Inward focus

I get a bit cranky when driving in certain parts of the greater Grand Rapids area. A road upon which I frequently travel has several places where it widens from two lanes to five or six, and then back to two. This is fine, except for the idiots who pull into the outside lanes and try to speed ahead of the sane drivers. I don’t let them merge; in fact, sometimes I’ll floor it just so they can’t get past me. Petty? Perhaps. I’m probably not teaching them anything, yet it is satisfying.

But self-centeredness is not limited to public thoroughfares.

Some interesting dynamics have been playing out among some friends and family. Nothing specific worth mentioning in a public entry, but I’ve noticed that one theme seems to pervade a lot of the interpersonal challenges recently swirling around me lately — that people get so focused on their own needs and wants that they don’t recognize how much they’re imposing on others. It’s as if they cannot — or will not — look beyond their own preferences and sensibilities to understand that their behaviors are causing problems for others.

A healthy sense of self will, of course, entail some degree of protection for personal proclivities. And no person can be perfectly empathetic all of the time. Nevertheless, it is both astonishing and frustrating that so many otherwise intelligent people seem incapable of stepping outside of their own worldview.

Classmates

The weekend before last, my church celebrated the First Communion of several dozen of our young parishioners. I was in attendance, as the sacristan of the Mass.

After the Mass had concluded, I was attending to the removal of the altar vessels to the sacristy for cleansing when I was stopped by two young women. Two young women who happened to be classmates in high school.

I graduated in 1994 and really didn’t maintain much contact with those people. Partly because I didn’t much like many of my classmates, and partly because I am highly skilled in the art of allowing personal relationships to grow dormant.

Yet, it was a great pleasure to see Anne and Michelle again. Anne had an infant, and Michelle was excessively pregnant with her second.

I’ve seen and heard of other high-school classmates over the years. Many are married (or divorced) and have children. Some have moved on to respectable achievements; others, despite their early promise, have faded into middle-class obscurity.

Makes me feel old.

Rudder amidships

Here’s the million-dollar question: When you feel that you’re being tossed without mercy upon the stormy waves of fate, what do you do?

Over the last two weeks, five of my closest friends have confided some degree of epistemic ennui about their lot in life. To varying degrees, they feel adrift — that they’re not on the right path.

I suppose most people have been similarly situated; I know I have been. With great fascination, I am watching each of these people work through their self-doubt. Each has a different level of self-understanding; each is taking a different approach.

My counsel to most of them has been relatively simple: When you’re lost at sea, sail in a straight line until you find the shore.

It’s interesting, though. I’ve long been of the opinion that contemporary culture and human nature have been increasingly at odds, and that at some point, there will be conflict on a massive scale because of it. The basic human tendency to roam, for example, is more and more limited by the anchors of modern society — things like credit and criminal reports that cannot be outrun, and relationships that linger beyond natural levels. We have built a society intended to elevate us above our base natures, but which has isolated us from most of our instinctive behavior. A correction is inevitable. I think part of a correction occurred during the first half of the last century — genocide and war are rooted as much in psychology as in politics, and the brutality of the Holocaust and the genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda can be explained succinctly in terms of collective outbursts of aggression inexpertly pent-up by modern society.

On a personal level, my friends are struggling with their identity in a world beyond their control. Perhaps, just perhaps, the problem is less with them and more with a society that has grown too far beyond many people’s ability to reconcile.

Gay men love me

Once; coincidence. Twice; perhaps something to think about.

On Good Friday, I was browsing (ultimately unsuccessfully) for new shoes at a local Target store. As I was scanning the shelves for appropriate footwear, a young man — my age, or perhaps a few years younger — walked up to me and asked if I attended Western Michigan University. I suspect that my brown-and-gold “Western Michigan” T-shirt may have been a clue. Long story short, my interlocutor and I spent about 10 minutes talking about absolutely nothing, including the state of WMU’s philosophy program and the sorry state of US-131 in winter, at which point he gave me an inkjet business card and suggested I call him sometime to check on whether there are any “openings” in his self-run business.

OK; perhaps he is young and inexperienced and thought that chit-chatting for 10 minutes in Target’s shoe department is a good way to find new employees. Unlikely, but stranger things have happened. And it’s entirely possible that in the course soliciting these potential new recruits, he thought it prudent to tell nothing about the fabulous opportunities that await potential employees except that he’s in the “health products” industry. Perhaps.

