Tonight, I am about as alive as any person can be

I am wiped out. Tired from a day full of really good things, and tired just thinking about all that tomorrow will bring. My job is wiping me out. And that’s okay. Because I know it is, and I know it does, and it just means I have every right to go to bed early tonight.

The autumn night is humming with insects, the sing-song cadence of their sawing wings and their scraping legs a kind of tinnitus, the high pitch of life that is always there, even when it isn’t.

I am reading again. Travelogues by infamous writers. Accounts of Greece and Italy and France and beyond. Stories of New York and California. All of them inaccurate, all of them true, with the kind of truth you can only wring from someone who isn’t often studied in school.

School. Huh. I saw a bumper sticker on my way home tonight from my weekly neuropsych visit — Learning is natural. School is optional. And I read the words of individuals who turn their nose up at the academy.

I used to think I wanted to earn multiple degrees. Find a stable job teaching at a good school — not necessarily a famous one, but one where I could dig in and grow some roots, live the life of the mind and make a name for myself. A name for myself… as though my own name didn’t matter. As though I were like a tree falling in the forest who wouldn’t make a sound unless thousands upon thousands of others could hear me loud and clear.

A name for myself… I was blind and deaf and dumb, struggling to prove to myself that all the things that were “up” with me didn’t make me less of a person… and losing that battle daily. The one who needed most to hear my fall in the forest was me, but I was so busy trying to convince others, I hardly paid any mind to myself.

And all the while thinking “… this inner life, this secret place within, these thoughts of mine, these sensations and confusions and all of it… this is who I am. This is what I am. This is all I have to work with.”

Far from it, I know now. But when you’re 28, you’re so damned sure… and all the while, no one was listening. I thought – no, I knew. No one was listening.

Then I crossed the country. Twice. In a 14-foot rental truck. The second trip found me in a vehicle the same color and size as the truck that blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, within a week after the attack. I got strange and wary looks on that trip. But I made it. I did my explaining whenever necessary. And I kept moving.

Keep moving… that seems to be the key to my live-liness. Not so much like a shark, as a small bird that must constantly eat to keep its energy up. I move with the cycles, picking up speed when the seasons change, so I can make a smooth transition into the next round of sun or rain or snow or wind or whatever.

And the night is my friend. Most of the time.

Tonight,  I am about as alive as any person can be. I ache like the dickens — I swam the other day, wearing an old suit because I misplaced my new one. The old one didn’t fit me well, but I swam anyway. The first time in months. Now my body aches, and my neck and back crack. Just as well. I needed a reminder that yes, I am here and yes, I am alive. Nothing like a little chilly water to wake up the senses. And remind me, there is more to life than warm weather. Warm water. Warm. Cold has a life of its own, and cold has its place, too.

Hungry does, too. And although I’ve eaten my dinner tonight, alone and on my own for the evening, I’m still hungry. Eager for something else. If I have some sense — and I believe I do — I’ll call it a night and make my way to bed, with a book to keep me company till sleep meets me, or my loved one gets home, whichever comes first.

Tonight, I am about as alive as any person can be. And I realize that I need to have people in my life who are as open to LIFE as I am… people who are as welcoming of the full range of human expression, as I am… people who are as undaunted, and as intentional as I am.  People who press out to the limits of what they are capable of, and find out what’s out there, who aren’t held back by what “should be” or “what is” — according to what others say.

This change in my needs for company has been in the making for the past year or so. It’s been stirring in earnest, for the past few months. And over the past weekend, when I saw a bunch of people I used to work with, I realized that the people I got along best with, were the ones who were the most comfortable with themselves, and the most comfortable with risk and reward. The kind of folks who wring what they can out of life — and themselves — and then come back for more. It’s not that they’re not afraid. Far from it. They simply have a tolerance for the experience of fear. And it’s not the ONLY thing they experience.

And they keep learning. I used to want to spend my life in school. Then I realized my life IS my school. I probably won’t be going after those degrees anytime soon. Life is much too interesting, to spend inside the walls of an institution, telling me what to think and say and how to act. The privileges of membership only compensate for so much.

