Mid-Life

I’ve recently had occasion to talk with several different people about “mid-life” and the dreaded “mid-life crisis,” because they’re about twenty years younger than me and happen to be going through it at the moment. I’d like to pass on a few nuggets of wisdom that I’ve picked up in my travels that they seemed to find helpful.

I was talking with my niece on the phone the other day — she’s nowhere near mid-life, but she’s currently taking a psychology class in college — and she brought up something called Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, which I thought were interesting from the standpoint that they seemed to have been developed by a bright but very young man. They are heavy on childhood developmental stages, but once they get to “well-adjusted adulthood,” they trail off into a vague mumble, as though adulthood is a featureless landscape that ends suddenly in the Cliffs of Senility and Death.1

Nothing could be further from the truth. Adults continue to develop, and some of the changes are as dramatic as puberty.

Mid-life is a particularly interesting developmental stage.

One way of talking about this is to use Carl Jung’s concepts of individuation and integration. In very general terms, a person spends the first half of life individuating, and the second half of life integrating, and this is useful language because the changeover corresponds to the mid-life developmental changes. It gives a lot of insight into the “crisis” that often ensues. So let’s talk about these words.

In a sense, the words are inverted. Individuation is actually a process of learning to conform to the herd, while integration is a process of becoming a true individual. But the words work well enough when framed properly.

To reliably conform to the herd, you have to internalize the expectations of the herd. All infants are, as someone once quipped, a system of unregulated orifices. One of the first thing we train infants to do is to control their bladder and bowels. We then train them to speak and be silent according to a rather complex set of social rules. We teach them to use magic phrases of power, like “Please” and “Thank You” and “In Jesus’ Name” and “When Allah Wills.” Further expectations are impressed on children as they grow, until they become “productive, well-adjusted adults,” which means that all of the expectations have become fully internalized, and the new adult can be trusted to function on his or her own as an independent member of the herd, rather than as a dependent under constant supervision. They have become an individual, an autonomous unit of society, a legal adult: they have “individuated.”

Jung’s insight was that all of the impulses they have learned to control, such as screaming when they are hungry, or simply letting the bladder go when the urge strikes, never actually go away: they just “go dark.” They retreat into an unconscious place in the mind that Jung called, appropriately enough, the Shadow.

The Shadow isn’t merely a collection of unregulated impulses. It’s also an entire collection of suppressed and unexplored potentials. Boys don’t play with dolls. Girls don’t fight back. Boys can’t care for sick people. Girls can’t do math. Black people must never show defiance to a white person. The list is huge, and it is augmented by all of the specific family expectations laid down, such as carrying on the proud military tradition, or becoming “successful” as a doctor or lawyer.

If all this stuff is merely suppressed and not obliterated, then it can come back out of hiding. The trigger that seems to open the floodgates most reliably is awareness of one’s own mortality.

Young people know, intellectually, that someday they’ll die, but they don’t feel it: it isn’t real to them. It is right at about mid-life — for the privileged classes within society, at any rate — when marriages are settled, job tasks are mastered, finances are as secure as they’re going to get, careers start to top out, children (if any) are able to feed and dress and care for themselves, parents are aging and ailing and dying, that a person starts to viscerally understand that what they envisioned as their “life” has peaked, and they’re on the downslope toward death. Two thoughts start to run around in their heads: first, Is that all there is? and second, If I’m dying, what do I really have to lose?

These two thoughts, together, tend to unlock the bars placed over the cave entrance into the Shadow. Unlocking those bars is what starts the process of integration.

It’s called “integration” because all of those suppressed and forgotten hopes, dreams, desires, and even impulses get re-integrated into a more balanced and complete person, who is now capable of choosing to break from the herd — even to lead it, if necessary. While this can trigger a psychological crisis for the person who starts integrating, and certainly causes a lot of uncomfortable feelings, it’s generally a very joyous time — for that person. The reason it’s called a crisis is not because the person going through it is in distress, but because it is a crisis for everyone around them.

The person going through mid-life change says, “I am trying to find myself.” They have a strong sense of purpose, and while they may be uncertain about where they are going, they feel in control, perhaps for the first time in their life.

