On People

August 6th, 2016

It is a frequent claim of mine that I can be charming, but only for about two hours at a time. After that, I turn surly because, fundamentally, I hate people.  I’m an INT/J, as they say.  On the Asperger’s scale, I probably rate at least a 5 (on a self-styled scale that goes to 10). I find it exhausting to be around people.

Although there is some truth to this, it’s also one of those things that I say because it’s entertaining; people laugh when they hear it.  There’s a certain incongruity to my claiming to hate people when I so often try to converse with them and make them feel at ease. Nevertheless, they cut me some slack when I leave their parties early. Perhaps they don’t want to learn what I mean by “surly”.

I’ve been using this line for many years but, recently, I’ve begun to wonder whether I mean it at all.

What’s caused some doubt is a recent trip to Iceland.  The destination is not the important thing here but, rather, why I went to Iceland.   After all, I’d been to Iceland before.   My last trip caused me to reconsider my notion of “fear”, but that’s the topic of a completely different blog post (back in January of 2011; something to do with motorcycles and crossing rapid-flowing streams). This time, I went to Iceland for a reunion of traveling buddies.  Way back in 1980, I traveled to Europe with two college friends.  We did the Eurail pass thing and spent a truly magical week sleeping on the beach in Corfu (Pelikas).  Although the immediate magic was mostly the result of some French and Swedish gals that we’d met,  it turns out that the real long-term magic was from the dudes that happened to be there, too:  Thomas, Jesper and Martin (two Danes and a Swede).

The following year, some other friends went to Europe and met up with the same folk. Our little circle of traveling friends became a bigger circle of even better friends.

In the years that followed, the Scandinavians visited the US and Americans visited Europe.  Notably,  too, one of the original travelers, Tom, is one of those special people who is good at staying in touch.  I’m always amazed when I get the occasional postcard from Tom sent during one of his travels or I get a long Christmas letter instead of the pre-printed Costco card. I know, too, that I’m not the only one who gets these. Tom is a connector.  He is the glue that binds us together and probably the most frequent traveler between the two continents.  I’m pretty sure that never claims to hate people.

In 2006, the Scandinavians and Americans all decided to meet in Narbonne, France.  Almost all of the 1980 and 1981 travelers brought their families to France (I even brought a couple of spares) and the reunion of 32 people was a blast. So much so that we decided to do it again this year – in Iceland!

So here’s the thing – I really enjoyed being around (my) people in Iceland. Yes, we bopped around the island, checking out the waterfalls, hot springs and wild geography but what I most enjoyed was the people. This time, we had 27 people including the first grandchild (Jesper’s). Whether it was slamming Brennivin, quaffing beers at the “free beer” place or trying puffin (it does not taste like chicken), it was fun to be around each other. I was truly sad when I had to leave them.

I should interject another one of my adages here, travelers like travelers.  It is a premise of mine that there are travelers and non-travelers.  Travelers like to visit new, uncomfortable places and to eat strange food. They don’t mind dealing with language difficulties and crummy showers (fortunately, most countries have figured out toilet paper by now). They enjoy meeting and getting to know people from other places (even if only in 2-hour doses). Non-travelers, well, they don’t like these things.  They stay close to home or travel only to “safe” places where people speak the same languages. They complain when there’s no shower curtain or they stay only in 5-star hotels where everyone speaks English.

There’s nothing special about being a traveler and nothing shameful about not being one but, as a rule, travelers think that non-travelers are nuts. When a traveler meets a traveler, however, there’s an innate kinship there.  By definition, they want to know more about each other, compare toilet stories and drink the local brew. So, this partly explains why I like being around my Scandinavian/American travel buds – they’re all travelers. But there’s more to it than that.

I have (yet) another adage: we are not the same people we used to be. I’m not the first to say this, I’m sure, but I accompany the saying with a thought experiment. If you traveled back in time and talked to yourself over the phone, avoiding any “fact-checking” (“what’s your mother’s name?”), would you recognize yourself? I’m not sure I would.

So what happens when we reconnect with old friends? We recall shared memories and shared emotions. Thus, even if we are different people, we remember who we used to be. The old friends who liked us before (hopefully) see the same traits in our new selves. We see their old traits in their new selves and these memories and emotions serve to bridge our then-selves with our now-selves.  Getting together with old friends is a special form of time travel; it happens neither in the present nor in the past. Reunions occur in a weird then/now time bubble that is tremendously special and rewarding.

