Testing Out of Life’s Remedial Class

We are at the age now where life does not always wait to drop the other shoe. I have a theory about that, but first, a little background.

When you’re young, every obstacle can seem like a challenge to be met. Things holding you back become tasks to finish, puzzles to overcome, or a longer race than you anticipated. But for some, everything seems possible as a young adult.

In the past three years, this has happened, and in fairly rapid sequence, all things considered:

  • I met an amazing woman and moved across the country (without a job yet) to court and marry her.
  • Once settled, I got a temporary job, and as soon as it moved to permanent, I asked my fiancée to quit her abusive job before it killed her (she did so, and her health gradually rebounded).
  • The pandemic swiftly encompassed most of the USA.
  • We moved up our wedding but postponed any honeymoon for safety reasons.
  • Stay-at-home orders were rolled out.
  • Wildfires and their smoke crippled most of our state, making even our backyard off-limits for most of the summer.
  • We launched a new writing project for 2021 and got our first couple of pieces published in a timely fashion. Then…
  • Literally four days before I would have been able to get a vaccine to reduce my family’s risk, the company I was with eliminated my position (and thus my eligibility for said vaccine).
  • Before I managed to find work again, we had a death in the family.
  • Some of my professional relationships happily evolved into personal friendships.
  • I learned that freelancing while looking for full-time work elsewhere is like working two jobs anyway, but only getting paid for one. (0/10 – do not recommend)
  • A local startup invited me to join their small, powerful team and focus my unique skill set where it could do the most good.
  • One of my thesis statements was proven to be correct.
  • A remedial class dropped into my life, only this time I “tested out” successfully. I was on the right track, but my wife helped me understand the final exam with which I was wrestling. Only then did I manage to pass a crucial test.

Quite the winding road! Yet when familiar patterns emerged, I saw some forks that I missed before. As our journey lengthens, does the pace accelerate, or do we simply see more, if we have the wisdom to pay full attention?

I have long said that life will give you the exact same lesson, in different forms, until you learn what you need to from it. But then, you get different lessons.

Is it a good sign to have so many chances to learn new skills and solve new problems, in quick succession? Or is it just exhausting? And how much of that depends on your attitude?

For the record, I think that how we respond to things matters more than what happens, on balance. And both can still be true: it is indeed exhausting AND probably still a sign that we’re ready to “level up” in life.

Well aware that the next thing could come up before we’ve sorted through the last events… I still have hope that we will learn what we need to from each struggle and reach a new, higher equilibrium. If that makes the next lesson easier to understand, so much the better.

Until then, remember to keep living, and not just waiting.

Briefly: Prosody

Prosody has two basic meanings: 1) the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry (you might think of how what we call prose easily shifts into true poetry with a little grace), and 2) the patterns of stress and intonation in a language. Pretty similar, right? I thought that was curious, but naturally, I HAD to know the etymology of that word at the same time as I learned the definition:

etymology of prosody
from “towards song” – how cool is that?

So that brightened my day, and I hope it can brighten yours, too, especially if you’re also a fan of words, poetry, and song. Or learning. Or reading. Or anything at all, really. Have a good one!

Losing Big with Stock Investing

I read a thread on Twitter this morning about Apple’s reaching three TRILLION dollars in supposed value, and about one person’s crushing regret that they did not invest in Apple stock some time ago. Thinking about this gave me a few insights that are worth sharing.

Stock trading in a nutshell

A quick note for those who don’t know how single-stock trading works. When you buy one or more shares of stock, you own a piece of paper (more on this later), and you hope it will increase in supposed value. Then you can sell it at a later time, ideally for more than you paid, and you have a profit, or net gain.

That’s how you want things to go. If it drops in value, or if you need your cash back in a hurry, you can sell it at a loss and just take your money to do something else. This happens a LOT, and more than investment firms probably want you to dwell on.

Still, it’s possible to make plenty of money trading stocks, especially if you don’t care where it comes from. See, to strike it big with stock trading, you almost always take money from other investors; it rarely has any contact with the actual company in which you’re “investing”.

Q: Then how does it keep going?

That’s a great question!

The easy answer is cynical but probably accurate. I’ve heard more than once that the reason no one ever brings down this house of cards is that, if you’re smart enough to understand how it works and what’s wrong with the structure, a giant investment firm will usually try to snap you up and offer you an absurd amount of money to keep the deck stacked in THEIR favor, and help them make even more from it. They benefit, you benefit, and nothing changes.