The people around that person say, “I don’t know him (her) any more.” They feel betrayed, distressed, and — most importantly — helpless. They are the ones experiencing a crisis.

Every mid-life change is different, because it depends so much on what got stuffed into the Shadow. A person with a strong sex-drive that got suppressed is not unlikely to have one, or perhaps seventeen, sexual affairs. If it was emotional connection that got suppressed, they may have torrid emotional affairs without the bedroom athletics. If it was artistic sensibilities, they may quit their job and start doing music gigs in bars. If it was spiritual proclivities, they may travel to India with no notice and sit in an ashram for a year.

Some people don’t have a whole lot of Shadow to integrate, and they don’t have much of a visible mid-life change at all. Some people never integrate at all: they remain obedient, individuated, unintegrated members of the herd, and their Shadow remains dark right up until death takes them.

Others of us have a whole travel-trunk full of Shadows to unpack.

Because sex is wrapped with such restrictive taboos in US American culture, sex is one of the powerful things commonly stuffed into the Shadow, and consequently, a lot of mid-life crises lead directly into other people’s beds. Hence: the stereotype of the middle-aged executive running off with his barely-legal-age secretary to Bermuda. Because of the social taboos, this tends to cause a lot of collateral damage to families and friendships. By contrast, someone who stuffed a literary bent into the Shadow to make room for a legal career, and decides at mid-life to take up reading the complete works of Proust, will probably face no worse consequences than a little ribbing from his beer-buddies.

So with that framework in mind, here are a few personal insights about the process, based mostly on my experience of my own mid-life transition, and augmented by some of the experiences I’ve seen others go through.

First, don’t panic. This is a normal process, a lot like puberty. It’s often even called a second adolescence. It has a natural progression, and it ends.

For the person watching (say) a partner go through a mid-life change, understand that it isn’t about you. It’s about your partner, who is working through an internal issue. Don’t try to take the burden of telling yourself that you “failed” in some way. It simply isn’t about you. Your partner is looking for something lost long before you came into the picture.

For the person going through a mid-life change, understand that it is about you. If you’re having an affair, emotional or physical, it isn’t about that wonderful, charming new person you’ve fallen so madly in love with. It isn’t about your unsuitable marriage partner, or your dead-end job, or your worthless kids. No one has failed you. It’s about you. You are searching for something lost long before any of those other things came along.

Like puberty, once a mid-life change starts, you can’t turn back — you have to move through it. Gracefully, awkwardly, or dragged backward by your feet screaming, you are going to go through it.

Don’t cling to any particular outcome. Believe me, I understand how hard this is, especially for the people not going through the change. But the people who come out the other side of a mid-life change are never exactly the same people who went into it. It’s not at all uncommon for a mid-life change to renew and deepen existing relationships, but in many ways, the relationship has to be started over — which is a delightful rediscovery, if it works out that way. It’s also not uncommon for a mid-life change to completely end relationships, and mark the beginning of a new stage of life for everyone. There is no single right outcome.

Don’t cling to a timetable. Some mid-life transitions are quick and slick: a brief fling with a college student, or a crazy weekend in Vegas, and then it’s done. Some mid-life transitions drag on and on, or get stuck in a repeat cycle. Some introduce major life changes that are permanent. It’s worth giving a mid-lifer some clear space and looser boundaries to “find themselves,” but it’s perfectly okay to decide that it isn’t working for you, and move on with your life. No one needs to be a victim in this.

Try to not judge a person going through a mid-life change, if possible. It’s difficult, because the essence of the process is re-integrating things that were suppressed because they didn’t conform to herd expectations, and one of the tools the herd uses to enforce conformity is judgement, and shaming. People always try to shame the mid-lifer back into conformity with expectations, in an attempt to “re-parent” this wayward mid-life adolescent. It simply won’t work: at best, it will merely encourage secrecy and deceit.

Don’t go it alone. Get psychological counseling, if you can. If not, enlist the aid of an older person you consider “wise” in a non-judgmental way.

Don’t approach counseling as fixing a marriage problem. Remember that what probably started the whole thing was the recognition that you are actually going to die, and you’re asking Is that all there is? and What have I got to lose? These are not marriage issues, they are existential, or meaning issues.

Finally, don’t panic. It’s going to be okay.

