Imperfections

August 31st, 2020

By Michael W. Gos

Hye, Texas

Whenever I’m on my way to Fred, I usually travel along 290, passing Dripping Springs, Johnson City, over a dozen wineries, and the tiny town of Hye, with a population of 96.  Like Luckenbach, Hye is a small town that is virtually a ghost town now, except for a few buildings along the highway.  Unlike Luckenbach however, it still has a working post office, but I suspect it is unlike any you have ever seen. This mail spot is famous because it is where President Lyndon Johnson posted his first letter, at the age of four.  As is the case with Luckenbach, the post office is not a stand-alone building.  Here, it is located inside the town’s landmark, the Hye Market.

When you first approach the Hye Market, you notice that the building appears to be in poor shape.  In fact, you see signs that it never was in the best of shape to begin with.  Built in 1904, the building is slightly out-of-line, and the colors are not quite right—faded perhaps, or just the work of a painter who had no artistic sense.  The inside, frankly, is a conglomeration of unrelated work areas that don’t quite fit together.  There is a restaurant, a wine tasting area, a meat and cheese market, and the post office, which is open a couple of hours a day–when the postmistress decides to show up.  (My wife wants her job!).  It is, frankly, a mess—as far from perfect as you can possibly get.  And it is absolutely beautiful.

One thing that has often puzzled me is why we humans spend so much time and effort in trying to perfect ourselves.  That is not to say that some attention to our appearance, behavior and personalities is not in order.  Most of us try to dress well (at least sometimes), some women wear makeup, and we are generally trying to be better at all the things we do in our daily lives.  And that is good.  But I wonder if some of the other goals we pursue might be a bit more dubious.  Think of all the hours–and dollars–we spend in the gym, trying to capture those perfect six-pack abs.  Don’t get me wrong.  Although I myself have gone the full distance in this area and have acquired the whole keg, I do appreciate others’ attempts to achieve this perfection.  But is this goal realistic?  More important, is the quest good for our well-being?

While the human body is indeed a marvel, it is far from perfect in design and no amount of attention or effort on our part will change that. For example, we have nasal sinuses that drain upward, genes that don’t work, nerves that take bizarre paths, and an appendix that does nothing but cause trouble.  And then there is the human knee.  Talk about design flaws!  The engineer really blew it on that one.

Given that we are starting out with a flawed body and that none of us will ever reach the state of perfection, why do we still strive?  I suppose it is because we know that, while we all have many goals we work toward but will never achieve, the quest itself leaves us at least a bit closer to the goal and we are better for it.  And yet, I can’t help but think that, in this area at least, we may have gone overboard.  Facelifts, liposuction and injecting rat poison (Botox) into our faces in an effort to achieve that perfect look seems to be a sign that, as a society, we may have gone a bit over the edge (okay, maybe more than a bit).  We’ve all seen people who have done the plastic surgery thing so many times that they have reached the “lizard stage” where they can no longer move the muscles in their faces.  Perfecting the human body is, indeed, impossible.

If we do find ourselves driven to achieve perfection, a better outlet might be to seek it in more important areas of life, like competence in our work or building character.  There, at least, we might expect that an effort toward perfection could have a positive effect on our lives.  But this approach has its problems as well.

Research suggests that the pursuit of perfection, in any form, hampers success in many areas of our lives.  There are studies that show the quest for perfection is often the road to depression, anxiety, addiction, and a sense of paralysis, the inability to make decisions or take action.  All in all, the quest for perfection sounds like a losing proposition.

Alternatively, let’s look at this issue from a different perspective.  So far we have concentrated on the negative effects of the pursuit.  Instead, let’s examine the positive effects of just accepting the imperfections we encounter in life.  I would argue that it is the small imperfections in things that make them beautiful.  Think about that old, gnarly grapevine or olive tree.  Really, could anything be more beautiful?  For centuries, we have used old, misshapen briar wood to create some of the world’s most beautiful smoking pipes.  And every drop-dead gorgeous woman I have ever seen has at least one small “flaw” (beauty mark?) to round out the picture.  Think about it.  Beauty often lies in the imperfections.

But imperfections contribute to more than just beauty.  They are proof of authenticity.  Like the human body, nothing in nature is perfect.  In fact, nothing real can ever be perfect.  If someone, or something, looks too good to be true, we know it is.  When an artist weaves an expensive oriental rug, he always leaves one knot mis-tied.  This act of introducing an imperfection is the guarantee of its authenticity. The same is true for us.  The real me is imperfect, warts and all (well, not really—a few battle scars maybe, but no warts).  The same holds true for everything else in the universe.  And of course, we all know, whether we acknowledge it or not, that unless we can relax and be authentic, be who we really are, we can’t possibly be happy in our relationships, or in our lives.  Imperfection is a basic requirement for happiness.

The Hye market is beautiful precisely because of its many imperfections.  When you first see the building, and especially when you walk in and make your way through the hodge-podge of rooms, you immediately feel that sense of calm comfort that radiates from every corner.  What you are feeling is not just its beauty, but its authenticity.  It is a building comfortable in its own skin.  If a building can do that, why can’t we?

There is beauty and humility in imperfection.  Celebrate your imperfection; it is the essence of who you are.

Building Eden

May 7th, 2020

 

By Michael W. Gos

Just like you, I’ve spent the last few weeks under the “stay-at-home” order.  That brings travel, even within Texas, to a halt.  So, this month’s column will have to originate right here at home.  I guess we’re used to that by now.

If I were still working my day job, I’d be thrilled to have this time shut up at home, no commute nightmares, no time wasted on pointless meetings and social chitchat.   I could do my work and then get on with life.  But given that I’m retired, “stay-at-home” is just life as usual.  Well, with one exception: my wife is at home now too, so I can have fun chasing her around the house. Other than harassing Jill, I read, write, take online classes, and more recently, study other people’s reactions to the stay-at-home situation.

