In real-time, it’s 3:45 in the morning and this sentence just woke me up: I Seem to be a Verb.
It’s the title of Buckminster Fuller’s book, written in 1970. Most folks know him as the guy who invented the geodesic dome, but he was far more: inventor, philosopher, author, designer, architect…futurist.
It’s a terrific book, by the way, though this isn’t a puff-piece about “Bucky,” though if I had to pick a superhero or a mentor, it’d probably be him. More about that later.
A Disclaimer: Having spent virtually all of my 65 years on this planet as…a guy, I really can’t speak for women on this particular topic at all. Not gonna try. Wouldn’t presume to, though I suspect in this singular category we just might be wired differently than women…not better or worse, just different. Here goes:
I Seem to be a Shark. If I had to translate Fuller’s sentence into my own world, it would be: I seem to be a shark, and by that I’m referring to a little-known fact about sharks: They must move forward or they die…literally. It has to do with the way sharks have to move water past their gills in order to breathe. Speaking for myself, and perhaps some others, this is also the way I need to function… have to function. If I’m not doing something, moving forward in some small way, I am stagnating, not breathing, dying slightly. Call it what you will, and I have a funny feeling I’m not alone on this.
What Gives? Did you ever look at some of the people on this planet who have supposedly “made it”, and wondered to yourself, “What gives? You’ve got more money than God (a ludicrous concept). You have your accomplishments, your family, five houses on three continents, why are you working your ass off??? Why don’t you just enjoy life, sit on a beach, travel, sip drinks with little umbrellas stuck in them, and chill-out?”
Being vs. Doing. The answer to that is slam-dunk easy. It’s not heaven for them. It just isn’t. Being is never the answer. Doing is. Put me on a sunny beach with all my food and drinks provided forever, and the only caveat is: I can’t do anything ever again, and I won’t take you up on it. I’d rather have a little cabin in the woods, snow drifting in through the gaps in the windows, and I’d have to go out and catch a squirrel to eat. BUT, I could write down a thought, or reinvent a new kind of toothpick or something…make things better. That is heaven for me, not vegetating…stagnating, simply sitting there doing nothing.
Retiring: Here’s my personal experience and advice on the concept of retiring: Don’t. At least not in the context in which it’s sold to you. Over the years I’ve had many friends come in, bright-eyed over the prospect that, very soon they can just go out on the back porch, toss a line in the water, pop-open a can of beer and do nothing.
To a man, (s’cuse the gender use. I’m not sure whether it’s the same with women) every one of my friends and/or relatives who has truly retired has regretted it, either overtly or covertly. And the scenario gets worse: A couple of buddies and one mentor simply died shortly after retiring. They just…stopped.
Wilting. Scarier than that, some of them underwent a subtle but profound personality change. For want of a better term, they wilted.
They lost their vitality. The spark and twinkle left their eyes and…they began grumbling because they were no longer doing anything. They were simply being, and that ain’t enough for a lot of us.
On several occasions, the grumbling subtly transitioned to hostility. On at least a half-dozen instances, old friends upon retiring would drop in, eyes slightly glazed, with the sentence, “Hey, isn’t it time you retired?” drifting out into the air. Huh? What’s going on? I don’t think I have to map that one out for you. For guys, it’s partially about competition and if you are moving forward, it makes me feel like I am moving backward…and I don’t like it.
The Rationale: I’m tired. I did my time... I get it. I get the concept. More likely, however, is you got tired doing the same thing over and over and over for 40-50 years. Sitting out on the stoop and watching the grass grow, however, isn’t the solution, it’s a perpetuation of the problem. Turn the page. It takes cajones to start something completely new when you’re tired…(or retired. Think about it: They both have the word tired in them), but you gotta try and you’ll be a lot happier for trying.
Helping… Let’s up the ante with our verbs now. There’s Being and there’s Doing. Let’s add the magical verb: Helping. Pamela and I used to do a lot of camping up on Mt. Lemmon in Arizona. Gorgeous stars up at 11,000 feet, we’d play John Denver, and drink Mateus with Sara Lee brownies as a chaser. But…we also learned an important axiom about camping…(LIFE): Camp, cook, eat, sleep, but always leave your campsite at least a tiny bit better than when you arrived. That’s life in a nutshell. Leave the planet a little bit better for your having traipsed around on it with your dirty feet. If you have a big ego…leave it a whole LOT better. It’s that simple…and that rewarding.
A Small Suggestion: Think bigger. “Aim for the stars,” as my wonderful mom used to say. “Even if you miss, you’ll still have shot pretty damn high.” If you were an exec., get in a program where you can help young adults get a leg up. Volunteer. Join a cause. Start a foundation. Invent a better walking stick…one that has GPS, a little radio, and a little vial of medicinal whiskey. But do something. Do it for others, and…do it for yourself as well. There’s nothing like the feeling of helping someone out. Even if you profess to be the supreme existentialist, helping others, improving things is the only real way to go.
Heaven: Having spent a solid 40+ years grappling with philosophical questions, I’ve heard scores of people, champing at the bit to get into heaven. They just can’t wait!!! They (we?) will apparently be spending all of eternity there. That’s like…FOREVER! Take a moment, however, to let that macerate inside your brain. What are we all supposed to be Doing in heaven? Beats the hell out of me, no pun intended. I get uptight at the thought of spending a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do. The thought of spending a whole eternity doing nothing but sitting on a cloud and existing… for me, that isn’t heaven, it just might be the opposite. Send me back. Demote me. Condemn me to go back to ole planet Earth to help out some people, invent something, write something…but give me something to do. Mere existence for me, no matter how wondrous, just doesn’t cut it. I’d rather just fade to black. I really and truly would.
