Passé: High and not so dry

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Finally, someone shared the same unusual set of experiences – and was experienced in similar ways. Finally, it meant that she did not immediately get bored, annoyed and frustrated.

Always before, she found that the things that are everyday and even passé to her were inevitably going to be exciting and fresh for most others. Even sought after. Having lived completely different lives within just one life, nothing like what anyone who’d crossed her path had lived, such big divides opened up on fundamental matters, no matter how many superficial things were shared in common. The excitement, anxiety, rush, fear – whatever one wants to call it – that filled most people each time s/he took a new step, particularly on her/his own, seemed quaint and cute to her at first. She had been taking these steps alone, reaching beyond ‘normal’ boundaries and experience, since she was not even old enough to vote, drive or get a job.

It was all ‘been there, done that’ for her – not that she could not enjoy any of these things anew, but for her, the awakening to new things and feelings could only come in relation to others, to see things afresh through their eyes. It would take something truly remarkable to move her deeply.

To others, she was an untrodden path, albeit one set with new traps (for anyone who had been hibernating in a long slumber of a closed system). She represented both the life one could finally see, taste, touch and smell while vibrantly on her/his own, exploring, as a facilitator toward the next chapter of life, and yet also the very real possibility of being ensnared in an offset jaw trap. With teeth bared.

In more literary terms, all entanglements, thus, were short stories with abrupt endings. For those middle-aged toddlers, wandering into the world wide-eyed and virtually inexperienced, or perhaps merely cautious, so much unseen, the story was over almost as soon as it had begun, while she continued to linger in those pages already read, imagining it as one chapter in a longer work. She served as a transitional plot device to some while she was, for still others, the awakening that portended an entirely new body of literature.

She wondered whether people ever actually could find themselves on the same pages, at the same time, or at least find that they were ready to stay within the same chapter to move forward with the narrative together.

And, then, just as the question dissipated, seeming to have no answer, it all changed.

Photo (c) 2011 Minnesota Historical Society used under Creative Commons license.

Deflect – deflect – defect… Personal responsibility

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So maybe, just maybe, you could make a version of a relationship contract – only make it about the relationship with yourself first. The writer of this article claims that codifying the terms of her relationship made her finally feel that there was room for her in her own relationship. I am sure we have all been there – so eager to please, or so eager to be loved, or just to preserve harmony (or whatever our multitudes of reasons) that we would “consent to give a finger and then an arm” (Marge Piercy) to let the relationship, or the lie of the relationship, persist.

The writer explains, “Writing a relationship contract may sound calculating or unromantic, but every relationship is contractual; we’re just making the terms more explicit. It reminds us that love isn’t something that happens to us — it’s something we’re making together. After all, this approach brought us together in the first place.”

She could be right. But perhaps she is jumping the gun. It is not really possible to define your needs or yourself within a relationship without first figuring out what your own must-haves are. Sure, maybe you can come to these conclusions (or whatever sliding-scale needs you have) in conversation with another, but it would not hurt to do some self-reflection first. Maybe even draft a little contract with yourself: after all, you will have must-haves and some things you cannot live with and should create thresholds, things that will trigger a built-in kill switch.

Dreaded wishlist

Perhaps this self-involved contract would become something like a dreaded wishlist, but certainly there must be must-haves and makes-or-breaks for many people who feel they are on a determined life path or have specific things they want to achieve. Figuring out what those things are and making a semi-flexible promise to yourself to consider these things when you find yourself flailing … it couldn’t hurt, and could help hone some of the instincts a bit better (so you wouldn’t necessarily need this contract later).

Sure, I didn’t like being on someone’s to-do list as an abstract concept once I realized I was a means to an end – who would? But that is why you communicate and try to determine that you are on the same life path or want the same things. It won’t always work, but it’s a start. This is basic relationship 101 stuff… and people in their 30s probably should have some basic experience with this.

We know that people often enter relationships and quietly hope that their perseverance will lead to change in the other person. Or will secretly hope that, despite all signs pointing to the contrary, the two are somehow on the same page. Not all people, not all relationships. But for example, if you get involved with someone of another religious faith, can you reasonably assume (but then as a person of no faith, I don’t see reason attached to faith and the people who believe in and practice religion, so this is a rhetorical, (oxy)moronic question) that you will fill their heart with the light of your truth (or, much more likely, wear them down to begrudgingly tolerate your faith – making for a half-lived life of resentment – for both of you)?