You don’t have to look far to find people who are scared or depressed.  Bad news is all around us, especially if you are near a TV.  We hear the constant drumbeat of the dangers of the disease and the effect on the economy. We sometimes wonder whether the precautions we are taking will really protect us.  For some, unemployment and money in general have become huge issues.  That is absolutely understandable and certainly no one could be blamed for feeling that way.  But if we let ourselves get too wrapped up in thoughts of this kind, we just might miss out on an opportunity we may never see again.

For most people, the act of being at home constantly is an entirely new experience and I have been fascinated by the reactions I have been seeing.  I regularly look at the “Next Door” conversations that show up in my email box and have seen discussions about what people are doing to pass the time, how they are entertaining the kids, what they most want to do when things get back to normal, and lots of questions about where toilet paper can be found.  One man went so far as to state that he has just discovered he has no life outside of work.  The overall gist of these discussions seems to be that people feel trapped at home, deprived of the places and things they love and are just plain bored.

Boredom is not something I can discuss with any degree of authority.  I can honestly say, it is a state that I have never experienced.  Oh, I’ve been to places, and especially meetings, where all I could think about was where I wanted to be instead, but I was never bored.  And I can’t imagine being bored now even under these circumstances.  But I can understand a couple of other instances where staying at home would be less-than-pleasant.

For many teenagers, for example, a death sentence would be preferable to being forced to spend time with the family.  I know it was for me.  I can understand their reaction.  And then there are people with a passel of kids.  Having them at home 24-7 not only causes a huge jump in the grocery bill but also tends to drive Mom and Dad crazy.  Beyond these two situations, though, I’m puzzled as to why anyone would not love the opportunity we are being given here.

If you are working from home, you have probably realized you now have more time on your hands these days because there is no commute, meetings are fewer and everything around us—be it work or grocery shopping—is being simplified by force or by choice.  Every time we simplify something in our lives, we get back more time, a little extra chunk of our lives (Thank you, Henry David Thoreau).  What a gift this extra time is.  And if you are not working at all, you have really hit the jackpot (well, maybe not financially, but certainly time-wise).

The way we choose to spend this extra time will make a huge difference in how happy we are now, given what is going on around us, and will have a great effect on our futures as well.  This is an opportunity to slow down, to look around, to enjoy our homes and gardens, and maybe to take a good, long look at ourselves and our families.

Aristotle said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  We have a chance right now to do that and more.  We can re-evaluate our lives, where we’ve been and where we want to go.  There are some simple questions that can help the process along.  Is what I’m doing really important? Is this really the way I want to spend my life? Are changes in order?

Now is the time to read a great book, take an online course, or better yet, get outside and work on building your little Eden in the backyard. Carl Jung tells us we all are born with and treasure the archetype of the garden because it is the part of us that “remembers” who we are and where we came from.  But keep in mind, Eden is more than just that physical garden.  It is the total package that is your life: the things you do, the places you go, the people you love.  It is your idea of who and what you really are. Now is the time to work on that! These actions will not only fill in this trying time with pleasant activities, they will also pay dividends later.

This is also a time to pamper ourselves, to engage in things that make us contented, relaxed, happy.  For some, this may be the first chance they’ve ever had to find out what those things are.

I suspect that when this is over, we will see a few changes in the world.  The obvious one, of course, will be a new baby boom.  Beyond that, many older workers who have experienced COVID will, for the first time, come to realize just how much work has interfered with the everyday business of life and we will see a plethora of retirements.  Others will have learned that being home was a nightmare they don’t want to relive and they will decide they never want to retire.  We will probably all wear longer hair, at least till the barber and beauty shops reopen.  And I’m sure we will see a new appreciation for all the small businesses we have taken for granted for years—our favorite restaurants, bars, and shops.

But most of all I really believe that we—all of us—will, if we use this time wisely, be changed in character and spirit in a positive way.  In the words of Lucas Nelson (yep, Willie’s son), “Turn off the news, and build a garden.”  Make it that little Eden you really deserve.

The Problem of Maturity

February 27th, 2020

By Michael W. Gos

Enchanted Rock, Texas

If you spend any time at all in Hill Country, you have probably been to Enchanted Rock. The main reason most of us go there is to enjoy the view and the cool breezes from the top, or to learn why it is called “enchanted.” But how many of us think about the geologic processes that formed it? Sure, Texas Parks and Wildlife has pamphlets and maps with brief explanations of the process, but for the most part, who cares? We came here to take in the beauty. It has always fascinated me, for instance, that the rock has two false tops before you get to the actual peak. Just when you think you are about to reach the top, a new rise comes into view. An optical illusion, I guess. But beyond that, I didn’t give the formation much thought.

I was climbing the rock with my running buddy and his ten-year-old son. Being a city kid, as you might expect, the boy ran ahead of us, excited to be in this strange environment.

Then he discovered his first mushroom rock.

Like any kid, the first thing he had to do was to try to climb on top of it. But it was about eight feet tall. Unsuccessful, he moved on to another, smaller one, and this time he was able to climb up and sit on the cap. Flushed with success, his mind moved on to other things—why does this rock, and others like it, have such a funny shape? And like any kid that age, he asked me that question. My job was to formulate an answer.

Being an exfoliation dome, Enchanted Rock peels off layers of “skin” like an onion. As that happens, sometimes boulders are left. Because the top of the boulder is of a harder substance than the sides, water and wind erode the sides, leaving the unusual shape. Of course, for a ten-year-old, that is too much information. I would have lost him on “exfoliation dome.” Yet such an intelligent question deserves an honest answer—well, semi-honest anyway.

The process of education is in reality, a process of lying. At the very least, we leave out important information. When we teach grade schoolers about the structure of the atom for example, we identify three particles for them: neutrons, protons and electrons. We consider others such as quarks and bosons to be inconsequential for our purposes, so we leave kids with a simplistic, not quite accurate explanation. My job was to answer the boy’s question truthfully, even if not fully, and to encourage such questioning in the future.

I had him rub his hand along the surface on which he sat. I asked him how it felt. He replied that it was smooth and hard. Then I had him climb down and do the same on the side of the mushroom. His face lit up as he discovered little pieces of the rock coming off in his hand. I told him that, like his hand, the rain and wind take off small pieces. I knew he understood when he said “Then it will fall over some day.”