This evening, as I was browsing the book aisle while for groceries at the local Meijer store, another young man approached me and started talking about the weather, launching into five-minute give-and-take about our respective jobs. In this case, though, the young man (probably in his mid-20s) was almost certainly flirting with me. Which was a shame, since he really was quite good looking, and a charming conversationalist to boot.

So … twice in less than a month. I lose 110 pounds, change my personal style, get out more … and I get hit on by gay men.

It’s a good thing I’m easily amused by irony.

Catch-up

Two weeks since the last entry. Two very busy weeks. A few recollections may be in order, in no particular sequence.

1. Today, I completed my annual eye exam. No change to my vision status, but I had an interesting few hours after getting some eyedrops to dilate my pupils so the doctor could check all of my retina. The impact of the drops was such that, with my contact lenses in, I could see just fine at a distance, but things up close were blurry. Since my close-distance vision is better than 20/20 uncorrected (I only need lenses for distance vision), it was quite an experience to be reversed like that.

2. I recently took up running. In January, I ran four miles my first time out (and paid the price for it, with inflammation). I started again two weeks ago, starting more sanely at one mile, then two, then three, then four. Yesterday I ran six miles, the first time at that distance, in about 54 minutes — which isn’t great time, but given that two years ago I couldn’t climb three flights of stairs without becoming winded, this is quite a victory. Although I’m going to be extra-protective of my knees, I’m finding the running to be enjoyable and physically rewarding.

3. My cousin Callista is coming home soon, after spending a year in France teaching English. I look forward to her swift and safe return.

4. Holy Week and Easter are over … and what a relief! I spent about 10 hours at church on Holy Saturday in preparation for the Easter Vigil, not to mention the time spent preparing for Holy Thursday, the Good Friday liturgy, and the extra stuff surrounding Palm Sunday. Holy Week 2006 went well at my parish this year, and I look forward to debriefing with my colleagues on our parish liturgy commission.

5. Work has been interesting. Duane and I are conducting some “getting to know you” meetings with the key management and administrative staff in our division. So far, so good.

Generations

I cut my hand a few days ago while doing the dishes.  No stitches required, although I did take a chunk out of my right hand.  Very bloody … and although it was hardly the end of the world, it was darned inconvenient.

Since my typing ability was curtailed (especially on Friday and Saturday), I spent some time doing a bit of shopping.  One destination was the local mall at Rivertown Crossings.  As I was browsing for books — I ended up buying Milton’s complete poetry, including some Latin stuff — I did some people watching.  I was struck by the increasing sub-specialization of generations.  I have never really identified with a particular generation or social clique, so I don’t have a lot of experience trying to conform to the demands of a particular tribal group.  But that notwithstanding, it’s curious to see how outward appearance is such a strong indicator of social status, and how minor changes of style can fairly clearly signify a narrow age range.

I’m 29 — young enough, I like to think, to recall the early years of my undergraduate experience.  I recall that a person’s appearance helped to define, broadly, his major social group; you could get a basic sense of what kind of person you dealt with depending on whether he wore athletic wear, grunge-style flannel and torn jeans, business-casual attire, etc.  Now, looking at upper-middle-class high-school and early-undergraduate students, I get a sense of just how much more different they are compared to my peer groups at that age.  And it’s not like we’re talking about a million years of separation, either.  There seems to be an increasing specialization of apparel that is, in a broad sense, interesting.  When evaluated with changes in technology (my peers were e-mail whores, whereas preoccupation with instant messaging, SMS notes and community blogging seems to mark today’s youngest adults) and decreasing understanding about the world around them, it seems that there’s a generation shift at work that could potentially rival the Baby Boomer phenomenon.  Not since the ’60s has there been such a complete change of culture within a generation as I think is going on right now.  And the implications of this, if my observations ring true, will rock American society in years to come.

Game design

I’ve already finished an admittedly short — but nevertheless quite fascinating — book called “A Theory of Fun for Game Design” by Raph Koster. The author was one of the creative masterminds behind Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies (popular massively multiplayer online role-playing games).

My friend Duane lent the book to me on Friday. It’s a short read, and the ideas presented weren’t quite what I expected.

