West of Tomorrow Interview

West of Tomorrow Interview

Blake Martin: Okay. So let’s start with the title, West of Tomorrow. It sounds symbolic?

Dirk Sayers:    Very much so. There are several fully developed characters in the story and each in their own way is on the cusp of life-changing decisions, ethical, personal or spiritual. Insofar as the sun “rises” in the east, bringing with it  new choices, as we face those choices from somewhere west of the sunrise, they approach us from east to west. We can see them coming, on a clear day, but most of us resist making hard decisions until we must. So it is with the principle characters in West of Tomorrow.

BM: So readers should expect a thought-provoking, spiritual read?

DS: Yes. This is a story with a fair amount of layered symbolism. The unfolding story follows Clay Conover through his own deeply personal decisions and most perceptive readers find themselves reflecting on their own decisions and the collective decisions facing all of us with regard to our society and our place in it.

BM: So what’s the story about?

DS: West of Tomorrow is a contemporary tale of corporate intrigue, betrayal, misplaced love and the phoenix that lives in all of us. It follows six pivotal months in the life of Clay Conover, a re-careered Marine officer turned corporate trainer as he confronts personal and professional issues in a multi-faceted crisis of identity and direction.

BM: Sounds like a comeback tale.

DS: On multiple levels. Clay has unresolved issues from his past and while he’s pretty much figured out where he wants to go from where he is, he has an unexpected distraction that gets in his way that will affect his life at all levels.

BM: Distraction in the form of?

DS: A younger and hyper-ambitious Sheera Prasad, who has been hired by the COO at corporate as another trainer. Clay is tasked with bringing her up to speed, pushing them together in close contact. They hit it off almost immediately, but unfortunately, Sheera has a hidden agenda antithetical to Clay’s own ambitions. And unlike Clay, Sheera has sponsorship in the corporate office and the advantage of surprise.

BM: So it doesn’t go well for Clay?

DS: At first it actually goes quite well, despite leading in an inappropriate relationship between Sheera and Clay.

BM: That misplaced love you referred to earlier?

DS: Yes. A steamy affair grows out their intense mutual attraction, leading inevitably to a growing attachment on both sides. The reader gets a glimpse of both characters’ thoughts, so you’re really not sure how this is going to play out until both Clay and Sheera are cornered by the decisions they’ve been putting off.

BM: With a crisis to follow?

DS: Very much so. And the decisions they make prove fateful for both.

BM: Not an action story, then.

DS: Not in the traditional sense, no. If you’re in the mood for a tale of high adventure, this isn’t your story, at least not now. There are several chapters that are kinetic in that Clay is an accomplished surfer and skier, but most of what’s going on in this story happens at the philosophical and spiritual levels.

BM: Why did you write West of Tomorrow?

DS: It was certainly part self-expression. It’s a Boomer’s story, taking the reader through our times and the ethical, personal and professional dilemmas of our time. It’s almost a cliché today, to suggest that change is the lei motif of our Age, but I think it’s nature is lost on most of us. The Industrial Revolution, for example, was period of similarly great change, but stretched out over a longer period of time. In the second decade of the 21st Century, the rate of change is so compressed, it feels to many of us like it is increasing exponentially. Furthermore, it is distributed unequally. It’s happening faster in some places than others, which has resulted at least in part in the split in perceptions that we see geographically. A perception gap, if you will.

BM: The left and right coasts versus the heartland, you mean?

DS: Well that’s the most stark difference, but it’s present almost everywhere, depending on your access to and interest in advancing technology and scientific discovery. If you’re keeping up with it on a meaningful level, it affects your perception of what you consider moral and what you consider necessary. If you’re not plugged into it, you’re still seeing things in fundamentally different ways. Morally, politically socially, you’re seeing the world more through the lens of binary choices, whereas if you’re plugged in and sensitive to change, nuance is less likely to be lost on you, affecting how you see most everything. From a social perspective, I see this as one of our greatest challenges, going forward.

BM: Even before I read the book, I noticed a decided similarity between the protagonist and the author. Is this a veiled autobiography?

DS: No. The similarities between Clay Conover and Dirk Sayers aren’t accidental, insofar as a lot of the lessons of life I’ve learned are an outgrowth of my experiences. But Clay has had experiences I haven’t and I’ve had experiences Clay hasn’t.

BM: So the reader should not be thinking author’s opinions when they’re in Clay’s head?

DS: Not in all cases. I use several characters as platforms for my thought. West of Tomorrow seeks to angle toward empathy across the board. No one in the book is perfect or even “best,” whatever that means. So the reader gets the benefit of several points of view over the course of the story.

BM:I noticed. Do you have a favorite character?

DS: Aanya Steward, without question. She is a delicious blend of spirituality, sensuality, self-awareness and perceptive kindness that it’s really hard not to fall in love with. She would literally take over the story if she was in it throughout, I think.

BM: Second favorite?

DS: Clay, of course. He is the one who speaks most consistently for me and he’s at the core of the story. West of Tomorrow is definitely Clay’s journey.

BM: Is there a takeaway theme?

DS: Finding your own way in an Age of runaway change. Whether we like it or not, we’re in the midst of changes that are sweeping away most of the comfortable, pat answers we had to the age old problems of our place in society and the universe.

BM: The ending is very satisfying and hopeful. Is this a stand-alone novel or a should we expect something to follow?

DS: I think there’s room for a follow-up. I would definitely like to work with Sheera, some more. She’s not the most admirable character in the story, but she was among the most fun to write and I’d like to develop her a bit more.

BM: But no plans for a follow-on at this point?

DS: No. I have a couple of other series I’m working on.

BM: Oh? What?

DS: I’m currently working on the second volume of the Nyra Westensee series. The first volume is Best Case Scenario, a tale of a millennial woman just out of college working through personal and professional identity issues.

BM: Is Best Case Scenario out?

DS: It is and currently available on Amazon like West of Tomorrow in both Kindle and paperback.

BM: You said you have a couple series you’re working on. What’s the other?

DS: I recently got Tier Zero, Volume I of the Knolan Cycle back from the editor and am in  the process of applying my editor’s suggestions.

BM: Tier Zero. Has kind of science fiction sound to it.