The main job of children is exploration and discovery. It is something they do naturally and something they are very good at. The fact is, they can be encouraged in this process or discouraged by the adults in their world. Sure, the questioning can get annoying sometimes, especially the most common one, “why?” But the way we respond can be critical to the rational and creative development of the child.

Unfortunately, it is a part of the human condition that as we get older, we tend to ask fewer questions. Maybe it is because as time goes on, we learn more and there are fewer things that puzzle us; but I suspect not. I think it is more a matter of changing our essence—of losing that inquisitive, discovery-oriented part of ourselves, of our human nature. That is sad; and we see the results of this change all around us.

Most artists (whether in painting, writing, architecture or music) do their best work young. As kids, we are all artists. As we get older, we get less and less able to create, to come up with new and unique solutions to the problems around us. But this is true in all of life, not just the creative arts.

When I think about some of our greatest accomplishments as a specie, I always think about the space program in the 1960s. No matter where you live in America, or even in the world, people recognize that our space program represents man at his best. While the Apollo 11 astronauts who made the first moon landing were 38 and 39 years old, did you know that the control crew of the Apollo 13 mission averaged just 29 years of age (McKie, The Guardian)? Do you remember how they were able to face every problem, every emergency, and immediately come up with a solution? I really wonder if a crew of 60-year-olds would have been able to match that performance.

We see maturing as a process of giving up childish ways and we view people who keep those ways as somehow ab(sub)normal. But whether we are talking about artists or scientists, the best performances seem to come when we are young, before we completely jettison our natural-born abilities of children.

I suppose there may be some cultural issues at work here as well. Other cultures tend to revere their elderly, to show them great respect and honor. But here, not so much. We tend to instead place increased value on youth. That in turn causes us to make a concerted effort to stay young, be it through diet, exercise or plastic surgery. This may not be a bad thing. With our emphasis on youth we have become a culture that stays young longer. But I wonder if we aren’t looking at the wrong traits in this quest for youth. Maybe if we paid as much attention to keeping our minds young as we do our bodies, great things could happen.

The longer we can stay young in our minds, the longer we can hang on to those traits of discovery and creativity we had as children, the more productive we can be.

I think we will be happier for it.

Technology and Morality

December 31st, 2019

Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Canyon Lake Dam, Texas

One drive that every Texan should experience is going north out of Gruene along River Road. It is a narrow strip of pavement in the trees and in most sections, it runs right up next to the Guadalupe River. In fact, as you move north, you cross the river several times. About 16 miles above Hueco Falls and what is called the “First Crossing” (the crossings are numbered from north to south), you come out of the valley and then everything opens up. At the top of the hill, there is a large dam. Behind it—Canyon Lake.

I know Canyon Lake is loved by most Texans, but I can’t help thinking that anyone coming up the River Road after such a beautiful drive can only find it an eyesore. And the dam itself…well, that is even uglier. After that drive along the river, the sight of the lake is way beyond disappointing.

But then, I tend to have a problem with dams in general. I understand that without them, Texas would have very few lakes. But for every dam we see, a part of a river is lost. John Graves wrote a masterpiece about this loss in Goodbye to a River, a story about a long canoe journey down what used to be the Brazos River in the final days before it was wiped out by a series of flood control dams.

Some would argue that dams are as good as, and maybe even superior to, open rivers for a number of reasons, many of them valid. They do indeed create lakes. Lakes are playgrounds for people in multiple ways: fishing, power boating, swimming. . . . We usually see them as fun. I get that; I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan and spent thousands of hours at the beach. But power boats are noisy and smell bad. Artificial beaches usually have less than ideal sand and tend to be small. And is the fishing really any better than it was in the river that was sacrificed? Driving the River Road and seeing all the people on tubes and the fishermen on the banks and in canoes, I have to think, if you can’t have fun on the river, you’re just not doing it right.

Of course, proponents claim there are other benefits to dams. In the western United States, the lakes they create serve as reservoirs that provide water for cities. But is that really a good idea? Most of the evils in America today are centered in the cities. Call me a whack job, but anything that lets them survive, let alone grow, is problematic.

Finally, there is the flood control issue. That’s a big one here in Texas. Yes, the new lakes hold lots of water, but in really heavy rain events, the lakes fill up. The powers that be are then forced to let some of the water out . . . quickly. Open the gates after heavy rains to protect the dams and you get Houston after hurricane Harvey.

But we’re not really talking about dams here at all. In reality, we are looking at the issue of acting before considering all the ramifications of our actions. Politicians specialize in this kind of behavior which results in what we today call “the law of unintended consequences.” We act before we think. And then we pay the price.

This can be scary. Consider for a moment the topic of genetic modification. Yes, by playing with genes, we can create better plants. We know that much. But what are the effects of eating “altered food?” We are guessing, and hoping, that there are no negative consequences. But only time will tell.

And then there is the issue of designer babies. Today we have the technology to choose such traits as sex, eye and hair color. Thankfully, we don’t do that much . . . yet. But what will we “select for” next? Athletic ability? Intelligence? Social skills?

Do we eliminate all genetic disorders? That would increase our lifespans. A good thing, right? Will the longer lifespan cause an even greater population explosion? Will those genetic alterations introduce new issues, new diseases? Are we creating super-humans? Is that okay?

Technology is power; that is undeniable. Our power over nature tempts us to make decisions and take actions without thinking through, or maybe even having the ability to know and fully understand, the consequences of those acts. We do it because we can.

As early as 1954, Martin Heidegger warned us of another problem that technology posed. He claimed it carries a serious, potential danger in that it exerts control over us through its mediating effects. That is, the technology controls what we can and can’t do. Look at the invention of the pocket calculator, for example. One unforeseen effect is that today, many students lack a mastery of the simple math “facts,” such as times tables. They can’t do long division, fractions or decimals. Take away the calculator and they are helpless. Even more obvious, the invention of digital clocks has left us with a generation of students, many of whom cannot tell time on a traditional analog timepiece. Does that surprise you? If so, you haven’t been around a lot of young people lately.

Heidegger says that as a result, technology can limit authenticity of our experience in, and of, the world—the experience that defines life and gives it meaning. The most prominent example of this is, of course, the cell phone.

