Thursday, December 29, 2016

Perceptions Are Relative

It is so strange to look back at my old life, relative to today.

I agree with Einstein: Perceptions are relative. Albert said the people in a rocket at light-speed feel time is passing normally, while to us they age very slowly. We feel as if the floor of our electric commuter train is still, until we look out the window at “passing fields.” In the train station, if we are looking out our window, then is it our train that’s moving, or merely the train on the next track?

At university, innocent students from the nice suburbs are probably unaware of how people from orphanages and Indian reservations perceive a different, more challenging society. There’s a good reason why my old alma mater has a Red Lodge resource center. (For both aboriginals and nonaboriginals)

Einstein, once he uncoupled perception from reality, developed a lot of amazing theories. My theory about my own life, looking back, is that people could perceive I was carrying around a lot of problems… but then again, maybe I fooled them. Maybe. I guess it would depend on where and when. As a young man, I found my way to a shared house, passed the kitchen interview, and moved in. I don’t know exactly what my housemates thought about me. Actually I do know the most important thing: They liked me.

They wouldn’t judge me on how well I functioned in other places, such as meeting the various demands on campus. But under the easier demands of home, well, they could perceive my essence: They would know if I was a good guy to live with. And I was. I liked them, too.

Our home comprised of a middle-aged guy who was sexually liberated, a fundamentalist guy around thirty named Luke, who “was a nice man,” as Anne put it, and three younger folks. A backyard, a second bathroom downstairs, and a white picket fence out front. The landlord was absentee, the parents far away. It just didn’t get any better. What I didn’t perceive very well was the amount of friction between the older guy and Luke. What I didn’t perceive, when every day there was such a joy to me, was how the home was merely bland-normal-OK to others. You see, I had grown up on an emotional ice burg.

It would be another decade and a half before I could truly perceive how I had grown up with the A-word. Abuse.

One day Luke told me his story. Luke had been attending university, when abruptly he just stopped. Stopped going. He would fool his roommate by leaving at the same time every morning and then going to the park and the library. This went on for six months, back in the days when matchbooks advertised training to be computer “keypunch operators,” for punch cards.

Not many people back then could program computers, but Luke could. One day he turned a corner, got a computer job, and his life went on. Later Luke got a degree, and “got saved” (got religion) while at university. During the two years I lived with him he left his job, started up his own successful company, got married, and he and the wife took my bedroom, while I took Ann’s room, and Anne moved over to the next room. But that’s another story.

When Luke told me of dropping out of school, I just shook my head. “Wow,” I said, “my older brothers would never bounce back after six months of failure. They’d just throw in the towel.” (I was still putting my family into perspective) Luke referred to a fellow housemate, Matthew, who was attending the local community college, “Some people think he’s still attending university!” He too had just quit going one day. As I had recently, which is why Luke was speaking to me that day.

Luke asked me, “Could you withdraw from all your classes except one, and manage to pass it?” No, for I had waited too long to “self-disclose” to him that I had secretly dropped school. What are the odds that three out of five people in a shared house had suffered a failure of nerve? Last I heard, Matthew had graduated, was working and happily married. Things can work out.

“Our greatest enemy is despair.” This I believe. I like this quote from a translated French novel by Romain Gary, published under various English titles as A European Education and Forest of Anger and Nothing Important Ever Dies. It was an important book to me, just for that quote, written by Gary about partisans, while “on operations” as the world was convulsing. Gary survived the world war, incidentally, and became ambassador to the U.S.

In her last book, the North American visionary Jane Jacobs, best known for her practical book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wrote, in Dark Ages Ahead, that for our society bachelor degrees, regardless of major, were a cheap way for the Human Resources Department (personnel) to screen candidates. That makes a lot of sense. Relative to the everyday world, universities place a lot more demands on students.

I remember science fiction author Larry Niven observing that, on a planet without traffic cops, if a driver can whizz along above the road engineer’s posted speed, he will do so, and next day go still faster, and the next day faster still. He will only stop going ever faster on the day he frightens himself, or crashes. Of course we generally perceive our society as being almost normal, relative to our ideal. But is it? I wonder: Perhaps our modern society, ignoring any posted signs for sane speeds, has become ever more complex, rushed and demanding, right to the crashing point.

Maybe we are each the Red Queen, everyone running as fast as we can, while the fields around us stay still. Needless to say, “I’m proud to be a member of society,” but still, I must admit, our society is awfully hard: Sometimes our brothers falter, stumble and fall between the cracks.

After I faltered, I suppose I could have easily worked on a factory assembly line: Below my potential, to be sure, yet living happily ever after. As it happened, years later, here in Alberta, I got a university career degree, by bravely attending school full time while working, (No student loans, hurray!) and now I have a white-collar job. It can be hard to know your potential, to realistically manage your expectations. Surely the trick is to find resources: Every year students drop out rather than see their campus counselor, or self-disclose to a friend like Luke. Sometimes, all we need is support for something trivial.

In the best seller The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck, an army psychologist at a U.S. base in Okinawa, was counseling a wife of a sergeant. She insisted her whole family was going to have to move back to the States, disrupting the sergeant’s career. As Scott peeled back her excuses and fears, the final true obstacle appeared: The family would have to move thousands of miles because the wife didn’t think she could learn, in Okinawa, to drive a car with a manual transmission, as was the standard for cars in Asia. I forget what happened next, but I presume Scott supported her to learn to drive a standard shift.

As it happened, I learned to drive a manual by taking off my left shoe so I could feel the gears grabbing through the clutch pedal. Most new drivers never have to do that, but that’s how I managed. I have remained sensitive to gears, of course, and sensitive to the fact that a task could be a molehill, relative to some people, and yet be a mountain to others. A little support can go a long ways for facing Okinawa.

As a young man, I briefly lifted free weights. With a spotter. For that final bench press, at the end of my strength, my buddy would grin, and use just a couple of his fingers to make the difference as to whether I got my proper full extension or not. That’s all I needed. Too bad support was something I could so seldom find from my society, (or from my family) not without some determined searching. …You know, there was a time when I couldn’t even afford gasoline and car registration, let alone buy a car.

As I write this I have a sister far away over the continental divide. She has been baffled by a trivial tiny molehill … a big scary mountain. Her stuck state of affairs has been going on for months. (Truth is stranger than fiction: her problem is too bizarre and private to disclose here)

Given this, I’m just going to have to get into that car I bought for saving the planet: My blue hybrid Prius, with its tractor motor and electric engine. I will take time off work, and go drive along winding mountain roads, recharging my battery, which runs the length of my back seat, by braking on the downhills… going to support my sister. Not to save her, just to offer a couple fingers of support, relative to how she’s doing.

It’s all relative.

Sean Crawford
On mountain central time
As December becomes January 2017


~In case you want to drive a car overseas, I see there are some delightful posts on the world wide web an how to do so. My Prius, of course, is an automatic, as are all electric cars. My last car was also an automatic because they offered me the showroom model, with doodads, for cheaper than a bare bones manual with air-conditioning—so of course I accepted.

~Needless to say, the names have been changed, except Anne’s. I remember happily standing beside her at the sink doing dishes every night. I have read that as housing prices rise in Vancouver and Toronto that some people there will afford city living by sharing a place.

~Too bad the homeless guys you see begging on the street value their freedom over cooperating to wash dishes. Or maybe they value their begging. Too bad, for otherwise they too could share in a nice white picket fence.

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