Book impression: “In nessun modo ancora”, Samuel Beckett

I initially gave this post the title “Book review” but there is not enough review to justify it, so I preferred the term “impression”.

This book is the Italian translation of Nohow On, and was lended to me by a very good friend. I usually read books entirely, including introductions and interpretations, but this time I skipped them and went directly for the text. The first novel, Company, first disoriented me then captivated me and I read it in one sitting. I assumed that the text was meant to be read, and therefore it would be written in such a way that thoughts could be followed by other people; instead, it seemed the full recording of thoughts formed into the brain, a sort of “raw data” version of a book. Surprisingly, I found that form extremely understandable, probably more than the potential revised form – and likely the introduction, that I haven’t read yet (sorry). I was led to analyse, think, smile, laugh, read again to appreciate every word. I read the following two prose pieces but I was not really focused and they were written in a slightly different form, so I will need to read them again.

Company sounded to me like a victory against revisions to a text and implicitely to thoughts. In school I had mixed feelings about someone else telling me “look, your text lacks clarity, you should change these parts, explain these ones better, remove that paragraph” because I didn’t feel that a third person could check if my text matched my own thoughts (in which case I would have accepted corrections that made the text a truer expression of my thoughts) and the corrections seemed to add their touch, their need for clarity, in my own words. My reactions got worse when I arrived to the point of writing scientific articles, because revisions tended to make the text less clear to me, the author, and that would have been ridiculous! I later kept writing my thoughts in a diary and started this blog. I don’t edit posts unless there is a mistake or a follow-up that I want to link to. I write only when the text has a clear structure in my mind, and consider it a snapshot rather than an encyclopedia entry – therefore, it represents my thoughts about something in that moment, and are not supposed to be edited afterwards, only connected to other posts.

On the other hand, there is text that I write as part of documentation or news items, for example OSM Weekly News. In that case the focus is on the tool/service that needs documentation, or the contents of the news items. I am not going to treat that text as my own thoughts, quite the contrary: I see myself as an ambassador for the tool/service/news item, so I am more than open to comments and review that get the text as true and clear as possible.

Apologies to Samuel Beckett for the minimal comment about his work. Next review will be a proper one 🙂 stay tuned!

Computer-taught humility and honesty

It has been many years since I first formed thoughts about this topic, so I wish to share them.

I remember the relief that I felt when I started programming. Finally I was receiving feedback in ways that I was fully OK with. It took many years to understand why I liked it so much, and why I preferred to interact with a program/software/machine than with most humans.

I must say that I was not a very patient person nor very ready to admit my errors, before I met computers. I think what allowed me to grow was their transparent way of dealing with my inaccurate inputs.

First of all, they were consistent: every time I made a typo or called the wrong command, I got an error back. The machine had zero tolerance for inaccuracies and instead of being annoyed by it I was deeply, sincerely thankful. (Of course there are some programs which are not that picky about input, and these are the ones that confuse me most, because I can’t know in advance if the input will be reviewed properly, or if an error can sneak in). I notice that I am confused by inconsistent feedback and I tend to get angry when that happens – but often it is misread as me getting angry for negative feedback, which can’t be far from the truth! What I fear is to be randomly left on my own judgment, and being corrected only at the Nth repetition of the same action. I can’t understand why it was OK for a while and suddenly it’s being corrected. I would really prefer to know all the criteria in advance, even if I know very well that I can’t work on every aspect from the start, because I have the information that this will be worked on at some point in the future. I understand how I confuse people when I say “Let me know about all my mistakes! Don’t worry about giving too much feedback! Don’t try to be nice by giving only partial feedback!” and I can also understand how demanding it sounds. I guess it has to do with a different kind of honesty that sounds brutal when applied to people.

Another important point is that they were factual. The machine didn’t throw back an error out of spite, tiredness or with any kind of emotion attached. It simply pointed out that there was some problem with what I did/wrote, and that was it. No judgment, no making fun of me, no extra layer to decode, just the fact. And when I solved the problem, the machine had zero grudges or worries about the error happening again. It had the apparent patience to letting me try until I found the right instruction to type in, and it meant I could take all the time and attempts I needed. I took it as “OK, I need to learn a bit more about this topic, so that I get the right words in the right order, no matter how unfamiliar this language looks – because it is the language of the machine and it has no other way to communicate, so it’s on me to learn it”. In most other social situations there was some kind of pressure to not make mistakes and not being able to repair the mistakes, and more expectation about everyone knowing the rules already. My machines relied on precisely written instructions and were free from the several implications that puzzled me, mostly because I didn’t mean them.