On the surface, the cell phone (and other social media) appear to be bringing us together—making us more connected to friends and family. We can talk or text from anywhere, at any time. But as Heidegger predicted, the device has exerted a control over our lives and governs how we interact with people. In essence, it is separating us. Look around any restaurant. People are not talking to each other as family and friends but rather have their noses buried in their phones. We are the most disconnected society ever.

One of the most important decisions we as a society will have to make in the near future is about cloning. Dolly, the first cloned sheep, was created in 1996. Just last month we heard of the first pig-monkey created in China. How long before we can do this kind of thing with humans? Will there be unintended consequences? We know about the problem of replicative fading (the degeneration of DNA that accompanies repetitive cloning). What other surprises await us?

Certainly, we need to be concerned about the problems we create when we make and use technology without thinking through the consequences. But I think there is still a more serious aspect we need to consider; that is the issue of morality. The question we need to be asking ourselves regarding technological advances is, “should we?” Is it the “right” thing to do?

When it comes to our use of the new technologies, we are like children. We get excited about the possibilities, overlook potential problems, but most of all, we don’t bother to ask if this is the moral thing to do.

Our power over nature has exceeded our ethical maturity. That is a dangerous place to be.

Reason Versus Imagination

November 1st, 2019

By Michael W. Gos

Nassau Bay, Texas

There is an iconic phrase from the movie Apollo 13 that we all know, and many of us often use: “Houston, we have a problem.” And of course we all know the first word spoken from the surface of the moon was “Houston.” The problem is, if we are being truthful, neither phrase is correct. They should have said “Nassau Bay.” That is the location of the Johnson Space Center.

Several years ago, I was at Space Center Houston for a Purdue Alumni party and fundraiser. Our host was the last man to set foot on the moon and fellow Purdue alumnus, Gene Cernan. The facility was closed except for our group and we were given access to a lot of things others don’t get to see. And each of them amazed me. The sheer size of the full scale copy of the space station, for instance, was awe-inspiring. Seeing the old Mercury program control room and the various rockets seemed almost like a fantasy.

I suppose learning about our space program’s early days would overwhelm most people. Just think of the minute technical details that all had to be just right to make the whole lunar project work. The engineers did it without computers—generally depending solely on slide rules. I think most people would marvel at the attention to detail and the rational, logical abilities of the people who made this all happen.

Not me. I was totally blown away by something entirely different—the creativity of it all. I was in awe of the imagination that made this all possible.

In 1961, in spite of the fact that we had yet to successfully put a man in space at all, President John Kennedy announced we would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
NASA got word of the impending announcement only about four weeks before the speech. The problem was, there was nothing even close to a plan for this enormous project, and there had to be a plan ready before the announcement. NASA engineer Bill Fleming (another fellow Purdue alum) was given four weeks to come up with a plan detailing “all facets” of the program to get us to the moon. The plan had to be ready in time for Kennedy’s announcement in September—an enormous assignment with a ridiculous deadline! Four weeks later, Fleming and his team submitted a report over 500 pages long detailing the overall plan, phases of the project, more than 1,200 tasks and a full budget for the program.

I think it is safe to say most people would begin a project like this by designing a rocket to go the moon, and their work would have been concentrated along those lines. But Fleming wasn’t thinking like most people. Instead of getting down to the rational, logical details of getting to the moon, he was much more imaginative. He saw the problem differently. He chose instead to divide the huge project into three separate phases, or missions: orbit the earth, circle the moon, and finally, the actual landings. Today we look back at this radical decision and we understand the beauty of it. First, it makes perfect sense given what had to be learned and what skills needed to be developed, and second, it is incredibly time-efficient because we can have people working on missions two and three even as we are just starting mission one. Time was the thing in shortest supply.

Then there was John Houbolt, who came up with the wild idea that a moon landing should involve three vehicles, not one. At the time, the idea most commonly endorsed was a science-fiction-like rocket that would launch from earth, land on the moon, then launch from the moon and travel back to earth. A vehicle that would escape earth’s gravity, travel all the way to the moon, launch a second time and then travel all the way back to earth would have taken both enormous amounts of hardware and fuel. It would have taken a rocket much more powerful than the available Saturn V to launch the payload necessary to do it in this more “popular” way.

Concerned first and foremost with weight, Houbolt asked the unusual question, “Why not leave the fuel for the return trip to earth up in the moon’s orbit?” Houbolt’s idea was called the lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) concept. It meant a moon landing would require three vehicles: a Saturn 5 (three stage) rocket, a command module, and a lunar landing module.
His idea was considered so radical that one NASA engineer said “Houbolt has a scheme that has a 50 percent chance of getting a man to the moon and a 1 percent of getting him back.” Another said “His figures lie, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” (thespacereview.com).

Looking back, both Fleming and Houbolt had ideas that we now can see make perfect sense. They are completely logical and we understand why they worked. But someone had to think of them, and logic clearly was less important in that process than imagination. Remember the comments of some of the more “logical” engineers about Houbolt’s plan.
The fact is, if we want a “complete” world we can’t have the “higher” trait (logic and reason) without first establishing its foundation—imagination. We often stereotype engineers as logic-based number nerds, and perhaps many of them are. But the fact is, details and numbers are useless until we have the “Big Idea.”

Were these two men any less rational/logical/technical just because they were imaginative? Clearly not. To truly be effective, to be someone like Fleming and Houbolt, we really need to excel at both.

Many of us tend to classify people into one of two groups, either as creative types, or detail people. But is there really such a clear distinction? While it may be true that some people seem to be better at the big picture, at finding creative solutions to problems, do these identifications have to hold true? We hear that people have an “orientation.” They are detail-oriented, or they are creative. They are rational and logical or they are imaginative. They are “left-brained” or “right-brained.”

Science has achieved so much in the decades since Apollo and yet still today, imagination is often overlooked in favor of the rational. We never could have gotten to the moon or achieved any of the other technological advances since then with reason alone? We must first conceive, then build.

