My parents have been visiting this week, which has kept me from writing but given me time to reflect on a few things over the course of several days.
First, the way we do holidays here—staying put and focusing on good food, wine, and friendships—was validated in a really nice way. Several years ago we decided not to travel on Thanksgiving or Christmas, but instead to host “orphans” get-togethers with friends who were either away from, avoiding, or recovering from their families. We’ve intentionally kept the gatherings small—the number fluctuates every year but generally stays between 4 – 8 people. This year we invited my parents to come because Thanksgiving coincided with the Michigan State – Minnesota football game, and they needed a break from their usual holiday routine. Having my folks here to dine with my “orphan” friends proved to be quite delightful, as the day stayed very relaxed and everyone contributed to the efforts for making and serving the evening meal. I’ve reached the stage where I can’t imagine wanting to fall back into the same holiday routines that used to drive and exhaust us, so having our approach affirmed and enjoyed by my mom and dad felt good.
Second, I made an interesting observation while watching the new James Bond film. While the villain maintains the upper hand by keeping people situated on his turf, i.e. cyberspace, Bond draws him out into the barren wilderness where ultimately the winner will be decided by skill, mastery of the surrounding environment and its elements, and luck. Defeat comes ultimately at the end of a dagger, not the execution of a complex sequence of numeric equations. To me that’s an intriguing epiphany (albeit one drawn from a fictional action/drama/fantasy world)— the idea that in our efforts to control the elements around us, to harness industry, technology, and nature to accumulate wealth, comfort, and recgonition, the ultimate arbiter of our influence on (and value to) each other might still come from how we navigate our face to face encounters. As someone who’s naturally talkative and who throws a lot of energy into my in-person encounters, I’ve been a hesitant user of social media, in part because I always saw it as a tool of my past jobs, which might blur the boundaries of social and professional relationships. But, more and more I’ve had to think through and reckon with the ways that some form of interface—whether through this blog or other online channel—is necessary to cut through the vast amounts of social traffic out there in order to connect with others who resonate with these ideas.
Related to that, for a good chunk of last week I found myself stressed out over a random financial aid hiccup and uncertainty over whether I’ll have a teaching assignment next semester. Over the past few months I’ve been debating whether or not to start searching for more long-term work, to give us some financial stability while I finish the Ph.D. It’s tough to figure out—keep juggling paychecks from semester to semester, or risk falling away from my trajectory right now to make sure the bills can get paid over the intermediate to long term. I had some good advice from a confidante last week though. This was key– reflecting on my recent panic and the less than empathetic response I felt I’d received from the administrative systems involved, she said, “You needed someone to care for you, and they didn’t.” It’s so striking when someone can boil down a nerve-wracking situation to something so simple, but it was true. On top of that, echoing the thoughts above, sometimes it seems like in the name of creating more efficient and responsive systems, we risk divorcing our responses from the humans involved, who have real stakes and concerns riding on the outcome. It really astonishes me (going back to my nonprofit days as well) when people managing administrative functions would distance themselves from some truly putrid decisions by saying, “It’s not me- it’s the system!” as if humans don’t ultimately influence the way systematic decisions are made.
So, to circle back to my wariness toward certain “created” environments as channels for connecting with each other, isn’t it interesting how we seem to develop these complex systems for establishing contact—whether it be for social affirmation, material support, administrative responsiveness, or whatever—yet the key ingredient is still the human on each side of the interface? Humans who are imperfect, insecure, emotionally vulnerable, and ultimately limited yet deeply interesting, talented, and capable beings in our own right?
In person and in direct contact with others, I trust myself to know where I stand. In direct contact with others, my strength has been helping people see the skills/powers they have in their own hands, guiding their actualization in a way that invites participation and shared ownership of the achievement. Although I haven’t been a Bond fan until recently thanks to Jaxon, the final climactic moments of the new movie left me resonating more with “his” environment—the barren, naked spaces where ultimately the extent of our survival depends on how well we know ourselves and our immediate, visceral connections—than the manipulations of the virtual world his nemesis has mastered. And the reason why I think I feel this way is the certainty that a visceral connection provides, no matter what the outcome I end up having to endure.