Going Away & Wasting Time
Joe Clark ~~ Oct 5, 2003

Prethought: Tonight's color scheme is to remind y'all of the autumn season that is upon us, and how the green backdrop of trees around us is beginning to be infiltrated by the vibrant colors of the October leaf-watching season. Ahhh, the simple pleasures that await those who take the time to notice the small things...

Well it's been awhile since I've updated you all on my life story. I don't think I've stated it here yet, so if you happen to not have heard, my mom passed away on Aug 6, 2003. That is the continuation of my "Glimpses" wise thought. If her passing had been an isolated incident, it may have hit me rather hard. As it was, though, it was right in the middle of a crazy hectic time at work, and so the work time may have provided an effective way to avoid really thinking about the reality of lost loved ones. Then, when life finally got less hectic (which really didn't happen until the end of September), the newness of the pain had worn off, and I had gotten used to the idea (as much as possible) that instead of two parents I now have only one. I suspect that the next few weeks will be fairly balanced between work and "real life", and thus this may be the primary time of finally dealing with real life as it will be from now on.

Having said that, I'd like to launch out onto two somewhat separate topics tonight, and we'll see if they somehow meld themselves into something coherent in the end.

The first topic is the general thoughts of going away. Yes, these thoughts are surely partly inspired by recent events in my life, namely the loss of a loved one. But the thoughts are, I think, more generic than that. They also are more long-term than that, because the thoughts I think now are only modified versions of the thoughts I've thought about for a long time.

So, what I've noticed in my life over the years, and particularly lately, is that the general trend of relationships is one of increasing distance. In the past, I have said this quite bitterly, being mad at the world of people for being stupid and not loving me or considering me worth their time. I do not claim to be fully rid of that sentiment yet, but that's not my focus tonight. My focus is not on the stupid people of the world, or on the people who always have better things to do than spend time with me. My focus instead is on the friendly acquaintances and, yes, even close friends, who go away from me for one reason or another. Usually this is primarily a going away in physical location. High school friends (the few I had) are far-flung by this time. College friends are moving on, settling into "real life"; many of them are somewhat stable in their location, but that location tends to be at least 2 hours away. My church peer group -- my Sunday School class -- also has gone through a lot of change lately of people going back to college or people changing location as employment dictates. Finally, my work peer group -- which consists of people close to my age that I see regularly -- has been changing over the past few months as people transition from group to group and project to project.

With all this motion and flux and change, I have begun to feel that if it's not the case yet, it will soon be the case that most or all of my Really Good Friends will be distant from me (meaning it would require significant effort, time, and/or planning to see them in person if I wanted to). Now, there are always email and cell phones, but sometimes you just need someone to go play tennis with or go bike riding with or go watch a movie with, and sometimes you really don't want to devote a whole weekend to going to see people. It's not that I consider them less of a friend, it's just "the way it goes" that LDF (long distance friendship) is harder than in-person up close friendship.

The hardness of this is evidenced by the lack of friendliness I show sometimes. I SHOULD email people in response to how often they email me. I SHOULD call people once in a while if I am fairly certain they would be glad to hear from me. I SHOULD look up old friends once in a while, beyond my normal group of friends (someone from the realm of "old friends I forgot I had"). But my SHOULDs normally turn into inactions. Because I'm stupid, I would often rather check slashdot.org or install a new CD-RW drive or something than to actually TALK to people. And I wonder why I don't hear from many people anymore....

Of course, the other part of the solution to my problem is to actually get out and MEET new people. I am sort of good and bad at that. I am really bad at initiating conversations out of thin air. But I am also fairly good (I think) at talking to people when given a relevant topic to talk about. But my social skills, average as they may be, don't seem to win me many new friends. Hmmm... I wonder how new my newest friendship is. Well, that invites questions like "friend vs acquaintance" and all that, but I would guess that I haven't met and sustained some sort of friendship with anyone since....probably last year at about this time. That is probably less than ideal, especially with the aforementioned life situation of current friends moving away (and along with that, the almost inevitable distancing of the friendship, for practical reasons more than any emotional reasons).

So how do I meet people? At church?...maybe, but it's not like there are tons of new people to meet, and I think I feel a conflict of interest there -- I think most new people at church want to meet new people, but I'm not sure whether they're looking for "let's go stargazing" friends or "let's eat out after church" friends or "let's shake hands once a week" friends. It's hard to judge people on issues like that, but from what I can tell, most people are too busy or too cautious to be interested in doing things like stargazing. But maybe I'm just out of touch.

Well, anyway, it's time for a transition. I think that one part of my problem with going away is the fact that I waste time. I don't like wasting time. I think it's annoying. I think it's dumb. I think it's counter-productive. I think it takes me away from my goals. But I do it all the time!

Being in an engineering environment is teaching me to rethink my time. Time on the engineer scale is on the order of $100/hour. Wow. When I evaluate my time like that, my time is quite valuable. And it's true that at this phase in my life, my time is probably the most important asset I have to spend. So, in a trivial sense, when I buy that new USB memory stick that's $20 cheaper, if I spend 2 hours messing with it before I decide completely that it's a piece of junk, the $20 saved just became $200 wasted. Stupid me!

There are many examples like that one. Investigating tools that I really wouldn't use, or that only duplicate functionality that I already have with other tools.... Performing experiments on computer programs to see that one has 2.3% better performance... Doing things the hard way just because I want to be able to say I made it work... In the background, I tell myself that I am learning things (which I am), and that I am gaining insight and knowledge about the systems that I work with every day (which I am). I'm sure that the investigations and long answers I put myself through are beneficial -- they are a good share of what make me a valuable employee, able to think on my feet and come up with innovative solutions to problems, because I've thought about similar problems in my spare time as a personal hobby. But at what price?

As a beautification engineer, I'm supposed to know where to draw the line. I'm supposed to know that sometimes the sunset is really more worthwhile than installing sound drivers according to instructions on a web page so I can watch a lecture on a Linux laptop rather than on the desktop machine sitting in front of me. I'm supposed to know that spending time with friends and family is more important than buying the latest item on rebate and then spending 2 hours testing functionality on the items I don't really need and finally spending an hour filling out rebate forms. You see how my time flees away quickly? I find a million experiments to perform, and my curiousity can run free. But what does it gain me? Knowledge. That's about it. It doesn't gain me friends, because who else cares about the performance of compression program X as opposed to compression program Y? While I make my observations about lossless compression schemes, the people who would be my friends are making their observations about my priorities.

To wrap up, I sense a distinct "going away" throughout my life. This is mostly just life as we know it, where people don't stay in one place anymore, and life is a fluid in motion from here to there, and if someone is at a certain position at time X, they are likely not to be there at time X+1. They may be the most friendly, most ideal person ever, but they are still likely to be somewhere else in the near future. This is life. But what I do have more control over is the fact that I squander many of the chances I have to do something about the motion problem -- whether to fight against the motion effect by keeping in touch, or embrace the motion effect by meeting new peole in my path. I squander these chances by doing my own antisocial things... my activities are interesting to me, but so what? A life lived only for oneself is rather boring in the long run.

So the next time you see me, ask me three questions: 1) How much time have you wasted this week? 2) How many good conversations have you been a part of this week? and 3) How many new people have you met this week? Those questions will keep me accountable. And, if you'd like, you may ask yourselves those questions as well. Together, we might just become a little less self-focused and a little more friend-worthy. God bless...