Why try to sand and sculpt a reluctant person into what s/he isn’t when there are probably more than a few people who already believe what you do or who want what you do? Of course this is oversimplifying the complexity and desperation and pigheadedness of our world, filled as it is with farkakte schmucks and putzes, brimming with hopeful romantics and determined would-be breeders, feeders, leaders and seeders. With older people especially, the pool is limited. Time is of the essence, but this urgency is also what leads to coupling up and projecting traits and hopes that are not and will never be there. We know this but proceed anyway, even though it’s almost inevitably headed nowhere good.

Resentment: Take poison, expect other person to die

And despite how hurt or embittered we are by this (temporary, usually), feeling we were misled or that our time was wasted, shouldn’t we take a dose of our own medicine? Personal responsibility for what we failed to see or admit, our failure to look at the big picture or to look at the situation through the other person’s eyes? After all, as cliched and half-baked as this sounds, the longer you cling to the resentment, the longer you are putting off getting on with it – and finding whatever traits in another that you included your personal contract with yourself.

blinking through middle age

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“Maybe marriages are best in middle age. When all the nonsense falls away and you realize you have to love one another because you’re going to die anyway.” -from Fear of Flying, Erica Jong

Erica Jong’s heroine asks in Fear of Flying: “Would most women get married if they knew what it meant?” She follows up by stating that perhaps in middle age, marriages would work better. It’s hard to say, of course, but seems reasonable enough to presume. But then maybe it’s more likely that a second or third marriage would work best, regardless of how old the participants are. The book’s protagonist is already stymied in her second marriage and seeking comfort elsewhere. Much ado has been made about “starter marriages” and the likelihood of future marriages working because you learn from the mistakes of the first. I don’t know what to make of this. It too seems plausible – but not applicable to me.

If this is true, what of middle-aged people who never married and got no “practice” other than in a collection of short or long-term, ultimately dead-end relationships? I cannot say because I am in this demographic: middle-aged and never married. I have had a couple of long relationships that never held any future promise and a lifetime, otherwise, of flings and experiments to which I would scarcely be able to apply a name or formal distinction. In between there have been shorter and longer periods of just being on my own, which have always been the happiest and most content times of all.

Confronting the ‘more’

While it’s true that being alone and – by extension – independent has given me a lot of joy, there are moments, often more frequent than in the past, that I imagine my calm life could be enhanced by the presence of someone else. I’ve already written before about not wanting to invite in ‘the wrong element’. After all, as Doris Lessing wrote in The Golden Notebook: “What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do”. It’s a delicate balance: you may finally confront the fact that you want and need to love and be loved, but to do so, is second-rate enough? Do you fool yourself into thinking that second-rate will do it for you? Can your view become so blurred that you think the ‘wrong element’ could be right? I’ve concluded that it’s most important to recognize the need for love – and go from there.

The ark of the ache of it

Many times I have cited Denise Levertov’s “Ache of Marriage” – and given a lot of thought to the ache one must feel within a marriage – but what about the ache you have without it? It’s something you feel without ever having had the missing part in the first place. It’s not constant but comes in waves. It can look so miserable when you look at it from the outside. Mundane, like a constant sacrifice of one’s own identity and preferences. What is it that softens us … age? The right element? The sunset? The need for warmth? Previous experience (which can also harden us)? The desire for daily soup? (Soup would really do it for me.)

Past sheds light

Blink. Blink.

A recent experience, brief enough to be like the blink of an eye, has contributed one significant thing to my life. It opened a long-closed part of me and made me realize it made no sense to close it again. I had so many times before let previous experience influence me, to close me off, to shut emotional responses down. And now… maybe it was this recent experience, maybe my age, maybe all the previous “practice”, maybe the starker-than-ever realization that there are only so many sunrises and sunsets ahead, maybe a combination of everything that convinced me to stay calm, and stay open?

