The power of being unimportant

Blows from life teach us humility and force us to focus on the priority of our life. Despite its unpleasantness, being taken down a peg or two can have unexpected benefits. In fact, being unimportant can be an empowering role.

The universe has conspired recently to remind me how unimportant I am. Just before Thanksgiving I was laid off from my job. (My employer had a compassionate tradition of not conducting layoffs during the holiday season. As a consequence, the blood flowed thick in early November.) This was just the latest in a series of heavy-handed thumps on the head to put me in my place. My mother passed a little over a year ago. My father-in-law dove deep into dementia before passing six months ago. We’ve had legal issues with both estates. I got another job, where I now work harder for less pay, perks and self-determination. I could be forgiven, perhaps, for believing Someone Up There has it in for me.

This is just life, of course. I tried to take it with philosophical detachment. Seasons, ashes to ashes, that sort of stuff. I’ve grieved, I’ve sighed, I’ve paid more attention to my own life as it flashed by. The layoff, though, was particularly galling, not the least because it was an understandable action. I would have fired me sooner and give my employer credit for giving me the chances it did.

But now, everything is topsy-turvy with my career. In fact, I don’t really have a career any longer. I’m doing the intellectual equivalent of sweeping floors and taking out trash. I take orders from the head man, tip my hat respectfully and trudge off to my drudgery. Given where I came from, I should be pissed. And I am, at least a little bit. But, surprisingly, I’m having trouble working up an appropriate level of indignation. In fact, I’m almost content.

What the hell is going on?

I’ve discovered an unexpected benefit from my recent demotion. Since I am not important, I don’t have to worry about running the world. I didn’t realize it, but I had gradually been promoted to Head Shouldmaster, responsible for keeping everything running as it should. Now that I’m just a peon, and a junior one to boot, I don’t have to worry about the world anymore.

The role of Head Shouldmaster was a difficult, thankless job, but I took it seriously. I constantly scanned everything about me and compared what I saw against my measure of how it should be. Whoever was in charge obviously was not taking his role seriously. Just look around–everything is off the rails. Consequently, I was constantly stressed, annoyed and upset, especially since I knew what everyone should be doing.

I’m happy to say I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s not my job now. Since I’m unimportant, I’m not responsible for everything else.

It’s a great feeling.

I don’t remember applying for the job of Head Shouldmaster. I suspect none of us do. But it creeps on us on the sly. There’s nothing wrong with having an ideal to live up to. It’s okay as long as it’s confined to your life. Your life is under your control. You are responsible for what you do. The rest of the universe, though, is off limits. You can’t control what everyone else does. And they have their own ideals. You can’t impose yours on them.

The world bumbled on pretty well before I came along.  I suspect it will continue to do so without my constant oversight.  I guess that’s the way it should be.

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Playboy is going PG-13?

A male rite of passage is succumbing to the changing times.  Playboy will stop publishing nude photos in March.  Its website has been PG-13 for more than a year and seen its traffic go up in that time.  I guess those who said they only bought the magazine for the articles have won the day.  I’ll confess that I don’t understand the business case for Playboy sans nudity.  Maybe I should have been reading those great articles all along.

Speaking of confusing business cases, what’s the rationale for the Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit extravaganza, what Bryan Curtis dubbed the “wholesome-but-smutty aesthetic”? Its origins date back to 1964 when Playboy was at its peak and anything counter-culture was cool.  Or was it groovy? I never could figure those out even back then.

It’s a measure of the power of tradition, though, and a nod toward the same contemporary mores that scuttled Playboy, that the SI‘s annual swimsuit issue is bigger and racier than ever.  Can you imagine trying to make a pitch for this practice today?

“I’ve got this great idea.  Let’s drop one of our regular issues and replace it with pics of young cuties as close to naked as the Attorney General will allow.  Wait a minute… even greater idea incoming… Body paint!  That’s it!  We can show these babes all painted up, naked as the good Lord made them, and nobody will notice!  It’ll be raunchy enough that all the moralists and librarians will be pissed off.  But it will be tame enough that teens will be instantly bored and run to the internet for the real stuff.  What a money maker!”

And so it is.  The 2005 swimsuit issue had $35 million in advertising.  For a single issue.  Like I said, I don’t understand the business case.

