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rongo rongo
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The Odyssey by rongo rongo

March 16th, 2010 2:34 PM

INSTRUCTIONS: Embark on an odyssey. It should be no shorter than one month. You must encounter (metaphorically) the following obstacles:

1. The Lotus-Eaters
2. The Cyclops
3. Aeolus
4. The Laestrygonians
5. Circe
6. The Sirens
7. Scylla and Charybdis
9. Calypso
10. Telemachus, Your Son
11. Penelope, Your Wife
12. Laertes, Your Father
13. The Citizens of Ithaca

Prelude: The day I began working on this, God sent me a granola bar. Today, as I finish this write-up, God sent me another granola bar. Divine intervention throughout my odyssey was limited to two granola bars.

Introduction: Welcome, friends. More than other tasks, this one has been a personal journey, with some unexpected twists and some unresolved issues. It's a long write-up and covers a lot of topics. Not many pictures, because to me, the Iliad and the Odyssey are about words. Words spoken, repeated, passed along, written down. This completion is temporally as well as geographically discontinuous, stretching over a few countries and more than a year. I've ordered the episodes in the sequence that Odysseus encountered them.

The Lotus-Eaters
San Francisco
July 2009

The essence of the lotus-eaters episode is to encounter a group of people who are very happy, and being tempted to "drink the Kool-Aid" and join in. It is also about the tension between this type of happiness and the drive to accomplish more and fulfill responsibilities.

Back in 2005, I went to a Harry Potter conference for the first time, because a friend of mine was going and because it was being held nearby. These books had been some of my favorites, but before 2005, I had no idea that there was a whole fan community that had sprung up around them. So I showed up for just one day of the con, met some nice people, and got a quick introduction to the fandom. By 2007, I was interested enough to travel to New Orleans for a con. I lots of cool people and had the most fun vacation ever. Missed the 2008 cons, but got to go to this year's. Once again, I talked to a lot of fascinating, intelligent, kind people, and had an insanely happy time.

For anyone who hasn't experienced a special interest gathering or convention, it's hard to describe exactly what makes these experiences so compelling. Part of it is the widespread friendliness. It's astonishing to be in a place where everyone smiles, talks to strangers, and is nice to each other. Another part is the energy. Attendees have planned, saved up money, and traveled large distances in order to be there; they are the sort of people who pursue their interests avidly and who deliberately include fun in their lives. It was great, and afterwards, I started wondering why it was so easy to be happy there, and whether I could do it during everyday life.

Although I am generally a reasonably happy person (at least, in my post-school years), moments of conscious complete and perfect happiness have been pretty rare. Usually, I'm having a good time, but there are still other things I should be doing, or I have various concerns about the future, expectations from other people, or some irksome details that get in the way of perfect happiness. Yet during the con this year, I often attained that mental state of being completely in the moment and feeling like everything was exactly the way I wanted it to be---and since this state is "all in my head," it seems like something I should be able to do at will. So I brought this thought home, and found out that pressing my mental happy button was kind of like riding a bike. Hard to describe how to do, but once you get the hang of it, not particularly difficult to accomplish. Now, anytime I'm physically comfortable and not distracted, all I need to do is stop thinking about anything I should be doing and anyone who wants me to do anything, and I can feel an overwhelming sense of joy.

Powerful, yet disturbing. What are the implications of this? If all it takes for me to reach a state of bliss is to stop trying to accomplish things and to stop caring about my responsibilities and obligations to anyone else (given a starting point of having all basic physical needs met), why bother to do anything? How many minutes a day of lotus-eater-like happiness are ok, and if I go overboard, will it be addictive? Is being too happy in the moment really a trap that will prevent me from reaching long-term fulfillment? Which of my obligations are an integral part of something larger that will eventually result in a net gain in happiness, and which are just useless hassles? Is this mental happy button thing a trick I should try to show other people? What if it stops working? No answers yet.

Odysseus resisted the lotus fruit, but went out of his way to hear the sirens. Maybe to him, just sitting in one place and being happy was less compelling than desiring something unattainable. I'm not as driven as Odysseus, but so far I haven't actually ended up just sitting around feeling beatific. I'm still going to work and I'm still getting together with friends, despite a slight sense of detachment. At least for now, I've got a grip on the lotus eater challenge.