I found this on YouTube tonight:

Scenes to live by.

Amen.

I’m tired.

Good night.

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A Perilous Relief – Risks I Took that I Barely Escaped

I believe that smart risk-taking should be a learned skill. Danger-seeking may come naturally, early on in life, but it needs to be properly learned, in order to be survivable. History is full of examples of people who either could not or would not learn how to survive their own need for stimulation. Fighter pilots, rock climbers, base jumpers, extreme skiers, stuntmen… and more.

I’ve teetered on the edge myself, and there have been a number of times I came close to being harmed, but miraculously managed to elude disaster. Sometimes it was dumb luck that I got out in one piece, while other times it was the learning from my past experiences that I had to thank for my continued existence.

Social Danger-Seeking

I have always been an assertive, even aggressive, individual, and as a young kid, I had a tendency to engage strangers in conversation and provoke them. I relished the experience of challenging someone to a duel of wits or interacting with people who (I thought) were up to no good. I was a bit of a crusader, when I was a kid, and I had all the best of intentions. The problem was, I usually lacked the ability to successfully negotiate the entire social transaction, and there were a lot of arguments I started but couldn’t finish — or that ended in me being attacked or threatened in some way. Many of them I managed to get out of… barely.

When I was about nine years old, while walking to school, a (female) schoolmate and I were once chased by young (high-school aged) men who drove by in a car. I yelled out to them and baited them, itching for a fight (okay, I wasn’t the brightest kid at times, clearly), and when they pulled the car over and started coming after my schoolmate and me, we were barely able to elude them by hiding in the underbrush. I endangered both myself and my schoolmate, who could have been seriously injured (including raped), as a result of my brash behavior. We both escaped, but I believe the girl’s mother refused to let her walk to school with me, after that. I still feel terrible about the role I played in that scenario.

Throughout my grade school years, I had numerous run-ins with other kids who were bigger and stronger and angrier than I, running my big mouth and pushing limits of our social dynamics, till they struck out at me. On several occasions, my provocation was enough to get me physically attacked, or ganged up on and bullied for an entire year of school. The summer after 6th grade, I chose the wrong kid to take on — they were a year ahead of me in school and they had a lot of friends who were as angry and as aggressive as they — and I spent my whole 7th grade year hiding from this gang with a long and vengeful memory. I didn’t get beaten up, but part of me wishes I had, so they could have gotten their aggression out of their systems. That bullying seriously impeded my social progress for years to come. If I’d only kept my mouth shut, that hot summer day in 1977.

  • At Risk: Personal safety
  • Dangers: Interpersonal strife, Attack/assault
  • Rewards: Heightened sense of self, thrills, sense of adventure
  • Outcome(s): Quarrels and altercations, social “near misses”, Narrow escape from possible assault

A few years later, as a rebellious teenager, I was also a trouble-maker who drank and smoked and challenged authority for no better reason other than to do it. I sold drugs out of my high school locker, I bought and sold liquor out of the trunks of cars, and I brazenly tucked my pack of cigarettes in the sleeve pocket of my winter coat, not caring who saw — even my coaches and teachers. I sneaked beer into school, in my gym bag and drank it in the bathroom before first period. I drank — and drove drunk — on back roads, and I ran with a pretty rough crowd of drug dealers, thieves, and felons-to-be. I was never in trouble with the law, however, and I eluded detection for the most part. The times when I was detected by authorities, I got off with a warning. I’m frankly amazed, at times, that I didn’t end up in juvie hall, for all the crap I pulled off. I think the fact that my parents were respectable, church-going members of their segment of society got me off the hook, and a lot of adults around me weren’t looking at me very closely, because — as a “brain” — they were more concerned with my oddly substandard grades than my social/behavior problems, and they didn’t want me to have a record. But if someone had just looked a little more closely, they would have found a lot of misdemeanors and actual felonies I was committing without so much as a moment of hesitation.