The five-cent summary of Koster’s thesis is that games have a proper social function, and the best games are those that teach some sort of real-world skill (e.g., mathematical reasoning or complex pattern recognition) before they become too boring and lose a player’s interest. Effective game design entails keeping the brain sufficiently interested (through varying of the patterns and complexities of play) until the essential lesson or real-world skill is taught.

I recommend the book even to those who have no interest in game design, since Koster spends a fair amount of time discussing psychology and, at times, even evolutionary biology. Good stuff, and applicable far beyond the gaming industry.
I was struck by Koster’s take on the role of multiplayer online games. He made the point, sagely I think, that most games featuring human interactivity — even those explicitly designed to elicit cooperation as a preferred gaming strategy — will work only until there is a critical mass of players who reject the cooperation paradigm. When that happens, a “competition” paradigm logically follows, until the “cooperatists” are forced out (or lose the game). The more competitive types are often motivated by victory-at-any-cost thinking, which explains the prevalence of hacks and cheats for most games.

Koster explains this in terms of the role of games in teaching essential skills, which is rooted in evolutionary biology. Part of being “successful” in a long-term genetic sense is passing along one’s genes, and those mostly likely to do that are those males who are socially dominant and driven by a sense of competition.
Hence, “competition” usually becomes the dominant paradigm, even in games designed to minimize it. This is demonstrated by the ultimate collapse of Ultima Online, and by the tendency in World of Warcraft for high-end players to spend most of their energy fighting other human players. Humans are essentially tribal, and that essence usually bubbles to the surface eventually.
It occurred to me that Koster’s ideas are applicable to other “virtual” hobbies, too. In particular, to online political simulations. I’ve grown frustrated over the years with the inevitable death-spiral of sims: They start full of promise, they work well for a while, then they begin to dissolve when “cheaters” take positions of influence (cheating, loosely defined, as actively resisting the impulse to engage in non-superficial compromise). From there, tribalism asserts itself and the sim last for months (or, in one case, years) of decline until eventually there are no more messages posted and people filter away.

Something else to ponder.

Serendipity

I ran into my second-grade teacher yesterday.  We chatted for a moment; quite pleasant.  She said something that gave me pause, though:  “I always knew you’d be successful.”

Well, now.

I suppose, all things being equal, that I’m not doing too bad.  I have a roof over my head in a rather pleasant apartment complex.  I have clothes to wear, food to eat, and a happy vehicle to drive.  Life is good, I suppose, even though I often wonder about what might be, had I not made certain decisions in my youth.

And yet, decide I did.  And although certain doors were closed to me, others were opened, and I don’t think I have paid sufficient attention to the good while I lamented the bad.

It’s humbling, though, to realize just how much of my background is dependent on sheer luck:

  • The defining aspect of my undergraduate years was my involvement first in the student government at Western Michigan University (the Western Student Association), and then my time at various appointments at the Western Herald.  Yet had it not been for a random call from the WSA chief of operations to join the student government leadership for a retreat (before I had even stepped foot in a classroom as a college student), I never would have participated.
  • My volunteer work at church would never have happened had I not received a casual invitation from the guy who would eventually become our deacon, to join in lay liturgical service.
  • Had it not been for a series of short-term temp jobs, I would not have been qualified for my current job — nor would I have thought that I could do what I’m actually doing.
  • My interest in ethics, the field in which I actually earned my degree, was originally raised through casual conversation about “superenlightened egoism.” 
  • Without my friend Duane, I probably would not have actually done anything — except think wistfully — about my writing.

My comfort is a function of my luck; there is a great deal of truth, methinks, to the “accidental hero” version of history.  Although I have capitalized in certain ways upon the luck that has befallen me, I am acutely aware that I haven’t really earned most of what I have.

I’m lucky.  But at least I know it.

Jason's groupies

This morning, I received a faux-cranky e-mail from my friend and beloved co-worker, Diane, expressing concern that she searched this site for her name only to find no matches.
Well, shame on me for the oversight.  Diane, Diane, Diane. 
And, for the record, Shannon. 
There.  That should do it.

Jason’s groupies

This morning, I received a faux-cranky e-mail from my friend and beloved co-worker, Diane, expressing concern that she searched this site for her name only to find no matches.

Well, shame on me for the oversight.  Diane, Diane, Diane. 

And, for the record, Shannon. 

There.  That should do it.