Very soon, this October, to be exact, I’m going to Miami to celebrate a high-school reunion. The classes of 1976 and 1977 are having a joint celebration so it’s my 39th reunion. I am wondering whether this event will be as rewarding as Iceland or whether it will be different.  Already, I am hearing from old friends who’ve been long missing from my life. Already I’m experiencing then/now time although it’s too early to tell whether I’ll end up renouncing my avowed hatred of people or whether I’ll write off the Iceland experience as an outlier and go back to my curmudgeonly ways. Stay tuned.


The Seduction of the Other

November 14th, 2015

Quick. Picture:

  • A welfare recipient
  • An immigrant
  • A drug addict
  • A socialist

I bet most of you thought of:

  • A black woman, likely with too many kids
  • An illegal Mexican immigrant (possibly, a rapist if you’re Donald Trump)
  • A black guy shooting up heroin or smoking crack
  • Bernie Sanders

Here’s what you might have pictured instead:

  • A young family living in an Army base
  • An Asian engineer
  • A white man or woman addicted to painkillers
  • Margaret Thatcher

Welfare recipients are about equally likely to be Caucasian or African-Americans.  Many food stamp recipients are poor families living on military bases, working hard, but needing supplemental help. Last year, there were almost one million legal immigrants with Asians being the most common represented race.  There were less than 400,000 illegal aliens (yes, mostly Mexican). Substance abuse is more common among whites than blacks (and much more common among Pacific Islanders and Native Americans). As to Bernie Sanders, his policies, at least as far as health care are concerned, are not that much different from those espoused by leaders of our European allies.

My topic for this post is not welfare, immigration or drug use. It’s not about Bernie Sanders either. It’s about our innate distrust of the Other and how it is our nature to demonize groups. It is also about how politicians exploit this distrust and get us to hate The Other. It is a plea for us to understand these phenomena and to recognize when we are falling into natural traps. It is about avoiding the seductiveness of hating our neighbors.

Humans are social animals.  We like to live in groups. We trace the development of our civilization by digging up evidence of early human tribes. The discovery of ancient villages, burial grounds and structures provide a timeline illustrating our progression from nomadic tribes to farming communities and fortified villages. The timeline shows how early villages evolved into cities and city-states.  Our Medieval history is one of independent principalities being incorporated into nations and, later, into leagues of nations. There is safety and prosperity in large numbers. Today, a city that is growing is prosperous; one that is shrinking is in decay. This timeline of amalgamation, however, is also accompanied by another timeline noting the battles and wars that were involved in achieving our current political boundaries. While humans are social animals, sometimes it requires a sharp stick to get them to socialize, especially when it involves the tribe on the other side of the hill.

There is no paradox here.  A group is defined as much by who is not in it as by who is.  There is no cool-kids table without kids who are not cool. There is safety in a tribe because your tribe members can come to your aid when you are attacked by people from the other side of the hill. There is “us” and there is the “other.”

One of my favorite Star Trek episodes is “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, co-starring Frank Gorshin (who was one of my favorite impressionists, but that’s beside the point). In this episode, Kirk and Company visit a war-torn planet where only two inhabitants remain.  The two are mortal enemies who will stop at nothing to kill the other.  The two seem almost identical with distinct racial features that manifest themselves in a two-colored face, black on one side and white on the other.  Upon closer examination of the two enemies, however, we realize that one of the two is white on the left and the other is white on the right.  Thus, the war. A bit heavy-handed, but you get the point.

As our civilization has progressed and our tribes grown, the distinctions between ourselves and the Other have become more nuanced. It is no longer about the tribe over the hill. It might be about religion (Shiite v. Sunni), political philosophy (North Korea v. South Korea) or mineral rights (South China Sea).  It might also be about the role of government (Democrat v. Republican), sports (Real Madrid v. FCB) or cultural integrity (Nicki Minaj v. Miley Cyrus). I posit that the silliness of divisions is directly proportional to the prosperity of a tribe. When things are going well, all you’ve got left to argue about is which side of the face should be white and which should be black.

It is our nature to find divisions and to collect with similar tribe members.  I’m sure we will find a gene that determines our affinity for this practice and that neuroimaging will identify the part of the brain in which it manifests. Accept it; it’s part of human nature.