In fact, it’s going to be wonderful.

[1] A dear friend and long-time counselor notes that Erikson’s “Childhood and Society” was, in fact, one of his early works, and that Erikson went on to develop a lot of the theory and science behind some of the very mid-life things I’m talking about above, as well as going further into old age and dying.

Firsts

firsts-front-3000My first commercial album is now out and available for purchase! Seriously!

Very cool stuff.

You can get MP3 downloads of the album or the shorter movements (under 10 min) from Amazon or iTunes (search for ‘joseph nemeth firsts’), and you can download a higher-quality version, or purchase the CD, from CDBaby.

This features the Piano Concerto and the Summer Symphony.

And in an act of naked commercial self-promotion, I’d like to ask that if you’ve heard these, and you liked them, hop over to CDBaby or Amazon and drop a review.

Gifted is Boring

I’ve been reading a lot of comments and posts lately by “gifted” individuals — people who score high on IQ tests — involving the Imposter Syndrome, and its closely related cousin, the Failure Syndrome. The former is when you succeed, but don’t think you should have, and the latter is when you think you should succeed, but don’t. Both of them are errors in self-assessment, yes, but to a greater extent they seem to be a misunderstanding of what success actually looks like.

I turned 60 last year, and I’ve been out somewhere beyond the 3rd or 4th standard deviation of “giftedness” all my life. I’ve suffered from both Imposter and Failure syndromes at various points, and I think I finally have enough perspective to make at least a few comments.

I have to deviate from conventions of modesty for just a moment, so that you know who is speaking. I have an advanced degree in physics from a premier research university. I  moved into software development, where I’ve remained for nearly thirty years. I’ve started four companies (three failed). I have my name on several patents. I have a blog, one published short story, and a bunch of (as-yet) unpublished writing. I play the violin well, and once toured Europe with it. I worked up enough performance skill on the piano to play Chopin’s Aeolian Harp Etude, then never performed it. I recently sang the Bach b-minor mass as a member of an 80-voice choir at a well-known music festival. I have composed a piano concerto, a symphony, a mass, and numerous other works, and have even had a handful of live performances. I have a home, children, grandchildren, a wife, and good friends.

You would think with all that success, I’d be a fascinating person to talk with.

I’m not. I’m moderately boring, sometimes irritating (sometimes very irritating), and my life is quite pedestrian.

On a typical day, I get up, make breakfast, pour a cup of coffee, then “go to work,” which consists of unblocking the screen saver on my computer and logging in to a remote site. I sit and stare at the computer screen most of the morning, interrupted by occasional phone conference meetings. I make lunch, and spend the afternoon doing what I did all morning. I pour a glass of wine after work, help my wife make dinner, we eat and chat, then I wash the dishes. I read, watch TV, or “kill orcs” (play video games) until it’s time for bed. Next day, reset and repeat.

It’s pretty boring.

So how on earth did such a boring person write a symphony? One note at a time, just like symphonies have always been written.

The thing that most anguished, syndrome-suffering gifted folks misunderstand is Time: the slow accumulation of minutes, days, and years. Sixty years is a lot of minutes, so many that the number is meaningless to the human mind, yet a single minute is enough to compose and orchestrate a musical phrase. Yes, you have to learn how — that’s another accumulation of minutes. You have to spend still more minutes getting past your Failure Syndrome, and your Impostor Syndrome, and your stage fright, and your childhood traumas, and your adult traumas, and your phobias, and the trials of marriage, and raising kids, and enduring in-laws, and working for a demanding boss, and dealing with an unjust society that keeps you down, and watching over friends having emotional melt-downs, and paying bills you can’t afford, and filing tax returns, and all the rest of the things that make up the boring details of a life.

After all that, there are still plenty of minutes left to sleep, make love, go out to dinner, watch football with friends, play video games, and write a symphony.

Yet there are never enough minutes. They run out. You cannot get it all done.

In my late forties, I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, which could have been terminal. Had I died, nearly all of my music, and all of my stories would have died before even being born.

In other words, I did not really bloom into all this success until I turned fifty — an unthinkable number of minutes into my life.

