The Good Old Daze

I was driving to work this morning along the same road that I’ve used for almost thirty years. About halfway between home and clinic, off to the side of the highway, is an old textile finishing plant. It’s long since closed down, and the graffiti-scarred structure is rusting and collapsing. A shiny new pharmacy was built in front of it so one has to know it’s there or be very observant, or it is easily passed by, forlorn and crumbling, hiding in plain sight. 

One of my many jobs growing up was working in the local textile mill that was the mother’s milk of the small Georgia community I grew up in. The plant provided jobs, housing, a post office, a village doctor, decorations at holiday time, and a ready made social fabric in addition to the thousands of yards of cloth it produced. I enjoyed my time at the plant. I learned valuable lessons about people, hard work and the necessity of following rules during my time there. 

The textile mill I worked in, similar to the finishing plant on my route to work, has crumbled, and it has actually been torn down. 

I have good memories of my childhood, my teenage years, and my work experiences. I lived, learned and loved in a Norman Rockwell time and place. Cold, deep swimming pools of water doused the heat of scorching hot summers and the smell of wild onions and grass stains on blue jeans gave way to smoke from chimneys and the smell of turkey and dressing in November. The hill behind the pool became an Olympic sledding venue after the rare snows we had as kids. Life in the mill village was good. Really good. 

The memories of those times are pleasant and often surface when the stress of modern life threatens to overwhelm us. The nostalgia is a balm, a healing salve on the claw marks and scratches  and bites we get from sharp-edged technology, scathing commentary and biting sarcasm. The nostalgia is sweet, but like too much sugar ingested by a diabetic, it can quickly turn to a killing poison. The past is the past, and barring a miracle of time travel or a rip in the space-time continuum, it is never coming back. 

Some of us, including our leaders at the highest levels, revel in the nostalgic vision of that idyllic time and place, with its neatly ordered rows of houses and humming factories and simple social order. They long for a return to a more structured, locally controlled, face-to-face existence. They see a return to that time and place as a return to a strong, powerful, safe, and protected country and lifestyle. They lack insight into how the world is evolving, not at the speed of sound or even light but at the speed of electrons and bits and bytes that travel the circumference of the globe at a mind-boggling pace. They lack the vision of a world that is rapidly morphing into a new era of robotic manufacturing, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and social interactions on a scale we’ve never experienced before. 

This is not only short sighted but dangerous. 

Too much nostalgia, pleasant as the sugar coated predecessor of the poison is, leads to sadness about what we have lost. 

Too much division leads to anger and frustration about what we cannot do. 

We must pivot. 

Now. 

Today. 

Each of us. All of us. 

We must anticipate the changes of the future, both short term and long term. Burying our head in the sand about advances in technology, cyber spying, interference in our longstanding institutions and processes will not make these changes go away. 

We must plan for the near future,  paying attention to those things we have a modicum of control over, while allowing ourselves to dream of the distant future, imagining things that are not even concepts or inventions yet. This will keep us strong and productive in the now, but not hamper our ability to create and brainstorm and reorganize our world. 

We must allow ourselves to experience life as it evolves around us, with all its wonders of climate and energy and technology and transportation and entertainment and work. 

We must innovate. 

If we stand still, if we stop dreaming, if we give into the fallacy that the good old days can never be bested and so should be resurrected, then we shall surely watch ourselves drift slowly but inexorably into the sea of irrelevance. 

The future is coming. Of that there is no doubt. 

We must choose to move boldly and be part of it. 

Monkey in the Middle

Keep away.

Monkey in the middle.

Urban Dictionary defines “monkey in the middle” as the person who is in the middle of two fighting sides. This person is friends with both arguing sides and wants to stay neutral but is eventually dragged into the fight, and one of the fighting sides becomes mad at them. 

I will be fifty nine years old next month. I grew up loving to read. I read everything. I was thrilled when the new Scholastic Book Club circular, or anything like it, came home with me, to be lovingly perused and marked up with all the paperback books,  Dell crossword books and dinosaur books that my parents would allow me to order. I was more thrilled when the shipments came in, giving me hours of pleasure like no other activity I enjoyed at the time. I was ecstatic when my parents bought the complete set of the Collier Encyclopedia, complete with annual updates, though I can now come clean and say that I wish they had bought the World Book Encyclopedia instead. Colliers seemed a bit too stodgy to an elementary schooler. 

I simply loved the feel of the page. I loved the color glossy pages. I loved doing crossword puzzle after crossword puzzle. I loved the feel of the spine of a book nestled in my hands, the way new pages stuck together until you riffled them the first time, opening up the whole new world that was hidden in the infinitessimal spaces between the papers. I loved that tipping point that came when you knew by feel, without even looking at the page numbers, that you were just over halfway through a novel, and that it was all down hill from here. A race to the finish, the climax, the denouement, the satisfying completion of a mind journey that could have transported you anywhere in the universe.

I still love to buy books, to keep books, to shelve books that I just know I will read one day (sometimes do, sometimes don’t, let’s be honest). I still like to peruse the colorful pages of magazines, especially when I am tired and just want to kick back and do something familiar, something comfortable, something comforting. 

I am a product of my age, my upbringing, my schooling, the modeling of my parents and mentors and teachers. I am an analog man in an increasingly digital world. 

Now, I love my technology. 

I have bought more iPads that I care to admit to. I have owned every desktop and laptop computer from a Micron to a Dell to an HP to a Radio Shack to Apples. I have lusted after the newest Sony PDA, upgraded to a Treo with a stylus, and was fascinated when I first heard about the marvelous little machine that was to be the first iPhone. “I’ve GOT to have one of those,” I remember saying when seeing the image of the prototype on my laptop screen. I have owned virtually every model of iPhone since 2007. 

I get excited when thinking about moving next month and setting up a new wireless system in the condo. I am already salivating over wireless security systems and what might best serve our needs. I am constantly looking for the next excellent podcast, digital newspaper, newsletter, or blog to read. I love audiobooks. I listen to music on three streaming services, only one of which I actually have to pay for. I watch movies on my iPad, which has more pixels and a much better picture than my widescreen television. 

I am a product of my age. I am a digitally connected man in a world that is watching analog constructs fade slowly into history. 

I am the monkey in the middle. 

I am listening to a fascinating audiobook right now that I would recommend to everyone. The Inevitable, by Kevin Kelly, looks in some detail at where we are headed, and why, in the next three decades. While I do not delude myself into thinking that I will still be around forty or fifty years from now, thirty is definitely doable. I get very excited when I think about the world that my grandchildren will be running, of which I may still be an active, though peripheral, part. The book speaks to the way that society and all its wonderful parts is morphing and continues to change over time, cataloging and saving and curating and dispersing and sharing and annotating knowledge and creativity and thought of every conceivable kind. It also speaks to the generation, MY generation, that finds itself squarely in the middle of two camps, one whose tenets are inscribed on cotton paper, and one whose bits and bytes are blinking and beeping into the future. 

I am friends with both sides. I want to remain neutral. 

It is going to be a fun ride for the next two or three decades, that is certain. I want to keep up, to remain relevant, to learn, to continue to produce and create and to learn to access the new technologies and the new paradigms as they present themselves. I very much want to keep working, to keep helping people through my vocation, to educate myself continually about advances in my field. I want to enjoy music and art and books and the vast amount of information that is the collective knowledge of our increasingly connected world. I do not want to become an old man who is too intimidated to reach out and try something new out of fear or ignorance or apathy. 

I don’t mind being the monkey in the middle, as long as the game of keep away does not turn into a game of dodge ball.