The other side of that is that while some professors/lawyers (I’m looking at you two, Robert Reich and Elizabeth Warren) do explain the very real effects of this in pretty clear terms, they don’t pay to advertise. Investment firms and stock-trading apps are everywhere, and they pay huge sums to keep the promises of big returns and the dream of passive income (“easy money”), right in your face, every day.

So a lot of people might never hear the dark side of this unless they lose out, and even then, if they don’t dig into the process, they might think it’s just bad luck, and not the natural result of a flawed process in which the house almost always wins. Traders and exchanges have been streamlining the system to ensure that for centuries now.

Preferred versus Common stock

It gets weirder, of course. Consider this as well, before you think you’ve missed out on something fantastic.

Preferred stock is a specialized investment into a company you believe in, when you want money and not control. Preferred stock is far more likely to repay your initial investment if the company liquidates for any reason (bankruptcy may or may not lead to liquidation of their assets), and the tax incentives to owning preferred stocks are ridiculously generous. If you have tons of money and want more, this is your safest bet.

Plus, if a company actually earns money by providing valuable goods or services to their clientele, they can pay real dividends to stockholders. But preferred stockholders always get paid first.

Common stock gives you voting rights over a company’s board of directors, and even the CEO. It will be a percentage based on what you own (usually one vote per share, with however many shares there are in the company’s holdings). While you can influence policy at times with your votes, that same board of directors can easily decide not to pay dividends to common stockholders at all. So, pros and cons for each.

Q: But what about trading?

You can still sell stock shares, and for more if the company is doing well in the public eye, or less if they’re visibly struggling. However, this is 100% subjective with common stock (preferred gives the company that issued the stock, the chance to buy those shares back from the market, so again, you’re more likely to get your money back at some point with preferred stock than with common stock).

As with art, the value of common stock is purely in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the buyer. While art may provide real emotional or mental benefits that make any price you pay worthwhile (and how I do love museums and showcases, too!), common stock just gives you a piece of paper that someone else, someday, might try to buy from you.

Convince others it’s worth less when you buy, and convince them it’s worth more when you sell. You’re making money by trading hard-earned cash for a piece of paper. It is literally something for nothing. And I won’t even BEGIN to explain “futures” in this post.

Q: How did we get here from there?

I started this with a few brief points to mention, but the background is there if you need it, too.

Here are your takeaways:

1) A stock purchase without understanding, or made from sentimentality, or from jumping on the bandwagon, is just throwing away your real money on ephemeral items of questionable worth. Might they turn out to be terrific investments one day, if you know when to sell? Maybe. Casinos supposedly pay out to players once in a while, too, but most people who visit them spend a lot on the experience and gain nothing more. (Experience is the only thing you can buy that always makes you richer, by the way. That part can be worthwhile anywhere.)

2) It is NOT a loss to look back on a skipped investment years ago that you think might have made you wealthy by today. And did you have any expenses back then that you’ve forgotten about now? If your money was tied up in paper slips that you wanted to sit on for twenty years, what else would you have missed out on along the way?

3) Finally, anyone who has studied the observer effect knows that things might have gone quite differently if they HAD taken the other road. You literally cannot expect that things would be the same everywhere, except for your new fortune today. That is not how causality works; not at the quantum level, and not at the macro level.

Q: Some of that is awfully specific. Got anything else?

Live in the moment and look at what you can do now. Not decades past. Haunting your regrets will make you miss out on the rest of your life. Literally. What can you do today and tomorrow to make your life better now, more interesting, more enjoyable?

What’s past is past, for everyone I’ve ever known.

What’s next, for you?

Agnostic No More?

It’s funny how connotation works, isn’t it?

You immediately think you know what that word means here, and you might be right. But as with so many things in life, it carries another meaning that also applies.

Most people see “agnostic” and think it must mean a belief, or a lack of belief, in a deity or a doctrine. I’m an etymologist, though. Not one with a degree, just a passion.

As an avid reader, I love to discover new words, but I am always on guard for alternate meanings.

As a writer, I constantly work to choose the best words — the most precise for what I am trying to describe, or the one that purposely has a dual meaning, to convey both at once, where appropriate. This is a perfect example of the latter use.