The Cyclops
Cambridge, MA

To me, the really striking thing about the cyclops episode is how creepy it must have been for Odysseus and his crew to wait, knowing that Polyphemus would soon strike out, randomly grabbing one of them, and eating him. I live a privileged and sheltered life, and have never had to worry about this kind of thing literally.

So, here goes the analogy. Over the last few years, my department at work has not won enough new contracts. The inevitable result, layoffs, has struck several times. For all of us not privy to the decision-making, it can be inscrutable why one person is let go while another person gets to stay. You feel bad for the people getting pink slips, relieved to still have a job, and nervous that it's going to happen again. And indeed, there have been several rounds of layoffs over the last three years. Each time, at least so far, I've been one of the people left.

The analogy breaks down in that sharpening a stake and poking someone's eye would not be a good solution to the problem. However, every time I submit a proposal or do anything else in pursuit of new contracts, I consider it a metaphorical stab at the cyclops. Earlier this month, I found out that I won my first piece of work as the named primary investigator, after quite a few rejections. On the same day, it was also announced that a large number of people are being let go.

Usually when this happens, I try to say goodbye to particular colleagues I know, and just feel awkward about everyone else. This time, I wanted to do more. So I invited everyone to my house for dinner as a bon voyage party. I was nervous about the party because (1) my house is always both messy and poorly repaired (2) I don't socialize frequently with coworkers, so I didn't know whether anyone would show up (3) if some large fraction of people invited did show up, there wouldn't be enough room in the house.

The party turned out great. Though it was sad to be saying goodbye to some people, it was better to come together instead of letting the event pass by without notice. And I was glad to be able to do something, even if it was a small gesture.

Istanbul, Turkey
May 2009

The Aeolus episode is about difficulties caused by people disregarding warnings and/or swiping your bag. It's also about having a kind benefactor who tries to help you out, but can't actually solve your woes resulting from your not being able to hang onto your bag of winds.

Now, when preparing to travel, everyone hears the standard warnings about pickpockets and theft. So when we went on vacation with friends, everyone kept their valuables in money belts. But still, most of us had day packs or other small bags for carrying everyday necessities, like kleenex and sunglasses. Stuff that you wouldn't think anyone would bother stealing. (Of course, the problem with that logic is that people usually don't check out the contents of your bag before stealing it.) We were also more aware than usual, walking with our bags under our arms or hanging in front rather than in back.

During dinner at a busy restaurant in Asia side of Istanbul, one of our party hung their bag over the back of their chair. Since we were all sitting at a table in the corner and all facing each other, it didn't seem likely that someone would just take it. Yet, during the course of dinner, someone did manage to walk into the corner of the restaurant and swipe this bag without any of us noticing anything.

When we got up to leave, the theft was discovered and we started trying to explain what had happened to the restaurant staff. But since none of us spoke Turkish, it wasn't really getting anywhere. A helpful person at a different table heard the discussion and came over to help translate. It turned out that the restaurant, despite being tiny and casual, had a security camera. So they reviewed the footage, but it didn't pick up anything useful. Well, my friend was out one bag, a stash of tissue paper and allergy pills, sunglasses and a hat. Plus, the psychological hit of feeling kind of stupid for not noticing someone talking the bag, and feeling sort of unlucky and victimized.

We searched nearby alleys to see if the stuff had been dumped once it was determined to be non-valuable, but didn't find anything. So we had a quick post-dinner mission, sort of like a scavenger hunt, to figure out where to buy a replacement hat and sunglasses. After that was accomplished, we got some consolation chocolate eclairs, and called it a lesson learned. In the contest between vigilance and thefts of opportunity, vigilance will lose most of the time, because people are not capable of paying constant attention.

The Laestrygonians
Brookline, MA
April 2009

Ah cannibalism, the snack of last resort for those endless meetings, road trips through the middle of nowhere, lengthy droughts, etc.

In the past, I have often had an unreasonable fear of throwing a party where there wasn't enough food. Bunny Dragon has insisted that since we live in a civilized area with plenty of pizza delivery service, running out of food at a party would not be a big deal. But, until this episode, I was dubious. Running out of food just seemed to present a major entertainment disaster, reflecting poorly on one's planning capabilities, generosity, and regard for guests. This means that I worry a lot before dinner parties, make too much food, and then have to force people to take away leftovers.