“reality is only interaction”

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“Probability does not refer to the evolution of matter in itself. It relates to the evolution of those specific quantities we interact with. Once again, the profoundly relational nature of the concept we use to organize the world emerges.” -from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli

Principles of physics come to mind for me frequently when I think of connections with people. It may be illogical, but somehow the way things are described in physics overlaps how things unfold. Do I feel this way because I am older, and I want to see connections where there are none? Physics is bound by rules, and connections between people are not, necessarily. But as Rovelli states in explaining concepts of physics, “the profoundly relational nature of the concept we use to organize the world emerges”. Every concept seems to come back to the principle that everything happens or is real because of how it interacts with other things. “Or does it mean, as it seems to me, that we must accept the idea that reality is only interaction?”

Reality is relational. Relationships, obviously, then are relational, as denoted in the word itself. We choose when, where, with whom, and how often to interact to create our reality and the relationships in that reality. And we make choices in allowing feeling to form or grow. We shut some things down; we slow other things down; we accelerate some things; we destroy others. Our reactions are individual, but also mutual and sometimes collective. And these interactions are sparked, changed, moved, freed by all these other interactions. Nothing much happens without interaction.

“The difference between past and future exists only when there is heat. The fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the future from the past is the fact that heat passes from things that are hotter to things that are colder.”-from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli

And in our immediate moment – the now – in our interaction, skin to skin, we keep each other warm?

The Pen Is – the controlled leak

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Fountain pens are like people,” says Richard Binder, a nationally recognized nibmeister, aka a master pen repairer. “Every one has a unique personality.”

Talking briefly with a dear old friend, JEB, I was pleased to hear how many things were glowing brightly for him in 2017: new job, new relationship.

In reference to the relationship, he explains that she is “pretty wacky in a way that’s compatible with my own strangeness”.

I ask: “Do you really have so much strangeness?”

He replies: “Oh yes. Few can appreciate it.”

Me: “I guess that’s a weird question – we all have some strangeness, at least to someone.”

Him: “Yes, but with the right person the strangeness is normalcy. I mean a lot of people find me likable, but I only show the wacky stuff to select few. Like the fact that I obsessively listen to a podcast called The Pen Addict.”

Was this perhaps the third (?) time he’s reminded me about his obsession with pens and the Pen Addict podcast? I knew someone else briefly who was obsessed with pens, and now for the life of me cannot remember if he had ever mentioned this same podcast. I feel like he certainly did, but my memory, which so rarely fails me, has misfired in this case. JEB has apparently turned his girlfriend into a pen addict as well, prompting her to ask him, laughingly “What have you done?” She took him to his first-ever pen show in Barcelona, and I somehow marveled at the fact that there are pen shows. Then, I am not obsessed, so it would not necessarily have occurred to me. My friend assures me that I should try it because it is as addictive… as all the addicts have assured me it is. Not that I doubt it.

He enthuses: “It’s the infinite customizability. You can marry any ink and any pen and have a new experience few have had. I highly recommend it.”

I halfheartedly reply: “I will look into it.” And then remember the years-ago ‘story’ I shared with him about overhearing a Russian lady at the ticket booth of a lecture hall in Iceland, just before a Mikhail Gorbachev event, telling the ticket seller in English, spoken with a thick Russian accent, “I will think about it” before walking away. Naturally I then amended my response to him: “I will think about it.

We laugh, remembering the event and those long-ago Iceland years that we two willing exiles experienced.

Competitive ghosting

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Mid-late February 2017

I am old enough to think the whole idea/concept of “ghosting” is a bad, socially unacceptable idea, but at the same time, I am too old, impatient and tired of nonsense to want to explain myself any more. Or to wait for or want weak explanations from others. My reasons for backing off, backing out, ‘giving as much space as needed’ should be plain and largely self-explanatory to anyone close enough to me that I would see fit to pull a disappearing act, as I don’t have the casual sort of millennial-style “hanging out” relationships to which the term ‘ghosting’ most frequently applies. Actual ‘ghosting’ is more literal. For me, it’s a conscious and deliberate decision to withdraw specific and individual care, put the walls back up, even if a person otherwise remains a part of the ‘coterie’.

This is particularly true when I am not the only one withdrawing, feeling all emotion ebb away. It may never have been an intentional “dual disappearing act”, a race to which one gets sick of this first or finds herself indifferent to it all or wherein he finds somewhere else to hang his hat. With neither one so crass as to stoop to actual ghosting – or aren’t we? – instead it quiets, slows and dwindles down to nothing. Heading it off at the pass, pre-empting any form of bastardized and… competitive ghosting, it is time I go back to being a stranger.