Neither creativity nor logic are genetic gifts. They are developed skills. And both can be cultivated in the individual if we try. Obviously, it is best if we begin that work in childhood. But it is never too late to develop these skills in ourselves—if we really want to.

Left brain/right brain. Do we really want to go through life with half a brain?

Bureaucracy

September 3rd, 2019

Photo: Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Waco, Texas

“He went to the dark side.”

That is what professors say when a fellow faculty member decides to take even a temporary administrative position. There is clearly a distrust, or worse, of administrators on the part of faculty members in education.

I was at Baylor University for a conference for mid-level managers in higher education and one of the hot topics was why those in administration at all levels, are so disliked by the rank and file educators. I found it surprising that most of the attendees honestly didn’t have a clue about the causes of this hostility. I always thought it was pretty clear.
Most colleges can cite the year when their administrative staff members first outnumbered the faculty. Today, it is common to have two to one or even three to one ratios of administrators to faculty in colleges and universities. But, of course, this phenomenon is not limited to higher education. The explosion of bureaucrats and administrators is ubiquitous. It plagues business and industry as much, if not more, than education.

Why should we be concerned about this trend? It’s all about “paper.” Okay, most of it is electronic these days, but you get the idea. Every administrator must justify his job, so they all are forced to introduce new ideas, new “procedures” that somehow translate to “projects” for the non-administrators. And since there are now so many on the dark side, they compete for the work hours of those in the productive, non-administrative positions. These new ideas are often referred to by the productive employees as the “flavor-du-jour” because almost none of them are ever carried to completion. They are almost immediately displaced by the latest “great new idea.”

My experiences with this kind of nonsense are far too numerous to count. Among them were five different policies for travel reimbursement in a single fiscal year, four different three-year assessment plans, none of which ever made it past 18 months before being replaced by a new idea, and many other “great ideas” that we’ve had to live with. I’m sure everyone in the business world can tell similar horror stories.

This explosion of non-productive employees is exacerbated by the fact that each new administrator brings with him a few additional satellite employees such as administrative assistants, secretaries, etc. All these new workers have to justify their existence as well; they have to do something. So, they create new policies, new layers of paper. And that has costs.

First, we need more money to pay these employees. In the public sector, tax money is the first choice of course, but government is often reluctant to give increases sufficient to fund this exploding employee base. Choice two: go after grants. Of course, that means hiring more administrators to go apply for, and then manage the grants that are secured. Then, when the grants run out, the public sector is reluctant to lay off people, so they find some other place for them, in the administration, of course. And the dark side staff keeps growing.

In the private sector, there is a double jeopardy — two levels of administrators to deal with. Not only are the administrators within the company creating the usual extraneous, pointless work, but there are also millions of government administrators who also believe they have to justify their jobs as well. So, business is slapped with more regulations and hence, more paperwork. As a result, companies have to hire more administrators to deal with federal, state and local regulations. That is why many people feel the bulk of government is nothing more than a jobs program.

If you doubt my analysis of this issue, just look at your organization’s number of vice-president positions in 1980 compared to today.

The results of increased bureaucracy are pretty clear. In the private sector, more employees are now required but the same (or more likely, less) productive work is being done. Of course, this results in reduced profit. In the public sector the result is inevitably increased taxes. Meanwhile, the employees who are engaged in productive work are forced to spend more and more time buried in paperwork. After all, every new administrator MUST add at least one more layer of paper.

In my line of work, that means that each year, teachers have less and less time to spend on planning, grading and helping students. They have no choice but to let that important work go by the wayside so they can deal with the administrative load. Most just can’t work beyond about 60 hours a week for very long.

The solution seems obvious, but there is a problem. I read once that a simplified, postcard-sized tax return would put millions of accountants out of work. Removing the bulk of unnecessary administrators would make many times that number unemployed. That is not a good scenario for the nation’s economy, so we can’t afford to fix this problem overnight. All of these soon-to-be displaced people will have to be found jobs in the productive parts of business, industry and the public sector. To avoid an unemployment crisis, this will require a long-term, gradual shift in our thinking. We might start, say, by reducing the administrative and support staff by as little as 5% each year. Yeah…good luck with that. Companies would only hire new people to administer those reductions.

It won’t be easy…but just think about how our productivity as a nation would soar as a result of these once counterproductive employees, now contributing to the bottom line and the freeing up of all that formerly wasted time for the rest of us.
But till then, we have to continue with the system the way it is.

On my return from the conference, I had to deal with the nightmare of filing for reimbursement of my trip expenses. I had already filled out a battery of forms to get approval before taking the trip. Now I had to play the game again to actually get my money. My plan was to dedicate four hours of my day to the process.

I filled out a two-page form, gathered, scanned and attached all my receipts, a copy of the conference program, and copies of the prior approval emails from both my dean and my department head. I then had to write an explanation of why the trip was necessary. (For that, I just copied the same explanation I wrote in requesting the trip initially. It would be okay. I’m sure no one reads them anyway.) That was followed by trips around campus to secure signatures of the dean and department head, even though they both had signed off on the initial request for funds. Their offices were in separate buildings, about a quarter mile apart. Then I had to re-scan it all into a single file. Finally, I sent the required three copies of the electronic package to the business office. It took considerably more than the four hours allotted.

Two days later, I received a call from the Business Office. The woman said there was a problem with my reimbursement form. My mileage to the airport did not match the mileage she said I should show. It was too low. I explained that I drove from my home instead of from campus so the distance was less. She said the mileage had to be from campus. I pointed out that I was saving the college a bit of money and just being honest. She answered “The mileage has to be from campus.”

So the next day, I began the entire process again. This time I hoped to make it within the four hours allotted.

Bureaucracy! Life in triplicate. I think I’ll need three beers after work.

We Live in Different Worlds

July 2nd, 2019

Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Canyon, Texas

It’s a different world out here in far West Texas. There is flat prairie for miles in every direction (unless you stumble onto Palo Duro, that is). Trees are an oddity and the wind is always blowing. But the biggest difference is the people. Everyone here wears boots and Stetsons, they are weathered by the sun and wind and they are the friendliest people I’ve ever met. No one acts uppity. In a local diner, you can’t tell the difference between a rancher worth millions and a day-laborer hoping to make it to tomorrow. Then there is the 47-foot high statue of Tex Randall. He’s hard to miss. I can’t spend much time here without thinking about the differences between the world I live in in Clear Lake and the one the people here in Canyon inhabit.