I have, perhaps, another twenty or thirty productive years’ worth of minutes. At some point, I will become unproductive or die, with things left undone. Even the most successful die too soon. Beethoven never wrote a tenth symphony. Mozart never finished his Requiem. Steve Jobs never got to collaborate on the iCar.

You cannot get it all done.

You see, you actually cannot succeed, because “success” is an ever-moving target. A child who dies at the age of nine months has perhaps never succeeded at the simple task of standing on his own two feet — all he has done is to try, and fail, and try, and fail. He did not stand, or walk, or run, or write a symphony. He did not get it all done.

Yet, that same child learned to suckle, and to roll over, and to crawl: all that could be expected in his short allotment of minutes.

As a gifted person, you were likely sold a bill of goods regarding how your future was going to play out. You were sold fantasies of success and recognition at an early age: of winning the National Spelling Bee, or the State Science Fair, or the Intel Prize, or an advanced degree followed by a Nobel Prize. You were sold an exciting life, filled to the brim with nothing but success.

What has actually played out is a boring life, even a hard life, full of too many minutes.

What I want to say here is that this is exactly as it should be. Gifted is boring. As is every life.

And yet… the minutes continue to accumulate. One day, you’ll get a bug in your head that tells you to take up snorkeling, or playing the fiddle, or walking the Camino from St. Jean to Finisterra, and you’ll say, “What the hell. Why not? I have lots of boring minutes in front of me.”

Maybe the impulse will come to nothing at all. Then again, maybe it won’t come to nothing, and you will accomplish something extraordinary. And then the minutes will roll onward, giving you an opportunity to do something extraordinary again. After a week of binge-watching Netflix.

Take heart, be patient, be curious, be unafraid. All you have are minutes, and they are precious, even when you choose to “waste” them.

 

 

 

Internet Feudalism

I think there’s an interesting lesson to take from my recent migration to WordPress.com. It’s an example of how feudalism is born.

The original Internet — not DARPANET, nor even the tribal comforts of the old BBS systems, but the first full-blown World Wide Web — was an anarchic utopia. It was free, it was friendly, it was a wonderland of beautiful images and new thoughts. And lots of free pornography.

And then Satan entered the Garden.

I could point to different classes of “bad actors,” from gullible Facebook fools, to vicious trolls, to aggressive advertisers, to malign foreign (and domestic) propagandists, but that’s not relevant. What’s relevant is how we react to this incursion of bad actors who have overrun the pristine plains and forests.

I was one of those tough homesteaders who maintained his own site. I learned how to milk a PHP script, seed my own MySQL database, train my own JavaScript hunting apps, and I learned enough about computer security to think I could handle myself out there on the lawless prairie. All it took was knowledge, a steely resolve, and a good six-gun (in the form of SSH access to my account and admin privileges).

I’ve now given up and moved into town: there’s a structure of laws that I have to follow (I’m not allowed to add plug-ins to my site), compensated by a militia (the WordPress.com team) that keeps the borders patrolled and my site open and safe. They have free lodging over in one section of town, but I’ve opted for slightly nicer facilities over here where I can have my own domain address and hang my own website curtains — which means, however, that I have to pay town taxes.

I am a refugee and an immigrant.

Can the WordPress.com town withstand a combined assault of Russian hackers, NSA rogues, and Google?

Of course not. But all of those Powers have bigger, badder games to play: they vie over thrones to be won, not a piddling mayorship in our little town. In their Game of Thrones, they may contend, not for, but over our little town: the Baron of Google might sweep through and claim WordPress.com, or perhaps it will be the Earl of Facebook. Perhaps the Tyrant of the NSA will decide to turn everyone out and salt the fields to discourage the spread of dangerous free-thinking. Perhaps the High Priest of Russia will drop a digital nuclear bomb on us to score some kind of point in his perpetual war with the Tyrant.

In the meantime, we live our blogging lives, protected under a system of laws, paying taxes, and going about our daily business, hoping that no great catastrophe will sweep us from the face of the Internet.

It’s fascinating to watch the forces that drive history playing out in our little digital domain.

Third Movement

concerto-iiiSo, it’s done.

I may remix the Concerto again in this lifetime, but I think it’s unlikely. Certainly, electronic orchestras keep getting better, and I can easily imagine a day when this set of samples will sound as crude as the “synth violins” on my old Korg M1. But playing that future orchestra is a whole different matter.