(I know that ‘announcing’ the intent negates the whole concept; it is not really disappearing without a trace, but I suppose I’ve got to preserve some decorum. I am, after all, old. And we will both, after all, be relieved.)

old souls – dead souls

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Yesterday I randomly came across this list of ’12 reasons why old souls have such a hard time finding love’. Normally I would think it was mumbo-jumbo – ‘old souls’? And who the hell is out looking for love?

Still it spoke to me in several ways. Truths:

  • Left unchecked, their hyper-intuitiveness can wreck relationships
  • They often have a greater purpose that must be attended to first – one that love would distract them from (They usually have to accomplish quite a bit on their own before they find love – this is because old souls love deeply, and completely. To be given love too soon would keep them from the other important things they are here to do)
  • They’re natural healers, and often attract people who need help, not love (at some point in time, it’s crucial for them to realize that they have to choose a partner, not a student, or a charity case)

I have written in recent months about how I have seen this final point repeat so many times that it is impossible to count by now. I went back to old journals and snippets I’d written down somewhere – the pattern has repeated throughout my entire life, a history I had not even guessed the depths of until I went far enough back into old journals. I remarked on this tendency so many times and more than once resolved to take another path.

But it’s so hard not to get ensnared: by the time you realize that someone needs help more than love, it’s already too late.

Contact melt: Habits and confidence

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“I’m sad, sad… and I see you”

Yesterday it was bright, sunny and warm and the snow and ice that had covered everything completely melted. It promptly refroze around the time I was driving home in the evening. Once more I encountered the salt truck along the road, flinging salt pellets onto the glistening road surface and onto the car.

Otherwise it was a day of unexpected contact – hearing from people I don’t normally speak much with or write to. Some got in touch to comment on this blog; some got in touch to ask for a confidence boost; one even got in touch to subject himself to inspection (as though he were a race horse for purchase or I were a flight surgeon assessing his fitness for flight).

I was surprised about hearing from people regarding my blogging. Not because I think no one reads it but because I have no idea who is reading it. When you write a blog, you are mostly doing it for yourself. At least I am. If you are like me, it’s kind of an extension of your interactions with dead platforms like LiveJournal. Except that a standalone blog is not really part of a community and, being a disconnected ‘thing’ as it is, I am not hoping for or writing for an audience. Nevertheless I have had so much feedback from people about whom I had no inkling that they were “following along”.

A few weeks ago a friend recognized the slightest reference to her and wrote to me at length to explain and help me understand her better. A few days ago a friend commented, something about how much she related to what I had written. Yesterday, two friends (a longtime pen pal and an acquaintance from the LiveJournal days) wrote encouraging words about how they were helped by or even inspired by what they were reading. Well, one guy said it made him a bit jealous because I made it look easy but he knows from experience that it isn’t. I responded with something about just starting to do it – forcing yourself to do it. Ultimately it is about forming a habit. I have made this be a habit for me – arguing with myself about how I need to write something every single day, even if there is not something to write about – to keep the habit going. There are days that it won’t happen, but approaching with sincere intent is the point. I did not write a word after the mid-November death of my uncle. It was almost six weeks before I wrote again (sure, there was too much going on in the silent interim; also though, I felt tired and the loss depleted my ability to share). But even those long lulls/breaks have to be temporary – and I think we all know that this same thinking applies to anything that can be hard to stick to – writing, exercise, healthy eating, or any other promises we make to ourselves.

About forming habits, though, I come to another conversation I had yesterday. Someone I have known for more than half my life called me to get a boost of confidence before he went on a date. It’s been a long time since he dated, and he had all kinds of nerves and anxiety buzzing around in his head. His turning to me in his personal crises is a habit he formed as far back as 1990. Once we had covered his dating anxiety and how bad he is with small talk, he asked me something about my personal life and predicted that if I don’t have a relationship with someone who is obsessed with TV, it will end. Yes, scientific data. I argued that maybe there are other things to do than watch TV; he countered: “But what about when you are old? Like 60, 70, and like most older couples you will just want to sit and turn on the TV.” Perplexed, I said, “Well, maybe a couple could… take a walk? Or read?” He was incredulous, “Do you really think you will read when you are 60?!