I guess I’ve been aware of different, parallel worlds for decades. I knew a woman years ago who was a dedicated follower of soap-operas. We sometimes talked about it. I saw them as silly and pointless. Life just isn’t as zany and difficult as portrayed there. She said she loved them because they were so true to life. I thought she was crazy (she was…but that’s a different story). And then there was my first week as a freshman in the new world of Purdue. What a difference from what I knew in Gary, Indiana. It was like getting hit in the face with a door!

But I really started to notice it when I first came to Texas. I was immediately struck by the difference between my world and that of some of my students. One day in my first semester here, on my way into work I saw an old pair of sneakers, laces tied together and thrown over a powerline crossing a city street. I mentioned it in class later that day, wondering why anyone would want to do that. Several of my students explained it was a “billboard” advertising drugs for sale. I was dumbfounded.

Over the years, I came to understand that many of my students lived in worlds that were not only alien to me but ones I didn’t even know existed. In the ensuing decades, I have had students from third generation welfare families and from neighborhood environments filled with drugs and habitual criminals. While I grew up poor, such things simply did not exist in my wholesome world.

What determines our world? Some of it, of course, is what we are born into. We have no control over that. But as we age, most of us find that our worlds change, sometimes dramatically. There must be something besides accidents of birth at work here. Certainly, there are the influences of family, friends and neighborhoods. Later we encounter other environments such as school and the workplace. Each of these somewhat controls the kind of people we meet and the world we see. My first days at Purdue are a prime example. There were very few students like me, the professors seemed like space aliens and the expectations were far beyond what I anticipated.

As a writer, I do a lot of listening, eavesdropping if you will, so I can learn things about people. I hear the conversations between bartenders at my favorite watering holes and can tell in an instant that they definitely live in a different world than I do. The same is true of my students. Those whose families work in the plants are very different from those whose parents work in business, education or the high-tech industries. And all of them live in worlds very different from mine.

In the magnificent novel Illusions, Richard Bach has a passage in which a character is teaching his protégé about these different worlds. He asks, “You live in the same world as a stockbroker?…Your life has been tumbled and changed by a new SEC policy?” Of course, the “student,” an airplane pilot, recognizes he knows nothing of the Wall Street world. The teacher’s point is, each of us lives in a world different from everyone else; no two of us occupy the same world. If that notion is true, and I think it is, it is important we consider the effects and the infinite possibilities of these differing worlds.

First and foremost, for most of us, the world we see is the world we believe is real and the only one there is. And unless something major happens to shake us of that idea, that world is the only one we will ever see. But if indeed there are other options, there is reason to believe that some of them could possibly be more attractive to us than our current situation. If we become aware of those options, come to the realization that we don’t have to live the way we have been, we just might want to make a change.

I admit that’s not always easy. In fact, at times it may seem impossible. Sometimes making that transition is only possibile if we get a little help from someone else, someone to show us the way—a teacher, if you will. I don’t mean an educator in the traditional sense necessarily, but rather, someone like the character in Illusions, someone who already understands and can help us to see reality and the options that lay before us.

It seems to me, once we understand that a better world, or even lots of better worlds, may exist, we can make one of them ours if we really want to. But for most of us, we don’t have a clue as to how to go about it. It is really a two-step process.

First, we need to “see” that world we want and to believe it really exists. To quote an old college coach of mine, “What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.” That may mean going out of our way to expose ourselves, even superficially, to other options—to see them in action. We may feel like a fish out of water, or like we are trying to force ourselves into places or groups to which we don’t belong—to which we are not welcome, but “seeing” those opportunities is all a part of the process of change. We might even want to try on several other worlds “for size,” just to see which might “look better” on us.

When we find one we like, the hard work really begins. It now becomes a matter of doing what is necessary to get there. That brings us back to Old Coach; When we believe it—it will happen. It may take work, but what worthwhile thing doesn’t?

In reality, we all live in the world we have chosen for ourselves—and we are always free to make a different choice.

Serendipity

March 4th, 2019

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Guadalupe River, Texas

My running buddy and I were surrounded by what appeared to be an ocean of college kids, each dragging a tube and some with elaborate beer-cooler/multi-tube floatation systems that suggested these people were not the novice river runner I was. I felt a bit out of place, but at the same time, I was looking forward to trying this classic Texas activity—even if I was bit on the geriatric side.

As we stood on the bank, the bus driver/guide told us about the four sets of rapids we would encounter and how to safely negotiate our way around each. The first was Hueco Falls and we were told to stay to the far left. When he was finished, we waded into the icy water. It was absolutely shocking on entry, but after a few seconds it felt great on this blazing August day.

Feeling like a hippo trying to mount a tricycle, I fought my way onto the tube and began my trip downstream. Seconds later, I was underwater with a snoot full of river and the rather unpleasant sensation of bouncing off rocks. The driver failed to tell us Hueco Falls was barely 100 yards from our put-in point.

After what seemed like minutes underwater, being battered repeatedly, I surfaced at the end of the falls minus my tube. It seemed my day on the river had come to an abrupt end after less than two minutes and I was going to be paying for a lost tube. I struggled over to the left bank and hung on a tree root, just trying to catch my breath.

About five minutes later I heard a young man shout, “Did anyone lose a tube?” I guess my day wasn’t over after all. I retrieved the tube, thanked him profusely and then rested a few more minutes. Finally, hanging onto the tube for dear life, I waded down to a shallower spot where I would be able to once again “gracefully” climb aboard.

The rest of the trip turned out to be much less eventful, and at the end of the day, we pulled out in beautiful downtown Gruene. I returned the tube, changed clothes and headed to the Gristmill for dinner.