DS: You would be right about that. Tier Zero is a tale of first contact between Knola and Earth. The twist, if you will, is that first contact actually happened about 30 years ago and no one other than the Knolans are aware of it. Now their Seed are waking up and the secret will soon be out, with monumental consequences for all.

BM: Are the Knolans good guys or bad guys?

DS: Not quite that simple.

 

BM: How soon do you expect it out?

DS: I expect to publish it toward the end of this year. If your listeners are curious, they can get the first three chapters in my anthology of short fiction entitled Through the Windshield, Drive-by Lives. It contains stories previously published elsewhere, as well as teases from both West of Tomorrow and Best Case Scenario. It’s really a good way to get an idea of how you’ll like what I write, for anyone on the fence.

BM: All available on Amazon?

DS: All available on Amazon, in paperback and Kindle formats.

BM: Great! Thanks, Dirk. Any other news?

DS: For anyone interested in keeping up to date on writings and readings, they can subscribe to my “Updates” on dirksayers.com.

BM: dirksayers.com. Thanks again, Dirk.

DS: Thank you!

 

Interview with Nyra Westensee

Candid Interview with Nyra Westensee

Tina Lavereau: It’s my pleasure to welcome Nyra Westensee, the heroine of Best Case Scenario to our proverbial hot seat. Welcome, Nyra.

Nyra: Thanks for inviting me.

Tina: How did Dirk wind up telling your story?

Nyra: I met him in a coffee shop one afternoon, while he was working on a short story he subsequently got published. It was really crowded so I sat across from him in the only empty chair in the whole place and we wound up BSing. He started asking questions. About an hour in, he asked me if he could write a series based on me and my experiences.

Tina: When he told you he wanted to write your story, what was your first reaction?

Nyra: (Laughs) I don’t remember exactly, but as I recall, I looked at him and said something incredibly profound like “Really?” That’s when he locked me up with those gunsight eyes of his and I realized he was serious. That’s when I started getting queasy.

Tina: But you went ahead with it, ultimately.

Nyra: (Rolls her eyes and smiles) Yeah, I did.

 Tina: Why?

Nyra: Uh…have you met Dirk?

Tina: Briefly.

Nyra: Then maybe you’ll just have to take my word for it this one, but let’s just say Dirk can be…persuasive.

Tina: (laughs). Are you happy with the outcome?

Nyra: Totally. We made a deal. I’d tell the story, he’d write it, adding any artistic and thematic twists he thought my story suggested. Then he agreed to run it by me before he published it. We had a few…animated…discussions, but I was pleasantly surprised at how sympathetically he told my story. He’s an incredible listener and way more empathetic than I expected for a retired Marine. He’s also scary perceptive. But I’m glad I did it.

Tina: So you’d do it again?

Nyra: I’ve already promised to do it again.

Tina: Will the sequel becoming out soon?

Nyra: It may be a while. You’d have to ask Dirk.

Tina: On the surface of things, you seem to have a great relationship with your mother and brother. But as one reads the story, it feels like there’s a lot going on below the surface?

Nyra: Not much that isn’t going on above the surface.

Tina: Come on, Nyra!

Nyra: Okay, look. I know where you’re going with this, and it’s true, Mom and I in particular have had our moments. But she’s still Mom to me, and maybe the strongest woman I know. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have achieved as much as I have, this early. I just love her to pieces and I owe her so much.

Tina: How did she react to the book?

Nyra: (Blushes) Oh my god! When I started reading the galleys, I had this out-of-control panic attack over how she would take some of it. It’s so intensely personal, in places, and I almost told Dirk he was going to have to use a pseudonym for me or I wouldn’t let him publish it.

Tina: What changed your mind?

Nra: (Smiles conspiratorially) You remember me saying earlier Dirk could be really persuasive? That man could sell suspenders to snake! He gave me one of his looks and told me to think of it as a declaration of independence.

 Tina: And that worked?

Nyra: Sort of. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t still walking on eggshells when Mom started reading it.

Tina: What about Kip? How’d he take it?

Nyra: (Smiles fondly.) Kip’s so mellow. I can say anything to him and know we’ll always be tight. He’d chase the devil into hell to drag me back to safety. As long as we can stop for a beer on the way back.

Tina: Quite an endorsement!

Nyra: Look, we’re human and we have our human moments. We don’t have to be perfect…we just have to be there when it matters for each other. Kip always is.

Tina: Can I get personal, for a minute?

Nyra: Depends. How personal?

Tina: Cringingly personal?

Nyra: Oh God! (Giggles) What the hell. Can’t be any more cringy that those sessions with Dirk. Go for it!

Tina: Apart from your search for yourself professionally and family issues, Best Case Scenario takes a fairly deep dive into your sexuality. What’s it like to hang the details out there?

Nyra: (Frown dissolves into a smile). It probably won’t surprise you that those details were at the heart of my panic attack. And I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to it being a little…okay, a lot…awkward sharing all those really intimate, personal details…which he embellished. And when I read the galleys, I felt so…exposed. But to be honest, it’s also been freeing. I mean, once it’s out there, it’s out there and all the people closest to me have been so down with it. And the truth is, it becomes old news really fast, even for the obsessively curious. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The biggest changes has been my personal understanding of who I am and what that means. On balance, all very positive things.

Tina: So, what have you been up to lately? Anything new going on in your life?

Nyra: Well, I’ve been trying some new things to expand my horizons personally. One of the things I did was take up surfing and I can’t believe what a rush it is!

Tina: Surfing?

Nyra: I know, right? I started out on a longboard…riding the teeny-weenies at Old Man’s…it’s a mellow reef break just north of the old San Onofre nuclear power plant. Stood up the first day. I’ve been dropping down in length ever since and my new favorite board is my five-five Channel Islands twin fin, but I’m still hanging on to my Donald Takayama nose rider. And I’m saving up for a trip to Hawai’i next year and thinking about have a custom board shaped. I’m going to have a world-traveler quiver, at the rate I’m going.

Tina: Really into it, are you?

Nyra: Way! Sometimes I have to fend off all the surf dogs trying to pick me up while I’m trying to surf, but…(Shrugs) It’s manageable and to be honest, it has some upside. It’s really good for the ego. But now that Tai and I are a thing, they leave me alone.

