At the Intersection of Memory and Emotion

Sense and Memory

Borne on the wind, a familiar scent teases up a memory, and your heart spikes involuntarily to emotions you welcome—or not. A sound you haven’t heard for a while (or just haven’t noticed), resonates through your auditory pathways, awakening feelings usually buried in the daily avalanche we call life in the 21st Century. Or maybe it’s a sight, familiar or not, that reminds you of something from a significant “then,” and for just an instant, you’re achingly aware of the next breath you draw.

If only for an instant, you are “back there,” willingly or inspite of yourself, reliving some sliver of the life journey that brought you here. Pleasant or painful, you’re neck-deep in one of your yesterdays—for better or worse. As Ms. Streisand sings in the theme vocal to The Way We Were,”

 “Memories, can be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget,

“But it’s the laughter, we will remember, whenever we remember, the way we were”

From the Title Track of Columbia Picture’s “The Way We Were,” sung by the incomparable Barbara Streisand.

Sometimes, it isn't obvious why you remember, but remember you do... Photo from the author's yesterday.

Memory: Spoiler of Tomorrow?

In West of Tomorrow, you are immersed in a contemporary second-chance romance woven into a tale of corporate intrigue and betrayal and misplaced love. In Chapter 25, entitled The Last High Tide, Clay Conover finds himself at a crossroads. After a difficult night, scent and sound borne on the early morning breezes conjure his past.

Clay awakened the second time with a stiff neck, still in his recliner in the living room, his heart thundering to yet another dream he hadn’t wanted to have. Our past finds us no matter where we go, he thought.

Raging thirst drove him to his refrigerator, where he squinted against the interior light to remove a bottle of water. He cracked the seal on his way to the balcony outside his living room and opened the slider. The sparsely-clothed trees around his condo danced in the light of a quarter moon to strong offshore winds. Each time the wind subsided, he heard the distant percussion of surf.

As he listened, yesterdays awash with memory tied his stomach in knots—the scent of sage and wild licorice in autumn carried by hot, dry Santana’s—the dusty drive to Trestles to surf the evening glass-off.

“And I thought I heard the sea as I used to,” he whispered, “each time as the first time; far off, new.” The unselfconscious joy of youth surged through him, only to swirl like fallen leaves spinning out of sight down the river of his life. The subdued thunder of distant surf pulled him back to his present. There’s nothing to stop you now, it seemed to say.

Clay Conover, exiting the zen zone... Photo courtesy of Jeremy Bishop and Unsplash.com.

Still numb from the events of the really bad last 24 hours, Clay seeks to avoid, just for today, the decisions he must make and the profound sense of loss and disconnection he feels. When going gets tough, the tough go surfing.

It’s not all bad, of course. The overpowering sense of freedom and oneness with something larger than self is as life-affirming as it always was. But Clay’s past doesn’t give up so easily. It triggers memory and a bittersweet recognition that another door is closing. 

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 admitted. And as he watched, the off shores 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. Mesmerized, he watched the outrunning tide expose more of the red algae-coated rocks.

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.

Are we more than footprints in the sand?

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 south. 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.

At the Junction of Past, Present and Possible

In common with most of us, Clay’s past feels a lot like who he is. “Everywhere I go, there I am,” he notes. But is his past a life sentence? Or is it all more nuanced, more susceptible to some mystical balance of who we were, and are and who we might become?

For most of us, we eventually realize that our past is both a spoiler and a hopeful whisper of potential. Clay’s past has hung on, as it does for many of us. It affects our feelings about ourselves now and (like it or not), our possibilities. Can Clay move beyond his disappointments and his failures and find if not happiness, at least contentment? The answer, for Clay…and for all of us…lies half an hour west of tomorrow.

Staring into possible. Photo courtesy of Oliver Roos and Unsplash.com

Dirk is a retired Marine officer, turned corporate trainer/manager, turned author. West of Tomorrow is his second book. He is also the author of Best Case Scenario, a coming of age story and the first in the Nyra Westensee journey and Through the Windshield, Drive-by Lives, a collection of evocative short stories that stand alone and also introduce readers to Dirk’s longer works. All three volumes are available in paperback and Kindle formats.

Dirk is also working on three additional full length novels in various stages of completion. Tier Zero, Volume I of the Knolan Cycle is a science fiction epic of first contact is do out in the latter months of 2019. To stay up to date on Dirk’s work, subscribe to Dirk’s Updates, below.

Through the Windshield: Drive-by Lives (A Collage of Change)

Theme and the Power of Story

Storytelling is among the oldest and (most important) forms of communication. From their crude beginnings as a series of sounds and gestures, they graduated to speech, then (perhaps) cave paintings. These likely evolved to petroglyphs before the first system of written foms of communication.