Years ago, I described myself as an agnostic in its modern sense: someone who distinctly does NOT know all the answers about a deity or the world(s) beyond our five most common senses and our three-dimensional environment. Most people know this meaning today.

However, as an explorer of science, medical discovery, applied psychology, and general self-development (I mean, really: can’t we all learn to do something better today?), that would seem to make me an agnostic in other ways, too.

The word agnostic comes into English from gnostic, which derives from the Greek for “known” and is related to the Latin “know”, according to Oxford Languages. Agnostic literally means “not knowing”, in its simplest form.

etymology of the word gnostic
I don’t know all the symbols to type this out myself yet. 😉

If you are certain you know the answers to something, people might say that you have faith, which Merriam-Webster defines as “firm belief in something for which there is no proof”. However, I suspect that most people with a powerful faith believe what they believe either due to evidence they’ve witnessed (ideally) or from simple indoctrination, where beliefs are pounded into someone’s head through repetition (and sometimes punishment) without any evidence.

Most people who profess faith in a religious doctrine might point to holy texts, or even to a spiritual experience they’ve had which reinforced what they already suspected or believed or learned, and which left them with even stronger faith in their existing beliefs or hopes. This is evidence-based, even knowing that our minds are subject to bias and error and all manner of struggles, and that seems like a better reason for believing in anything.

This is why I support the scientific process all the time, too. Scientists are constantly discovering evidence that tests their hypotheses and forces them to evolve new theories, which often lead to more discoveries. This is how the human brain seems to be wired: constant feedback and growth is how we learn about our environment, and it is literally key to our survival in the world around us.

We’re not straying from the point, by the way. Quite the opposite.

Knowing what you don’t know gives you room to learn and even helps light the way. Anything that you study, with critical thinking and an open mind, can lead you to incredible discoveries: both the work others have done before you looked, and of course the ground that you break as well. And anyone can develop a new theory of how the world works, or how people think, or how to solve a previously-befuddling problem in astrophysics, psychology, medicine, theoretical mathematics, or almost anything else.

Artists constantly reinterpret and even reinvent the world around them, and such a new vision can enlighten, dishearten, inspire, anger, or simply teach. Artistic expression is crucial to our growth as a species, because while scientific curiosity can open many doors to knowledge, artistic curiosity can open doors to mysteries. And mystery itself can be frightening or exciting, depending on your perspective, which of course can change and grow anytime.

Also, doesn’t every mystery invite exploration? How better to keep us seeking a deeper understanding, and more knowledge — and even theory — of the world (or worlds) around us? Maybe we’re wired for curiosity as well. Maybe it’s what we need the most in this life.

What do you think you know the best? What are you working to discover about yourself, your world, or the life around you? Please comment below and share your thoughts!

Remember to Cry

Amid the pandemic, some of us may not have as many close, personal interactions with other people as we did in years past. For extroverts, it may be easy to empathize with people when you can look into their eyes and see their emotions so plainly.

I wouldn’t know about that part; I’m an ambivert, and I’ve always related best to introverts.

A few days ago, I received a beautiful card from a dear friend. Their words moved me to tears, and I could feel in those words the ache of being so far apart from so many that we love, and for so long now. It’s easy for me to read emotions on paper, and my friend’s pain and hope and love and fear all came through clearly.

But the bad news plays non-stop these days, and it’s all too easy to grow numb. To survive, sometimes we must harden our hearts just enough that we don’t bleed our emotions all over everything we touch. It seems that most people only have so much to give before we are exhausted. Without some good things happening around us, the one-sided cycle can build up enough momentum to crush the fragile hearts of all but the strongest among us.

Of course there is still beauty to be found — or made — in these sometimes endless days. Even with a pandemic raging across the burning planet of struggling people, there is still some good news. But you must dig for it, or for the peace to create some of it yourself. And how do you do that when your heart is growing numb?

Luckily, the answer to that is easier to find than it may seem: CRY. Yes, I can explain.

Cry. Not with helpless rage. Not in rolling fear. Help yourself to cry again. Find a song, a painting, a sculpture, a photo, a portrait of someone you love (and perhaps lost), a poem, or some prose. Anything that can soften the frozen barrier around your heart can save you from apathy and the terrifying disconnect that can creep over even the greatest empathizers when the world becomes too much.