Tina: Wait a minute. Tai? Your current boyfriend? I didn’t know…is it serious?”

Nyra: Who knows? You’d have to ask Tai…

Tina: How do we get in touch with him?

Nyra: You don’t!

Tina: But you said…

Nyra: Forget what I said! At least for now.

Q: Oh, all right. Everything good at work?

Nyra: Yeah, it’s going well. I’m going to get a crack at being an APM for a new project we’re taking on at Symondson. Denise has paired me up with an experienced Project Manager who’s going to mentor me. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity.

Tina: So on balance, life is good?

Nyra: It really is. (Nyra looks thoughtful). I’m guessing there will still be bumps. Just about the time things get comfortable, shit happens. (Grins) I’ll just have to deal with it when it comes. But I’ll worry about that when it happens!

Tina: Thanks for making time for us, Nyra.

Nyra: You got it!

Nyra Westensee

Act II of Nyra’s Journey is due out in late 2019 or early 2020. 

Time and Tides

Change and Conflict...

Is there anything quite as disorienting as change we can neither predict nor fully understand? Maybe…perhaps even probably. But for most of us, it’s right up there. In West of Tomorrow, change, both personal and professional is a pervasive theme for the principal characters in the story.

There are several themes at work in West of Tomorrow, but ultimately, all of them either have their origins in change or are in the need for profound change to “fix” what’s wrong. When we catch up with Clay Conover, the first character we meet in the novel, we learn he’s a Vietnam era re-careered Marine officer turned corporate trainer.

With a distinguished record as an officer and self-evident competence in his new career, everything seems to be on track for Clay. He has his ghosts, personal and professional, but who doesn’t? And on balance, he’s got it all handled and hardly anyone he meets sees him anything but balanced, thoughtful and pretty together.

His successful navigation, from senior leadership in the military to responsible mentor in the private sector demonstrate both his adaptability and and admirable innate competence. But in common with many of us, Clay has unfinished business lurking beneath the surface.

What happens when several unsettling events come together all at once to cast a shadow on Clay’s prospects for tomorrow? Will the awakened ghosts from his past short circuit his future? The triggers of memory, we are reminded, have the power to inflict pain or bestow peace…and paradoxically, sometimes both at once.

The Last High Tide

In a chapter entitled The Last High Tide, we find Clay in the throes of an intensely personal transition, forced to confront not simply his own fallibility, but issues he’s spent his life avoiding. Tectonic changes , personal and professional have left him with little to hang onto. How does he reinvent himself at this late stage of his life? Exhausted from thinking about it, Clay awakens from a dream he doesn’t want to have. A raging thirst drives him to his refrigerator for a bottle of water, when he notices the shadows of leaves, dancing across his balcony, in the moonlight.

Walking out on his balcony, Clay hears the distant thunder of surf, even above the offshore winds through the trees and a snippet of a poem he wrote years ago wafts into his mind.

                                  And I thought I heard the sea, as I used to, 

                                 Each time as the first time, far-off, new…

There’s nothing to stop him now. He has nowhere he must be, today. And sometimes, he tells himself, when the going gets tough, the tough go surfing. Deep down, the reader suspects Clay is unconsciously avoiding or at least postponing the work he dreads doing. But is this something he needs to do, or is this a character flaw springing up?

After all, it isn’t a foregone conclusion that Clay will get through this. Neither his successes in combat, nor his subsequent accomplishments in peace are at best imperfect predictors of his ultimate fate. Not unlike the turning of the tide, Clay is painfully aware of all of this. While he’s out there surfing, it’s clear that it claims his full attention.

Clay Conover Exits the Zen Zone (Photo Courtesy of Jeremy Bishop & Unsplash).

But like all postponements, it’s only temporary. On the beach, Clay pauses after a nostalgic session in the waves to reflect on an activity that has been part of his life, identity and sanity—and senses it may be over.

Clay time-warped thirty years. The waves felt the same, and the men sharing them could have been the guys he’d surfed with in the seventies. Even the longer hair was back. He thought of his trips to Mexico, of the trips he and Natalie had taken to the Islands and the kinetic oneness with self and life that seemed to animate every surfer he’d ever known.

It had been Clay’s one bastion of rebellion—his defiance of a “system” his service helped support, while he tried not to see it’s dark side. Surfing had helped keep him young, he guessed—a partial antidote for the gnawing misgivings about the life he’d chosen. But in the end, it had called attention to the contradiction between what he did and who he was. Clay’s laughed, inwardly. Really? he thought. And who the hell are you? That most personal of all Koans, again—never quite solved. Is self-awareness a curse or a blessing?

Back at his car, Clay shrugged out of his wet suit and pulled on his sweat pants and t-shirt. After locking his board in the car, he walked back to the beach to watch.

They’re better than I was at their age, he thought. While he watched, the offshores subsided, reversed, and conditions deteriorated quickly.

Thirty years ago, he’d spent many weekends here—first alone, later with his wife, and later still with his daughter. Jayna had learned to surf half a mile down the beach at Old Man’s and Dog Patch. As he watched, the outrunning tide exposed more of the red algae-coated rocks.

What twists the gut like endings? (Photo courtesy of Jamie Davies & Unsplash).

Clay lingered, reluctant to leave—sensing that when he left this time, he might never return. The incoming afternoon tide would erase his footprints and all memory of him. He’d become just one more of countless others who surfed here, once. What does it matter? he wondered. He had no answer—but it did matter.

On the horizon, a hazy bank of silver-gray clouds heralded an impending change in the weather. It would rain tomorrow, or the next day, as the low that had spawned the waves moved in.

The sea breeze stirred up an eddy of sand around his feet as he turned, heading for his car, his silent home and whatever might be left of his life.

In this moment, Clay senses he’s at a crossroads. Whether he will ever return to the ocean as a surfer and commune with it, Clay’s life has been changed in ways that will be profound and permanent. Change in itself isn’t bad and most of us recognize this. But when it’s laced with uncertainty and the fears that often go along with it, the uncertainties can be unnerving or even paralyzing and we are defined by our responses both to those fears and the paralysis that may accompany it.