WHAAAAAAAAAAT? Do people just stop reading, suddenly, when they hit a certain age? Why wouldn’t I read? Yet once again it’s about habits formed. Most people in my life are stubborn, lifelong readers. My grandmother was obsessed with reading until she lost her sight completely (by then she was well into her 80s) and even then others read for her. Not a single person I know (other than people who never formed reading habits) will ever sacrifice reading. I’ve always been a binge reader, inhaling a book every day for several weeks and then dropping reading for months, or in the case of recent times – even years. This year I am trying to be more methodical and balanced, folding the habit into my daily life consistently. (Especially because I did cut out my obsessive TV viewing and am only watching a couple of shows that are actually interesting to me now. I don’t miss the meaningless noise.)

As for habits, good and bad, another contact got in touch to get my opinion on whether I thought he could handle a social engagement that would be, at best, challenging. The guy is fairly freshly sober but for the first time in all his attempts at sobriety seems to take it seriously, understanding it as a life-or-death matter. A group of his old friends contacted him asking him to meet up at a pub. He has lamented for years that he has lost touch with this group of friends. He felt 100% sure he could handle this – the pub environment, the being surrounded by friends drinking excessively, the potential, “Come on, mate, one beer won’t hurt” pressures – and that he could control the situation/set boundaries, i.e. take a limited amount of money, visualize drinking Diet Coke, plan to attend an AA meeting that evening (meaning he would only stay with these friends for about an hour) and inform his contact at the meeting that he planned to attend, and then come home immediately after the meeting to call me on Skype so I could hear and see him (the aforementioned “inspection”) to prove that he had not succumbed to drinking. I expressed my doubts and reservations; he decided to go anyway. I felt particular doubt because he claimed he did not want these friends to know his business so did not want to tell them that he is an alcoholic.

In the end, he did meet the friends, and telling them about his struggles turned out to be a moot point. He had forgotten that he had run into one of the group over a year ago and had told that friend about his troubles with alcohol, and that friend had told the rest of the group, so there were no surprises, and they were all supportive. He stuck to the game plan and “presented himself for inspection” that evening after his meeting. Sober. Not that I think he should be “tempting fate” in this way, but he was rather elated that he did not feel any temptation and could interact with friends without feeling he had to drink.

In letting go of old, bad habits and adopting new, positive ones, we also build confidence – which in turn strengthens our resolve to deepen and stick with the new habits.

Judgment day

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I am always analyzing and processing and trying – wanting – to understand. I don’t, for example, understand addiction from the point of view of an addict. I try to understand it scientifically, clinically, neurologically, and of course gather the perspectives of addicts I meet and know. I may never gather all the insight I need or want, but I keep trying to learn.

I feel like, as I move along through life, getting older (hopefully a bit wiser), I am becoming more understanding, more compassionate, more interested in understanding, more caring, loving and accepting. What surprises me, though, is how one of the closest people to me is the exact opposite. He has become so closed, so judgmental – about everything. A total Besserwisser: he knows best (and is, perhaps not ironically, judgmental of all the people he meets who are equally know-it-all types!?). Addiction is just an example of a topic that I examine and think about a lot – and he and I diverge on this subject in a major way, but there are so many other things where the chasm between this close person and me keeps growing wider and deeper.

I’m not sure what to make of it because I don’t really want to feel judged, demeaned, second guessed or guilt-tripped every time I talk to this person. Because of his emotional proximity to me, it is not like I can or even want to write him off. In some ways, we are so close and the only people who can understand each other and our histories. I don’t like the idea of losing the connection but come on.

Photo (c) 2009 Brian Turner

Trust (in) me

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The lone driver on long stretches of increasingly snow-and-ice-covered road, I encounter the salt truck. We two alone in the dark; my exhaustion pushing me onward, just minutes from home, his important middle-of-night work the only thing that makes these drives feasible.

I consider, while coasting up the snowy dirt driveway, that this provision of service (salted roads) is an act of (civic) trust. We assume the roads will be cleared and salted in the event of snowfall. And it happens. Earlier in the day, I had been transfixed by an article by technologist/scientist/researcher/writer Mark Burgess. While not explicitly about trust, and all it entails, the article’s philosophical underpinnings focus on cooperation and its role in facilitating work and the system(s) in which we humans operate (and place trust). Clearly it’s a good deal more complex and interesting than I am making it sound. (Read it. I mean it.)