When the idea for this potluck dinner came up, I figured there would be no chance of food shortage and ensuing cannibalism, because this same group of people has an annual potluck that often has so much food that it's hard to tell whether anything was actually consumed during the course of dinner. So it was with confidence, perhaps even hubris, that I pushed for a second potluck for the year, with an expanded guest list. Traditionally, students attend but don't bring food, and graduates supply a range of interesting culinary creations.

Well, more students than normal and fewer graduates than normal showed up, and at the advertised starting time, we had about 3 main dishes, 4 desserts, and about 25 people. Serious miscalculation! We implemented the pizza delivery back-up plan, told the students to go ahead with the first course, and had the graduates wait to eat. During the next half hour, everyone had a good time talking. More people showed up bearing food, the pizza arrived, the desserts were great, and no one really seemed to care that there was a shortage of homemade casseroles.

I now have one less thing to worry about---not preparing enough food does not cause social disaster.

September-November, 2009

The big question of the Circe episode is: Did a beautiful woman turn men into pigs with her magic? Or were the men pigs all along, and she was just the catalyst to reveal their true nature? I think that the reason Odysseus was able to turn the pigs back into men was not his magic herb, but the fact that he was the alpha male. So when he showed up, all the other guys assumed that he was the one who would get the woman, and they stopped grunting around. To me, the Circe episode, is about how it feels to be the only woman in a group of men.

Being the only female in a group is something that happens to me fairly frequently, because I work with a lot of guys and socialize with a lot of guys. Something I've noticed lately is the use of humor to define an in-group and an out-group.

In particular, jokes told in a male-dominant environment often reinforce a narrative where the "we" is male and "the other" is female, and "we" are clearly superior to "the other". For example, at a symposium where the crowd was predominantly male, the speaker started his talk with a humorous reminiscence about how a (male) friend of his had met a waitress with a particularly seductive voice (female), and gotten her to record a lot of messages so that their computer system could talk. Well, the funny thing is that this woman's voice was so appealing that guys would phone the computer system just to hear the messages. We = men, clever inventors, people who enjoy listening to a sexy female voice. The other = women, people in service jobs, people whose relevant characteristic is to be appealing.

Previously, at a professional dinner gathering with a table full of men, one guy joked about his wife and daughter who were spending lavishly for a wedding. We = men, sensible, people who know the value of money, people who have to humor our family members, earners. The other = women, emotional, purchasers who are getting ripped off.

At another conference where the crowd was predominantly male, a speaker started his talk with a joke about how a (male) friend of his had gotten pulled over for speeding in a fancy car, and the policeman had given him the chance to get out of a ticket if he could come up with a novel excuse for the infraction. The novel excuse was that his wife had run off with a policeman and he was speeding because he was afraid the police was trying to return the wife. Even I laughed at the joke---good delivery, unexpected twist. But I was simultaneously laughing and cringing, because once again, it was a joke that promoted in-group bonding by emphasizing the male common experience.

It's not always a cringing matter, though. Recently, I was in a meeting with a about a dozen men, talking about a game idea which involved stalking chickens. The game itself, needless to say, was intentionally silly. The proposed name was 'Hen Hunt.' I suggested that it might be better to go with a name that didn't have the connotation of a bachelor party; everyone agreed in a friendly way. It was hard to tell whether I was being overly sensitive, but we agreed that we might as well avoid the potential for offense.

During another friendly meeting, we were discussion how the total number of people pursuing science and technology careers could be increased. I looked around the room and pointed out if we could be considered a representational sample set, it would be possible to nearly double the number of people in our profession if women were equally represented among us.

In my opinion, a good way to start down that path would be for everyone to think more about the message they send in their choice of jokes, project names, and other trivial matters. No single incident is a big deal, but the accumulated weight of hundreds of little messages about who belongs and who doesn't is a big deal.

The Sirens
Easter Island,
October, 2008

The Sirens challenge is about the psychological anguish of setting yourself up to experience irresistible temptation and being unable to indulge further. To me, the key thing about this episode that Odysseus deliberately exposes himself to hearing the Siren Song, but in a way that ensures that he will not succumb to their lure. Why does he do this? If happiness is not wanting what you can't have, then Odysseus is making sure that he's going to be unhappy. The answer must be that some experiences are so epic that they are worth having, even if they involve unsatisfiable desire.