Intuitively, Clay recognizes this, and nothing drives this lesson home like the memories prowling his condo, reminding him of his past. Confronted with what’s left of what was once a life of promise, he finds no escape from the necessary steps of self-examination, acknowledgement of his human failures.Will he grow and overcome them, or be overwhelmed by them?

Readers who have confronted the sneaky realities of fallibility, mortality and bittersweet angst of aging can relate, especially in our age of runaway change and shifting paradigms. Where exactly are we, when we’re half an hour West of Tomorrow? A tentative answer lies on the pages of this evocative tale of corporate intrigue, betrayal, misplaced love and the phoenix living all of us.

West of Tomorrow is available from Amazon, in paperback and Kindle formats.

The “Fine Art” of Ghosting

The Woes of Full Employment...

Recently, I ran across a post on Linked In, noting an uptick in candidates for employment and already employed workers ghosting their employers or would-be employers. Bernie Reifkind, the author of the article is a recruiting executive in the greater Los Angeles area. It was a short post, comparatively,  decried the inherent discourtesy and lack of professionalism in bailing on a scheduled interview, or simply bailing on work without warning after employed. A Washington Post article recently appeared, noting the same phenomenon. 

The Urban Dictionary defines ghosting as “cutting off all communications with friends, or a date with no warning.” (I’ve paraphrased for brevity) Let me get my position out up-front. No, I don’t approve, not that my opinion matters. 

As Dr. Jennifer Vilhauer points out in her Psychology Today article, “The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.”

We could debate whether Dr. Vilhauer’s observation is true for all values, not to mention whether we think employees should love their employers, but for now, let’s just acknowledge whether it’s an individual or an organization, there’s an inherent wrong in “ghosting.”

The Vanished...

And at an intuitive level, I think most of us would agree with Dr. Vilhauer, at least as it relates to personal matters. What’s worse than our cries of joy/elation or tears of disappointment/sorrow being greeted with stony silence? Zap! You don’t exist.

In the Linked In post to which I referred, earlier Bernie ended with the question; “Am I missing something?” I was moved to respond because it folds into one of the themes in West of Tomorrow. There are character limitations on Linked In, so I was obliged to edit it down. My extended response follows here.

The Fading Phenomenon

No, Bernie you’re not missing something, we all have. This is a collective phenomenon in the creation of which virtually all of us have participated. From a business perspective, ghosting is the logical result of decades of misuse of the men and women to whom in large measure companies owe their success. Most everyone with a Linked In profile has been a corporate drone, at some point in their career or another…or has cynically used corporate drones for their own professional purposes.

I don’t make this observation pejoratively. It’s what we were taught by the “higher-ups” in our organization, themselves cowtowing to the money/power junkies cynically running a game they patiently rigged to their advantage over decades. Merciless rounds of down-sizing, right-sizing, re-engineering, reorganizing all in the name of wringing another fractional percentage out of margins while executive salaries spiraled through the overhead. At some point, most people got the non-verbal message we were sending collectively. YOU DON’T MATTER. What you do for us matters.

What’s artfully camouflaged in both Mr. Reifkind’s post and many of the responses to it is the role organizations have played in legitimizing ghosting. To be clear, ghosting isn’t new and it isn’t an organizational phenomenon. Most of us have had people drop out of our lives without warning. But the ghosting of organizations is relatively new. In my opinion, part of employees’ (and prospective employees’) comfort with the practice is the logical result of long-term, organizational power plays at employees’ expense. Organizations have reaped what they’ve sown.

In West of Tomorrow, one of the book’s recurring themes is the fusion of the sweeping paradigm shifts of our age greed, both personal and organizational. Repeatedly, we see examples of men and women taking opportunistic advantage of situations proximal to those changes, cynically and in ways that are hard to justify, ethically. In one passage, the protagonist, (Clay Conover) discusses with an old friend and former professor, Dr. Mastrovik.

 

In the conversation above, Clay confronts his own, unconscious role in perpetuating a system in which the little guy’s role is downplayed and the (hypothetically) more important powers that be remain the litmus test of both contribution & legitimacy. But wherever we are in the organizational ladder, if we’re honest with ourselves,  most of us recognize we ride to victory on the collective efforts of our brothers and sisters working toward the same goals. The rewards systems do not reward us equally, and perhaps that’s okay.

But from time to time, we should be asking ourselves if it’s (at least) equitable. If it isn’t we should not be surprised when our treatment of our employees come back haunt us. What do you think and what has been your role in promoting a sustainable, reward system within your own organization?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, before. In the midst of a discussion with someone you thought you knew really well, it suddenly goes sideways. You learn they have a “blind spot” where their logic or education should be.

Because you’re invested in them, you want to set them straight, so you start making your case. They push back. Their resistance to logic &/or legitimate evidence is nothing short of breathtaking and nothing you say gets through. They counter with something you know isn’t true, but the more you try to set them straight, the more inclined they are to drop anchor. Been there, done that? We all have, I suspect.

For the same reason we as a species argue endlessly over (for example) the ontological mysteries of the universe or where to go for dinner tonight, we’re going to differ over virtually everything on which two or more strong opinions are possible. (In other words, pretty much everything).

Decision time…fight it out or let it go. If you’re like me, you’re not entirely happy with this binary choice, thinking we can have a “discussion.” But if you’re dealing with, say, motivated cognition, we could be at it a very long (and probably inconclusive) discussion.

Whether it’s the precise nature of “God,” however we choose to define it or what actually happened at the CIA compound in Benghazi, our beliefs have everything to do with how we see ourselves, our relationship with the Universe, truth and each other. Most of us have reasons for believing what we believe and…again, for most of us…those reasons are often hidden, nuanced and multi-sourced.

During the course of that discussion we were talking about earlier, did you feel that hot rush in your gut, or that self-righteous anger over (you fill in the blank)? That’s your emotion and your motivated cognition kicking in. You’re about to make a fool of yourself. I know…I do it all the time.

In the wake of  the 2018 elections, I’ve come to remember what I once knew, in my previous professional incarnation as a Marine officer. Opinions are not the measure of our worth. Behaviors are. We were not perfect when we took our first breath, and chances are we won’t be when we take our last.

