Thursday, November 27, 2014

Faith Gap

While going through a difficult time a friend said to me those oft-said words, “It will all be okay.” A time honored cliché but as I heard the words and appreciated the sentiment, I couldn’t help myself from thinking that, “no, there’s a good chance things won’t be okay.” The usual follow-ups include, “Everything happens for a reason,” “When one door closes another opens,” or if particularly religious, “God does not give you what you cannot handle.” All of these comments lean on a shared belief that there are benevolent powers in the universe that have your best interest in heart.

However, I’ve come to realize that I have a faith gap. I do not believe in a benevolent universe. I find no comfort in trusting in God, Karma, or the Secret.  Rather I believe the universe to be amoral, random, and thus merciless in what it tends to serve up to anyone. I’ve seen enough friends and family members go from a bad situation to worse, and while I can maybe spot a silver lining here and there, they are often meager consolation prizes for what once was.

Of course this doesn’t stop me from saying those same words when bad luck falls on my own friends and family. Perhaps there’s a part of me that hopes their faith still is strong. Because let’s face it that faith enables them to endure more and suffer less. It alleviates the worries of future uncertainties. Like the levitating powers of fairy dust, it works if you believe it – I just can’t bring myself to believe in it.

Despite my lack of faith, I find great wisdom in the serenity prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, . Easy enough it would seem, but my faith gap is sometimes a roadblock to acceptance. Without trust that someone or something is taking care of things on my behalf, I’m left to game out all the worst-case scenarios – worrying about the future instead of accepting it as something beyond my control.

Where I do have faith, it’s in myself. To quote Nietzsche, “that which doesn’t destroy me, makes me stronger.” Whatever my circumstances, I still can make the best of it. Sometimes the only thing that I can change is myself, or my attitude. Isn’t that the secret to existential bliss? Or is that simply a delusion?  Applying the serenity prayer seems to always be a work in progress.

I suppose I do have faith beyond myself – I tend to have faith in other people. I believe other people generally strive to do the right thing – to be “good.” Unfortunately that “good” can become ill defined in the most well intentioned of people. Still I do have faith that taken outside of their fears and prejudices most people will help others in need.

I think luck plays a greater role in our lives than we feel comfortable to acknowledge. In that respect I have already been extremely fortunate. Believe me, I’m well aware of my privilege. Just open any news feed (or history book) and I know at once how fortunate I am. The worst of my troubles are nothing in comparison, and yet I still can’t seem to take comfort in my privilege. Again, it seems a random quirk that could reset at any time.

I suppose this is where the leap of faith comes in. In the unknowable future of the unknowable universe anything is possible, accept this and put my best foot forward. Whether a benevolent force exists or not I will continue moving until I stop. Faith provides momentum.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Musings in Hedonism - The Philosophy Store

So after my last blog post a friend remarked that she’d love to hear my musing on what a philosophy store would look like. We’ll that’s too good of a challenge to pass up – so here it is:

When I first conjure up the idea of a philosophy store my mind immediately thinks of an old bookstore. You know the one’s, full of hard copy books with bindings that speak of another era, that musty scent of paper. Indeed there must be bookshelves to house the classic works that so often rest hidden away in books.

But that’s an anachronistic image. The access to those thoughts and pages can be done with a simple web search now. Wikipedia provides succinct summaries of most philosophers' great works, so perhaps among the bookshelves, you’ll see a cubby stocked with a computer terminal, or perhaps today you just needs a charging station for your phone and a link to the right app.

But both those visions seem a bit passive for what a philosophy store could really be. Philosophy requires dialogue. Flat presentations of unchallenged ideas speak more of dogma than philosophy. For that reason there must be a forum. Perhaps this is a nod to the Socratic method – but there needs to be an open space for people to both present ideas, and have them challenged.

Some might think a church might be a good model for a philosophy store. After all a church is designed to present its philosophy to its followers. But this misses a very important point about what philosophy really is. As counterintuitive as it may seem, Philosophy is not really about providing answers, rather it is about asking the right questions. The one-to-many design of churches stifles the dialogue of questions, doubts, and skepticism (essential parts of any philosophic exploration).

Perhaps a trading floor is a better model? Instead of an exchange of stocks or commodities, it’s the exchange of ideas that serves as commerce in a philosophy store. Then again, perhaps philosophy cannot be monetized in such as fashion – but there’s a whole theory of value to recon with when philosophy is the product.

Another approach might be a bit more personal. Allowing for subjectivity, it may be that philosophy is a distinct matter for each individual. Philosophy might be a form of therapy one undertakes with a licensed professional philosopher. This would require private rooms like a medical suite (perhaps located across the forum and behind the bookcases and charging stations?) An approach akin to the Existential Detectives of I Heart Huckabees.