Sitting in one of the open areas overlooking the river, I enjoyed a chicken fried steak and a Corona. I planned to attend a show at Gruene Hall that night, so I just hung out there on the deck for a couple of hours watching the river run far below me and listening to restaurant’s music (which, by the way, was far more appropriate for someone my age than the people I had shared the river with that day). About an hour later, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” came on and instantly, I was 17 again with a guitar hanging around my neck.
Like most kids in the ‘60s, I was part of a very bad garage band. We never amounted to anything, but we had a great time and dreamed of the day we would be more famous than the Beatles. One of the songs we played was this Cream hit and it led to one of my proudest moments. Well, it was at the time anyway. The song ends with a continuous striking of a single chord as the sound fades out. But the chord didn’t give closure to the song. While Cream made it work on the record by fading out the sound, in live performances, you can’t do that; songs need to end.

That open cadence drove me crazy for weeks and one practice day, as we finished the song, I just couldn’t take it anymore and I hit the chord that would give the song closure. Immediately, I, and everyone else in the band, recognized it as the first of the three-chord opening to the Who’s “I can See for Miles.” We segued immediately into that song and loved the way it sounded. Forever after, we performed those two songs together.

Back then, I didn’t understand that music was just math and architecture was frozen music. If I did, this “discovery” would have been no big deal. It would have been obvious if I just looked at it mathematically. But I didn’t know that then; I just knew that the final chord left us hanging and it drove me crazy. I had to close the loop. The way it happened was serendipity at its best—a totally pleasant accident.

Some of our most interesting discoveries have come from this kind of serendipitous event. Penicillin, Post-it notes, Viagra and even microwave ovens were all happy accidents. We are always shocked and delighted when they happen. We treat these events as if they were gifts— or even miracles—and in a sense, they are.

But I really have to wonder if these things we call serendipitous are really accidental or even all that rare for that matter. If you think about it, these “accidents” appear to be all around us, and they are happening far too often to be considered rare. A quick Google search will give you list after list of them—things like The Top 100 Serendipitous Scientific Discoveries. I wonder if they just might be the norm, rather than special events.

If they are indeed as common as I suspect, perhaps the thing that turns these everyday events into serendipity is our ability to see them when they are right there in front of us.
How many do we miss just because we aren’t open to them, or more important, are not expecting them? I wonder if it is possible to not only expect these happy accidents but, more importantly, to make a concerted effort to look for them. Maybe it is somewhat like hunting for morel mushrooms. They seem to be rare and very hard to find, but once you get “in the zone,” you realize they are everywhere. It may take two hours to get there, but once you do, you can gather a basket full of them in five minutes.

I experienced two “accidents” on this day, one not-so-pleasant one over Hueco falls (which I later learned was actually a Class III rapid; I guess I was lucky to just get a little bruised) and another in remembering my “discovery” of the connector between two songs. Yet I can’t help but wonder, how many other happy accidents didI miss on this, and every other day of my life.

How much more could we accomplish if we just made a concerted effort to be open to, and more importantly, to expect these events and be prepared to act on them when they occur?

Vacations

November 1st, 2018

By Michael W. Gos
King Ranch, Texas

We learn a lot of valuable lessons from our parents. Work hard. Don’t tell lies. Never punch out a moose. And most of those lessons serve us well in life. But we also learn some, shall we say, “less helpful” lessons. One of those is about vacations.

We were spending a bit of time on the King Ranch. For me it has always been a place with a two-fold draw. First, of course, is the historic angle. It was the largest ranch in America and it still is the most famous one today. Most of us have heard the stories of “Captain” King and how the ranch got its start. He bought the first grant (15,500 acres) at just under two cents an acre and then grew the ranch into the 825,000 acres it is today. Imagine, a single ranch larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.

King Ranch gave us the first American cattle breed, the Santa Gertrudis. King’s cowboys (the kinenos) also worked with the mustang horses they found roaming the Wild Horse Desert and through steady improvement of the breed, the ranch became famous for quarter horses and thoroughbreds. In 1946, they even had a Triple Crown winner, Assault, who is buried there at the ranch.

But there is also another, far more important reason I love this place. Out here I can just sit for a while in my boots and cowboy hat and feel like I belong. This place suits me. I wouldn’t mind just staying here for a few days, or months, hanging out in a small cabin and just spending my days ambling around the back forty. In many parts of the ranch there is no cell phone service. I could drive here (with a cooler of beer, of course), park my Jeep somewhere where I can’t see it, and just do whatever felt right at the moment. For a month of so, I would hope to see no signs of the 21st century urban world at all. That is my idea of the perfect vacation.

My wife wants to take a trip to Italy. I am okay with that. I’d love to see the art and architecture of Rome and Florence. Like everyone else, I’d like to do the gondola ride under the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. But I don’t want to do a two-week Grand Tour. I want to experience life there. Tuscany might be a good home base, but I’d want to live there for at least a year. Clearly, I am not—and never will be a tourist by nature; I am a vacationer…a long vacationer.

Unfortunately, that is often not how it turns out for me. More commonly, when it is vacation time, there are flights involved. I don’t particularly enjoy flying even under the best of circumstances. Even worse than the flight itself are the airports. Parking issues, hauling heavy luggage, long hours sitting and waiting, and eating very bad, over-priced food are all less than pleasant. And then, of course, there is the ultimate depravity: security. Every time I enter an airport I think about that morning, sitting nude (well, bottomless anyway) for a half hour on a cold metal chair in a tiny “room” at the Hobby Airport security area, my cell phone confiscated while the screeners were off somewhere doing something with my knee brace. It was beyond unpleasant. None of this matches my idea of a fun way to spend some time off.

But that is just the start. Once you get to your destination, there is travel from the airport to the hotel. Do you go through the hassles of renting a car or do you look for a shuttle? Then there is the hotel check-in process. Don’t even get me started there.

Of course, once at your destination, there are all the “sights” you came to see. The travel to them, the long lines and the fact that I am getting grumpier by the minute make this not only unpleasant for me, but for all around me. (Poor Jill. When you see her, give her your condolences.) And when it is all over, you return home exhausted and needing another week’s rest before you can even face the prospect of going back to work.