The truths shared in stories are foundational to life. (Photo Courtesy of Siddarth Singh and Unsplash)

Common to all those forms is purpose or intent. A theme. We communicate to connect with each other at our most basic human level. The unconscious heirs of our inventive ancestors, we connect and communicate with each other  through stories to enrich our lives and ensure our collective survival.

From the very beginning, stories have always had themes. Someone, somewhere is reading this and muttering to themselves, “Oh crap. I’m back in sophomore English class.” Nope. You’re safe. But it’s true. Every story worth reading has a theme, even those whose purpose is principally to entertain. Communicating a theme (or themes) is the motive force behind storytelling. I think this is especially true of writers. As one author once wrote:

“It is only when you open your veins and bleed a little onto the page that you connect with your reader…”

As melodramatic as that may sound, most authors will vouch for the (sometimes) excruciating pain of baring their souls for their readers to see. This is true because meaningful truth comes wrapped in authenticity and (often) powerful emotion. Soaring, joy or overwhelming despair, in all good writing there is an inseparable tie between theme, (or purpose) and emotion. That emotion may be the quiet satisfaction of reading a story well told or the soul-shaking flash of satori, but either way, the reader knows when they have read good writing.

Anthologies and Theme.

If by definition, all good stories have a theme, then a collection of them will have them, as well. But do anthologies have a unifying theme? Maybe. Anthologies aren’t necessarily a collection of stories written around a theme. Often, they are a collection of stories unified by genre, as in a collection of coming of age stories, or science fiction yarns.

In the case of Through the Windshield, the stories contained in the anthology are unified by theme rather than genre. In broad terms, Through the Windshield spans several genre from contemporary fiction, to coming of age to science fiction. But what all the stories in this collection have in common is the protagonists, each for different reasons, find themselves balanced on the precipice of life-altering change.

Books are among today's premier storytellers.

The Leitmotif of our Age.

No season typifies change like autumn (Photo courtesy of Eberhard Grosgasteiger & Unsplash)

It’s a commonplace bordering on cliché to observe that life is change. It is implicit in the rhythm of the seasons, in our own growth and that of our siblings. This has always been true. A case could even be made that all literature is dependent upon if not about, change. It is not only the human condition, but the story of all life.

But in the second decade of the 21st Century, change as we know and experience it, is accelerating—and doing so exponentially. It is driven in part by the fusion of instantaneous and non-stop communications and exacerbated by high-end data collection and analysis tools. As a result, our experience of both time and change feels increasingly compressed and for many of us, stressful.

Thematically, all of the stories in Through the Windshield call the readers’ attention to both the promise and the threat of the runaway change and shifting paradigms. It is the leitmotif of our Age and for most of us, at once exhilerating and frightening. It’s hard to be true to ourselves, when there is so much uncertainty about who we are and what our place is or will be.

Art and Change.

In the short run, there’s not much we can do about the inevitable discomfort associated with shifting paradigms, beyond recognizing that they are shifting and recognizing some of the forces driving those shifts. But over the long pull, we need a way to place that change in perspective and to feed our souls as well as our bellies. Existence is not life. We must find time to manage change in ways that work for us, and paradoxically, this is never more difficult or more necessary than when time is at a premium.

We cannot control the world around us, but we own, lock, stock and barrel, our reaction to it. Balance, understanding and to a surprising extent, peace itself is not what is happening around us, it is what we allow ourselves to feel in the face of what the maelstrom that is 21st Century life.

Earlier in this post, I observed that storytelling is one of the earliest ways by which humans connect with each other at the most fundamental level. Stories have survived and will continue to do so as a means of connecting, because we are at our best when we are relating to each other.

Dirk Sayers is the author of three books. West of Tomorrow, Best Case Scenario. Through the Windshield, Drive-by Lives is his third release, a thoughtful anthology of short stories whose principal theme is change.

At the Intersection of Art and Life

The Author's Journey...

The author (left) reading at Lit-Up, Orange County

Starting out...

When I first seriously considered how to go about realizing my life-long ambition of being a published author, I did what most would-be authors do & started writing while concurrently  researching how to get published traditionally. Almost the first thing I ran across in my research was the need to establish a “platform.” In one reputable publication for writers, I learned that a platform was, my visibility as an author, some components of which were:

  1. Who I am
  2. My personal and professional “connections.”
  3. Any media outlets I could utilize to sell books.
  4. Who my likely readers are/where I can find them
  5. What interests them

I can’t speak for other authors, but I found this definition (or more accurately description) something of a buzz-kill. There is clearly a business side to being an author, unless you’re independently wealthy and can afford to publish indefinitely, without a return on the investment of your time and/or the cost of publishing.

