Author: Evan Shapiro

On this day 35 years ago my grandfather, Sid Sperling, departed this earth. He left behind a loving family, many great memories and an indelible mark on those that knew and loved him. He lived a full and happy life. Along with my grandmother, Essie, a strong bond was created with each of their 11 grandchildren. My life has been underpinned by the strong sense of love, community, compassion and care modelled by these two wonderful people. I don’t just think of Grandpa on this day, the day he left us, I think of Sid and Essie often and feel grateful they were a big part of my childhood. But this time of year inevitably brings these memories to the fore and also makes me think of others who have lost people they held dear. It’s not a sadness I feel, though I miss Sid and I miss Essie. I miss others too, who are no longer here. These precious people who helped build my life, now live with me like characters in a book. Sometimes I see them in dreams, sometimes they are just thoughts that drift across my mind. One day I will be like them, existing as a memory in other people’s minds. No, it’s not sadness I feel. It’s a weird determination that at some future point, when I’m not here to do it in person, that the thought of me will make someone smile. That’s what Sid and Essie have given me. That’s how I remember them. What more could they have hoped to give?

18 December 2018

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere

Spoiler Alert: If you have never seen the matrix, be warned the following piece describes pivotal scenes.

There is a moment towards the end of the Matrix that I find compelling to contemplate.

Inside the Matrix, Neo collapses after being showered in bullets. His body in the real world flatlines and it appears that he is dead. Trinity leans in close, her lips to his ear, she tells him to get the hell up. Well, first she tells him that he must be ‘The One’ because the Oracle told her that she would fall in love with ‘The One’ and since she had fallen in love with him then he must be ‘The One’, so he had better get the hell up! She kisses him in the real world and inside the matrix, his avatar (residual self-image) gets the hell up.

The first time I saw ‘The Matrix’ this part really annoyed me. It felt forced and cheesy. On subsequent viewings, I softened as a deeper meaning emerged. What follows when Neo gets up is another wave of bullets, only this time Neo believes he is ‘The One’. He’s taken Trinity’s belief in him, communicated either through her forcefully whispered words or her kiss, and he has converted that into belief in himself. As for the bullets, well they just keep coming. Now Neo[1], sees that he can’t stop the bullets from being fired but he can stop them from harming him. Remember this is a metaphor, real bullets actually kill, but metaphorical ones can drop to the ground. Bullets will keep coming but what Neo is doing is choosing how they affect him.

I entreat you to contemplate this moment by choosing your own metaphor. The bullets could be anxiety, financial stress, a problem relationship, frustrations or other complications in your life. The fact is once you learn to control your response to them that won’t actually stop them coming at you. But their impact on you can and will change.

Buddha described the same idea as arrows turning into flowers. Your mind chooses how you see things and how they will affect you. To me, the film-makers are telling us that we and only we are ‘The One’ in our own lives. It’s only ourselves that can determine how the bullets that life fires at us will impact. Will you be mortally wounded, or will you put up your hand and say ‘No’. There is always a choice to do things differently. We just have to find awareness of the moment and realise our own control of it.

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere

[1] Anagram of One

I like a morning walk. Most days I get up with the sunrise or just before and start the day with a brisk walk. My regular walking track is along parts of the Cooks River. It’s not the cleanest of systems but there’s something to be gained from walking along its paths, listening to the wind blow through the trees, nodding hello to fellow walkers and generally doing something mentally and physically out in the real world, before the digital demands of the day start. It never involves whales.

Recently I ran a blog workshop that happened to be near the coast. Rather than battle peak hour traffic that would take me across various road work and contentious public transport constructions I dashed out early to take my morning walk along the Maroubra headland.

It was bracing at first, surprisingly cold given the recent heat wave, but the freshness of the air and the cool temperature was a welcome relief my body gladly accepted.

As I walked along the headland, down the hill and onto the promenade I began to notice a few groups of people engaged in intense exercise. Strangely their harsh body movements jarred with their intense stares out to sea. Rather than focusing on their exercise, they were entranced in a collective mass distraction.

Naturally, their stares out to sea piqued my interest and I turned to the ocean to see a whale fin breakwater.