But we can each day and every day, work to be the best versions of ourselves. Like it or not, we are defined by our actions. While opinions and facts matter, what we do with them is what matters most. Including knowing when to look someone in the eye and end a conversation with “We’ll have to agree to disagree.”  Civility and the recognition of our own imperfections is the beginning of wisdom. Arguing long after you’ve both stopped listening is…well, you decide.

Thank you for your service…

The last full measure of devotion...

With Veteran’s Day coming up, I’m bracing for the inevitable “thank you for your service” I get every year. It’s always an awkward moment, for me. I usually respond with something like: “It was my honor to serve…” (it was, btw. And I’d do it again).

But this year, I have an idea how you can honor all those who served and still serve, as well as do your civic duty in a more general way. VOTE! It has never been more important. On the ballot, this November are a host of issues that should matter to every human of good faith. An incomplete list of those issues follows.

  1. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Senator McConnell has opined these should be on the block, in the next session because of the balooning deficit the Republican tax cuts largely favoring the wealthy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are largely responsible for. In response to which, they’re coming after your grandmother’s Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid which in part funds opioid addiction interventions? Oh and just for the record. Those veterans you’re going to thank this Veterans’ Day? Most of them get part of their healthcare from Medicare, when they retire.
  2. Immigration and Border Security. All BS aside, most reasonable U.S. citizens believe in border security and some kind of controls on immigration. Mr. Trump’s yammering notwithstanding, Democrats are no exception. But what human with the sense to avoid falling over backwards in the toilet thinks a wall is the answer?
  3. Voter Suppression. Georgia, Kansas and North Dakota come to mind. In all cases, it’s clearly intended to disenfranchise people of color, but perhaps most egregious in my mind is the North Dakota case. If any ethnic group has a right to expect they would not be disenfranchised it must be Native Americans. But recent voter ID laws clearly calculated to target them and suppress their voice.
  4. Foreign Policy. It’s a dirty little secret most U.S. citizens would prefer to ignore, but U.S. policy regarding Saudi Arabia’s fratricidal war in Yemen is tacitly permitting a humanitarian crisis even more acute than the one in Syria. Quite apart from being a fairly transparent accomplice in genocide, no thoughtful expert in the area of international geopolitics of whom I’m aware thinks much of his policies. As a retired Marine officer who spent the last half of his career involved in strategic and operational planning, I feel comfortable giving Mr. Trump the prize for strategic ignorance. George the Second was a close second, but he listened (sometimes to his sorrow) to others with more experience.
  5. Income inequality. The tax cuts failed miserably and if you see who arrays on each side of raising the minimum wage, it’s pretty clear that his protestations to the contrary, Mr. Trump and his Republican enablers are on the side of big business, not the average man, woman or child on the street. (Examples).
  6. Corruption. To date, Tom Price Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Scott Pruitt, Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency both resigned due under scandals involving documented malfeasance. Additionally, Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior have been embroiled in similar scandals. In the latter case, Mr. Zinke is under seventeen (yes, 17) separate investigations, including at least one referred to the DOJ for possible indictment. And this does not include Mike Flynn (NSA Advisor), Paul Manafort (Campaign Manager) and Rick Gates all of whom have pleaded guilty to a host of charges associated with fraud, etc.
  7. Decency. There is nothing in the Constitution stating the president must be a “good” man, whatever that means. And it is possible to imagine someone who is not a good man (or woman) who could still be effective as president. But among the arguments for Mr. Trump as president was the notion that he would Make America Great Again. The whole notion of American Exceptionalism (whether you buy it or not) pivots on leadership. If we are to view the election of Mr. Trump as a referendum on that notion, then perhaps you’re okay with him being a demonstrable liar, serial sexual assaulter and (when all is said and done) an abysmally deficient mind for someone hypothetically leading the greatest nation on Earth and Commander in Chief of the most powerful military the world has ever seen.

Now is it fair to tar all of Mr. Trump’s shortcomings on Republicans running for office? Logically and in a word, no. The president of the United States is part of the Executive Branch, separate and distinct from Legislative and Judicial Branches. Every sophomore knows this (or should) from their Civics/Government classes. As they should also know, however, it was the intention of the framers of the Constitution that the Legislative and Judicial Branches should act as a check on the Executive and vice versa.

They are not by law bound to oppose, simply because they are different branches. Rather they are expected to form independent judgments and act accordingly. At virtually every step, the Republicans in both houses of Congress have acquiesced when they have not actually abetted the president in his intentions and (frankly) routine departures from the truth. If we watch what they do, rather than listen to what they say, it’s pretty clear there’s not much daylight between the president and the Republicans in Congress. Following their conscience, that is their right as duly elected members of Congress.

Just as it is our right to jerk a knot in the butt of someone when we don’t like what they (or the president) are doing. Mr. Trump has suggested we should vote as though he was on the ballot.

I couldn’t agree more. We should take him at his word and remind him he answers to someone.

When Tomorrow Forgets Its Name

Life and Habit

Most of us think we love variety, but if we’re honest, we really don’t. If you want a validation of this truth, try waking up in a room where you don’t know how you got there and can’t see anything. That anxiety you feel? That’s the abrupt, non-consentual withdrawal of the familiar, i.e., comfortable habit. When we look in the mirror, we hope to see what we expect, nothing more or less, because expectation and predictability are the essence of identity.

Image courtesy of Unsplash & Darius Bashar

An identity acquired (mostly) through habit and habits of thought. Habits usually instilled without us being aware of them. But even if you are aware, or even consciously cultivating habit, most of us become servants of those habits. Often, those habits of thought are drummed into us by a sarcastic teacher, a bully on the grammar school playground or a hyper-critical parent.

Almost as common are those assigned to us by well-intentioned friends who pidgeonhole us with admiring words, telling us we do this or that better than anything else. Their words aren’t generally hurtful and aren’t intended to be. But often, the first step down the “wrong” trail has it’s origins in a well-meant observation coming from a place of sincere admiration. But because we value their opinion or want to please, we are subtly affected. It’s true in our friend’s mind so it becomes true in ours.

"I woke up one day, and had no idea who I was..."