Even though I’ve spoken somewhat disparagingly about sampled sounds, the real issue is, as always, the performer. I’m sure that I will, bit by bit, become more proficient at performing a whole orchestra. But to really make these samples sing as they should, would take a wholly different level of artistry. Just as learning to play the violin, or the saxophone, or the guitar, can absorb a lifetime of effort and still leave you wondering when you are really going to learn to play the darn thing.

So yes, I may someday upgrade my orchestra again, and maybe I’ll decide the Concerto needs another remix.

But I’m pretty pleased with this.

Enjoy.

(Music at http://www.themonthebard.org/music).

(W)hacked Again

Getting hacked has become tiresome, and as part of my strategy to avoid stress, I’m moving my site. You won’t see any big changes, other than the WordPress Theme of the blog, which I’ll probably change from time to time anyway, just to keep it fresh.

The world has changed a lot since the cowboy Internet days when I started doing all this. One of the biggest changes is that all the stuff I needed to code, myself, is now done by others.

I wrote the Treehenge site from the ground up. All the PHP scripts. The databases. The HTML and the JavaScript for buttons. E-mail forwarders that are both hack- and spam-resistant. No one really needs to do that any more, and I no longer enjoy it. So I’m simplifying.

As it turns out, in the process of making this shift, I found the hole the hackers were crawling through, and — though it pains me deeply to admit to such a rookie mistake — it was entirely my fault.

Back in the day, the way you maintained web sites was through FTP, and I used that heavily. It was only later that I became conversant with SCP and RSYNC, which are more secure, and easier to script with. My FTP use fell into gradual neglect. At some point, I developed the strange idea that I had already shut down all my FTP portals — but, in point of fact, I had not. The passwords I was using were (probably) fine by 2005 standards, but in the shark-infested, hacker-polluted world of 2016 — well, my site was wide-open. I’m surprised they didn’t do more damage.

So, having closed the swinging-wide-on-its-hinges back door, I could have continued to use my site. I decided to move it, anyway.

You see, there is WordPress, and there is WordPress.

WordPress.org code is what I was previously using, and this is the non-commercial, OpenSource version of WordPress that is used by all of the hosting sites, like BlueHost. The core WordPress.org code is extremely limited, and the way you supercharge it is to add plug-ins, which are also OpenSource. Every plug-in is a potential security hole, because they’re often put together by rookie coders, or even by folks working for hacking organizations. There’s no way to know, without reading the code yourself. Every plug-in risks hacking.

The WordPress.com (commercial) site also uses WordPress.org code, but the difference is that they have chosen all of the plug-ins for you. It’s not the most complete set of plug-ins, and there are some things it just can’t do. But here’s the overriding advantage: WordPress.com has vetted all of these plug-ins for security, and they have a development staff to detect, find, and fix holes. They have to, because if someone hacks my WordPress.com site, they can hack any WordPress.com site.

It’s just less overall stress for me.

One change you’ll notice is that the music page now links to SoundCloud, which is where I will be hosting my music. This turned out to be an unexpected blessing. Since I started posting music to SoundCloud earlier this week, I’ve already picked up fifty-three listens, and twenty-one in the last twenty-four hours. I was lucky to get twenty-one listens in six months, before. Yay!

The End of Politics

The end of politics for me, at least.

I anticipate backing away from public life on the Web. I will still post here, particularly music, wine commentary, humor, and maybe a story from time to time. Perhaps I’ll venture into deeper waters on occasion. But I don’t really want to talk about the State that is developing.

For one thing, it will become increasingly dangerous to voice any opinions about the United States other than jingoistic patriotism.

If I thought it would do any good, I’d probably continue to write and torpedoes be damned, but I don’t think it will do any good, and it will only keep me in a state of perpetual anger, outrage, and agitation, as well as expose me to government and mob retribution. So far as I can see, the board is set, the pieces are in motion, and Black — the thoughtful minority — has already lost the game, though it may take another hundred moves or so sweep all the pieces off the board. Besides, White cheats.

Anyone who feels otherwise, by all means, keep writing blog articles. Keep protesting and marching and signing petitions. Keep writing letters to your congresscritters. Keep voting. I’ve been wrong before, and I’ll be wrong again, and this could well be one of those times.