Usually, I have few serious temptations that seem worth resisting. Sure, there’s the occasional day with nice weather when I have to resist playing hooky, or refraining from eating too much dessert, but these are all easy cases. However, I knew that visiting Easter Island would present me with a nearly irresistible temptation – touching statues and collecting chips of obsidian.

I’ve always liked to closely examine small pebbles. At my elementary school, there were some areas covered in gravel, and I spent many recess hours poring over the pieces of rock. I found tiny fossil imprints of seashells, pieces of fool’s gold, and beautifully veined bits of granite. Over the years, I would often pick up favorite pebbles from beaches and mountains. Yet, I’d never been to a volcanic area that had obsidian before this visit. No other rocks I’ve ever seen are anything like obsidian. Perfectly and uniformly black, glossy, with tiny ridges showing impacts – I saw these shiny chips of obsidian all over the island. But, obsidian is classified as part of the archeological and natural heritage of Easter Island, and it is against the rules to take pieces. The temptation was constant, because there were bits all around, just lying in the dirt. But I knew that breaking the rule would be disrespecting a culture’s right to conserve and control their heritage. No one would ever miss a little chip of rock, but giving into this temptation would be acting like all the previous visitors to important archeological sites who took home friezes they fancied, carved graffiti into pyramids, or otherwise looted whatever they wanted.

During my visit, when I wasn’t resisting the temptation to collect rocks, I was often busy keeping my hands off the statues. The island is like a huge, open-air museum, with statues scattered around and artifacts all over. A lot of the art, such as statues or cave paintings or petroglyphs,, has suffered significant wear from exposure to weather, wandering livestock, and people. So, visitors are asked to look as closely as they want, but to resist patting, rubbing, kissing, or climbing on the statues. Again, I completely agree with the motivating reason for the restriction, but at a personal level it was a struggle not to give in and rationalize that just one little pat couldn’t really hurt anything. I also went to the mountains where the yellow rock for the statues and the red rock for their hats were quarried. There, I could touch examples of similar rocks. Which was nice, but didn’t entirely satisfy the temptation.

I loved the experience of walking among the statues and feeling the same wind and sun, and seeing the same endless ocean that people have felt and seen on Easter Island since it was settled. Perhaps successfully resisting temptation made the experience even more meaningful.

Scylla and Charybdis
Boston, MA
January 2009 and June 2009

Scylla and Charybdis is all about steering the best path you can among monsters that lie in wait. For me, driving around Boston is kind of like that. I didn't get a car until a few years ago and I still find navigating the local roads very alarming. In particular, I've always avoided driving to the airport. But this task provided the perfect incentive to finally master the route.

So, on a sunny but cold afternoon in January, I set out with Listener along, and drove to Logan. I avoided crashing into any cars and reached the central parking area with minimal incident. On the way back, I was confused by the maze of different freeway entrances and ended up going through the wrong tunnel and surfacing in the middle of downtown tourist Boston (not the best place to drive). Circled around a while, tried to follow signs back to the airport, and on about the third try, piloted the car to Logan again. I saw signs for the cell-phone parking lot, where you are supposed to be able to wait in your car to pick someone up without paying a ton for parking. The cell lot turned out to be tiny and rather far away from the terminals. After cruising through it, I found the right freeway entrance and escaped the airport/downtown area.

I realize that for people who drive a lot, this episode is probably not very exciting, but it's a significant thing for me.

Having done the airport drive once, when Bunny Dragon needed a ride there in June, I was able to actually take him there and drop him off, just like a normal adult. My usual offer is that I can come along on the subway and keep someone company when they are going to the airport. But, since our house is probably 1.5 hours from the airport by public transit and about 20 minutes away by car, it's nice to have the option of driving. But that option itself presents a new kind of Scylla and Charybdis challenge---when should I take advantage of the convenience of driving, and when should I use the greener method of taking public transportation which has the added benefit of including some built-in exercise?

I try to stick to the middle path---biking to work when it's not precipitating or icy, using the subway when going to the city. But the temptation to be lazy and to save time is pretty constant, and I can't say that I've been either consistent or correct with my decisions. It's a continuing effort.