A sense of wonder and joy took over me, and I too was now a gawking spectator, disregarding my original purpose, for the sake of spotting a giant sea mammal.

What is it about spotting whales or other sea creatures that so fascinates us? Is it no more than their majestic beauty? They are so fundamentally different to us, yet we share biological systems and life patterns inherent to all mammals. Regardless of how much I might try, that whale will never understand my perspective.

There is both frustration and freedom in that idea. If I were to try and read my blog to him or her, I wouldn’t get too far in communicating my perspective. Conversely, the whale is in no way concerned about what fills my head, what makes my world tick. While enjoying the spectacle and filtering my thoughts through my own narrow view, I realise it places no demands on me.

I breathe in the fresh sea air and feel grateful for this unexpected whale of a time. Simply by swimming by and flipping a tail through the air, this beautiful creature, knowing or unknowingly, has reminded me that there is much in the world that is beyond our understanding and control. Sometimes the best thing to do is just watch and appreciate how lucky we are to be in the right place at the right time.

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere

I’m a regular listener to podcast ‘This American Life’. This week featured three acts about loneliness and while all three have great merit for very different reasons, I want to tell you about the first one by producer David Kestenbaum. You see Kestenbaum was feeling sad, I mean really sad, because of Fermi’s Paradox. The paradox concerns the high probability of the existence of alien life compared to the fact that we haven’t actually seen any. The paradox evolved from a casual conversation physicist Enrico Fermi had with colleagues while working on the hydrogen bomb in Los Alamos in 1950. When discussing the probability and extreme likelihood of alien life existing, Fermi stated ‘Where is everybody?’.

Kestenbaum become sad, truly sad, because he felt we were alone in the universe. Before turning to journalism Kestenbaum was a Nuclear Physicist. This might explain why Fermi’s Paradox resonated with him, why when he crunched the numbers the great uncertainty made him feel sad. When he raised what he’d been going through at a story meeting all his colleagues laughed. I understood that reaction, I laughed too, but I also really felt for Kestenbaum. He was looking outside the everyday existence of our reality and what he saw was a lonely lonely planet in the vastness of space. In the podcast, he turns to other physicists to discuss the issue and help with his feelings.

What Kestenbaum’s journey made me feel was not so much a sense of loneliness but a strange glimmer of hope. It seems terribly strange to me that our species, locked on this small blue ball, continues to be so horrible to each other and to the other living creatures we share this world with. Of course, on top of that, we are also extremely hostile to the very planet that makes our lives possible. I’m getting to the glimmer of hope, trust me, but first…

Is there other life in the universe?

In exploring all the possible options around the existence of alien life my mind was led to one question. First here are some of the options;

  • There are alien civilisations, but they are too far away
  • They are inherently like us i.e. self-destructive
  • They are so much smarter than us that they simply choose to stay away because we are dangerous
  • They are only microbes
  • They existed in the past
  • They will exist in the future
  • It’s just a matter of time until worlds collide (not literally)
  • Over the vastness of time and the distance of the universe all the above possibilities are also realities.

Glimmer of hope

Finally, here is my glimmer of hope. Will it take alien life, be it aggressive or benevolent, breathtakingly advanced or microscopic in nature, to make us finally realise we are all on the same side? Will proof of the existence of life on other planets pull us out of our collective funk, make us celebrate our diversity and our commonality? Not in a way that means we have to defend ourselves but perhaps more in a way that we like to project when we send probes into space that celebrate humanity. If only we could take on our ‘greatest hits’ that play on the Voyager probe’s golden record and drop all the other crap, we might just be a species that other life in the universe would want to get to know.

Perhaps Fermi’s right, but who really knows…certainly not us at this point in time.

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere

 

PS. The other two stories featuring Ester Perel and an equally amazing young girl who attempts to connect with her father are both compelling. They give me hope we are aliens worthy of knowing.
Here is a link to the show.
https://www.thisamericanlife.org/617/fermis-paradox

One of my earliest memories is of the thought of my own mortality. The pink tiles in the upstairs bathroom, glistening from the steam of the bath, breathing in the hot air, feeling the warm water on my skin. Then goosebumps rising quickly as I’m lifted from the water and covered in a towel. Patted down and dried then left to stand in front of the bar heater. Its searing coils radiating warmth through the room. Then the thoughts. What will happen to me when I die. Will I remember being me? Will I continue in some way forever or will I simply cease to be?