We take that chance observation that feels true and run with it, whether it’s about a hypothetical vocational talent, or a personality trait that suggests with whom we might be a good fit as a partner, we buy into a truth that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we’re even moderately self-driven and of normal intelligence, we make it work and may go years , perhaps even decades without seriously questioning whatever notion our friend or our own perceptions lodged in our minds.

But, as they say, shit happens. Times change and so do we. Irrespective of how it develops, a future emerges, informing us (sometimes not too subtly) that who/what we thought we were has evolved, Or perhaps it was never really true. We just made it work. Whichever applies, we find ourselves in a place/identity that no longer fits, or is no longer tenable from a purely practical perspective. We wake up one day and realize there’s something new in the mirror. Or maybe it was there all along, but we’re just now becoming aware of it.

Image courtesy of Unsplash & Tiago Bandeira

This dynamic seems like it’s becoming a thing, in the second decade of the 21st Century. As the rate of change ratchets up to what the Tofflers once dubbed as Future Shock, increasing numbers of us find we need to circle back to a point when a fateful decision bent us along a certain path that, in retrospect, no longer suits us. We are squarely in the midst of a personal shift eroding not simply our place in life, but the fundamental underpinnings that have always helped us define who we are at the deepest visceral levels.

In the mythology of self-help, few things are set in stone or irreversible. And we don’t have to look too far to find examples of men and women who have succeeded in redefining themselves in profound, even startling ways. These examples give credence to the ethos of self-reinvention in the name of evolution.

The back-button doesn't work...

What those examples don’t tell us is the often superhuman self-discipline it took to redefine themselves. There is, after all, a lot of intertia that keeps us heading in the same direction. Even when we make a conscious choice to break with a past/identity that no longer fits, those who know us continue to relate to us as though nothing has changed.

It can feel for all the world feels like an endless feedback loop, in which we are doomed like Sisyphus to roll the old identity up the same social hill, only to have it roll back on top of us, as we strive for that new us. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to sort out where precisely you got off track, or how to back track to take the “right” path. The back-button just doesn’t work.

In the hopeful mythology of self-help, few things are set in stone or irreversible. And we don’t have to look too far to find examples of men and women who have succeeded in redefining themselves in profound, even startling ways. These examples give credence to the ethos of self-reinvention in the name of evolution. It’s a seductive possibility and make no mistake, it is possible. But there are complications.

Control+Alt+Delete...

We need a new identity. Not for the purposes of income tax evasion or avoidance of child support payments. We need it because who we were before no longer fits who we are becoming. If the back-button doesn’t work, we’re going to have to start if not from scratch, at least from a place where we can undo some of the programming that brought us to where we are now. Our psychic <Control+Alt+Delete>, if you will.

Image courtesy of Unsplash and Joshua Rawson-Harris

We should probably recognize going in that it isn’t going to be easy. Not only do we have to overcome our own habits, we have to reprogram those of our friends, family and co-workers, at least insofar as they affect us moving forward. We should expect they’ll fight us most of the way, until (in the case of friends and family) the see that we were right—or mostly, anyway.

But ultimately, it’s from our old selves that we must escape. As outlined in the introduction to Through the Windshield, Drive-by Lives:

“Truth is a shapeshifter. Sometimes it slams into us, changing everything in an eye-blink. But more often, truth arrives camouflaged in the ordinary, its significance becoming clear only after reflection. We are at once our own jailers and the authors of our freedom, streaking toward a destiny, lurking just beyond our headlights.”

 

A Symphony of Complexity

The Reductive Mirage of Simplicity

Maybe it’s an occupational hazard of being an author or maybe it’s advancing age, but for some reason, I find myself more and more preoccupied with matters philosophical. This would probably happen, even if I could avoid the news. I can’t and you probably can’t, either. We’re pretty much immersed in it. Can’t even get away from it on social media. (he observes as he adds a link to his latest blog post…). And I can think of nothing more catalytic of reflection than trying to puzzle out how the hell we got where we are.

The events of the last three years have led me to conclude that a significant number of Americans (U.S. Citizens to be absolutely precise) seem to have fallen for the notion that simple solutions to complex problems are generally our best answer. It’s not hard to figure out why. Virtually all of our political discourse, these days, is reductive. Whether it’s macroeconomics, international security treaties or negotiations, here in the U.S., we’ll bite on simple, despite of (or perhaps because of) the complexity of our world.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m sensitive to the undeniable elegance of simplicity. Reducing anything to a few simple concepts is a very seductive notion. And who hasn’t heard of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid)? Maybe you’ve even used it yourself. I know I have. And nowhere is the siren call of simplicity more seductive than in political campaigns. Simple concepts are easy to understand. They lend themselves to clever slogans and effective if meaningless rallying cries.

With all that going for it conceptually, what’s wrong with trying to simplify things? I thought you’d never ask. Work with me a minute, here.

Complexity is baked in...

Let’s start with the observation that our world is home to a dazzling range diversity. It always has been. Never mind all of creation…just wrapping your head around one classification: Avians, let’s say. Ask any Ornithologist and they’re sure to tell you it’s a life study. Whether it’s something we think about or not, life writ large strenuously resists our attempts to simplify it.

Life thrives on diversity, in part because it allows for experimentation and adaptation, a bedrock of evolution. What adapts successfully survives, barring catastrophic events like asteroid strikes. Collectively, the dinosaurs were remarkably successful (and diverse) adaptations to their environment. Absent the hypothesized asteroid strike resulting in the climatic catastrophe that cut them short, might they eventually have developed intelligence we would recognize? We’ll never know.

In the same way that nature experiments through subtle and incremental genetic adaptation, humans (ourselves a genetic experiment) fiddle with ideas. Successful ideas adaptive to the environment giving rise to them tend to survive as long as the environment remains relatively stable. Please note, here, that I used successful rather than good.

It’s a distinction worth making. Successful ideas aren’t necessarily good ones, from an ethical perspective. It “works” in the context which gave birth to it, hence it thrives. A couple pretty obvious examples of bad ideas no longer generally accepted include the divine right of kings or the sun orbits the earth. But old ideas gave way to new ones.

Humanity and Context

But it’s worth remembering where those new ideas come from. Generally, they emerge from a new contextual reality. They are outgrows of a dynamic situation. The old wheeze “shit happens” is a pungent reminder that change is the lei motif not simply of our age but every age.