Goreme, Turkey
May 2009

The part that sticks in my mind about Odysseus's encounter with Calypso is that when she tells him to build a raft and float off to his destination, he's extremely dubious about the proposal. During high school, I remember being involved in a skit about this episode, where the scene has been morphed into a Gilligan's Island theme. Instead of Odysseus and Calypso, Gilligan is having an dream featuring Ginger, who gives him the idea of making a raft to escape the island. The key piece of dialogue is when she tells him to "Cast your fate to the winds" and the phrase echoes in his mind until he wakes up.

During our tour around Turkey, one of the possible activities was a dawn hot air balloon ride in the Goreme region, over a valley full of dramatic rock formations. I was slightly dubious about this idea, not being too certain of how regulated, safe, or well-run this type of tourist attractions might be. But, from all reports, it sounded like an enchanting experience, so we signed up.

Then, the day before our flight was scheduled, two balloons in the valley collided, causing a fatal accident. This made me even more nervous about the idea. Unlike Odysseus, who asserted that no tribulations on the uncaring waves would dissuade him from his goal of reaching home, I wasn't trying to accomplish anything except fun. Was the amount of risk unreasonable, given that there was no real reason to indulge in the experience? I'm a seat belt and bike helmet kind of person, and tend to be jumpy and nervous about the possibility of injury. Actually, part of the reason that I stopped being a chemist was that I was uncomfortable working with so many dangerous substances, after a serious accident happened in my lab, to a more experienced person who was doing a common procedure that I'd done the day before, and was planning to do again the next day.

Rationally, I knew that statistically speaking, the trip was no more risky than it had been before I heard about the accident. Plus, there was the very human reaction of closing the barn door after the horse had run off---surely the day after an accident, people would be trying extra hard to be careful about operations? And wasn't it just too limiting to avoid doing anything that might be risky?

Well, it was a beautiful dawn, and floating through the air in a hot air balloon was astonishingly peaceful. Since you're moving with the wind, there is no sensation of movement at all, just the visuals of the the landscape unfolding beneath you. There were dozens of other balloons in the sky, and 20 passengers in the balloon, but at the same time, it seemed like being alone with nature. I had cast my fate to the winds, and they were generous with their gifts.

After we touched down, the operator mentioned that most hot air ballooning injuries actually occur after the balloon is back on the ground, with people who are kind of dazed stumbling out of the basket. And one fellow passenger told us about how she'd actually witnessed the accident the previous day, but decided to go up the next day anyhow, because you can't experience life very well if you let being nervous stop you from the things you want to do. That sounded right to me, though I'm still not going to be getting in line for bungee jumping out of a balloon.

Telemachus, Your Son
Cambridge, MA
March 2009

The essential issue that Odysseus has to work out with his son is becoming comfortable passing along the mantle of responsibility to an heir who is basically a stranger. Odysseus is nearly a myth to his own son, who knows his father only through seeing artifacts, like the old bow, or through second-hand recollections from other people.

Probably my longest running and most significant responsibility during college was staffing an anonymous peer counseling hotline that provided someone to talk confidentially between 7pm-7am during the school year. As a volunteer organization, we had the usual effort of simply keeping the group going (recruiting, training, regular meetings). And of course, the central focus was on answering the phones and helping people. Not exactly the same responsibility set as being the king and warlord of Ithaka. But, like any significant responsibility willingly undertaken, it was sometimes deeply fulfilling and sometimes just a lot of work. I was very glad to have been part of it, but by the time I graduated, I was also relieved to be free of the time commitment.

In December of 2008, the group had a reunion party. In addition to catching up with old friends I hadn't seen for 10-15 years, I also got to meet a few of the current students. A long time ago, I wrote and put together a new staffer training manual, and I found out that they've done some revisions but have kept some parts. The students talked about some of the current challenges they have, and the alums passed along some ideas and told stories about how things were both drastically different and eerily similar back in the old days.

After meeting the few students who came to the reunion, I wanted to do something to thank the current group for being caring people doing good work that can sometimes feel thankless and difficult. So I fell back on an old classic, and hosted a pizza party. I was struck by how much I liked these students, and how much of a connection I felt. We were strangers, but we had taken on the same responsibility, and they had a few old artifacts that I recognized immediately. Like Odysseus, I found out that my heirs are everything I could hope for.

