us in a distant part of the city with nothing to do.
Somehow these interruptions did not trigger the usual stress. We were, after all, still in Paris. We could reshuffle our itinerary and find something else to see or do. When an entire city is your candy store, ending up in an unplanned aisle is an unexpected treat, not a ruined day.

So the difference was flexibility. I don’t normally have flexibility around when the kids need to be at school or at practice. My boss is pretty easy going, but I don’t really get to exercise flexibility around when I go to work. Then there’s mealtime. My family wants dinner, every damn night, like I don’t have anything better to do. I may make the schedules, but I can only schedule around fixed points in time (Doctor Who much?).

Here I am trying to accomplish a formula for finding Parisian joy in my daily life, only to find the key may be something I have systematically removed from my life by taking on responsibilities that make my life complete. Bummer. While it may be a useful tip to build in flexibility, it’s not helpful to discover this after the fact.

Less each day would allow room for more flexibility. Flexibility gives room to dodge stressful road blocks. Less stress leaves more room to appreciate life and let in joy. I may not have this all figured out yet, but I now have an hypothesis.

So I will remember Paris, but not wistfully or longingly. I hope to go back, but I will not miss it. I will remember the joy it showed me, and use that memory to remind myself to make room for that joy in my life until I return.

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Categories: Parenting, Writing

Have we achieved the science fiction future we had in mind?

August 26, 2015 Leave a comment

I am considering developing this into a TED talk. What do you think?

Have we achieved the science fiction future we had in mind?

Science fiction writers and readers have long imaged what the future might look like, good and bad. Dreams were given life and cautionary tales were crafted in the safety of book pages. Due to the march of technology and economics, many of these future visions have become reality, seemingly in the blink of an eye. I am left wondering if this is what we had in mind.

We have placed the accumulated storehouse of all human knowledge and experience in everyone’s hand, along with the logic and intelligence to apply that knowledge anyway we can find an app. Branding strategy is now a sufficiently fine-tined science that hard work and affluence have become disconnected. Wealth is so concentrated at the top that even politicians openly admit voters have no power to change policy. Boomers and X-gens watched agape as this happened faster than expected. But we now have an entire generation, the Millennials, who grew up under these circumstances, and it has molded their world view.

Science fiction did its job and predicted this, if not the path it took to get here. But who among us thought we would see the lessons of science fiction become so relevant in the real world? Government surveillance is assumed, and wars are fought entirely to support industry, not unlike Orwell’s 1984. Dating software has duplicated the detached promiscuity of Brave New World. Digital convenience is demanded, work hours have to be flexible, and any creativity is expected to return rewards, just like many science fiction visions of the future.

But did science fiction predict a generation of workers who expect to be able to experiment with careers and lifestyle choices throughout their 20s, and not become responsible adults until their 30s? Did our lofty visions of the future include a consumer economy where no one learns how to fix anything because everything is simply replaced? Did we anticipate mobile phone apps taking over so many functions that people at large forget how to do anything practical for themselves, like navigation, personal finance, or holding a face to face conversation? Cyberbullying is an expected result of online anonymity, but it goes hand in hand with the larger problem of an entire generation of young men raised on violently misogynistic pornography as a preferred relationship model.

The Millennials’ dependence on technology is understandable, but their impractical world view is also the fault of their enabling parents. We let the rich rape the world economy badly enough that the Millennials will be the first generation in hundreds of years that will not live as well as their parents. So we have stepped up and let them boomerang home, or take decades to finish college, or spend their time on get-rich-quick thinking. There are enough examples of people making fortunes on apps, or celebrity, or crowdsourced start-ups, that they don’t see any incentive to start building a career. They look at the hash we have made of the world and have rejected eight-hour workdays as a formula for stagnation.

I am not saying all young people are spoiled layabouts. And get off my lawn while you’re at it. I am saying their expectations and their buying patterns and their relationships are very different than people only ten years older. They see themselves as entitled to explore innovation in everything. Nothing is above questioning. They see how the world can be changed with the invention of one thing, like the smartphone, and so they spend their energy looking for the next big thing. They also do not bother developing job skills. I worry that they will be ready to take over the reins when their time comes. They know they are ill prepared. They love apocalyptic fiction for its even-worse-then-now escapism. But rather than gear up, they would rather find a work-around. They expect other people to invest in their ideas, yet they will not invest their money in anything risky. How will that work when they become the investing generation?

So what vision of the future can science fiction offer this generation that seems to have inherited a world made of our dreams? Like Dr. Morbius’ Creatures of the Id, dreams often do not make for a livable world.