Here individuals could craft their philosophies, positing their own questions about life, the universe, or right and wrong. They might make statements of belief, while their philosopher therapist probes them with challenging questions, alternate interpretations, or a random non sequitur to shake things up. Therapy would continue until one reached a point where the answers to the questions no longer mattered.

As I jot all this down, I have to confess I think such as place could exist – perhaps even a virtually. Whether one could make a living off of it though is an entirely different question. And that, of course is the challenging question to all my thought experiments these days. But I’m still asking questions – so I’m not done quite yet.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Embracing Chaos

I've mentioned before that I have a tendency of playing things safe. I suppose we all are predisposed to keep doing the things we’re comfortable with, to be complacent with our routines and expectations. But the truth is, as good as we get at managing our outcomes, there’s always a margin of error, an element of risk. That bit of information overlooked, misunderstood, or simply unknowable that suddenly reveals to us that order is an illusion. We are often steps away from unexpected chaos.

For a play it safe kind of guy, you’d think my response to chaos might be to try to prepare for it, to have that emergency fund, that earthquake preparedness kit, a solid plan B – like most rational people, especially a rational hedonist, would. And, I do – to some extent; though perhaps not as completely as I might like...

After almost 30 years in the same business I’m now unemployed. I’m anxious about what I’ll do next, where I might live, how I might have to adjust. To be sure I’ll be doing what's traditional and expected. I'll update my Linked-In profile, network with peers, keep up with industry trends, etc.. But in this moment of chaos, I’ll also cast a glance to other far off options. What else can I do? Could I start my own business? Is that philosophy store even possible? What would it look like? What other imaginary lives can I entertain and make real?

I’ll fantasize about pursuing these options, turn them into thought experiments, always weighing the risk.

Rational as that might seem, I can’t help but look at my risk aversion as one of my flaws.  A flaw that might actually be preventing me from living as fulfilling of a life as I might otherwise. As a rational hedonist I ought to be willing to take a few more risks.  So, as much as I like to play it safe, I secretly welcome this sort of anarchy and chaos. It destroys my excuses, makes me vulnerable, but also opens me to possibilities I might never allow myself. “That which does not destroy me, makes me stronger, “ remains a favorite Nietzsche quote.

Is it any wonder that the worlds of myth and folklore often have some god or hero associated with Chaos and destruction? Loki, The Trickster, Shiva – they all play a role of disrupting order. They humble us reminding us that we are not always in control of our destinies. Truth is, these are the characters whose stories I most enjoy. They shakes things up and challenge the status quo. Their disruptions often make the unimaginable possible.

When faced with the frustration of choosing the right “key words” to get past the robo-gatekeepers of corporate HR, a friend suggested I use the terms, “Hedonist, Mixologist, Existential Detective, Philosopher, and Aesthete.” I quickly made business cards with those titles. They have become my affirmations. I look at them and am reminded who I really am. What I value. Who I really want to be. Something to look at while I create and market my “brand” – that distilled “safe-for-work” version of myself carefully crafted to fit into the resumes and cover letters designed to secure gainful employment.

Chaos to me is a gift. When I am unwilling to take that leap, I'll invite chaos comes along and gives me a good shove. I’m still afraid during my free-fall, worried about my potential crash, but I’m given a chance to land on some different ground and explore the new territory I had only dreamed about before. Sometimes a world must be destroyed to make way for a new world to be created. 

I look forward to exploring this new world.

Monday, May 19, 2014

My Tasmanian Cousin

Families can be an odd collection of individuals. We think of them as some unified entity but while there may be some strand of shared genetic code among its members a family can have a stunning amount of diversity.

My family has always been a bit of mystery to me. My parents, both German, left the country shortly after the war and while my mother kept contact with some of our family members, I don’t think my father ever looked back. If two of his brothers had never joined him in Canada – my parents first stop in their multinational journey – I doubt he would have made any effort to see them.

In fact looking back over my own life most of my experience with my extended family could easily be fit in a fortnight with several days to spare – three trips to Germany and Switzerland (one of which as an infant) and a couple afternoon visits from aunts and uncles on their way to vacations in Vegas.

So it came as a surprise to get an email from a cousin I had never met before – both of us in our 50’s. He described a whirlwind trip from Tasmania to Nicaragua that included a brief overnight stop at LAX. “Could we have dinner together?” I was filled with excitement, and I confess a little fear.

My parents both gone, I had come to accept the mythology of their stories, my own social/intellectual origins. I was going to meet someone with stories and probably facts that intersected with my own. They could verify or discredit them – yes leave it to me to overthink things into a potential existential crisis.

