I’ve picked twelve areas of knowledge to pursue in the last third of life. It’s a conscious effort to organize my thoughts and actions. Twelve specialties sounds like too many, but I’ve selected them like building blocks to work together as a whole. Essentially what I have done is analyze what I’ve been doing for years unconsciously and state them here publicly to make them clear to me. The pains of aging remind me of my limited time left on Earth and inspire me to change. What I’m really doing is deciding what I want to be when I get old.
Areas of knowledge might sound too lofty. I could say I have twelve self-improvement topics I want to study, or even call them twelve goals for going the distance. We do not have the language to express ideas of self-programming. I’ve always loved John Lily’s book title Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, but sadly the book is about a great scientist going off the deep end with hallucinatory drugs and sensory deprivation. But I digress. Self-improvement is a vast topic for the publishing industry but has a poor connotation, but that phrase might come closest to my task.
I am a fat, lazy, late middle-aged man who has tumbled through life like big rolling weed acquiring random knowledge and wisdom through undisciplined osmosis. Since I’m a programmer and work with computers, I think with cyber concepts, so picture an old PC that’s been running Windows XP for years. This dusty old machine takes forever to boot up, and runs slower and slower each day. It’s time for a tune-up! I want to delete all the clutter and crapware, cleanse the registry, run malware utilities, uninstall all the programs I don’t use, and decide on which programs are the most productive to keep. I’m realistic. I don’t expect to suddenly become a new Intel i7 machine running Windows 7, but I can make the old hardware run much more efficiently.
When we are young we have great ambitions about growing up. We want to be somebody special and find the perfect mate. During our middle years we expand our ambitions, seeking security, wealth and success. But for the last third of life our goal is retirement, where we reduce our workloads and seek simple pleasures. I say bullshit to that. Maybe it’s because I didn’t find the success I wanted in youth and middle age that I hold out hope for an ambitious last third of life.
I’m not worried about the outward appearance of aging, the wrinkles, baldness, age spots or hobbled gait, what I’ve discovered that’s hard to see as a young person, is getting old is a state of mind that deals with wearing out mentally. Avoiding pain, illness and injury becomes a relentless occupation. My daily pains are minor compared to what I’ve seen in others, but the decline in health I’ve experience so far is wonderfully educational. So for my first study goal is pretty obvious, and probably universal.
1. Maximize Health
I don’t need to become an authority or expert on this subject, but I do require major studying and practice. Hell, I know the basics, eat right and exercise. Where I need to specialize is in the discipline of of mind over matter, or more precisely, mind over body. I could greatly improve both the quality and quantity of my sunset years if I could lose weight. I’ve been slowly gaining weight since my late twenties, and the only time I was actually able to lose poundage was due to illness, not a practical long term solution. Of course, the secret to weight loss is knowledge many have sought and few have found. I need to study books about the mind, and maybe even woo-woo subjects like yoga, meditation and will power. This is one subject I wished I had mastered in childhood and practiced lifelong.
2. Enlightened Citizenship
I wanted to become an expert in green living, but I’ve decided that focus is too narrow. I am deeply disturbed by partisan politics and our lack of will to make tough decisions about all our problems. I believe in social democracy; we vote daily on countless issues with our every decision. I am reading The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong and I’m reminded of her description of how the ancient Chinese practiced their religion. Instead of being concerned with invisible gods and abstract concepts of the sacred, these people sought perfection by improving the simple acts of everyday life. In other words, how you clean your house is more spiritual than religious rituals you embrace.
After thirteen years of programming in classic ASP I need to learn a whole new suite of programming languages and tools. This is putting me way out of my comfort zone, but it’s my chance to prove that an old dog can learn new tricks.
4. Internet Living
I’ve been living on the net since the mid-80s with BBSes, Genie, CompuServe and Prodigy. I’ve embraced digital life. I’m fascinated by it’s potential. I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet, so I want to explore all the emerging possibilities and even write about what will happen in the future.
5. Clear Writing
I want to be a much better writer. I love blogging, but I want to go beyond dumping out my thoughts. I’m a wordy bastard that can’t structure an essay, much less a book. I need to remove the clutter from my sentences and learn to assemble paragraphs into larger structures that build coherent ideas. I’m best at 500-1,000 words, but I want to write larger essays and even a book.
6. Techniques of Fiction
I’ve been trying to write fiction since a high school creative writing class. Like my failure at dieting, I can’t break through the writing discipline barrier either. I’ve taken many writing courses and workshops. At best, I can crank out words, but except for one time in endless tries, I can’t reach the critical mass of fictional fusion. I need to master the language of fiction in the same way I write a computer program, so the story works without major bugs.
7. Robot Novel
I’m struggling to write the great American robot novel. After space travel, time travel, and alien encounters, robots are about the most over-written topic in science fiction. Yet, I believe I have a fresh idea if I can crank out 100,000 readable words of fiction. Notice how specializations 5-10 relate? I’m not going off in twelve different directions, but hope I’m pursuing twelve skills I can integrated into a synergy of effort.
8. Evolution of Mind
To say anything fictional about robots will require understanding artificial intelligence, and AI has always depended on studies of the mind. I find my library is full of books on robots, AI, mind and evolution. I bought all those books because they were individually interesting, but now I’m going to read them as fuel for my novel. If we are the pinnacle of intelligent life on Earth now, what will occupy that position in a million years? Or a billion?
9. Sense of Wonder
I’ve been a reader and scholar of science fiction my whole life. People who adore science fiction claim its because it generates sense of wonder. Sense of wonder has been around far longer than science fiction so it can’t claim exclusive rights, but I do believe that science provides a special kind of sense of wonder. For too long now science fiction has been living off past glories. It’s time to find new concepts that push our sense of wonder button.
10. Cosmological Perspective
Our perceived position in the universe has always been very philosophical. It is very hard to grasp our location in relationship to the rest of reality. Even the shape of the universe is impossible to fathom. If we are God’s supreme creation, why are we so small? And can any religion or philosophy be valid that doesn’t fully incorporate our knowledge of cosmology?
11. Learning in Old Age
What are the limits of acquiring new knowledge in an old brain? Could I learn something in my last third years that I wasn’t able to learn in my first third years? Could I go back and finish Calculus II, or learn to play the guitar? There is a discipline barrier that I’ve never been able to crash through. I find my wisdom grows as my body declines, but will I ever be wise enough to overcome the limitations of my body?
12. Our Existential Relationship with Fiction
We can’t understand reality so we make up stories. It is impossible to predict the future yet we constantly create fiction to envision what will come. And I don’t mean science fiction. These twelve areas of knowledge I am pursing are a fiction. The odds are I’ll just get older, fatter, suffer more, watch even more television while waiting to die. I invent fictions about how I will change myself and fight the inevitable. But that’s my point about programming and metaprogramming in the human biocomputer. Is life no more than meta-fiction?
* * *
These twelve topics of specialization are ambitious, but I don’t think impossible to achieve. It will make me a Renaissance (old) man. And success can be measured across a range of achievement levels. No one gets out of here alive, so death can’t be considered a failure of life. I am reminded of the many books I’ve read about Eastern religions where the last third of life is set aside for spiritual pursuits. At the end of the rat race, wisdom is the only possession worth pursuing. But I grew up with a Western world mindset. Reality is a savage land meant to be conquered, not accepted like our friends, the Eastern gurus teach.
Christians love the concept of the eternal soul. As an atheist I’m not sure souls exist, at least not in the past. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to fashion our own souls. That doesn’t mean we aren’t evolving towards creating souls. Through discipline we program our identities. Through metaprogramming we program our programming.
JWH – 2/27/10