Penelope, Your Wife
Brookline, MA
September 2008

Not having a wife, I picked out two key characteristics of the Penelope episode. First, Odysseus returns to sleep in his old bed which he's left for the last 20 years. Second, he stays up all night talking with Penelope. (I only revisited my old bed from 19 years ago, and I stayed up past my bedtime but not literally all night.)

The main challenge for Odysseus in the Penelope episode is how to return to a home and family relationship after much time has passed. While both parties are dedicated to the memory of their time together, each has since experienced 20 years worth of change and growth. Odysseus is crushed when he thinks that someone has moved his bed---he had imagined that everything back home would have stayed the same while he was gone. This reminds me of how alums in the extended MIT community have to keep redefining their relationships with student groups. Students, recent grads, older grads, and ancient alums all contribute, but not in the same ways. And no one wants to be the ancient alum who is constantly trying to live in the past by acting like a student.

So I thought about this a lot in early September, 2008, during rush at my fraternity. I've reached the milestone where just about none of the freshmen were even born back when I first arrived. Rush is the time of year when students visit different living groups, groups give out bids inviting new members to join, and perspective member make their decisions. And although not everyone thinks of it this way, I've often thought that pledging a fraternity is like getting engaged, and initiation is similar to a wedding. You're making a permanent commitment (although of course you know that people get divorced) and expanding your family past blood relatives.

Typically at my fraternity, alums run logistics, provide moral support, and do household chores during rush so that the students can focus on interpersonal interactions. And it is understood that older alums start conking out around 10pm, so late-night events have to be entirely handled by students and recent grads. But this year, due to some scheduling oddness, I found myself with the pleasure of leading the alum/freshman ice-cream expedition, starting at 11pm. (I prepared with a mid-day nap. It's not that I never stay up that late anymore, but I rarely try to tackle anything requiring high organizational or social energy by that time.) Nothing dramatic happened, but everyone had dessert and an enjoyable time, and I was reaffirmed in knowing that even if the young whippersnappers these days sometimes metaphorically rearrange the furniture in surprising ways, they are still family and the fraternity is still a place I can call home.

Laertes, Your Father
Hong Kong
December 2008

The Laertes episode has some similarities to the Penelope episode, in that it also features a reunion and renegotiation of an old relationship. However, there is something qualitatively different about relationships with one's blood relatives. Parents may decide to have children, but they have less control over how their offspring turn out than they might think. So the parent/child relationship is kind of like being stranded on a desert island with a stranger. You didn't pick them out deliberately, but you're stuck with each other.

In December, 2008, I embarked on a mini-family odyssey to one of my ancestral homelands. My parents recently moved to Hong Kong, taking up residence in the area where my Dad's family has been living since about the late 1200's. This was the longest parent visit I've had in about 16 years; since it was almost 24 hours of traveling to get over there, I stayed for almost two weeks. During this time, my Dad and I experienced two significant milestones that demonstrated a new phase to our relationship.

First, I was astonished and pleased when my Dad (1) remembered that I'd wanted to visit the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas and (2) made a special effort to include this in our vacation itinerary. When we were younger, my Dad tended to just run things his way, with minimal concern about other people's preferences. I'm really impressed that over the last few years, he's spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of person he wants to be, and a lot of effort to modify his habits so that he can become that person. This change has included listening more and respecting other people's opinions. Anyhow, I had a great time seeing the temple, but it was even more awesome seeing how my Dad has grown.

Second, I realized that similar to the way that he was treating me like an adult and not just a child, I should treat him like an adult and not just a parent. I thought about how I rarely, if ever, express approval or pride in their accomplishments. I've been going along expecting them to occasionally tell me that I'm doing a good job, but I haven't been doing the same in return. So I told him how impressed I was at how they've been able to adjust to all the changes in relocating, and that it was great that they've been taking this opportunity to spend time with his parents.

The Citizens of Ithaca
Cambridge, MA
April 2009

The Citizens of Ithaca episode, to me, is about facing people who seem hostile, but really just have a difference point of view. After all, the Ithacans had a pretty legitimate complaint about Odysseus. Their leader disappeared for 20 years, got the entire army killed, and then reappeared and personally slayed a bunch more people. With leader like that, who needs enemies. So the crowd is hostile, but the key thing is that they aren't monsters, they are people that Odysseus has to live and work with.