Someone must have said something to me, one of my pragmatic, matter of fact parents. ‘You’ll live, then you’ll die. You’ll grow old first, so don’t worry.’ They were brought up by parents ensconced in faith. My grandparents may or may not have believed in the faith they were raised in, but tradition held great sway in their lives. It structured their activities, with a sense of obligation, community and natural compassion that was beyond faith. They truly cared for people and that is what drove them. My parents abandoned the religion and the tradition, but not the compassion. They favoured logic and rational thought which also gave rise to a fundamental respect for others.

So, when my 3-year-old self, asked about death I was told about death. I wasn’t pampered into thinking there was some kind of paradise waiting for me beyond this life and neither was I told that if I was bad I would spend an eternity being tortured in a fiery pit. Nevertheless, those ideas crept into my worldview by nature of the broader culture I grew up in, through TV, movies, school and my friendships with people from different backgrounds.

Fear sits at the heart of ignorance. When you are young, and you don’t know any better it’s easy to be scared of what you don’t know. For some, faith assuages fear and for others, it inflames it. Despite my parents’ pragmatism, I felt fearful of what I did not know. And rather than scaring me into belief, ideas of purgatory ultimately inflamed my sense of injustice. Armed with rational thought I gained the confidence to not fear unknowns outside my own experience. Rational thinking instilled by my parents told me that no one really knows anything. They only profess to know. They may declare their theory as fact, with heartfelt conviction, but uncertainty lies at the heart of all supposition.

Uncertainty might create fear for some but it helps me define what is truly important. Faith may be a driver of good deeds and bring fulfilment to many, but rational thought can also lead an individual to realise fundamental truths. For me, compassion is at the core of my outlook and my decision making. Doing no harm is logical to me. I can see it’s derived from a moment in my past where I knew nothing, where all I felt was the warmth of the room around me and the love of my parents. Enveloped in a snug towel, after a warm bath, I’m not entirely sure why my young mind leapt to the idea of mortality. Perhaps because it was such a beautiful moment and I didn’t want it to end and at some level sensed how transient and therefore how very precious it was.

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere

I woke to find the shimmering light of Artemis dancing into my room. My brain constructing complicated scenarios in a wistfully precise language I know I’ll never capture, the only audience will be my half-conscious mind.

I realise the foundation of this dream was a game. Fearing my son’s addiction to a new first-person shooter I investigated and got myself addicted too. Now I battle it out nightly, collecting weapons, fending off attacks and aiming to survive. The dream scenario would appeal to other gamers. It’s layered with pathos, understanding and steeped in visual and metaphoric references.

In dreaming about the game I realise the level of my addiction and come to an impasse. I must accept that the game has a place in my life for the moment and make appropriate time for it. Shape it into a useful and fun exploit that gives relief from my daily concerns. Much the same way I’ve incorporated a love of movies, reading and chocolate. Or I could opt for the alternative, cold turkey.

Perhaps yet a third option exists, the ability to extract the fundamentals of my dream and shape it into something gamers such as my son might appreciate. If only it were not held within the constraints of my Luna induced dreams.

It’s after 3 am and the influence of Artemis may well have peaked. My mind is turning to the consequences of insomnia. I hear a cat outside. Perhaps two. Are they wailing at the moon in their own way as I am by committing these words to electrons? Perhaps one option is to take a feline approach. Embrace the early hours of the day and find a nice sunny spot later and curl up to recover. If only my human life permitted such indulgences. Artemis, casting her presence with her silvery light through my window is telling me it can.

Who am I to argue?

3:44 am
28 February 2018

 

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road to Nowhere

P.S. Forgive if this post makes no sense in sunlight. It was meant for moonbeams.

