Thursday, July 30, 2015

Watching Clouds

July 22, 2015

I've been watching the clouds streak by today. Fast. Very fast. And it reminded me of another time I noticed the clouds speeding along, a night last summer.

I flopped back on the bouldering pad. I was probably laughing; I spent a lot of that night laughing. I was camped in a valley above Leavenworth WA on a weekend climbing trip with four guys, two of whom I had first met in the parking lot as we shoved crash pads in the car. We'd driven out after work, found a campsite by headlamp, woke up in a beautiful place, bouldered all day, and were trying to make dinner. How many engineers does it take to cook a potato if you forgot the tinfoil? These four each had a different way...the guys built an oven, put them straight into the fire, stabbed and roasted them on sticks, and boiled them on the stove. I pretty much sat and laughed the whole time (I was in the boiling crew). And they were delicious. It was a fun day.

When I flopped back I looked up at the stars. And they were moving. Fast. I just stared until I finally realized what I was seeing (and made the guys look so I knew I wasn't imagining it). The clouds were streaming overhead so fast that it appeared that they were still and the stars were rushing by. Beautiful.  

Perspective is a funny thing.

That moment threw my perspective. Trying to understand why the stars - which normally move slowly enough that I can use them for directions - were streaming over my head. Making sense of something unexpected; being reminded that things are not what they seem. All summer people, these four guys included, had asked me why I wore an infinity bracelet. I kept answering "to remind me that nothing lasts forever." Maybe I meant it to sound cynical - I was coming out of a rough semester in college. I had been having health trouble and couldn't do the things I wanted and expected either mentally or physically. I postponed my thesis, dropped to three classes, stopped participating in most extracurriculars, and on top of this, I found myself suddenly out of touch with several of my best friends. I was very ready for summer.

But when I watched the stars stream by that summer night the meaning of that answer shifted: nothing lasts forever. I was climbing in Washington. I'd found new friends to go camping with, I'd finished my spring courses, I was healthy enough to climb 3-4 times a week, and I was able to focus on my work all day. I was not perfect. But I felt like me again.

In fact, I felt more "like me" that summer than I had in a long time. I was working hard - 40 hours of programming wears me out - but I was also getting to explore a new place and spend a lot of time outside, and my confidence was returning. I even started to let go of some of the fears that had followed me through college: what if I'm not good enough? What if I'm not smart enough? What if people don't like this side of me?

I forget these thoughts outside. It's enough to be in the mountains. And I grin and jump up and down when I get to climb the mountains. I sit and watch the clouds without feeling like I should be headed to do something "productive". I wish for a few more nights on every backpacking trip. I'm just happy.

On my current trip I was reading The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. He claims that the goal of architecture is to be beautiful enough to inspire. Inspire what? That's the obvious question, but that's where it gets a little vague...because the goal is different each time. You can learn about people by their preferences. He suggests that people are attracted both to that which makes them feel at home and that which reminds them of those values in which they are deficient. For example, the more chaotic your life feels the more you may be attracted to symmetrical designs. And you'll feel relaxed when you see your values echoed around you. That resonates: a love of travel and many years of fantastic road trips puts me at ease and grinning as I pull out onto the road (especially when headed west). Maybe most people don't feel at home in the backseat of a crowded car, but for me it signals the start of a fun adventure.

He further describes qualities we admire: order, balance, elegance. For all of those, there is a lot of acting like Goldilocks. We like order but not boredom. We like balance only if it is challenging. We like greatness but not arrogance. We like things that we know are difficult, but appear effortless.

"There is beauty in that which is stronger than we are." I agree with that. I admire people who stick things out (I even have a "got sisu?" bumper sticker). People who make time to help others. Experts who are dedicated to their crafts. Climbers who gracefully maneuver across delicate holds on big overhangs.

But for me this is seen most in nature. In the thunderstorms that chase people off peaks. In the wind that forces you behind rocks. In the ice that plagues your footsteps. In rapids that are unrunnable and cliffs that are unscalable. In moments when you remember how small you are. In moments when you remember how lucky you are. In moments when the stars stream over your head.