When I started programming, I felt I entered in a comfortable bubble, with objects I was able to interact in a fruitful and pleasant way. I was able to notice the subtleties of their language and I was rewarded by them working productively and with their remarkable accuracy. When it happened that I mistyped a command and got some output that was exactly what I asked for, but not what I wanted in my head, I felt a bit sorry for the machine as it had worked on the wrong assignment, and angry at me for not noticing the mistake in the command. I never got angry at the machine for not “understanding what I meant”, because I know very well that it is not able to guess that. My patience (and my success) with the machines was a wonder for many. I just can’t think of handling them any differently. There is a complicity with the machines that I rarely get with anyone/anything else. That’s why every laptop I have, and every server I used to maintain, has a name that I remember.

And to finish with a somewhat old picture, here are Galadriel (left) and Matusa (right), my second and first laptops. I am thankful for all I learned from/through them and the worlds they introduced me to.

The way and the shortcuts

I was thinking about how setting a goal shapes the way one takes to reach it.

Where am I going?

Let me pick an example with music, my most familiar environment. Let’s say my orchestra plans to play a given difficult piece for next concert. That goal will influence all rehearsals, filling them with a detailed plan, that includes the progressive steps to the full execution of that piece: separate rehearsals per section, focus on getting to play to the required speed, focus on expression, and finally playing the piece properly from start to finish.

When difficulties arise during rehearsals and it starts to look like we are not progressing as fast as we thought, it’s time to find shortcuts. We simplify our parts, play a little slower than required, remove details. This is where I start to diverge from how one is expected to work. I rarely think about the goal directly, it is for me more of a part of the landscape that I sometimes remember to look at, but my interest is on my immediate surroundings, on the atmosphere at the current rehearsal, on what I can do right now. I’m relieved that someone else is responsible for keeping the boat sailing straight towards the goal, because I just couldn’t! My work is more of a fractal exploration, without direction, with the focus on how I walk, and no eye on the time – in this mindset, shortcuts simply make no sense. I observe and I accidentally also take part to the rehearsal. This is where I’m not offering any grip to the usual motivation talks which sound like  “Don’t you feel the pressure, the urge to reach the goal?”. No, I don’t. It doesn’t mean I explicitely avoid it, but simply that it will be the side effect of me having the space to wander at will. I first had to prove that my random exploration takes me to the goal anyway, before I was given the trust to be left free alongside the bridled horses, apparently aimless, for the surprise of some.

I felt that this can be a good parallel with how one works with animals, for example during horse riding. I sometimes get the feeling that the rider has a goal in mind and gets to the point where the test approaches and they start looking for shortcuts, but that is where+why the horse loses connection – because the horse doesn’t seem to think in terms of goals, and the proposed shortcuts look like forced steps that take attention further away from the flow of observation, of being in the present. This gearing up tends to make things work both worse and slower, it requires even more shortcuts, and that brings the opposite of the desired effect!  It takes a lot of trust to stop this vicious cycle when the deadline is approaching, but re-focusing on the present seems to me one of the few respectful and efficient ways out.

I hope that makes sense! Let me know if that resonates with you, I’m curious to read about your experiences with deadlines, goals and shortcuts.

The copilot syndrome

I recently thought about my habit of being ready to take over responsibility from others. The classical situation is when I’m with one or more people in a car and I am in the passenger seat. I call it the “copilot syndrome”.

IMG_20180205_102702

In this situation I feel I have to be alert and ready to help: I check the road signs, the directions, the weather ahead, I ask the driver if they’re tired or thirsty. The funny thing is that I would not be able to take the wheel: I stopped driving in 2010 and am too scared to try again, especially without preparation. So I am in the funny position to feel a lot of responsibility but be unable to actually do much. At the same time I can’t relax and for example simply look outside of the window, or sleep. I have the fear that I would not notice something important and that it would be my fault, that I should have paid attention; as if there were a responsibility chain and I am always the next in line, and all others (except the first in line) come after me, and even worse: none of them would step up if I don’t act.

