icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Thoughts and Hallucinations

Aging in too many places

The previous home page

Life feels fragmented this past three months, something I’m now repairing by discarding some pieces and stitching others together. Some intense project work with the VA in Texas, a dissertation in robotics at Carnegie-Mellon, a talk about a practical theory to an anthropology department at the Univ of North Texas, and away to a water workshop in California. And along in there an NSF grant application to figure out water governance in New Mexico and several revisions of the new book. And now I can get to a promised old-timer article for a special issue of a criminololgy journal, an encyclopedia article on rich points, a presentation for a conference in late March, and revisions of a manuscript on language/culture training.

This is the golden years? Fool’s gold, more like. When do I get to the part where I learn to play saxophone and take woodshop and then grab dinner on the earlybird special? Which I'd like to do, with the possible exception of the earlybird. Not to mention the book I still want to write that combines geology and art criticism?

But seriously, I like most of what I’m doing and I did let it get a little out of control, like a holiday dinner where you eat too much to avoid arguing with your antifactual Tea Party relatives, or like tossing down a double shot of tequila at last call, so, you know, my bad. I love that expression. Wikipedia says it came out of the streets and means “mea culpa,” music to a recovering Catholic’s ears. The Urban Dictionary definition is even better:

“A way of admitting a mistake, and apologizing for that mistake, without actually apologizing. The best definition I ever read of this, now paraphrased: ‘I did something bad, and I recognize that I did something bad, but there is nothing that can be done for it now, and there is technically no reason to apologize for that error, so let's just assume that I won't do it again, get over it, and move on with our lives.’”

So I’m reigning in the chaos. I just resigned from a project that provided a lot of work and paid well, not the brightest move to make for a self-employed person, though I am thinking I can shift to my retirement savings soon and open up some space. The project was for the gummint, involved a lot of smart people, and had to do with making the U.S. smarter by showing computers how to take in lots of publicly available information from the internet to figure out what was happening in the countries of the world. I’d tried to produce a similar learning strategy—without the computer—for international epidemiology in the past, even wrote a book that nobody wanted called Culture Crossing to show Americans how to learn about other countries they were visiting. The thing that made me decide to let it go? The project called for creativity and innovation—part of the attraction of it—but then it couldn’t rise above its organizational tradition of command and control. I’ve had the same problem with social service work, since most of it is tied to hierarchical state or federal funding sources as well.

In a changing world that demands creative ideas, the organizations that provide the resources to make the change usually demand process control and efficiency as a condition of funding. As a result the organizations limit innovation to something that fits how they already think and the way they already work. Like Einstein said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Millions of sources in the innovation literature will tell you that this mix won’t work. I remember when I first moved to Northern New Mexico, a colleague who ran the business roundtable at the Santa Fe Institute listened to my Robin Hood fantasy. I wanted to take all these creative complexity theory strategies and steal them from business where they flourished and give them to government and social services. He just laughed. “They can’t adapt,” he said.

An old article I wrote called “Rolling Complex Rocks Up Social Service Hills,” in the column to the left, is an earlier version of the lament. I want to do something about this. I can’t figure out what or how. But I plan to work on it.

The other strategy, born of the decision to slowly work into retirement savings, is to find the patterns that reproduce across the fragments and concentrate more on them. Water in New Mexico is a perfect storm of history and culture and economics and politics and environment and all those other categories that become both important and irrelevant when you look at a wicked problem. I used to joke with audiences who knew the War on Drugs ads of the old days, “This is your brain, this is your brain on distinctions.” And the storm is an intellectual problem that matters, worthy of anyone’s effort to truly understand it and figure out how to live in harmony with it to keep Earth from kicking us out so the cockroaches and mice can get on with things. Really, that meteor 65 million years ago, they say, ended the reign of the dinosaurs and let our mammal ancestors slowly turn into the problem that we are today. I wonder what would flourish if earth got rid of us? I know there’s a book, The World Without Us, but I never read it.

So maybe I can weave innovation and water together, add in the language and communication that are part of everything I do, and come up with sort of a poststructural Navajo rug design made of ideas. And keep a little cash flow going to pay for the saxophone lessons on the side.

Post a comment