And if the goal of architecture is to inspire, then (with an apology to Alain de Botton) I would agree with Michael O'Muircheartaigh. "No known roof is as beautiful as the skies above."

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Intelligent Happiness

I smile a lot. Everyone who has met me knows that. People have asked me, seriously, if I'm ever not happy. The answer if yes. And, actually, I cry a lot. Though not everyone who has met me knows that. I've spent a lot of time being frustrated, and hurt, and scared, and stressed. I'd rather spend that time being happy, so you would think I might have some patience with the idea that happiness is a choice that you could make logically. So why was it that when the author of a book I just finished used the phrase "intelligent happiness" in the closing sentence, it nearly ruined the book for me? What was it about that choice of words that put me off?

I dislike the idea of "intelligent happiness". Somehow it feels paradoxical to me, that true smiles come unbidden, but I've been struggling to decide why. I persistently maintain that optimism is an acquirable skill. I think anyone can learn to see the best in things if they practice. And I often ask people what will always make them smile. It's important knowledge, whether it's a small thing like a chocolate chip cookie or a night contra dancing or a run down a ski hill. In fact, I think it's better if you can name more things that make you smile in case some are weather or health or travel dependent. And these are types of "intelligent happiness". And the success of solving a difficult math problem or writing an essay well could be another type of "intelligent happiness", and personally, I love those feelings. But I still chafe at the phrase. It seems to ignore a deeper feeling: joy.

The glee of flying off a sled in the snow. Of floating downstream and catching the eddy back upriver on your pre-breakfast swim. Of looking at a peak and knowing you climbed to the top. Of being swept off your feet and spun in circles by your best friend just because he missed you all summer. The grin that inexplicably crosses your face and refuses to leave.

There's a purity to these moments, fleeting though they may be. And maybe all that "intelligent happiness" means is making yourself open to these moments. Maybe it's just learning to think positively and to find hobbies you're passionate about and to surround yourself with meaningful people so that you increase your chances of catching a joyful moment. Maybe it's knowing that you should take a day off and go hiking, even if you don't know why puffing your way up a steep hill will make your day brighter.

I still dislike the phrase. I don't think you can reason your way into being happy. But I think you can know yourself well enough to maximize your odds.

So you tell me, what will always make you smile?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Some Other Me

The other day I saw two old friends. One of them is a computer scientist who is headed off to work in the fall. He’s really smart, he works hard, he likes to run marathons, and he’s ready to see a new part of the country. He has a plan. The other is more of a drifter. She loves to have fun and be outside. She works at jobs she enjoys even when they don’t pay as well. She climbs and skis. She also likes to run marathons. She dreams big, and then tries to make these dreams reality. Who else would say “I want to go for a long trip, hey, maybe I should bike across the country?” and then take off and do it. Alone.

Some other me would be biking with her. And some other me would be stopping by his desk to ask if he wants to get lunch.

It’s disconcerting to hear about their lives and realize that I could see myself in either of their shoes. Two very different paths. And I’m not on either one. Instead, I have a one way ticket to Scotland and a handful of email addresses of people I would like to meet over the next 12 months.

Did I make the right choice?

Some other me will come back to the USA in 12 months. Maybe she’ll be fluent in Spanish. Maybe she’ll know how to set up a backstrap loom. Maybe she’ll have seen the northern lights. Maybe she’ll be smarter and wiser and ready to start down any of the paths she previously envisioned. Or maybe she’ll have new dreams that I can’t even imagine yet.

I hope it’s the last one. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Hello World

Hello World.

These are familiar words. I’ve written them countless times in the last few years. In a whole array of languages. So why am I scared when I look at them now?

For four years these words lived mainly in a computer. My world was manageable, it consisted primarily of a small college campus in Vermont. It was beautiful. It was full of smart people. It was challenging. But I learned the rhythm. And during those four years I kept dreaming that I would have a fifth year for my education. But this final year wouldn’t be in a classroom, it would be out in the world traveling.