Source: lupineandruby‘s pinterest

The other, maybe more important, funny thing I finally noticed is that it’s rarely necessary that I pay so much attention, or that I feel this copilot burden at all. It doesn’t mean not caring about how the car trip is going, or be passive if doubts or problems arise – it’s more about feeling a more reasonable amount of responsibility and not waste energy and attention being fully alert while the situation is well under control.

I can understand how my readiness to step up has often been seen as great resource and a cool fallback for the group of people I was part of, because others were reassured that I would take care of glitches before/instead of anyone else. But it’s a disaster for me, when this means that I have to constantly feel in charge: this indeed happened on a couple jobs, that I luckily managed to leave before they drained all my energies.

I have a few hunches on how I learned to feel this obligation to pick up responsibilities. The important thing now is that I have a plan to get rid of this habit. My current strategy is to pick situations where actually nothing serious can happen if I don’t pick up the lead, and see what indeed happens. The experiment is ongoing and it’s early to tell if this approach would work in more critical situations; but I can already say that I feel more relaxed, and even reassured that I’m making progress.

On several ways of experiencing loneliness

Today I listened to the BBC4 “All in the Mind” podcast about loneliness. I found relieving to hear that loneliness can be seen as a neutral or positive state, at least in some cases. For many people, or maybe more for the general expectation of the society they live in, loneliness is seen as unhealthy, unwanted and sad, or even lousy. I agree that there are people who at given times of their life would like to have more social interactions, but have problems finding/keeping friendships, and this makes them unhappy. I also agree that unwanted loneliness can have serious consequences on a person’s health and life quality. On the other side, I think that each one of us has their optimal level of social interactions, so it’s very difficult to give others advice for “feeling better” by suggesting a specific amount (or even type) of social contacts.

I see myself as a solitary person who enjoys close friendships, and I know I’m not good at smalltalk or at mantaining not-so-close friendships. This led me to have a somewhat small network of people I regularly check with, and to feel unpleasantly lonely sometimes. I have recently met new people in the city, during meetings about shared interests, and this has made me feel definitely better. I also think I feel better since I decided that it was OK for me not to improve my smalltalk or my standard social interactions, because I felt uneasy in playing a role very different from my real self: I am authentic from the start, and I find like-minded people to share great moments with.

I don’t feel like celebrating loneliness per se! I’m rather interested about how I feel when I’m alone or with others, what can help me when I feel unpleasantly lonely, and how I interact with other people. I feel it is a work in progress: my understanding of loneliness is part of my path towards understanding myself and maintaining authentic relationships.

I chose to end the post with a picture of the Dolomites. The(se) mountains have been for me the perfect place for being alone in a magnificient, natural, healing, powerful and humbling landscape.

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I prefer to say “I love you” only after I have specified what it means in detail

These days I have been thinking about what it means for me to say “I love you”. I realised I have said it very seldom, even to the people I loved – I found it very difficult to say. Until recently, I vaguely thought that such a sentence should not be said lightly, so I always went for alternative formulations:

Source: imgur

With the passing of time, I have been able to articulate my thoughts in more detail, and I realised yesterday that “I love you” would be too compact, too vague, and could imply things that I don’t mean, but that the other person automatically includes in the idea of love. Therefore I would rather say:

  • I love your attention towards me
  • I love your joy when you receive a present, when you get good news
  • I love your respect for yourself and for others
  • I love that you don’t compare me to a standard, so I feel free to act natural all the time
  • I love how your presence calms me
  • I love how little we have to talk in order to understand each other
  • I love how we respect our silences and how they are meaningful to us
  • I love how consent is fundamental for the both of us
  • I love that we don’t feel obliged to walk up the relationship escalator
  • etc …

… while I would not automatically mean:

  • I want to live our lives together
  • you are my only love, you will always be
  • you are perfect
  • I want to build a family with you
  • etc …

There is an Italian song (Patrizia, by Eugenio Finardi – lyrics here) that is indeed a list like this one. It has been one of my very favourites since I first heard it, and now I am happy to have realised why.