For me, I keep close a small collection of poems and cards, some long messages with friends, and a short, specific playlist of songs. Any one of these might help if I’m just starting to slip, but sometimes I have to run a gauntlet through them to crack the shell I didn’t realize had grown so thick.

I consider myself pretty self-aware, and I can usually tell when I’m getting overwhelmed. Detecting when I’m growing disconnected is harder, but I can pick up the signs for that as well. Once I recognize the disconnect, I have to carve out at least a few minutes to immerse myself in these memories and works of art. Not just the most painful memories I have, but those specific mementos I keep to evoke a nostalgia of someone I love who is too far away, or a poem or song by an artist I love that expresses their pain. Really swimming in that, I can usually let myself get carried completely away into the art or the memory. With some of these experiences in succession, eventually I start to cry again.

Have you heard the advice that the best way to forget your own problems is to get involved in someone else’s? The reason that works is that it invokes your empathy. It opens your heart to someone else’s struggle. When their trouble is not the same kind as yours (or at least not currently), it can stir a rush of selfless love that refreshes those cold, drained channels inside of you. And that compassion can give you the courage to face their pain with calm dignity and the strength to lend your aid in whatever way you are able.

When you find a way to draw out your own empathy, whether the subject of your unconditional love is at hand or not, you gain a perspective that is just outside of your own struggles. Even that small distance can make yours seem more manageable, and that can mean the difference between wandering listlessly through your day, cold and detached, or engaging fully with everything you do, bringing even a little bit of hope and light to all you touch (distantly or not).

That difference is as tangible as life and death, or daylight and the darkest night. And it can save you from yourself when you question how you can continue to work effectively, connect with the people in your life, or maybe even get out of bed on the most difficult days.

For most of us, the highs can outweigh the lows, whether you love to mix with people, or whether your plants and your pets are the only ones you want to see most days.

Open your heart as much and as often as you can, and I promise you, life will be more rewarding because of it. More difficult? Certainly. But far more worthwhile.

Just remember to cry, and you will know you are truly alive.

Briefly: A Symbiotic Wonder of the World

The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya, India are a fascinating wonder to behold! Grown naturally and yet carefully cultivated by the trained Khasi and Jaintia tribes who live there, these bridges can withstand the monsoon season. Of course they also avoid rot! Most bridges built from traditional materials would deteriorate swiftly in such a wet locale.

The eleven Living Root Bridges in place today are nearly 180 years old, though the roots are known to last up to 500 years once fully established. As some roots in the bridge age and weaken, the trees are constantly growing others, which can take their place and keep the bridges strong enough to support around 50 people at one time.

Another daily screensaver image led me to this beautiful discovery. There is even a double-decker bridge over one stretch of water!

Update: there may be many more of these beautiful, growing structures in place. A three-year study from 2015-2017 apparently examined dozens of them (and their history), considering applications in modern cities around the world. More ecosystems than simple structures, these Living Root Bridges demonstrate harmony and care that could provide even more obvious benefits to urban areas than the greenery alone, if such a concept could thrive elsewhere.

Learning the Sum of Your Parts

So I was listening to ‘Dreamlover’ by Mariah Carey, and she sang, “Just want someone to belong to, every day of my life, always, so come and take me away.” And of course that set me to thinking.

It feels great to belong. It feels great to be needed. But if it’s your defining emotion, you might be codependent.

If you don’t feel like anything’s right until this happens, that might be the sign of a problem.

However, if you know who you are, and you relish that feeling, but it’s not THE defining characteristic of your life, then you understand the difference between an emotion and your core being. That’s a difficult lesson to learn in life.

Reading the Map

Emotions are powerful; they’re meant to be. And the amygdala actually releases brain chemicals when we feel emotions. It’s more than just a brain wave. It’s more than just a moment. You feel it throughout your entire body, good or bad. It can fill us with euphoria; it can flush us with dread; it can paralyze us with terror; it can make us angry and drive us to make things better when there’s an injustice. It can also make you warm and tingly, or incite passions. All of these things are real, physical reactions to emotions. Emotions are real, but they’re not everything.

You are more than the sum of your emotions; you are more than the sum of your body chemistry; you are more than just your thoughts. Your thoughts and those you choose to turn into actions are incredibly important. They may define how others perceive you, but they don’t define your whole self. You are more than the sum of all of your parts, inside and out.