The old school science fiction ideal was to mirror ancient Greece, with robots taking the place of captured slaves doing all the work, freeing citizens to live lives of creativity and leisure. Well, that’s not how we employ our labor-saving technology. We have apps to bring the world to our fingertips. Having access to, and manipulating information is the preferred way to add value. Today, being “sharp” is more important than producing a work product. It’s as if the world has turned into one huge derivative marketplace, where everyone trades the value of deals without ever actually moving any of the underlying materials. Somebody has to produce the materials. Somebody does.

So instead of ancient Greece, our tech savvy generation has modeled the British Empire. The landed aristocracy inherited its wealth, and used it to own the means of production which was overseas. Their “work” was to make decisions that were carried out by third world workers in fields, and later, in factories.

The problem with empire economies is they collapse. The workers demand better living conditions and the whole structure becomes unprofitable and unsupportable. The plastics workers in China, the electronics assemblers in Indonesia, and the engineers in India, all want better, and they will earn it. Within the next twenty years, standards of living in the third world will rise too high for a generation of decision makers in the first world to rely on them to do their dirty work. The Millennials may have inherited the means to live a clean hands life, but their dependence on it will bring about its end by the time they become the steering generation.

So what does science fiction have to say about surviving collapsing empires?  Lots of science fiction adventure has been written from the viewpoint of the heroes who bring down oppressive empires. Have you ever wondered about the economic aftermath of such collapse? Any number of science fiction evil empires were in fact economically stable. Does science fiction blindly accept the Jeffersonian ideal that free men will find a way? What happened to interstellar trade after Paul Atreides usurped the Padishah Emperor and broke the sweetheart deal the Guild Steersmen had on Spice production? What hope does science fiction have to offer when rising third world standards of living inflate device prices too high for coffee shop entrepreneurs to afford?

Old school science fiction thinking would say technology will cure all ills. Maybe technology will take the laboring oar from the workers in Asia as well, and they can join the thumb jockeys in Europe and America. Maybe we are in a transitional phase, and the first world Millennials are just the leading edge.

In economic terms, automated production would have to become less expensive than the cheapest available human labor. If living standards rise fast enough and manufacturing technology becomes efficient enough, this could become a reality. If this pattern became worldwide, we could replace the Empire model with the Greek slave model. All of mankind would be freed from hard labor into lives of creativity and entrepreneurship. Science fiction ideal achieved.

Therefore I say we are seeing pieces of the science fiction future we have dreamed of, and under the right twists of fate, these could blossom. In the meantime we have a younger generation who has rejected pretty much everything we have to offer (except our money) but whom we need to nurture and educate to be ready to take over the world. Even if their future world does not include day jobs and mortgages, Robert Heinlein was still right about the need for widely varied skills and adaptability. We are not insects.

Categories: Parenting, Politics, Writing

Now on Twitter

October 28, 2013 Leave a comment

I finally joined Twitter. @jayhartlove. Look out world.

Working from home – a tough lesson learned

July 6, 2013 4 comments

There was a time in my Bohemian past when I would have said sanity is overrated. As someone who tends to take on too much, I have learned the hard way that sanity does matter. I had another “Oh no, not another learning experience” recently, and I am here to share my cautionary tale in hopes that it will save someone the painful lesson.

I quit my dream job. After networking and interviewing and waiting for six months, I landed a job technical writing from home. What could be better? Writing for The Man by day and writing for me at night. No commute. Flexible hours as long as the work got done. Old coworkers congratulated me on achieving what they all dreamed of.

Three months in I started wondering why I felt like I could never get anything done. Four months in I started wondering why I couldn’t sleep. I kept trying to make it work. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t find a rhythm at what was supposed to be a great arrangement? Surely I could afford a few hours here and there to be the stay-at-home dad. But that’s just it. I ran out of hours. At five months I realized that whenever I was working the job, I felt remiss for not taking care of something pressing around the house. And whenever I was doing something for the house, I felt like I should be working on work. My creativity disappeared and I got no writing done for myself. I should also mention, it did not help that the day job had a long learning curve and the guy who used my output never liked anything I wrote. It wasn’t that I could not get anything done. I actually got a lot done. It’s that I could never get any satisfaction from anything I was doing, since I was always distracted by the other things I needed to get back to.

I thought my failure was a lack of discipline. Then I started talking to other folks who had walked the same path. Living in the Bay Area, I know quite a few tech writers. Some of them had tried the work-from-home option and they told the same story. I met a fellow science fiction writer at a book signing. He had tried to do the stay-at-home dad gig while functioning as the CFO for his company. He said he was surprised how much better life got once he got back to commuting to the office. I met a stock broker at a picnic who told the same story. Suddenly I didn’t feel like such a failure for not being able to juggle what I had taken on. Maybe I had taken on too much.