P.S. Back to Buckminster Fuller: There’s just a whole lot to like and respect about this man. He was bravely and singly WAY ahead of his time, from pushing renewable energy, to his concept of Spaceship Earth, Futurism, and Synergy, to his many inventions.
He chose to “embark on an experiment to find what a single individual could do to contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” Now, that is shooting high. And that is precisely where WE should be shooting right now. This is not a dress rehearsal. Time is passing. Get to it. Do something. Help someone. You will be incredibly glad you did.
Funny, my husband and I use the campsite metaphor as well.
Living in Black Mountain, and having read your blogs on Asheville, you missed a neat tie-in with your article. Did you know that Buckminster Fuller lived here? He also taught at Black Mountain College. Small world.
By the way, I liked 90% of your article. Just trying to figure out what heaven is now. We get antsy pretty fast, too.
Natalie in Black Mountain
I strongly agree with the concept of being productive as long as we are physically and mentally able. Historically, men have been the major providers for their families, and when faced with the inevitable retirement, they have had new issues with their identities to grapple with…such as how to stay vital, hence, there have always been more male mentors than female mentors.
Since my generation is the first to have worked full time, compared to our mothers, who for the most part were housewives, I feel that women will soon experience that same feeling of being uprooted once we are faced with retirement for those who chose the corporate route. For the self employed, the artists, the renegades…we may be able to continue our work…thus being business as usual.
Our generation broke many barriers…many for the better, and yet some things have equalled out with men in that our life expectancy has now shortened by several years from the toll that full time work takes. Regardless, we have been fortunate to change the paths of women’s role in society. My Hope is that when the time comes, that women
Will pick up the torch and mentor the next generation of women.
We could have taken different paths, all of us, but I am glad our paths crossed yours. You enlightened, inspired and made us laugh thoroughly with your ’37 cents a fart’ book. Regarding this latest article:I have 3 rules I live by and you echoed some part of those in your note today:
1. Treat others as you’d like to be treated.
2. Leave a place better than you found it.
( we both agree on that)
3. Do nothing that would disgrace the family
As easy to remember as you are.
Delighted our paths crossed, happy to be living near an artist and author WE know and respect as a person and happy to know we aren’t the only ones who can’t or want to retire AND are in your email list.
Dear Pam F. That third rule… Yeah…
I read an article in the NYT yesterday, reporting on a strange phenomenon: up-coming generations who are proud of their cheating. Apparently it give them a “high” of some sort. I don’t get it. What happened along the line? The concept of shame used to be a good preventative…….. Henry
I am enjoying the messages. Keep me on your send list.
Wish you and Pamela well,
This is a great article/post/story/book/whatever…seriously great… I would like to share it with my chorus as a bit of “Hey, get off your friggin ass and do something!”
Hat’s off to you, Henry
Mary Lou G.
Read your piece on Buckminster Fuller. Amen to your thought on doing rather than being. Ditto to the notion of striving all one’s life to be nearer to god, sorry God, and then being transported to heaven (a one-person rapture, no fanfare). And then what? What do you DO?
I can see why you might be in trouble with “some friends” over that. Let me suggest a new measure of a person’s susceptibility to beliefs that defy all logic (not to mention data): I’ll call it “CREDULOMMETRY”, a 10 for the rock solid fundamentalist (Christian, Muslim, whatever), a 1 for the devout atheist.
First question: On your Cedulommetry Scale…..is ten the good number or the bad?
If God is reading this and,of course he is…he sees everything, you…and possibly I will be spending some time “in the hot cellar portion of the universe”. I have some plans for that eventuality…installing portable AC units for one, blocks of ice, and numerous cases of cold beer. We’ll stay busy…possibly make a profit. At least it’s something to do. HRH
Great – and not just for the generation thinking about “pasture” – also great for the younger, predominantly narcissistic genX-ers who need to focus on something besides themselves. I’m trying to get my kids to think about “service” and volunteering some time. Right now it’s falling on deaf ears, but hopefully it will start to sink in…
Rick R. Whitewater Films
Henry, I don’t think we’ve ever met but your message out of the blue really struck home. I retired from the government early back in 1993; however, that freed me up to teach over 10,000 people in self defense, write more books (working on #18 now), host my own national talk show for two and a half years, go back to college to get certified as a music teacher in the state of Kansas, taught all subjects in our juvenile detention center, created a book review company reviewing over 2,000 books, created a book packaging company, and fought serious health issues (one of which was staph which recently cost me my left leg). As you can see, I’ve lived your advice. I’ve been swimming with the sharks.
I had the good fortune of meeting Bucky shortly before he died at a World Future Society gathering. What a wonderful man he was. I’m not sure how I got on your list, but if you ever feel like send a few more words of wisdom, please do so. I’m 68—just returned from my 50th high school class reunion. Oh yes, I stayed up most of last night composing a book trailer song which I will be recording with a woman in Serbia. The world is becoming such a small place. Thanks again for sharing.
Hello Dear Henry,
Even though I don’t understand the meaning of some words, I
feel the sense of the article in my soul. You are a philosopher. I have tasted your great help to me.
Thanks a 1000000.
(Editor’s note) This is an old friend from my military days, a wise and funny man, who was part of Pam’s and my wedding. I believe by his writing from the Middle East, he is also the most distant of my friends…though only in mileage.