But there’s a pivotal difference between this age and all the ages that preceded it. Humans have always been change agents. But considering how much we contribute to shaping our environment today, it’s getting increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion we are now the apex change agents on the planet. 

We are shaping our future and not always for the best. And like it or not, some of the pivotal change agents are not copping to their role either in that change, or for that matter that it’s even happening. For the record, it is. Consider the graph following.

The foregoing graph, even supported by evidence is unlikely to move the stubborn atavisms prone to cling to obsolesence. I’m reminded of the old AA wheeze, “Drop the rock, you’ll swim better!” To which the obstinate alcoholic shouts back, “But it’s my rock!” We all get it. Few things are more difficult than abandoning (or even significantly modifying) a paradigm that has served us well for so long.

As with the bio-genetic adaptation referred to earlier, our adaptation to an emerging reality, even before it’s entirely clear what that reality is pivotal. What is unique to our adaptation is that we are re-engineering ourselves on the fly, whether we’re aware of it or not. And the evolution is much faster. Estimates vary with respect to how quickly the rate of knowledge acquisition is occurring. But if Buckminster Fuller’s knowledge-doubling curve is even close, what we “know” collectively as a species.

A couple of important caveats are in order. For starters, the knowledge-doubling curve above is a highly speculative approximation of what the knowledge growth curve might look like if the continued expansion of what we know continues. As a forecast, it is unlikely to be dead-on accurate, nor is it likely to be even. We should also recognize that the distribution of knowledge across the 7 billion human inhabitants of this planet, will not be very uneven, nor will all of it be accessible or readily applicable in it’s immediate, raw form.

Half an hour West of Tomorrow

Those observations made, the prevailing trend isn’t particularly difficult to puzzle out. When we fold Toffler’s concept of Future Shock, it is no longer remarkable that we have a huge disconnect in attitude between those closer to the leading edges of knowledge acquisition and those who are either unaware or even resistant to it. It is also painfully clear that at some point, those who resist assimilating knowledge as it is gained run the risk of becoming irrelevant in short order.

So, does the desire for simplicity in our lives have a place? I think it does, at least on a personal level. It may even be an indispensible component of our personal sanity. But extending that yearning for simplicity to our exogenous life in general strikes me as an unerring path to frustration and rage. I suspect that we left simplicity behind when we settled down to plant crops and domesticate animals for food.

The more ubiquitous and powerful humans become, the more complex our interaction with the contextual reality we call life becomes. Making America, Great Again is not function of “returning to our roots,” or how they did things, “back then.” We can honor our antecedents best by recognizing what it was that made them great.

Irrespective of the political, social, religious or spiritual framework to which they adhered, our Founders and the ones who followed and made us greater still, successfully balanced  honor for our traditions with foresighted innovative spirits. It is not that “simple” solutions, even to complex problems that we must resist. Sometimes simple solutions are the best ones.

Rather it is the reductive, simplistic thinking to exclusion of the evidence that we need to eschew.The future and the keys to it lie in our ability balance our yearning for a time when life was simpler with the recognition that, increasingly, simplistic answers are at best an illusive mirage. 

It is okay…even essential…to recognize when we don’t know. Not knowing is the human condition. What must change is how we deal with it. We must collectively recognize the global community as a community. A global community in which each human has a vested and legitimate interest in the impact of others’ individual and collective behaviors. In the same way change is unavoidable, so is the global impact of that change. Disparaging globalists or deifying nationalists completely ignores the truth. We are the world.  It may be a while before we fully grasp the implications of this new reality. But we can’t wait too long. The lives of our children and the quality thereof literally depend on it.

Fear or Hatred?

Aphorisms, Truth Vs. Fact

I must confess I have a weakness for aphorisms. There’s something about the taut simplicity and economy of words that feels like enlightenment. And of course, that’s the point. A well-worded aphorism should feel that way. For refresher’s sake, an aphorism is:

    “a concise statement of a truth, principle or sentiment.” (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary)

In the interests of short-circuiting philosophical debates about what is epistemically knowable, I’m going to focus on the principle or sentiment aspect, rather than “truth.” Truth drags way too much intellectual baggage around with it, especially today. Personally, I tend to look at aphorisms like a Zen Koan. Aphorisms are not neither wisdom nor truth. They are signposts along the way. Work with me, here.

Fear or Hatred?

The last couple years there’s been a lot of angst richocheting around our country over our “direction,” the polarized divisiveness, intolerance, etc. It’s been argued that #MAGA and the “success” 45 is rooted in all that angst. And it has been hypothesized that the angst in which that success is grounded had its origins in the financial collapse of 2008 or the Obama presidency. As if racism, divisiveness or political hyperbole is new. But this is the United States, after all and historical perspective often gets lost in our quest for simple solutions implemented today and effective tomorrow.

What do you think? Fear or Hatred?

You will likely recall Mohandus Gandhi as the renowned, non-violent activist and the father of India’s independence from Britain, in the late 1940s. Gandhi based his opposition to British hegemony on non-violence and religious pluralism. Given India’s religious and cultural diversity, it isn’t difficult to understand why. The aphorism above is attributed to him.

It would be hard to miss its apparent relevance today. But if you’re also a student of history, you’re painfully aware of how it turned out for Gandhi personally, and for what subsequently happened in India…not to mention how radically times have changed since.

All that aside, it still feels true, at some level. Does not intolerance, suspicion and uncertainty have some grounding in our fears? If so, does it follow then, that fear is the enemy or is there something else going on? At the risk of disagreeing with someone  whose teachings, life and moral courage I admire, I think it’s a little more complicated.

Are we what we fear?

For the record, I am not contemptuous of fear, or people who feel it. As a retired Marine officer, big wave surfer and snow skier, I’ve learned a little about it and understand how debilitating it can be. Fear is often rational and justified. But while  fear may be rational, it does not follow that our response to it will be. 

My experiences with my own fear factors have taught me that fear,  Mr. Gandhi’s thoughts notwithstanding is not the enemy. Misdirected fear, or harnessed to the wrong purpose,  is. In both cases, fear replaces reason, often to our sorrow. 

