Grateful for… my grandfather and life’s questions

I’m out in Provincetown, in the woods, where my family likes to spend a quiet thanksgiving reflecting, reading, and enjoying thanksgiving dinner.

This year, I want to repost one of my interviews with my grandfather from August. I am working through the recordings to build a profile of him in his own words, but this was one of my favorite episodes from our interviews.

On Life’s Questions.

I hope you enjoy it!

Song of the Twenty Something

Sometimes I think about my time in New York City and think about my life as a ribbon, like the ones from the elaborate May Day dances around May poles that I watched when I was little. My thread moves around and twists into a whole mix of different colors, sometimes weaving into and weaving out of the fabric created by the dancers.

While I lived in Manhattan, my life was woven into a steady stream of carefully planned dinners and drinks with friends who worked in Capital C for CORPORATE jobs. The timelines were clear, the hours ground them into the ground, the bonuses served as a metric for their success. Time was scarce, time to think freely and ask interesting questions at work… even more scarce. Projects they wouldn’t have dreamed of working on as undergrads were justified with just a handful of words. A tense sort of existence and interaction with time dominated our conversations… and it was hard to tell when we were doing a good/bad job taking care of ourselves.

I moved to Brooklyn in June and soon the colors I was weaving into were more forgiving. They asked questions and explored concepts that didn’t have answers yet. My friends had day jobs, and learned the most from what their did in their own time. The questions they explored over dinner tables and hours in the public library, were more in line with my own thinking and desire to explore.

With this opportunity to reflect and collect myself again, I cracked. Pausing long enough in the doorway one evening after I had fully moved in, I collapsed into the bones and flesh in my body, finally tacking stock of the two years of damage from living in Manhattan. My metrics and expectations for myself were fucked up. I had to come to terms with that. The joy I had derived from exploring new questions and developing tools for difficult academic explorations… were finally acceptable again. Not having an answer was ok. I was free to build, anew.

I started to weave my life back into a world of artists and academics and explorers. People whose day jobs explained far too little about who they were, what they thought about, and what they wanted to do with their time. I was at home, once more. ‘What do you do now?’ meant so little.

University was the last time I found this freedom. A space where my academic pursuits devoured 3/4 of the day, but the last 1/4 was for me to do as I chose… and I chose, frequently, to build things.

What I loved about the Liberal Arts program at Yale was that people had these small points of interactions with people who were completely different from them where we built teams and shared thoughtful critique to help each other improve. My natural science requirements brought me in touch with more of the pure science students than my life did normally and I learned as much from them as I did the students who were on a similar technical trajectory in my political science/sociology/latin american studies programs. It meant recognizing my stronger points and weaker points immediately, and asking for help or advice regularly.

Perhaps the best part was that we were pushed to create and innovate. To develop our own projects, learn the practical skill set of executing projects and seeing them through to the end, evaluating our own results, asking for constant feedback, building and changing teams, developing product concepts and testing them… everything that has been so useful to me post college. It was food for the mind and the senses…. and such a necessary contrast to constant work in abstraction and academia.

I think this “side hustle” in extracurricular work prepared me most for the work force. Well, maybe that and experiment design from my academic work. I learned to play by doing and I learned to think by working with my peers in seminars and team based coursework.

For me, the balance I found in college, among the builders and the thinkers, was what kept me sane. I needed to play in both spaces with time to evaluate. I lost that sense of balance in Manhattan, amid the high profile, high focus jobs and culture and regained it in the fluidity of Brooklyn.

It taught me, most importantly, that the concept of “home” is so much more about the people and the pulse of thinking that I wanted to surround myself with. And sometimes that pulse comes in much less obvious forms that I had accepted when I first moved to New York. I am thoroughly enjoying this new exploration process.

Designing Memories: The Data Collection Stage

Holy Shit, this is hard.

Normally, my research offers me a clinical lens to consider some of the problems that trouble me most deeply. From this angle, the art of the interview is meant to capture memories of someone close to me. It’s about accepting the passage of time and how we age and the weight that our bodies carry… I am asking the questions that I’ve always been afraid to ask.

I’ve had to pace myself on the questions and background write ups for the Extended Eulogies work because every time I let myself delve into the content, to feel the questions and anticipate the answers, to gauge how the interview will likely flow, and where I want to go with it… I cry. Because unlike my usual work with survey design… this is about designing memories around my grandfather.

The categories broke into Memory, Love, Family, Life’s Questions, Work and Creative Outlets. Each one with a its own set of questions and moments I want to uncover and preserve.

I am using the StoryCorps app that is part of the 2015 TED Prize. It makes it easy to build short survey blocks and record the conversation directly into an easy to upload format.