Trust comes into it because, as framed, it is clear that trust is a kind of exchange on which we go on to build relationships and dependencies. We know this.

“There must be something valuable about relationships, after all the brain consumes about 20% of our energy at rest, which is a huge penalty for the meager capability of better living together. The reason nature endures this extraordinary cost is surely the unexpected survival benefits of managing these long-term relationships. Relationships are not just social, they are cognitive. As we interact over time, in many different contexts, we aggregate rich information and build up a complete picture of something, by integrating the multiple experiences into a single model that could not be discovered by single ‘transactional’ encounters. In short, we learn to know someone or something as what we call a friend. Long term cognition, with integration of contextual characteristics, is the very complement of cooperation, allowing us to know and recognize individuality. This is why brains are the key to cooperation.” (Italics mine.)

See what I mean? Fascinating.

In recent weeks I’ve thought deeply on the subject of trust and what engenders trust, how it is born, fostered, squandered, ruined, reclaimed, and how much is programmed by the ‘rich information’ as described in the article (and cumulative memory, i.e. “I did not trust Bob from the beginning, and I was right not to” or “I trusted her and she betrayed me; therefore, I will never trust you or any other person who comes along after her”). While this is tangential to the Burgess article, it still struck many nerves and sparked a lot of internal discussion for me, despite my inner dialogue having little to nothing to do with socioeconomics, work or civil society. (The article is well worth the reading for what it relays on all those topics.) In fact, the article read to me, despite its semi-technical sheen, as deeply human.

“The capacity to form a relationship is the capacity to remember past behaviour, recognize it in another, to assess it, and to cache it as a trust score to guide future expectation.”

Once trust is born and deepens, what shows or proves the viability of its connective tissue? Here, Burgess writes about “Asking for help: exceeding our limits by borrowing”. Yes, in a work-related and societal sense, we must ask for help (implicitly, such as with the understanding that the salt truck is going to come and leave behind a clear road). But also, do we feel we are reaching a deeper level of trust with an individual when we cross that barrier, feeling comfortable enough to ask another for help?

“Much as we value the predictability of total information that comes with our autonomous self-sufficiency, we cannot always manage everything alone.”

In society as in individual life, it can be challenging to accept that one is not the self-sufficient island s/he imagined. I can only speak for myself, but that level of interconnectedness and comfort – and trust (implicit or otherwise) – that would empower me to ask for help has often felt very remote. And, despite advising others to maximize their potential and abilities and resources, etc. by asking for help, I have rarely taken my own advice.

We can see, though, that sometimes it is only through the combined effort or resources of more than the individual that we exceed our limits – in positive ways. We cannot always see all the possibilities – or cannot reach them – on our own. How is jumping over that barrier made palatable though? Is a deeper trust enough?

Yes – but also no. Burgess – and experience – tell us this.

“Paradoxically, there is dark side of cooperation, which is that dependency invalidates promises: because dependency delocalizes agency and information.”

In individual/human life, it strikes me we could interpret this as the old frustrating refrain of two people co-existing in an unbalanced relationship, where the burden to do/plan/handle/organize everything falls to one partner. It may well be that the other, non-responsible partner has no clue that this is a burden and appreciates that the responsible partner has been handling everything: this is his/her trusting the other in ever-deeper ways. But it has not only made the relationship lopsided and created resentment in the responsible partner, it has also created this dependency in the non-responsible partner that, as Burgess describes, removes agency and information.

No, this is not a thorough or even particularly thoughtful examination or analysis of Burgess’s work – certainly not through the lens of scientific thought (I didn’t delve much into the “de-personalizing trust” part of the article, as I was fixated on the personal level of trust). It’s just that the article excited the brain and made these odd connections. I’ve been riding this wave of emotion and human interaction in recent weeks, and that influences how I read and hear everything – seeing applicability where perhaps there isn’t any.

*All quotes from Mark Burgess’s “Banks, Brains, and Factories: How rich information alters the economics of cooperation and work”, available in full on his website.

Photo (c) – Paul Costanich.