So feeling like you belong to someone, or feeling like you are completed by someone; a fine line separates those two, and if you don’t understand the difference, you might be on the wrong side of it.

Feeling like you’re incomplete without someone – that’s the sign of a problem, too. If you felt incomplete before you met this person, then you had a problem before you met them, and meeting them has not solved it.

If you don’t think you’re missing any pieces in your personal puzzle, and then you find someone with whom you just “click”; someone who fascinates you, or who enriches your days and nights in any way; then you two could be a great fit!

A Brief Success Story

Meredith and I followed this last course. We were each doing well enough on our own when we met, and we had a couple of things in common from the beginning. “You know, I really liked the way you said that.” “Oh, that’s a very good point about kindness.” “Oh, isn’t that mutual friend great?” It sparked some interest. Once we really looked at each other, and we liked what we saw, that sparked a little more interest.

But then we started getting to know each other. And when THAT happened, that’s when we began to learn just how well we meshed.

Now, nobody’s perfect. But it was a lot like a zipper zipping up correctly. So many things lined up with our values and our humor and our thinking, that we’ve been together ever since, and happily so.

To Keep or Not to Keep?

Plenty of couples are simply mismatches. You may have some wild passion, or strong attraction; you may have this one cause that brings you together, but you just can’t agree on anything else…. You two are not meant to be together! You can spend time together; you can talk; you can exchange ideas; you can have great sex; just understand that this is not a relationship that’s gonna last forever and fulfill you both, if you don’t complement each other in a lot of ways.

Enough common interests to enjoy them together; enough shared values to believe that the same types of things are important in life (that’s a big one!); but enough differences to remain interesting to each other: THAT is a formula with the potential for a long-term relationship.

And I do believe in love that lasts forever. Don’t think for a minute that I’m saying anything else. It’s just that until you figure out who you are first, you’re not gonna know if you really fit someone else, or if they’re just shielding you from the things that you don’t want to face.

If all they do is keep you from being alone at night, because you can’t stand to get into a cold, empty bed – that’s another sign of a problem.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking somebody home if you want; if you trust them, you like them, and you know that there’s no commitment here, that’s fine (as long as you’re all consenting adults who feel the same way). But if you’re not actually talking about that, then how are you gonna know that you’re on the same page?

There’s nothing wrong with falling in love with somebody immediately, either. But you still should take the time to find out these things about each other. If you fall in love immediately, and you get married three days later – good luck! I don’t know how that’s gonna work out. I haven’t seen it work very often, but it certainly can.

However, if you fall in love immediately and then spend three months getting to know each other, and then you decide, “Hey, I’m gonna spend a lot more time with this person,” and then, six months after that, you get married? Congratulations! Married a year later because you know what’s right and you’ve checked all these things? That has a lot of promise. (Yes, I might know a little extra about this type of scenario!)

And if you decide never to marry anyone, but you simply cultivate terrific relationships throughout your life? Anything that fulfills you, that doesn’t leave broken hearts in its wake, sounds admirable and worthwhile to me!

You don’t have to fit into any mold to find true contentment or even overflowing joy. Just learn who you really are, don’t hurt anyone on purpose, and try not to hurt anyone by accident, and you’re on your way to a rich life of friends, family, or whoever and whatever you choose to fill it with.

Find yourself, forge your path, and enjoy.

Briefly: A New (Old) Bridge of Languages

As a lifetime glottophile, I have long been fascinated by the various families of languages that modern cultures use, and of course some of their historical roots and changes over the centuries and millennia.

Today I learned of a few new groupings:

In 2014, a new research paper suggested a common linguistic ancestor between the first two families above.

I do love finding more ways to show how connected we are on this Earth, and common languages, however far back they may reach, can help light the way to a greater understanding of each other in the present.

We really do have more in common with our neighbors at home and abroad than many of us realize. And if seeing that helps anyone empathize a little better today, it seems worth sharing, too.

Briefly: Silvopasture

Silvopasture means that trees are left standing on grazing lands, and the balance is carefully managed. This hands-on practice leads to greater health for the trees, the pastures, and the animals, and is a solid improvement over clear-cutting trees for grazing turf.

My screensaver changes daily, and this beautiful cover image led me to my discovery. The USDA’s Forestry Center and of course Wikipedia both had more to add, if you’re as intrigued as I am and want to read a few more tidbits.