I find that I’m already moving on.

Here’s the thing I think I need to point out. The Soviet Union collapsed, starting in the late 1980’s. It actually collapsed: as in fell completely apart, ceased to be an international entity of any sort. The USSR went from a world superpower to a failed nation and a historical footnote in a matter of years, not decades.

And yet, Russia lives on. In many ways, it’s stronger than ever. As is Georgia, Chechnya, the Ukraine, Crimea. Czeckoslovakia became the Czech Republic and joined Europe, as did Hungary.

People still live in all these places. They eat, go to shows, fall in love, have children. The thing that fell — the USSR — was an abstraction; a thing of the imagination.

The United States is collapsing right now. The election of Trump is merely the most visible of the symptoms. I don’t think it will take long for it to fall.

But representative democracy in North America will live on. As will various other kinds of states, kingdoms, satrapies, and smaller nations, all of which will be filled with people who eat, go to shows, fall in love, and have children.

We just have a nasty period of fascism, kleptocracy, and economic collapse to get through. Just like the former states of the USSR did in the 1990’s and the first decade of the twenty-first century.

I’m not going to waste energy, or risk jackbooted thugs, just to speak out against the decaying government of a failed nation. Though I grieve its death — I still have good days and bad days — the failed nation is no longer of interest.

But it isn’t yet the right time to start looking toward what will replace the failed nation-state we’ve called America.

For one thing, I have no idea how severe the intermediate chaos will be. It could range from a quiet dissolution of the Union of States, through trade embargoes and a full-scale nuclear war between the US and everyone else. We could emerge from the economic chaos into a largely-intact world willing to accept North American states as peers. We could emerge into a completely lawless dark age.

It’s even possible that a fading shadow of an American Empire, like Rome in the centuries after the death of Marcus Aurelius, could flicker on and off for decades or centuries.

Another reason it isn’t time to look forward is that there will be a lot of variety in the restructured North America that follows the collapse. There are already unbridgeable cultural differences between, say, Vermont, Alabama, and California. How those cultures will emerge as independent states without a federation to hold them under a common constitution and legal authority is pure speculation. I’d rather explore that in a fictional setting, because it will be purest fiction.

As for how to deal with this collapse at a personal level, I do have a few pieces of broad advice, which I will be trying to follow myself.

Be kinder to others than you’ve been in the past. There will be plenty of pain to go around: don’t add to it.

Be more generous than you’ve been in the past, with your money, your time, your attention, your help. There will be a lot of people who need help more than you do. They are not lazy — they have instead lost opportunity, and probably hope. If you can help them become self-supporting, fantastic. If you can’t, then help them find a roof and a meal. If the wind blows wrong, I can guarantee that you will be astonished by how quickly you can find yourself on the receiving end of charity.

Be useful. Your training, your credentials, your degree, your seniority, your expertise, your pension, and even your rights will all become meaningless. What other people will always value, however, under any circumstances, is your usefulness. They’ll pay you for that, whether in dollars, or eggs, or a place to keep warm. They’ll protect you and watch your back when you’re sleeping.

Get to know your neighbors and your community. Knock on doors, introduce yourself, bring cookies. Hold a block party and invite everyone over. Go to others’ parties. As things fall apart, these are the people who will save your life — in many cases, literally. Think in terms of walking distance. Of screaming-for-help distance. Those are your neighbors.

If you find that you truly cannot stand anyone around you where you live, now is the time to pull up stakes and move.

Limit your Internet and television exposure, especially social media. It is becoming clear that both television and the Internet have become potent and highly tunable propaganda tools, the reach of which has exceeded even that of historical religions. Meet with your neighbors instead, face-to-face.

Read books. Good, old-fashioned books.

Appreciate the little things. The sound of a gentle rain. Starlight. The smell of coffee, or roses, or warm wood in the sunlight.

Remember the Lakota expression, “Today is a good day to die.” This means, be at peace with your life, all its successes, all its failures. Do not harbor regrets over the past; do not live a life justified only by a future that may not come to pass. Remember that you will die — it is the only guarantee in life — so do not let your fear of death drag you into degradation.

Endure.