I do understand that many people have jobs that are not only unpleasant but also demanding in terms of their time and attention. Sometimes we just have to run away. Taking a week or two off and staying home is often not an option. Even if you can walk away from work (and most of us can’t), work will find you. The phone calls and emails don’t stop just because you are “on vacation.” No one cares, or even believes that you are truly “away from work.”

For many of us, our daily life is unpleasant enough that we will spend thousands of dollars and endure the inevitable indignities the travel industry forces on us just to be able to spend ten or twelve days beyond the reach of those responsibilities.  Our lives have degenerated into 50 weeks of unpleasantness, or as Curley said in City Slickers, “getting knots in our rope.” Then we try to do all of our living in the two (or three, or four) weeks we call “vacation”.

This vacation business is tough, but before you say it is worth it, think again—you’re not going to get off that easily. Before you can leave on this vacation, you get the inevitable bonus of increased stress due to the need to get extra work done before your exodus. The whole time you are gone, you are entertained by worries about what a mess you will return to when it is finally over.

What I find most amazing is that this problem is ubiquitous. Somewhere along the line, it has become the norm.  What I described is not surprising to anyone; we all live it—and do it, willingly. You, and just about everyone you know, are doing it. How did that happen?

They say the best way to impose an idea on someone is to start when he is still a child. I suspect that is what happened here. We grew up seeing this vacation scenario as “the thing we do.” Just as brushing our teeth, sleeping at night or taking a bath are normal because they are what we grew up doing, this mode of vacationing is what we were taught was normal. Many of us never considered an alternative. I remember the novelty of the “staycation” when that word was first coined a few years ago. We found it interesting because “we never thought about that.”

Yes, some of those lessons our parents taught us turned out to be extremely valuable in life. But some are less helpful. At the top of that second list is the way we vacation. It sort of makes you question other things you were taught growing up.

But I still won’t punch out a moose.

Prairie Dogs

September 1st, 2018

By Michael W. Gos
Caprock Canyon, Texas

We came to Caprock Canyon State Park up in the panhandle with the intention of seeing the State of Texas buffalo herd. We spent the better part of a day driving and hiking to the various spots where the park rangers told us the animals tended to frequent. However, it was already nearly sunset, and it was looking like that wasn’t going to happen for us. As we made our way back toward the visitors’ center, we had a stroke of good luck. While still not finding buffalo, we did stumble across a prairie dog town.

Most people think a prairie dog town is one large unit with lots of connected tunnels and numerous entrances that houses the entire colony. The fact is, the typical town is more like a subdivision full of single family homes. The prairie dog family generally consists of one male and four or five females. (Should I be jealous?) In some cases, there may also be a kid or two living at home till the old man decides they are old enough to make their own way in the world.

From the outside, what we humans see is a collection of cute little critters that pop up out of holes, look around, and then pop back down. It is a non-stop frenzy of activity not unlike a game of “whack the mole.” Nothing is ever done, however. They never pick anything up and seldom stray more than an inch or two from the hole. It is just a mass of non-productive up and down energy that we humans find both cute and fascinating.
Even if you have never seen a real prairie dog town, you are probably quite familiar with this concept. One need only look around at our fellow humans to see this behavior modeled. Next time you are in a crowded atrium of a large office building, a shopping mall or any place people congregate, watch what is happening. You will see non-stop random movement, constant energy. But what are these people doing? More important, what are they accomplishing? This seems to be a universal trait of the human condition: non-stop frenetic energy spent with little or nothing to show for it.

I have been a writer for more than 40 years. In the early days, my work habits resembled the prairie dogs’. I would begin by writing the first sentence, in hopes that by the time I had it down on paper I’d have an idea for a second sentence. Needless to say, before a piece was ready for publication, it went through dozens and dozens of revisions. In the process, I was particularly bothered by the fact that I often spent a lot of time revising sections that wouldn’t even make it into the final version. It was time and energy expended with little to no result. But, nevertheless, I felt good about it. After all, I was getting something done.

But still, I was uncomfortable with the process. I was busy, sure, but was I really accomplishing much with all that activity? It seemed I was spending an incredible amount of time and effort given the magnitude and quality of the final product that was produced. I felt there just had to be a better way.

One day, it hit. What if, instead, I did all that planning and revising work in my head while sitting outside in my rocking chair next to the fountain? What if I didn’t get anywhere near a pen, paper or a computer in those early stages? What if I just sat, smoked my pipe and thought? I spent a good deal of time analyzing that idea and, in the end, I was still uncomfortable with it. It didn’t even seem possible.

But I found I couldn’t put the idea out of my mind. Its implementation seemed inevitable, so eventually, I gave it a try. I admit it was uncomfortable at first and I felt guilty just sitting around and calling it work. But eventually, it all came together. I began to understand how this work thing is really done.

Today, I don’t put a single word on paper until I have the entire piece worked out. I know the beginning, the end and everything in between in great detail. I even know what photos I will use. The result: far fewer revisions and much less time and work expended. Best of all, I can enjoy a certain smugness when I am sitting in the sun with my eyes closed and someone asks what I’m doing. When I reply that I’m writing, the looks I get are priceless.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with a “go-get-em” work ethic. After all, in those early years, that process did lead me to some limited success. And today, if a student comes to me with a great work ethic, I can overlook a lot of shortcomings. It takes hard work to get to the point where you start to understand how to do any task well. No one plays concert-level piano on first sitting down to the instrument. But at some point in time, we need to realize that so much more can be accomplished if we just slow down and think things through before we take any action. That not only means less work for the same results, it also makes us less likely to become victims of the calamitous law of unintended consequences. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could teach this to our politicians?

Life is a game. We keep score by results achieved, not by effort expended. Most people confuse activity with accomplishment. When judging their progress toward success, they are often measuring the wrong parameter. I now realize it was obvious all along; I just didn’t see it. The secret to success is to work less but accomplish more.

While all of that frenetic energy is wasted in us humans, it does have some real value for prairie dogs. It provides us two-leggeds with great entertainment and, after all, the little critters are awfully cute. But frankly, I’m not that cute. You might not be either. And I don’t think entertaining others would be high on my list of goals in life. I prefer to use my rocking chair method.

By the way, we never did see the buffalo.