While I was pondering all of this, my old employer, the bank that had let me go in a re-organization two years ago, called me to ask me back. Same old commute, same kind of work (which I always enjoyed), different department with people I knew and respected from before, and more money. More than anything, though, it was an opportunity to leave work at work, and to do just home stuff at home.

So I took it. I have been on the new job at the old bank for a week now. They love me. I love being there. Indeed I lose a couple of hours a day to the commute. On the other hand, I’m sleeping again. I enjoy being with my family more. And I am happy to report, I am writing again.

So the lesson appears to be, if you are going to be a stay-at-home parent, do not try to squeeze that in as a part time side line activity while holding down a full time job. You can only expect job satisfaction from any job that you can devote your full attention to while you are doing it, whether it is a day job, parenting, or a part time job creative job. You owe it to yourself to keep them separate.

Categories: Parenting, Writing

Whither Santa

January 3, 2011 1 comment

Why do we propagate the Santa Claus myth?  Sure it’s steeped in tradition.  And sure it’s a clever, trillion dollar marketing tool for anyone who can properly tap into its quaint nature.  But given how much trouble it is to maintain a child’s faith in the myth, and the trauma we all remember of discovering it was all a lie, one would think adults would try to discourage it.  Yet, each new generation “dons the suit” and perpetuates the fraud.  Why?

 I have two children, ten and five.  The ten-year old has convinced herself that if she does not at least outwardly attest to her continued faith in Santa, then she won’t get anything from him.  Clearly she has figured it out, but is only up to the Negotiation stage of dealing with the death of Santa.  The five-year old is entirely sure the myth is 100% true, all the way down to Rudolph’s red nose.  I am confident that the ten-year old loves her little sister enough to not let the truth out of the bag.  But watching her dance around the issue has got me examining why we do this in the first place.

I think the myth serves two important values to society.  First, it creates a way for a child to know he/she is appreciated by the world, not just Mommy and Daddy.  Family members give gifts at Christmastime, and Holiday cheer is spread around, but Santa’s presents are something more.  By having an anonymous, unimpeachable judge find that you have been good and not naughty, the universe forgives all the indiscretions of the year.  It harkens the kind of deep, meaningful forgiveness folks seek from God.  Maybe that’s why we have lined up the holiday of generosity with the birth of Christ.  Both Jesus and Santa are here to tell us we are forgiven and loved and everything will be all right.

The second value I see is in raising the bar for parents.  This may be an unintended consequence, but it is still valuable.  If Santa is handing out forgiveness and validation at Christmastime, then Mom and Dad can’t so easily use Christmas presents to buy their children’s affections.  If you allocate the material rewards to Santa, then parents have to demonstrate love with time and attention.  It’s like the Spirit of Christmas that the Whos still have in loving each other when the Grinch has taken away all the trappings and presents.  Of course, parents who don’t spend enough time with their kids are always going to try to buy their way back into junior’s heart with stuff.  But letting Santa have a cut of the credit reminds us that parents are supposed to be more than toy store credit cards.

But even if Santa is good for society, we still don’t have an answer to why we continue the myth.  There are lots of things that are clearly good for society that we cheerfully abandon when it suits our purposes, like not littering or speeding or killing one another.  So, “good for society” isn’t good enough.

Was there something so great about Santa when we were young that we want to give that same something to our kids?  After being lied to for ten years or so, why wasn’t it a bigger shock to find out it had been a deception?  The quick and easy answer to both of these questions is the presents.  But I think there is more to it.

I think the validation aspect alone is enough to want to pass the myth on.  The presents we got from Santa struck a deeper chord than even cooler presents we may have received at birthdays.  The magic associated with receiving a reward from the universe is hard to beat.  And maybe we want that same chord to ring for our kids, whether we understand the validation or not.

The lie is what really intrigues me.  We propagate the myth knowing full well that in time our kids are going to see through it.  Why are we not worried that our kids will distrust us for having lied to them?  When we recall figuring out the truth behind Santa, we typically remember it as solving a great puzzle.  Why don’t we remember it as uncovering a life turning betrayal?  Maybe by ten we have been let down enough times by our parents and our teachers and adults in general, that when we figure out the Santa myth, it is just one more block falling off the crumbling tower of trust we had in grown ups.  Or maybe seeing through this elaborate adult-constructed façade is a right of passage, a truth-finding that we can own as ours.  Maybe we want our children to figure it out, and to have that proud moment of victory that we remember.  Maybe we erect this illusion so that it can be torn down when the child is ready.

I could just as easily have constructed this argument as a proof, but I have purposely left all the “maybes” in plain sight.  I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Categories: Parenting
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