Related Post: Sometimes my tide is high

Just before Christmas, I met a young man named Mitch. He was living on the streets of Sydney. My girlfriend and I almost walked by him as many people do. Choosing not to see someone because it’s somehow uncomfortable. Acknowledging the homeless also acknowledges that you are doing nothing to help them. The city was filled with Christmas shoppers and the homeless are an unwanted obstacle in the path of those fulfilling their consumer missions. Ironic, people so obsessed with securing gifts for others because society says this is the time to give, yet ignoring those in obvious need right before them.

Something about Mitch made my girlfriend stop. Perhaps it was how young he looked. I was making pace for the station, ready for the trip home when I noticed she was no longer walking next to me. I took a few steps back to join them. We introduced ourselves and my girlfriend asked Mitch if he would mind sharing why he was living on the street. At 21, Mitch is frank and clear-eyed, drug-free apart from a smoking habit. I don’t think it’s fair to share the details of his life without his permission, suffice it to say his story was one of misfortune, abandonment and ill-treatment. He expressed a great desire not to be living on the street. He shared his plans to get an apartment of his own. He freely admitted life had put him in situations that had led to bad choices, choices that made it more difficult now to find work and housing. Waiting for social housing was likely to be long and fruitless, other services only solve immediate problems, like a charity food voucher for $15 that might get him a meal once a month.

As we spoke, standing to one side of a busy Martin Place, a woman walked right between us, completely disregarding our conversation and Mitch’s presence, her shopping bags nearly knocking us over. We all had to take a step back and collectively laughed in disbelief. But part of me wondered if I was any better than the bustling intruder. I’ve occasionally bought meals for people living in the streets, or given money, but like many of us, I’ve also found it easier sometimes to walk by. I like to think I’m a little better as a human being because I see these people, even if I feel powerless to help.

Mitch said he didn’t want to say, ‘See you next time’, because next time we come to Martin Place he didn’t want to be living there. He wanted to take his social security and start paying rent. From there he hoped he could get work. We asked if there was anything we could do now to help him. He simply said a hot meal would be nice.

Mitch could have turned his life into a sob-story. For various reasons, he’d been rejected by his family and society, but he expressed a determination to make something of his life. He possessed a strong sense of self-determination. He took responsibility for the poor choices he’d made, despite many of them being made as a result of even poorer situations outside of his control.

We gave Mitch some money to get some food and he thanked us for taking the time to stop and have a conversation. He thanked us for listening and for seeing him. We all agreed we didn’t want to see him next time we might pass through Martin Place. Hopefully, because he will have his own place and maybe even a job. I’d hate for him to become a long-term member of the invisible homeless, ignored by thousands every day, too busy with our own lives to stop and help. But Mitch not being on the street doesn’t change the fact that others will be and as long as there are people on the street can we honestly say we live in a fair and compassionate society? More likely we are living in an age of misaligned priorities. We look beyond the obvious, we relegate problems like homelessness to our peripheral vision, choosing not to see because it has become an issue that is hard to change. The reality is though that change is just as much an act of will as keeping things the same.

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road To Nowhere

A rare evening out with friends recently was interrupted by a request for UberDad services. I explained to my rarely seen friends how the high-tech system works. Teen offspring sends a text to book UberDad to drive teen offspring to a movie. UberDad interrupts rare night out with friends to collect teen offspring and friend. UberDad reminds teen offspring of the essentials; shoes, jacket, keys, wallet, phone. UberDad then delivers teen offspring and friend to cinema and hands over money for movie tickets + cash for the candy bar. For some reason, it costs more to produce a box of popcorn and a wax cup full of soft drink than it does to make a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s also highly likely the teen staff members manning the cinema candy bar and box office have been delivered to work via their UberParents.

Teen offspring and friend watch the movie while I return to hang out with my friends and wait for the inevitable text, booking me for the ride home. Unlike other parts of the share economy, UberParenting is a one-way sharing experience that costs the driver at various points in the journey. Price surging can occur at any stage and drivers should be particularly careful of teen offspring’s destinations as they can directly affect the contents of an UberParents wallet.

Driving teen offspring safely from experience to experience is not unlike other aspects of parenting. What we give and what we get back is not measured in dollars. Teen offspring with UberParents are probably lucky we love ‘em. An understanding some teen offspring may well grasp, but it’s much more likely to be something they won’t appreciate until they are literally in the driver’s seat, delivering their own loved ones from place to place. That’s unconditional parental love for you – it’s a seed you plant for a flower you may never see bloom – regardless you must plant it.