  • At Risk: Social standing, reputation, relationship with authority figures, health, well-being, future prospects, academic performance, personal and interpersonal maturation
  • Dangers: Trouble with authorities, worsening reputation, legal action (arrest), physical harm from dangerous associates
  • Rewards: Thrills, sense of adventure, financial reward, social reward (from socially marginal associates and “customers”), relief from social pressure to conform, defiant independence, self-assertion
  • Outcome(s): Drinking problems, reduced academic performance, social alienation, health problems, poor relations with authority figures

When I was a junior in college, I went to Europe for a semester abroad. I purchased a one-way ticket to Switzerland and borrowed $1,000 from a family member, not having any idea how I was going to make ends meet in Europe… or even pay for my way home. While overseas in the European Union (where non-EU residents are effectively barred from ‘taking jobs from Europeans’), I managed to land a job working for an American expatriate, and although I was really struggling with getting along there, I stayed on and turned a semester into a multi-year stay. I never managed to complete my college degree, but I got an unparalleled education in living an independent life.

  • At Risk: Personal safety, future professional prospects
  • Dangers: Personal harm, financial difficulties
  • Rewards: Sense of accomplishment, self-esteem, improved professional outlook, lots of great stories, good life experience
  • Outcome(s): Several years overseas, unique take on life thanks to my time abroad

These are just a few examples of how I’ve courted danger, socially, throughout my childhood and young adulthood. There were a lot more instances than that, but the bottom line is, I have a lifelong history of taking social risks.

Physical Danger-Seeking

I also took physical risks, when I was younger. As a teenager, I was a tree climber, and I often climbed well above where it was safe to go. I well remember the sensation of climbing 50 feet up, into the uppermost branches, which sagged and swayed beneath me, creaking and threatening to break beneath me. I persisted in climbing higher, even when my heart was in my throat and my pulse was pounding and my head knew it was not safe to go any further up. I only fell once; after that, I stopped climbing trees. Lesson learned.

  • At Risk: Physical safety and well-being
  • Dangers: Falling from great heights, being injured while alone in the woods
  • Rewards: Sense of adventure, ability to remove myself from the rest of the world, sense of accomplishment, self-esteem
  • Outcome(s): Solitude and solace, minor injury

Interestingly, at the same time that I was acting out with drugs and alcohol and challenging authority as a teenager, I was also a medal-winning athlete who was a team captain on several sports, and I lettered each season in my chosen area. In my quest for excellence, I routinely pushed the limits of my physical endurance and really punished my body, driving it relentlessly beyond its capabilities. I played injured, time and again, and even when I got hit hard and was slow getting up — in retrospect, I now understand that I sustained multiple concussions throughout my high school sports activities — I was back in the game, keeping on keeping on. All that mattered, was the game.

  • At Risk: Health and safety, physical well-begin
  • Dangers: Injuries, concussions, mild TBI
  • Rewards: Social approval, team membership, medals and ribbons, heightened social status, sense of accomplishment, self-esteem
  • Outcome(s): Longstanding health concerns due to injuries, acquired tendency to ignore warning messages from my injured body and “play injured” in other aspects of life

When I was sixteen, while traveling with my family across the country, after a whole day in the car, I got out and literally sat on the edge of the Grand Canyon, with nothing other than my sense of balance keeping me from plunging hundreds of yards down to a rocky death. After being in that close space with all my siblings, rolling across the countryside with no break, no respite, no escape from the noise and din of my family, I was so out of it, so stir-crazy, so aching for a little fresh air, I actually literally sat on the edge of an abyss. I didn’t even realize what I was doing, until a little while had passed, my head had cleared, and I’d gotten enough of an adrenaline “pump” to realize where I was. It really made no sense for me to do that — I am mortally afraid of heights, including precipitous drops to a canyon floor hundreds of yards below. But I needed that little while, perched on the verge of my own destruction, to bring me back to my senses. Once I had them back, and I realized where I was,  I got up very slowly, I can tell you.