I am active in an organization that for various reasons, has to belong to an umbrella organization. The umbrella group is fairly homogeneous. Philosophically, geographically, demographically, and culturally, 80-90% of the groups share the same characteristics. Unfortunately for us, we're not with the majority for almost every characteristic, and the minority is made up of a few groups that differ vastly from each other as well as the majority. One result is that we often feel like the policies, actions, and decisions of the umbrella group are completely unreasonable. The other result is that the majority groups feel like we are always complaining about things, and that our complaints don't make any sense.

A long-standing point of disagreement centers on the umbrella group's level of expenditure and method for assessing dues from member groups. I had to represent my group at a meeting to discuss these issues. From my point of view, the meeting consisted of me presenting ideas and alternatives, and the rest of the attendees objecting to anything different from the status quo, while delivering a variety of veiled insults and backhanded compliments. After a couple hours, a vote was taken, I was the only dissenting opinion, and we all went home feeling aggravated. I don't know about everyone else, but I was so upset that I got a headache, cried because everyone hated me, and went straight to bed.

After a couple days, I got an article in the mail. Before the meeting started, I had mentioned that there was an article in a previous version of a national newsletter that I was curious about. Well, the person whom I felt was giving me a hard time during this meeting had looked it up, made me a copy, and mailed it to my house. I had to appreciate the kindness, even though I'm not exactly volunteering to spend more time working with this person.

Sometimes dealing with other people makes me so mad that all I can do is hope that truly terrible things will happen to them. Then I realize that as far as they're concerned, dealing with me may be a truly terrible thing in itself. It is a constant struggle for me to acknowledge that from their point of view, I'm the one being troublesome, and they're the one being extra tolerant and kind.

To all of my fellow travelers---thank you and happy journeys.

- smaller

Greek theater at Epidavros

Greek theater at Epidavros

Back in 2005, I visited this theater and demonstrated the acoustics by reading some lines from the Iliad (in ancient Greek).

Food from God

Food from God

I don't know if it happens in your city, but occasionally around Boston, groups will hand out granola bars and notes saying that God loves you. I think snack foods are a nice way of demonstrating love, certainly better than keeping you captive on an island or turning you into a pig.

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(no subject)
posted by Electra Fairford on March 16th, 2010 6:23 PM

This is an excellent writeup. I especially liked Circe--being a chick in engineering and a non-CS engineer in a social group that is >90% computer scientists, I am linking this to people. Nice not giving in to the temptation to hyperbolize to make the point.

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posted by rongo rongo on March 17th, 2010 6:28 AM

Thanks, Electra. Always nice to meet other geek gals. Of the various characters, Circe sticks in my head.

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posted by Burn Unit on March 22nd, 2010 11:06 PM

What a personal set of episodes. Do you feel that you maintained a thread despite the episodic nature and the long time? To me it seems like the personal challenges to your self conceptions and the self inquiry fit that bill, but I want to know if that was your intent or did the thread emerge over the time you took? Or some other thing I hadn't considered?

It was so good to talk to you on the phone and then to read this after! How I've missed you, and reading of praxis is always a good way to be reacquainted. The only thing better perhaps is doing praxis together. Soon, I think! I'm going to NYC later this spring, I think—just have to check the frequent flyer situation. And I intend to add Boston as well to see the home office. Let's connect for then for sure! Um, are you leaving town any time in the next three months? I haven't booked tickets or anything but I'd hate to miss!

Seeing this proof prompts me to knuckle down and get mine finished up. Thanks for the inspiration! My Odyssey should be coming soon!

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posted by rongo rongo on March 24th, 2010 5:32 AM

Looking forward to reading about your adventures.

I had originally intended to more deliberately seek specific episodes, but that wasn't turning out very well because they felt too artificial. So instead I just constantly thought about the episodes and tried to recognize when one was happening, until finally they had all happened, plus I got another granola bar.

I'll be unavailable the last week and a half in April, and also Memorial Day weekend. But, if you are on the East Coast during another time, I definitely want to get together. Thanks for calling!