There are lessons I couldn’t learn in a classroom. I can program in a handful of languages, but my language skills with other people are sadly lacking. I was lucky enough to travel growing up, but I have never lived for more than a few weeks in another country. I learned to be persistent, to challenge myself, to ask questions. But have I learned to be independent? To enjoy being alone? To throw myself into a project without a safety net? To be vulnerable in front of strangers? To risk embarrassing myself as I learn to navigate a new set of rules and values? And to get up and do it again as soon as I start to get comfortable?

These are questions that scare me. So, naturally, I applied for funding to throw myself into a situation where I would learn the answers. Where failing wasn’t an option. This year, if I get lonely I will have to learn how to join into a new community. If I’m homesick, I’ll need to make a new place feel like home. If I’m ill, I’ll need to ask for a favor from someone I just met. If I’m lucky, I’ll be inspired by kind and interesting people all over the world.

I always try to convince myself that fear is just excitement waiting for a direction. And my first direction is Northeast.

Ready or not, here I come.

A Universal Language

“But truth, we know, is that which clarifies, not that which confuses. Truth is the language that expresses universality. Newton did not “discover” a law that lay hidden from man like the answer to a rebus. He accomplished a creative operation. He founded a human speech which could express at one and the same time the fall of an apple and the rising of the sun. Truth is not that which is demonstrable but that which is ineluctable.” — Antoine de Saint Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars

I had a conversation, not so long ago, about achieving fluency in multiple languages. I was walking through a building which had signs in four languages — French, Spanish, English, and Dutch. Each time we came to a sign my friend read it in a different language. Once, and only once, did I pause long enough to fumble through the Spanish description, and I was happy to have the English to check my translation. I felt like an idiot. And granted, this feeling had become very common over the few months I spent in Europe, but it was not more pleasant for its familiarity.

The desire to know more, to understand better, and to stop feeling ignorant has driven me to read widely, to work hard in my studies, and to ask questions from people who know more than me. But language has never been an area of focus for me. I wish I was fluent in Spanish. I think it would be fun to live abroad and immerse myself. I’ve read about the history and grammatical structure of a handful of different languages and find it interesting. But ask me to speak in either Italian or Spanish and at best you’ll get a few sentences of questionable grammar, and ask for any other language and I can guarantee you’ll receive a poorly pronounced reading from Google translate. So while I’ve thought I should spend more time and energy learning another language, it has never risen to the top of my priority queue. There was code to write, books to read, patterns to knit, friends to ask about their studies, mountains to climb. To use the words I hate: there was never time. But a single conversation has been reshaping my priorities.

I’ve always thought it was interesting to hear people talk about how they dream. I knew someone who never dreamed in color. Someone who dreamed in words, like reading a book. And people who dream in different languages (sometimes at the same time). So it was pretty normal for me to ask my friend what language he thought and dreamt in. I was expecting him to say it depended on what language he was speaking most frequently. I guess because that’s sort of how I write computer code, which is the closest I come to being fluent in multiple languages. Instead he told me that the ideas are separate from the language. That they don’t start in words, and that he can choose in which language to describe the same thoughts. This idea, this very simple idea, is utterly incomprehensible to me. I guess this is the elusive miracle of fluency that I have yet to achieve — my thoughts are firmly rooted in English right now (with the occasional logic symbol), and at best I can translate them into another language.

I found this idea again in Wind, Sand and Stars recently. That the ideas exist, and it is only making them understandable and sharable that is difficult. That Newton, rather than being celebrated for making a discovery, should instead be celebrated as a translator. He found a way to take an idea that was seen in the natural world, and translate it into a language that could be shared between people. And for a moment, this passage made me feel less like an idiot. Because while I can’t speak any foreign languages, the sharable language celebrated in this passage is mathematics. And I can speak that tongue.

Just as quickly, however, I remembered that the only reason I was reading this book in the first place was because someone else had translated it from French into English.

Perhaps it is time to make some time to improve my language skills. Perhaps, with a little effort, I could understand this idea that some ideas are pure enough to exist outside of language. And that these ideas can be shared in many different phrasings, to many different people. Perhaps, by understanding how the ideas change from translation, I will gain a better understanding of what it was that I tried to say in the first place. Perhaps, it is time to stop writing in English and go log on to Duolingo.