* Disclaimer – The author has no association with Uber but does have a long history as a parent taxi. Driving services are limited to family and close friends and as indicated in the story are provided for no financial gain and may actually incur a financial loss. Karma is perhaps a more appropriate measure of these actions, however, humility prevents the author from clarifying further on this point.

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road To Nowhere

My psyche has been pummelled by decades of cross-genre input and frankly, I like what the wash and spin cycle of my brain does with it all. The trick is getting readers to understand what they are in for when they read my work. It’s a trick I haven’t learned particularly well, but I’m well-adjusted to going with the creative outpouring. It’s hardly surprising that after a lifetime of perceptions that one becomes attuned to filtering information in certain ways. I grew up watching a lot of TV. Pretty much anything science fiction, British comedy, American 70s and 80s sitcoms, Austrian comedy and drama, classic Hollywood Saturday afternoon movies and Sunday night indie films. Then there were video games, books of course, and an early exposure to theatre. Also, naturally, there was and still is the significant influence of the people around me, my environment and socio-economic situation. It’s no wonder my fiction writing is a potpourri of all these influences.

Writing is no different to any other form of interaction with the world. My mind filters information according to all the other information that has gone through it previously. Sometimes what comes out is the result of patterned responses and other times there are surprises. But fundamentally the soupy conglomeration of my experience directs my thoughts.

We all have our influences, we all have our life experiences that affect the way we see the world, the way we interact, the way we create, the way we make decisions. I take pleasure in observing the differences between the multitude of sources that alter my perception. Sometimes observation gives me the opportunity to step away from my own skewed view and other times the desire to revel in it becomes consuming.

When you hold your lens to the world, do you consider how it affects what you see?

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road To Nowhere

I haven’t posted in a while and there is a good reason. Actually, it’s not a good reason it’s a bad reason. A very bad and sorry excuse for a reason. I’ve written previously about the effects of the 24/7 news cycle on my psyche. I could blame being too busy with work, or domestic responsibilities as reasons for me not putting pen to paper, or in my case fingers to keyboard. But the fact is I’ve been consumed by a constant need to update myself with fear, distrust, loathing and the completely mundane. My ability for clear thought has become fractured and one of the main tools I rely on to diffuse this destructive force, writing, started to become difficult to access.

Declaration

So, this post is a declaration to you and to myself, that I am taking steps to combat the modern scourge that plagues our lives. For me it chiefly takes the form of constantly reading the news, for you it might be a game, checking email or social media. I’m probably guilty of all of them.

The reality is if the world goes to crap it’s not going to make any difference if I read about it on my smartphone numerous times a day. While I feel powerless in the face of global events, watching helplessly as world leaders play chicken with our collective future, what I have at my disposal is the ability to express ideas, to shape words into some form of meaning that hopefully resonates with others. This process makes me feel better. While I’m constantly downloading news I’m not putting anything positive back into the world. My thoughts and energies are being disrupted, confused, fragmented.

Conspiracy

A juicy conspiracy theory can readily be drawn. A fragmented mind is easier to overcome than one that’s clear and focused. Just why are we being bombarded with information if not to confuse and distract us from making objections to those with unsavory agendas?

Remedy

To help me combat fragmentation I’m starting out with a couple of lists. I have a ‘To Do’ and a ‘Not To Do’ list. They will probably change, but you have to start somewhere.

Not to do

  • No tech in my bedroom. I have an alarm clock. That’s all I need
  • If sleep is interrupted, NO screens in the middle of the night.
  • Don’t look at my phone without purpose
  • No checking email outside of work hours
  • No social media outside of scheduled times

To do

  • Read or write at night when I can’t sleep
  • Allocate time for constructive social media interaction
  • Only look at my phone when it rings
  • Write every day
  • Read every day
  • Meditate every day
  • Exercise every day
  • Watch or listen to news once a day only

This is my approach to the pervasive streams of information pouring into our lives with unparalleled speed and quantity. What’s yours?

Evan Shapiro
Author – Road To Nowhere
See also Browser Beware and The Great Disruptor.