Meanwhile, it might be a good time to don the dark glasses and a low-brimmed hat to grab the final few Playboys before they pull the plug on the stylized golden feminine ideal once derided as ‘porn folk art’.  They’re bound to be valuable collector’s items.  A real investment.  And I hear the articles are pretty good, too.

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Pick battles big enough to matter

Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win. — Jonathon Kozol

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If the bad stuff is getting to you

If the bad stuff is getting to you too much, create more good stuff. — Ralph Marston

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If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. A lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same kind of lump. One needs to learn the difference. — Robert Fulghum

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How to tell good behavior from bad

What distinguishes bad behavior from good? Or acceptable from unacceptable? The two extremes are more alike than we care to admit, differing by a ‘scale factor’ that sets the magnitude of the transgression. Fortunately, there are quantifiable metrics to help distinguish how much is too much.

We all (or at least most of us) know the difference between good and bad. Admittedly, there can be gray areas, but for most of us goodness is like pornography: we think we know it when we see it. On closer examination, though, good and bad can look a lot alike, making it hard to know how to navigate the gray areas between the two.

How can good behavior be similar to bad? Consider these examples. Continue reading

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Don’t be afraid of death

Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever; you just have to live. — Natalie Babbitt

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Great works

Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance. — Samuel Johnson

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If life had a second edition

If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs. — John Clare

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Keep a personal scorecard to see what works in your life. This provides ground truth to let you know if your life philosophy is meeting your needs.

I’m not known for being observant. Perhaps it’s part of my introvert nature. Or a low intellect. Asking who my best friend is will elicit a long examination of acquaintances to see which ones qualify as friends, but only after I’ve evaluated multiple friendship criteria.  Then I will rack and stack each potential acquaintance-cum-friend to figure who ranks as best. Then I will vanish down some rabbit hole considering the possibility that all these rankings are ephemeral, changing from moment to moment and possibly with setting, as well.  What was the question?

How do I feel, you ask?  Feel what?  With my fingers?  What is the context of the question?

Is that new medicine the doctor prescribed helping?  I don’t know.  I’m aware of placebo effects and other psychological issues that could interfere with objective observation so I have to work diligently to screen such effects out of my conclusion. That’s why I became a physicist, so I wouldn’t have to handle such subjective issues.  Let me commission a study and get back to you.

How is the pain, you ask, on a scale of one to ten?  An hour later, I’m deep in the middle of outlining a subjective sensation scale but hung up on whether it should be a linear or log measure.

My awareness of day-to-day events is similarly cloudy.  I used to speak openly about being an artist, working in oil, until someone asked about my latest painting.  I was embarrassed to admit that it had been years since I had touched a paint brush.  I had similar uh-oh moments about my writing, my music and a number of hobbies.  I started an activity log to help me keep track of what I was actually doing.  My log not only helps to avoid future episodes of foot-in-mouth disease but also helps me see what I’ve been omitting in my life.

More recently, I’ve been using emotional scorecards, as well.  Scorecards can be about results, like my activity logs, but they can also be used to monitor your emotional state. For example, are you glad you stayed up late watching TV last night?  Is that new hobby worth the effort you are putting into it?  What about your new circle of friends?  Was that party really worth the aftermath?

Most of us spend our lives on autopilot, watching the ground come up at us in a detached, disinterested way.  We don’t take the time to ask fundamental, introspective questions.  At best, we may latch onto someone else’s philosophy, lurching our lives vaguely in the direction they dictate and then sitting back to hope for the best.

Instead of accepting others’ guidance on faith, treat different life philosophies as suggestions to be confirmed by experiment.  Try them out for a while and then step back to see if you are better off than before.

Writing in a slightly different context, David Friedlander over at, had this to say about what he called data driven living.

[W]hat if we allowed data to inform, not just how we design our homes, but how we design our lives? How would we live if we let data be our guiding force, rather the forces of: A. This is the way I’ve always done it, B. This is the way my parents/family have always done it, C. This is the way everyone else is doing it, or D. Some other non-data-related rationale? … Getting to the essence of something, whether it’s a letter or a life, is often a process of attrition, removing all that is not totally necessary. If you are wondering which things are removable, it’s important to check in with yourself…

Treat life as an experiment. Try it out for a while, gather data and decide what is working. Then try something else. This is the core of an activist philosophy of life.

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