But building a “platform” is hard and time-consuming work. Don’t believe me? Try it. I’ll even give you a few of the steps, if you like. Start by developing an editorial calendar. Yeah, I do have one an no, I don’t always stick to it, even though I know I should. (Not sticking to your editorial calendar is one of the things sure to makesbuilding a platform hard, btw).

Once you have that calendar in place, try coming up with something interesting to say, on a regular basis…something at once thoughtful, thought-provoking. Now publish it on several platforms, tailoring it to what you think is the likely audience there also (hopefully) interested in what’s likely to be in your next book. Oh…you don’t know who might read your books? Go back and revisit items 4 & 5, above. (And don’t skip it, next time).

Every day is a winding road...

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash and Peter Danka

By now, I’m sure you getting the message. It’s a tortuous and painful road, fraught with distractions, pitfalls, relative poverty and oceans of angst, when it doesn’t pan out. And it won’t. Over and over again it won’t pan out and you’ll not only question the worthwhile nature of your dream but your ability to realize it and your own worth in consequence. 

And you’ll confront another uncomfortable truth. There are people out there who simply don’t like to read. Or they don’t like to read what you write, or what you write makes them think & deep down, they really don’t want to do that, after working all day. And if you’re serious about promoting yourself, you’re going to be talking about what you do, even when you’d rather not. 

Some people will perk up, at first, when you tell them you’re an author. It isn’t the common answer, so they want to know more. But as soon as you tell them that:

  1. You’re still working on it and aren’t sure when it will be out, or
  2. They’ve never read what you’ve written and won’t.

Some will look at you like you need your skull candled and change the subject. Others won’t say it, but they think “loser who thinks they’re a writer and don’t know any better.” You’re just another failure, who isn’t very good at what they and dismiss you without another thought, even if you’re a “friend.” At first, it hurts. Don’t think it doesn’t. But in the end, it doesn’t matter.

No one starts out with a lot of total strangers (or even close friends or family) believing in you. Get used to it. It will happen almost daily.What does  matter is that you believe in yourself and that’s true whether you’re striving to be an author, a painter or sculptor or poet. You must learn to believe in yourself and this is never more true than when you’re the only one left who does.

That’s not easy. No, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s almost impossibly difficult, after a few years.

Trust me, on this one. Unless you’re one of the almost unbelievably rare individuals who hits the first time, you will at some point, lose faith in yourself and doubt your ability to make whatever it is you’re pursuing stick. And if you happen to hit it the first time, you will forever live in terror that you’ll be a one-hit wonder…that your next work will flop.

Life's what happens while you're making other plans...

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash and Hans Peter Gauster

Meanwhile, the distractions of life and the imperatives of each day will distract you. If you’re an artist, those distractions will be that much stronger. That’s because deep down, most people consume art in any form casually. When they have time. And that, in it’s turn, is because art moves them only rarely or not at all. Few stories or paintings make our hearts souls soar, or put a lump in their throat.

But that is the mission of the artist. To put that empathy, love, insight or epiphany back in the mundane. It’s always been hard, but in our matter of fact, fast-paced world, it has arguably become an almost insurmountable task. Please not the choice of “almost.” That it is hard is precisely the reason we must keep striving for that which fires other souls.

Artists, whether authors, painters, sculptors or dancers strive (or should) to create those rare moments in which life and art intersect. For it is in those moments that we are most profoundly human and most profoundly ourselves. At our best, we are the catalysts of the heart and the birthers of truth. As painful as that may be, it is the life we chose. It is our task to be true to the call.

Dirk is the author of West of Tomorrow, a contemporary tale of corporate intrigue, romance and the phoenix living in all of us. Best Case Scenario is the first volume in a New Adult/coming of Age series, following the growth of Nyra Westensee, millennial college graduate in search of personal and professional identity, and Through the Windshield, a collection of short fiction some previously published, others in print for the first timeAll are currently available on Amazon.

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!

 

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.

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.

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.

A Modest Lesson From My Road…

It’s almost an article of faith, today, that we are a nation divided by conflicting identities and most of the evidence supports that conclusion. It’s hard to find commentary from either side of the political spectrum that does not extoll the virtues of “Our Side” & “Our” particular take on truth at the expense of the opposition.

Factions identified as “The Right” peddle alternative realities and conspiracy theories, rail against the “Deep State” or shadowy “Fifth Column” movements bent on bringing down capitalism self-reliance and rugged individualism. Factions typically identified as “The Left” seek to demonize everyone who doesn’t share their vision of a brave new inclusive world in which everyone loves everyone else, even if they don’t, really. Everybody should love everybody, after all…well, shouldn’t they?