Okay, so what and why now, particularly? Fair question. These are fearful times. Uncertainty can do that to us, if we let it. And we seem to be letting it do that a lot, of late. It tracks along behind us in our personal finances, unless you happen to be one of the exceptionally fortunate. It shrieks at us in the howling winds of hurricanes and typhoons and leers at us in the flames consuming hundreds of thousands of acres in a matter of days. It’s even visible in the eyes of our children whose short memories have no frame of reference for our times.

Through the shadowed forest.

Courage and Hope.

But as fearful as the times may seem and as trite as hope sounds as a remedy, in the jaded 2nd decade of the 21st Century, we must nevertheless hope. Individually and collectively we are larger than what we fear and greater than our challenges. All that stands in the way of our success is are clear eyes, open minds and the conviction that we can craft a future in which the fulfillment of all is not merely possible, but in all of our individual best interests. 

Courageous men and women do not give in to their fears and they certainly don’t allow the fears to morph into hatred or tribalism. Both inevitably consume. Individually and collectively, courageous women and men connect and find inspiring beauty and wisdom in diversity and difference.  We are one by choice. Not by color or by philosophy but by conscious choice and a devotion to the best in all of us. Today, look a brother or sister you don’t know in the eye…and see yourself.

At the Intersection of Life and Dreams

A Soul of Destiny

Growing up, I always suspected that “dreams came true” for other people only. My formative year were spent in a small town in central Iowa, where everyone knew everyone else. Literally. Everyday life played out matter-of-factly on a flat canvas in beautiful (if predictable) colors, for everyone to see.

My family was neither particularly prosperous nor poverty-stricken. Vacations, if any, were to exotic locales as the Wisconsin Dells (before the Water Park). More often, a vacation was the family reunion in another Midwest town. Life was stubbornly prosaic. But I whenever I reflected on the future, I concluded my life must have a purpose. I just needed to find it.

One of the most consistent influences in my life was my grandfather, an Associated Press reporter with his own byline. He was, in fact, the only male influence I admired without reservation. His command of the English language was matched only by his precision of its use and his perceptiveness. Though I only saw him once or twice a year, due to our geographic separation, his influence on me was disproportionate to the time we were together.

“Gramps” answered every letter I sent, so I wrote to him, and looked forward to the penetrating insights invariably wrapped up in his replies. They inspired me to think and because he never talked down to me in them, I found myself resorting to the dictionary—a lot. I attempted to write with his fluency and dreamed of becoming a writer. I attempted short stories and a novel or two, even at the young age, but my own writing came out flat and unimaginative. I was just perceptive enough to realize it and rarely finished them and would never have considered publishing them, even if the thought had occurred to me.

Eventually, by accident more than anything else, I discovered I was faster in the water than almost anyone else I knew. I was—a Swimmer! From age of 9 until my junior year in high school, I labored toward an Olympic dream. The spurt of growth I needed never materialized and I settled for a swimming scholarship, becoming, in the bargain, the first college graduate in my family. I still went through a few bouts at writing and took a couple of creative writing classes and while my writing wasn’t bad, in places, the stories were still flat, lifeless.

Distant Horizons

At an early age, I used to follow meandering creeks or rivers, for no other reason than to see where they went. I envied people in travel documentaries on television who’d had the opportunity to climb mountains explore deserts or swim in tropical waters.

The Insistent tug of the horizon

For me, the insistent tug of distant horizons grew a little each year. Finally, I combined a desire to serve my country with the urge to see parts unknown. Looking back on it, I don’t believe I ever reflected on possible consequence. I just chose and that choice dominated the next twenty-plus years of my life.

I have never regretted that choice. Over the course of that period, I met an incredibly diverse range of fascinating people, I could never have met any other way. I learned use chop sticks and to see Americans to some degree through the eyes of others. I learned to surf triple overhead waves breaking on reefs fragrant with the scent of the live coral beneath. I served with moderate distinction alongside hyper-competent men and women, some of whose names you would recognize instantly, if I were to be so self-serving as to namedrop.

Given a choice, I would do it all again. But like my swimming “career” years before, it was bound to end. I retired and after a two-year sabbatical for a Master’s degree, I rolled into a second career in corporate management and training. This path, like the others, proved rewarding both financially and in terms of the personal contributions I was privileged to make. Also like the others, my second career ended; this time when the company in whom I invested efforts with pride, sank into Chapter 11 during the financial collapse of 2008. I was cordially invited to leave and not return.

West of Tomorrow

In theory, I should be able to find other rewarding work, I thought. I had contributions to offer any number of perceptive hypothetical employers. All I had to do was figure out how to articulate the contributions I could realistically make. But absent a truly esoteric skill for which employers were desperate, no one was hiring. And no matter how I parsed my résumé, there was no hiding my age. Networking produced leads and some interviews, but no offers.

Marine officers do not surrender, so I perservered. At least I had the satisfaction of not giving up, or retreating. But gradually, it became apparent that my practical choices at this stage were to settle for any job, just to say I had one…or to retire.

If we are defined by our choices, then I am now a writer and author. I chose to retire and write. But what? Fiction, or non-fiction? I rejected the notion of a memoir as too obvious. And who would care, anyway? My career was neither that distinguished or eventful. But could I leverage those experiences and what I had learned a people in fiction? I decided I could, and West of Tomorrow was the result.

Out of the Fire...

The words, characters and thematic elements that were so elusive when I was younger seemed to come to mind almost unbidden. After reflection, I believe it’s a function of having lived, loved, lost and bounced back. The essence of humanity, I have come to believe, is the curious blending of optimism and angst. No matter how bad it gets, the true nature of man is the Phoenix, rising from the ashes of our yesterdays.

Is this actually true, or do I believe this purely as a matter of choice? A little of both, perhaps? Ask me again, in a few years. But at a time when the paradigms are all shifting at once, I choose hope. Fear and despair can only become a self-fulfilling prophecy, it seems to me. I choose optimism tempered by reality because it’s the only way forward.

Through the shadowed forest.

In the end, we are what we dare to dream and are prepared to bring to life. It would be inaccurate to say I don’t suffer through bouts of cycnicism, the news being what it is. But we are not what happens to us. We are what we do about what happens to us.