A handful of the interviews and questions I've organized for Monday
A handful of the interviews and questions I’ve organized for Monday

As I modified my notes into a short set of questions for each theme. We’ll get to 7-10 open ended questions in 40 minutes. This is a very new research format for me, since I am usually trying to capture missing information, not the pulse of someone’s thoughts and the ways that they organize and feel through their memories. I think this requires much more open-ended-ness and a willingness to be fully present to encourage the conversation to flow in the directions it can go.

In total, there will be 7 themes that we discuss. I am beginning with more concrete memories: Work & Family… and then moving into the abstract. What does Self Care mean to you? What are some of “Life’s Questions” worth asking?

We will work together for all of Monday August 31, 2015 to produce these interviews. Wish us luck! We’re both excited.

I found this RadioLab episode about memory… what we remember and what we forget. They are joined by the late Oliver Sacks, and it felt like it was an appropriate addition to this conversation. 

Midsummer Night’s Dream (or how we use fantasy to make sense of the truth)

As an undergrad, I would go visit a specific painting in the Yale University Art Galleries every time I needed to go somewhere to think. It was a piece by Kandinsky called The Waterfall. It used to be hidden on a little wall panel in a corner of the second floor gallery. There was a bench for me to sit on and wait, sorting through thoughts, until I was either kicked out because the gallery was closing or I had finished sorting for the day.

This isn’t my favorite piece by Kandinsky, but his pieces have always helped me make sense of my most tangled thoughts. In his paintings, I see all the vibrance and pain and absolute ecstasy of life. Their abstraction helped me find ways to live with my questions.

1941'529_1.tif Luna Imaging, Inc. 1315 Innes Place Venice, CA 90291 (310) 452-8370
Luna Imaging, Inc.

When I first moved to New York, I was very skeptical of the psychic on the corner of my street in Chelsea. I saw her there every day, sometimes she would beckon me to come in from the sidewalk when I was walking home from work. And then, I started to notice lots of psychics spread out across the city… including one in the West Village on my walk to work that often had expensive black cars waiting outside of it for women in sunglasses to disappear into after their “appointments.”

There are enough psychics spread across the city… a city with exceptionally high rents and overhead costs for businesses… that you can find one easily on a basic google maps search. Which means… people are going to see them regularly enough that being a “psychic” is a viable career option for a handful of people.

I learned, from Kandinsky then and from the psychics now how valuable it is to find ways that help you live with your questions. And, more importantly, learn to ask better questions of yourself. When the answers cannot be answered with Yes or No, we have to turn to other tools that help us cope with and make sense of truth.

We turn to abstraction.

Why?

First, Rainer Maria Rilke was quoted to me, on a Friday, in a way that has haunted me ever since: Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, liked locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

At a certain point, with many things, we realize how little we can approximate, predict… or even guess. I’ve noticed, from working around investment analysts, labor organizers, artists, and teachers… we all seek tools to help give us direction and ways to cope with “living the question.”

I visit modern and contemporary art collections to let myself feel. In the same way I experience an instinctual reaction to the answer I receive while flipping a coin when I need to make a decision that I feel largely conflicted on, I can find roots of an emotional response through art. How often have you flipped a coin to get an “external answer, reacted to the draw and made your own decision independently from this information?

Art helps me ask questions. Better questions than I often start with. For example: What should I do next? Is a broad question that feels like an aimless sea in a fog. When forced to pick directions, especially those that scare me, like dive into the deep! I find responses within myself that force me to think through the reasons I am reacting that way. Therein, I begin to find some truth.

But for others, psychics and tarot cards, their symbols and metaphors, provide important insight. In my travels, I’ve met successful investors (even, billionaires) who rely on astrology to pick their trades, economists who discuss network structures in communities in geometric terms to make sense of their personal identity questions, and introverts who rely on the symbology of Tarot cards to have conversations with their closest friends about their personal fears and questions.

If nothing else, the vagueness of symbols forces us to communicate better. When answering, what this artwork means to me, I have to begin my providing tools to explain the framework of my thinking. I introduce my questions. Without finding these questions & defining this framework… my friend cannot engage with me. And I’ve grown most recently from these shared experiences.

Do you have time?

Generally, no.

But this question is also not worth asking me. If you’re pitching me a project, it means you should have done some background research. You know that I like to work on a lot of things, think through really difficult problems and projects, that I spend as much time as I can with people who inspire and challenge me, that the only times I turn off are when I collapse from exhaustion and give myself a few hours to process (and write about) everything.

You know I am pulled in many directions at the same time and I have to deliver feedback quickly and honestly because sometimes I don’t have as much time as I would like to sugar coat it.

But if it’s worth it, I make time.

If what you are proposing is important and fits into the value system and reasons I do the things I do, I will make time.

So maybe “do you have time” is the wrong question.

A better one would be: is this something you want to be part of? Can we make this happen?