  • At Risk: Physical safety
  • Dangers: Plunging to my death in the Grand Canyon
  • Rewards: Relief from being cooped up in a loud vehicle, getting away from everyone (who didn’t dare come near the edge)
  • Outcome(s): Cleared my head… but also realized I was perched on the brink of an abyss

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents


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A Perilous Relief – Risks I Took that Turned out Well

In 1995, I hated my friggin’ job. I had the odious task of playing a middle-management role in a law firm that was quickly headed downhill. I spent the lion’s share of my time running interference for support staff who were just trying to do their jobs, keeping the insecure and power-hungry administration from running roughshod over them, just for the sake of reminding them who was the boss.

Ironically, it was the kind of job I hadn’t wanted to take. I had sworn for years that I didn’t want to work in the legal profession, having developed a strong distaste for lawyers and hair-splitting as a line of work over a number of years of doing legal secretarial work. But when I relocated to a small city and I needed to find work asap, my legal background enabled me to land a job almost immediately, so I took the position despite my better judgment. (I’ll add more on this sort of professional decision-making later.)

Earlier in my life, I had aspired to being a published author. I had penned many an article and short story and poem, and even two novels, but I wasn’t having any luck getting published on a large scale. So, when the world wide web was picking up speed, I realized that I could publish myself electronically by building a website that featured my writing. I did so, and I loved it. The act of building web pages was such a departure from my workaday administrative world, that it gave me a much-needed reprieve. When I coded pages, I was creating something, not just running interference. And I could see the results immediately.

I built another website. Then another. I started to look at the source code of the pages I was building, and I realized I could code them by hand, instead of with the WYSIWYG editor that was mucking up my display. Long story short, in the space of about a year, studying technical manuals on public transit on the way to work, and practicing my chops on the weekends, I knew how to code well enough to go looking for paid work building websites.

I changed careers. I went from being administrative/middle management, to being a technical producer and engineer. To some, it would seem like a significant change, and it was. Even more significant was the fact that I went from being a salaried employee at one of the region’s top law firms, to being a “temporary” contractor who was paid by the hour and didn’t have full benefits. And I had a household to support.

Ditching full-time permanent employment in favor of hourly independent contractor work is, by modern standards, something of a risk. Some might say it’s a substantial one. I think it was. The world wide web was still young, people hadn’t yet widely embraced email, and there was no guarantee that there was any future at all in building websites. As far as my family was concerned, it was a wild stab in the dark… a pretty risky gamble. But I had a hunch that it was going to be big – and there would be substantial reward waiting for me, if I just hung in there.

Fortunately for me, I was right. And over the course of my professional web development/software engineering years, starting in 1997, I routinely took chances with my work, pushed the envelope of what code could do, embraced new technologies, defied organizational politics, and generally refused to play the games that most corporate climbers did. Due — at least in part — to my brash (some would say rash) eagerness to test limits and get away with it, my income ballooned dramatically. I was one of the few people who would willingly and eagerly take on “impossible” tasks… and deliver. I would wade into a bee’s nest of cranky engineers and pissy managers and emerge with the proverbial honeycomb of a successful implementation. I thought outside the box. I inspired people with my devil-may-care can-do attitude and my code-ninja moxy. I brought home my projects on time and on budget. I was the go-to person if you were in an impossibly tight spot. The company where I worked rewarded me well, even through the tough times after the dot-com bust. Especially through those times. For I was one of the people who could keep a clear, cool head in the face of impending disaster and come up with inventive solutions when all seemed lost.

Thanks to the favor of my employer, I entered the ranks of the world’s top 25%, financially speaking. I was able to buy a great house with a great view in a highly desirable community. I have two cars in the garage and a resume that reads like a best-practices guide for Getting Ahead In Technology.

When it comes to risks I took that turned out well, my gambits in the domain of the world wide web are the most shining examples of just how well things can turn out.

At Risk: My career path and job prospects, health benefits, welfare/survival of my household
Dangers: Unemployment, socio-economic marginalization, domestic uncertainty
Rewards: Higher pay, participation in cutting-edge technologies
Outcome(s): Higher standard of living, solid track record in profession

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents


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