Seriously...think it over.

Tribes and Tribulations

The Brotherhood of Marines is a lesson to us all. The Citadel Hue City, during the Tet Offensive.

People who know me well know my first adult identity was as a Marine. It wasn’t a popular identity in the early years of my service. The military’s reputation was at its low ebb, in America, during Vietnam and for years thereafter. There’s room for debate with respect to how much of that contempt was earned, but most of us felt we were under siege in our own country and no where was this more evident than in California, where I was stationed after my first tour.

As a result, we turned inward. Many of us became Marines not simply first, but exclusively. Our haircut, our posture and an indefinable something others sensed set us apart, even out of uniform. Because we could not hide who we were, we wore our identity with tribal defiance, many of us choosing to opt out of “main stream society,” with whose views and values our own conflicted.

But lazer focus on identity in a society as diverse as ours is simply not sustainable. Like it or not, we own our society…all of it, not just the part we agree with. As the memories of Vietnam and the divisions it evoked receded, so did the animosities. Gradually, all of America came to realize a nation that continued to despise it’s military would eventually have a despicable military that lived down to its reputation, earned or not.

Unconsciously, we all came to realize this, though it took time. At first, Dirk the Marine officer, and “Otter” the surfer/shaper were different identities, inhabiting different orbits in the same geographical space. But over time, those identities merged into one, with neither identity  conflicting with the  other contextual realities that had come to define me. A surfing Marine was no longer out of place in the waves, or on base with surf racks on his/her car.

The zen zone - a world unto itself...

Road Songs...

Over time, my merging identities as Marine and surfer symbolized broader kinship. As permanent changes of duty station and my own incurable restlessness pulled me repeatedly across this great land, the inevitable stops along the way pulled me into conversations with other drivers. On one cross-country drive, I pulled a horse and trailer, stopping to stable my horse overnight and found kinship with other horse people whose take on things didn’t always dovetail with mine.

This divergence of opinion repeated itself with relatives in Texas, one of whom referred to my home as “la-la land.” But mixed in with the sediment of opinion, most of the people I came to know well revealed a generosity of spirit, even a nobility I could not help but admire. It’s a sensing we all would do well to recapture.

This did not change after I retired and traveled not as a Marine, but as a corporate trainer. Repeatedly, I was reminded of what I had learned earlier in my career as a Marine officer. Nobility, honor and generosity are not functions of class, race, origin or ethnicity. They are rooted in attitude. Ironically, I often noticed this nobility and generous-hearted love of country was most evident in immigrants who had come here by choice, rather than accident of birth.

Specialization and Synergy

Toasts and fines can get a little wild...

Many years ago, I attended one of many Marine Corps mess nights which (like some mess nights) got a little wild. In the toasts immediately following dinner, a “toasting war” broke out over which Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was or should be most valued.

First an infantry officer stood to make his case for the superiority of the infantry…to agreement by other infantrymen and numerous catcalls from everyone else. Then an artillery officer stood and said his piece, followed by a tanker, a fighter pilot an engineer, a communications officer, etc. Finally a quiet, bespectacled officer stood, and was recognized by the president of the Mess. He paused, waiting for silence, then spoke these words:

There is always an empty table for fallen comrades...

“To all the numbers! Together we’re invincible.”

(For those of you who might not know, all MOS’s have numeric designations). Tables were pounded and glasses drained to roars of approval. As every officer knows, he (or she) won’t last very long without the other. The fusion and synergy of joint warfare as practiced by the U.S. military today is legendary for a reason. We rely on each other and know that our brothers and sisters in arms would sooner die than let us down.

E Pluribus Unum...

My wanderings across this country have led me to understand what has made America the great nation it has become isn’t what’s different about us,either internally or externally. It’s how each of our self-images inform our individual actions.

In this age of swirling change and shifting paradigms, we would do well to remember this. I am convinced much of the disunion we see today is a spin-off of change greater even than the paroxysms of the Industrial Revolution. We should be unsurprised by the divisions those changes are tearing in our social fabric. Change by definition destroys nearly as much as it creates. And hidden in this maelstrom of change is unharnessed energy is both hope and rage. It is for us to choose what to do with it.

Just a thought...

I now have way more runway behind me than is left in front of me. I’ve lived a rich life in terms of experiences. I’ve learned to question almost everything I think, because my first thoughts are often wrong…or at least out of balance. But this I know.

When we choose to divide ourselves…or allow others inside or out to do, we place all we value at peril. We should be suspicious of identity politics that seems calculated to divide us, rather than pull us together. We’re a contentious, rambunctious collection of differing opinions. That’s who we are but in that diversity there is great synergy, beauty, wisdom and resilience. And in the end, that’s exactly what we need.