My point is that I want to make clear what are the reasons of my attraction/love for the other person, instead of just saying that I (will always) love them, no matter how much they will change, and implying plans for the future that I already have removed from my list. So my current decision is to say “I love you” only after having specified what it means, therefore making it a safe summary. I really wish that it will keep misunderstandings away, especially in such a delicate and emotional matter.

 

Find the differences #1 – accepting people vs. accepting their issues

I want to start a series of posts about two sentences who say something about a topic, in slightly different ways. I start with this pair:

  1. accept people for how they are
  2. accept their issues: assume nothing can be done when they look distressed

For me in such cases, words are really hard to match with thoughts. I find there is something very respectful in accepting people for what they are – the opposite would be consistently pushing them to change towards “acceptable behaviour” and “normality”.

Still, I don’t think that it implies that the best choice is to be passive. The second sentence sounds painfully familiar to me. I see a huge difference in stepping in when someone is doing something odd but seems happy with it (reading a lot? drawing minute details? be silent for long bouts of time?), versus stepping in when someone seems unable to cope with an input that makes them suffer (too much noise for them? too much stress? too many interactions?).

I admit that I over-think about this. Especially with kindergarten children, I am always asking myself: am I accepting the child’s behaviour with an open mind or am I passive when I should chime in? Am I encouraging obedience or am I offering support adequately? The same I think about my interaction with adults, because I am never sure if someone is in control of a given situation, or is overwhelmed and would benefit from external help.

I suppose I can learn by experience, but I am relieved that I have put my doubts into words, instead of erring on the cautious (but dangerous) side of non-intervening. I would love to continue exploring this topic with your inputs: please use the comment box below!

Book recommendation – “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

Walden Pond2

Walden is a such a famous book, whose reviews and analyses sum up to many times the length of the manuscript itself. My review is mostly about the waves it generated on the lake of my mind. I finished reading the book a couple weeks ago, and initially felt sorry not to have read it before; but I am glad I had read it now, because I enjoyed many more aspects, that the younger me would not have taken into consideration.

Thoreau narrates two years of his life in the woods near Walden Pond, in Massachussets, in 1845. He built a minimalist cabin with his own hands (with an accurate description of the process, and a precise account of costs and time), practiced a little agriculture, fished and hunted, interacted with the few people who lived or worked there. He recalls many moments of contemplation of the surrounding nature, that he describes in his lyrical prose, that sounds now maybe oldish and pompous, but immensely reverent.

His survival experiment is both simple and extreme. Simple in its practical steps, extreme in the meaning it can convey to the society as a whole. He returned to civilisation after two years, not because the life in the woods ended up as a failure or a delusion, but because he realised that he had learned the lessons he needed. Through his experience, I feel more easy on my own decisions, especially the ones that sound drastic, because they show a true need for changement, even if for a given time of my life, and as such should be heard and handled.

From Chapter 18 – Conclusions:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

Thoreau’s experiment made me immediately think of the more permanent one (so far) of Simone Perotti, who left a promising career to dedicate himself to seafaring and art. His book Adesso basta [Enough of it – own translation] is definitely an angrier and irrevocable refusal of civilised modern society, but I feel that he and Thoreau had something in common when they realised that society (and career in particular) could not give everything they needed. You can follow Simone’s blog, regularly updated, and savour his terse and shiny Italian prose. I remember reading his book in a time where I was angry and disappointed myself, and it only made me angrier to hear relatives and friends that such a definitive refusal of society was not possible. I think I got to that point anyway, but slower and with unneeded waste of energies.

A more similar meditation parenthesis is the diary of Sylvain Tesson, Dans les forêts de Sibérie. The author settles for a few months in a small cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, with even less human presence than Walden Pond, and a less forgiving climate. I enjoyed Sylvain’s reflections, blooming from unbroken hours of silence, of stillness. They look so similar to Thoreau’s , despite the 250 years and half of the world’s distance between them. I’ll make a more detailed review when I get back the book from my mum 🙂

Lake Baikal (15849197826)
Baikal lake, by Aleksandr Zykov

These experiences made me think about how societal occupations changed in time (jobs, pastimes, duties), while the reflections of the mind, when it is given an appropriate amount of time off, converge in so many countries and ages. Is that the common ground of our humanity? I hope so, and even if there is no solid fact behind it, I like to see it as a fil rouge that is suitable to connect us all.