As with everything else that is natural (hunger, sex, fear, etc.), people will seek to exploit this nature.  If you haven’t read “Bowling for Columbine”, do so. Right now. Its treatise on our climate of fear tells you most everything I’m trying to communicate in this post. There are people profiting by your fear.

One of the most effective ways to get you to fear is to demonize the Other. We need to stop illegal immigration because immigrants are rapists and drug dealers.  Al Qaeda is trying to sneak Ebola-infected patients in with immigrants.  Immigrants will rape your daughters and then take your jobs. Really. There are really people who profit from getting you to believe these things.

The first step that any alcoholic has to take to address the disease is to admit to being an alcoholic. We need to admit our fear of the Other. It’s a natural fear. Once we admit it, however, we can recognize it.  We can hold it in our (figurative) hands and turn it over.  We can analyze it more closely and tell whether it’s a real fear or a manufactured one.

Welfare recipients, by and large, are poor people who honestly need help and are trying the best they can to do better. Immigrants are people who have the courage and ambition to travel to a strange country to better their lives. Gay marriage will not destroy heterosexual unions.  Universal healthcare will not turn us into the Soviet Union.  Real Madrid fans are people, too (even if their team is just a European version of the Yankees).  White/black v. black/white? Get over it.  If you must fear or hate someone, direct your feelings at those trying to manipulate you.  They are much more dangerous than your neighbor.

PS: I wrote this minutes before learning of the terrorist incidents in Paris. I considered whether the post might be poorly timed in the face of such heinous attacks. I considered whether to pull the post, but decided not to.  My post does not suggest that there is never any reason to fear others; clearly, there is.  My point is that we should be wary of attempts to manipulate us into irrational fears.  I suspect that, over the course of the next few days and weeks, that we will see many such attempts as people seek to profit from the tragedy in France.


August 5th, 2013

I originally titled this post “Sad Serendipity” but it turns out that serendipity always relates to happy coincidences. “Zemblanity” was coined to represent the opposite.

I was reading through my Facebook wall and saw a post from a friend talking about Facebook’s “Other” folder.  I’d never heard of this folder so I opened the article and learned that Facebook directs messages to the “Other” folder when it determines that the message looks like spam. This folder can be accessed only through the browser interface (not the mobile app) so some users never find it.

The article went on to say that many users, having found “Other”, also found sad notices in the folder that were missed due to Facebook’s misclassification of the message. I immediately fired up my browser and looked in the folder. Sure enough, I had two messages. One was spam and the other – yes, a sad notice.

About a year and a half ago, Jeff Augenstein died at age 64 (see http://education.tmcnet.com/news/2012/02/16/6124026.htm).  An ex-colleague mine had sent me the link at the time, but I missed it, having been exiled to Other-ness.

More than anyone else, I credit Jeff (and his colleague, Ron Hosek) for my professional success.  Back in 1975, when I was 15 and attending Miami High School, I participated in the “Lab Research” program. This was a program for kids accelerated in math and science that gave them high-school credit while working for a scientist.  Jeff was my “scientist.”

Actually, Jeff was a surgical resident at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He and Ron were also very interested in “microcomputers” and their use in science and the medical industry.  My work for Jeff consisted of learning programming on a Scelbi 8H (one of the first kit computers) and writing code to automate a research project.

Later, Jeff and Ron became interested in hospital automation and bought two of the earliest Altair computers that had just come to market. I led a team of high-school kids writing code in BASIC to serve as a prototype for what they wanted to build.  This was my first leadership role and it laid the foundation for all the work that would follow in my career.

Although I consider myself a pretty good computer guy, I am a very bad friend. I am one of those Meyers-Briggs INT/J guys who seems like an extrovert but is content to be alone (as I am now, spending the weekend in the mountains while Sally travels). As a result, I’ve let many friends slip away due to negligence.

After I went off to college, I did not keep in touch with Jeff and Ron.  I still exchange Christmas cards with another team member but haven’t seen him in over 20 years. As I said, I am a bad friend.

So, today, I read about Jeff and what a wonderful, admired, man he was. I wasn’t aware of his accomplishments. I remembered his wife, Debbie, mentioned in the obituary.  They had been married 36 years.

I tried to find Ron about a year ago. I sent him a Facebook message (at least, I think it was the right Hosek).  It’s probably sitting in his Other folder.