When we finally met, I think a dance unfolded between us. Yes somewhere in our cells were that shared strand of DNA, but could we “like” one another, make a social as well as biological connection? We traded quick summaries of our lives – but 50 years in maybe 20 lines of text? In his favor, I knew my Australian cousin was well traveled and an academic – both plusses for open mindedness, curiosity, and a sense of adventure. Still there are things we filter from our families, perhaps thinking them more sensitive than they really are, but also sometimes a way of steering clear of unwinnable confrontations of beliefs, politics, and propriety.

My wife and I sitting next to my cousin in a Westchester dinner, I realized that I was the “American Cousin” and what trepidation that must cause. I’m sure a few Google searches eased my cousin’s mind enough to have dinner, but lets face it despite the flag waving bravado my countrymen may have for our land of opportunity and rugged individualism – that can come across a bit cocky. Many – rightfully – look at us as arrogant and opportunistic, often with a reckless disregard for others shrouded in a righteous self-serving belief system. Yeah, there’s a reason the “ugly American” is a “thing”, hopefully I could show my cousin that I wasn’t a part of that.

So we danced, sharing stories of our most recent ancestors – my father finding the heart of the Großherzog lost in the war, his desertion, and his bookish nature that attracted my mother to him. When my wife left the table for a moment, my cousin turned to me, “You know,” he said with a confidential tone, “our grandfather had a bit of a reputation.” “I know,” I responded, “I have a few pictures of his girlfriend in the Schwarzwald – my sister had a great time when she visited them so many years ago.” And with that step, we knew we could speak more freely about our family, it quirks, its dark sides, its flaws – as all of them do.

I brought along my father’s journal that he penned when he was 19. Written in German (of course) my father also included many photos of the family and people he knew at the time – especially, or so it seemed – the women he had loved. I doubt my father ever expected to have his diary read by his nephew and son, but it brought him back to life for me, and charmed me with it’s romanticism as well as it’s bluntness. “She and I had many love adventures,” read one such caption – "Liebesabenteuer" – perhaps that’s a common German phrase, but its translation delights me. So many of our stories really are our Love Adventures.

As the dinner closed we took my cousin to his Hotel and decided to have a nightcap and see the pictures we had brought along to share. The lobby was full of activity, and the bar filled with patrons dressed mostly in black with a preference for lace, leather, lycra, and latex. How could this nondescript corporate airport hotel be such a magnet for LA’s fetish scene? And, oh what a hilarious backdrop as we recounted more family histories, full of elopements, rekindling old flames, affairs and remarriages - love adventures indeed.

As we crossed the midnight hour, my wife decided that to really commemorate the evening we should take a picture, not just of ourselves, but with some of the fellow hotel guests in their slinky, sexy finery. As she left to find some volunteers, my cousin asked, “Do you think she’ll be successful?” I retorted that knowing my wife, and my experience with people who dress to be seen, that I had no doubt she would be. What I failed to say, though probably still evident, that this is certainly one of the reasons I married her.

Before long we were joined by Mistress Precious, Sir Nick, and their entourage. Mistress Precious was dressed in an elaborate latex bodysuit complete with black latex ruffled collar. She asked my cousin if he wanted to touch, offering her knee. Sir Nick, a tall lanky gentleman made taller and lankier by his 6” heals, offered up praises of Australian whip makers, thanking my cousin’s countrymen – and perhaps revealing an untapped market for the Australian whip industry.

Suddenly we were retelling our stories, showing off my father’s journal and grandfather’s medal. In turn, we were told about DomCon – the conference of professional dominatrices celebrating its 11th year - as well as common misconceptions about the BDSM lifestyle. Sir Nick even invited us to stick around and check out the next day’s workshops.

My cousin charmed them all. His simple statement, “I am a scientist,” the ultimate flirtation – the Aussie notes in his voice friendly and inviting, while the German undertones gave it a certain veracity and authority. And to be honest, he charmed me too. The existential fears evaporating and leaving me thinking about the over 50 years of familial diaspora and how crazy it was to let it last so long.

Now I dream of traveling, to an old homestead in Germany and a mysterious green box containing still more stories, to Tasmania to continue our conversation and dance, and to elsewhere on the globe to hear more stories of shared histories and of course, Love Adventures.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Playing it Safe

Despite claiming to be an enlightened hedonist, I’m probably less of a risk taker than I’d like to be. I’ve recently been confronted with this fact as the safe corporate job I’ve had for nearly 29 years is about to come to an end. I find I am left with the same existential angst I experienced when I left college and had to get a job "in the real world.

At that time I had a friend who helped score me a temp job so I could start paying on my student loans – and unpaid tuition. To be frank, I never went to college expecting it to be part of a career path. I majored in Philosophy after all. My joke at the time was that upon graduation I would open a philosophy store. In reality my secret desire was to be a writer – and what better a basis for storytelling than that of exploring the very meaning of life? Such was my justification at the time anyway. 

I got lucky college-wise. A smart kid with immigrant parents, father disabled, living on social security and acceptance at a Liberal Art college which believed (and had an endowment to fund) that anyone accepted should have the necessary aid to attend. Riding the last crest of the baby boom, I was in the last class that was able to take advantage of that policy and the grant money and loans behind it. So why not be a philosopher? 

Unfortunately the economics were changing. I managed to graduate a semester early, which was good since I already couldn’t pay for the last semester. But also meant my transcripts and diploma were held till I could pay up – delaying and ultimately canceling my bids for grad school. I had thought I might become a Philosophy professor, and eyed the University of Chicago as my possible next step. Instead I went home to my parents, now living with my sister, her husband, and five kids in a 4-bedroom house. 

I needed a job. I needed money. The temp gig was perfect, paid well, and oh so much easier than reading Kant. So I played it safe, staying way too long in most positions, taking small promotions along the way with a few low risk opportunities along the way I ended up I a profession I never knew existed, with its own social networks and connections. Twenty-six years later and I’m running the program for the entrepreneurial subsidiary. Two years later they are bankrupt. After a year in bankruptcy their assets are sold, and I’m on a 3-month temporary assignment to help to clean up what’s left. 

I suppose no one ever escapes certain life-changing events. For me though, loosing a job is so new, and very frightening - despite the encouraging words of my friends, or my own reasoned knowledge of the industry. There are opportunities out there. I know it – but I still can’t shake my fears. 

I re-enter the workforce at age 52. Many of my colleagues deeper in the boomer years have opted for early retirement. Companies view me with an eye on how I might impact their insurance group plans and would rather me be a contractor than on the payroll with benefits. I also cannot miss the Gen X and Y colleagues talk about their older luddite peers, technology averse, and reluctant to embrace innovation. I know that doesn't describe me, but my age carries its own stereotypes to overcome. 

I catch myself looking in the mirror wondering if shaving off my grey beard might enable me to pass for post-boom. I’m looking for ways to play it safe, to court another big corporation to pay me a salary in the range I’ve become accustomed to Preferably one with those Cadillac health benefits I only recently came to value. 

I also worry about my digital footprints. Certainly everyone has similar sets of photos from college? CEO’s now go to burning man – so I can’t possible be afraid of some of the things I did, photographed or wrote about? But I fear it just the same. I recently cam across this quote from Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior), "careerism is the most powerful form of censorship in America...self-censorship rooted in fear of the future." It describes my feelings completely. I'm not purging my social media accounts, but I've become more aware of my privacy settings, trying to find the balance of maintaining my authenticity while curbing potential career-harming presumptions. 

Part of me looks back to the college graduate I once was, and says – why not open that Philosophy store? Why not pursue the dreams you once had 30 years ago – after all, you may not get another chance. So the hand wringing begins as I go through the hedonistic machinations trying to determine what will yield the more fulfilling life – find a job that can finance my other pursuits and desires, or just pursue my desires and be creative in how I make them happen? I will likely play it safe (old dogs/new tricks) but the current situation may force me to take a few risks and leaps of faith I might otherwise eschew. 

In the end I'll fall back on my hedonistic principles and craft, from whatever my existential circumstances I end up with, the most fulfilling life I can conceive. That is to keep my mind in the present, surround myself with the people I love and respect, and maybe share glass of cognac as we contemplate the universe together. 


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Still Waiting

Lately my life seems to be in a prolonged intermission. I’m waiting. Soon my current job will come to an end and I will either get an offer for a new job in a new location, or I will be searching for a new job. I thought I would know which by now, but instead, I’m still waiting.

The waiting takes a toll. It’s hard to be a hedonist as waiting is hardly a fulfilling activity. Perhaps if I were waiting as some sort of deferred gratification, some hedonic reward I could feel good about this situation. Unfortunately this particular situation is one that prevents me from planning any future pleasures. “Oh that looks like a great show, when is it?” “Oh, April – I’m not sure where I’ll be in April” and so on.

Fortunately as an enlightened or rational hedonist, I can invoke a bit of the serenity prayer and come to terms that this situation of my employment is, at the moment, beyond my control. All well and good, but it took an evening of contemplative late night ocean gazing (one of my preferred methods of hedonist meditation) to get me to accept it. 

So next on my agenda, is to begin answering the internal questions of “just what can I control” and “what can I do to feel more fulfilled in my life.” There is still plenty of pleasure to be had by engaging with my friends and perhaps flexing a little creative muscle that have nothing to do with my job.

I have 8748 days to live.