The Shifting Nature of Words

Language is a living entity. It spawns new words and methods of interaction as we continue to move forward into an uncertain future. It prunes itself of outdated terms and repurposes the old. This constant flux is key to the survival of any language. Without the ability to adapt it would grow stagnant and eventually be abandoned because of its inflexibility.

What I’ve come to realize over the past year is how my relationship with language has shifted. How my unconscious rigidity has aged my communication in unforeseen ways and how time has imbued other words with an unexpected richness. Being a writer, language is one of my favorite abilities, so it’s sad when I noticed how I had let it lapse. I hadn’t been trimming my archaic terms or diving into shiny new dialects. Sometimes I wielded the age of my words like a club, fiercely hammering the difference in generations they represented. It was a reflexive action, an attempt to comfort myself with the familiarity of my words instead of pushing myself to stretch beyond my linguistic inertia.

A passing reference to techno during a conversation with a friend really drove the point home when I was called out for not only using a much older term, but one that placed me firmly in the 90’s. I had understood that language could recall a specific time period, which is a tool I often leveraged on purpose, yet this was the first time I had seen an unconscious “time lock” in my own vocabulary. It was a sobering moment that made me analyze my go-to word choices.

I have certain words and phrases that I love to deploy like most of us do. Clever uses of wordplay that have become darlings or verbal tics that are now borderline shtick. Making someone laugh or smile in a conversation is a great joy of mine, but devolving into a parody of myself with the same old routine is not the kind of person I want to become. So now I must burn down the forest of my vocabulary to allow the rich undergrowth to sprout anew.

Another way I’ve seen my relationship with language shift is in the meaning of words I hold sacred. My singular tattoo is a Latin phrase:

Verba Volant, Scripta Manent

Roughly translated it means – Spoken words fly away, Written ones remain.

I got the tattoo four months after I was officially in remission from Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The phrase and its permanent home on my skin were to serve as a reminder of what my legacy in life should be. At the time, I had considered my predilection for conversation, with anyone and everyone, as something immaterial and a distraction. It was my written word—the short stories, articles, novels—that would serve as the record of my existence.

It has been five years that I’ve been cancer free and every day I wake up to see the tattoo on my body. The phrase has always been the same, but my understanding of what it means has matured. To consider one half of the equation as unimportant is to deny an integral part of who I am. My spoken words will never be etched in stone yet the power they possess is even greater than the words I leave on the page.

Many of my friends have dealt with darkness in their lives and we’re all reaching the age when physical and emotional ordeals pop up with more frequency. Unexpected deaths, sudden illnesses, crisis of confidence, and so on. This is when I recognized that my spoken words did fly. They supported, lifted, and comforted my loved ones in their times of need. They gave them the courage to keep going or made them look inward with a new perspective.

I hadn’t understood the impact of my words because they came from a place of love, naturally and without pretense, so to me they always felt normal. It took the thanks of my friends and their honest appreciation of our conversations to help me come to terms with this undervalued facet of myself.

I no longer look at my tattoo and think one half is a caution and the other is a commandment. Now I see a complete path to an authentic self who accepts all his gifts.

 

Photo © Gabriel Novo

In Defense of Monotasking

I spent 15 years of my life as a professional nerd not counting all the other years I was a nerd for free. My existence was replete with cutting edge technology and pressure cooker environments. I had to maintain a 100 MPH lifestyle, juggling multiple projects, personalities, and inboxes during my drive towards success. The only moment I wasn’t spinning 5 plates at the same time was when I was asleep.

Some folks wore this lifestyle as a badge of honor, like I once did, burning the candle at both ends and numbing themselves to handle the fire. I too fell into that trap. Late nights of staring at a computer screen were quickly followed by long nights of staring into numerous cocktails.

I was in a perpetual state of distraction finding it harder and harder to disconnect when it came quitting time. The problems of the day kept buzzing around my head while I approached my personal time with the same crazy juggling ethos. Everything felt vaguely satisfying, but nothing reached a deep sense of fulfillment.

Then came the day I was able to jump off the hamster wheel. No more panicked clients. No more instant messaging windows fighting for my attention. No more flood of emails demanding instantaneous responses. I was free.

After going to a really good concert have you ever noticed a faint ringing in your ears?

I experienced that same ringing when I left the noise of the technology industry. It was as if my body was readjusting to the normal volumes of a reality outside of the fast lane. I started rediscovering the joys in my life from before work supersaturated my entire consciousness. I got closer to feeling genuine fulfillment.

I began cultivating that sensation. Tearing away years of bad habits, so that I could be present in whatever I was doing. Focusing on conversations with friends without the buzz-buzz-buzz of cell phone notifications. Reading a book, an actual physical paperback, and getting lost in its pages. Enjoying the flow of writing, which I adored, but had sorely missed. My body-mind connection came back online in a big way.

I’m far from perfect in maintaining my concentration and still struggle with distractions because our modern lives demand overstimulation, but I’ve drawn a line in the sand. I’m personally making the effort to do things in a serial fashion, halting my natural tendencies to multi-task, and instead appreciating my activities in a singular fashion. By allowing myself to savor the process I’m finally feeding my hunger for true satisfaction. It’s amazing and I can’t imagine going back to my old ways.

Photo © Gabriel Novo

Chaos is my Co-Pilot

I take for granted my intimate relationship with uncertainty. It’s such an integral part of who I am that I often forget most people don’t have the same connection. When discussing uncertainty with others I’m always surprised by the terror of the unknown that so many carry within them. This fear is an alien concept to me. Life has no script or predetermined path. The routines we establish through habits and geography are only to disguise the chaos. I try to be understanding of their dread, but it is a struggle to put myself in their shoes.

My early life was forged in the fires of perpetual change where my hard-earned talent for adaptation was developed. I went to 5 elementary schools across 2 countries before hitting middle school and the only reason I went to a single high school the entire 4 years is because I was enrolled into a Magnet program. Thrown into the deep end was an understatement. I was the eternal new kid with no shared history and vastly different life experiences. My options were to retreat into myself and transform into a quiet loner OR explore every new situation with eager enthusiasm and inject myself into every possible social situation I could muster. Guess which path I chose.

Since I’ve operated with a relentlessly adventurous spirit for decades it’s damn near impossible to give into the fear I see around me. That’s not to say I lack fear. I’ve been afraid numerous times throughout my life. The walk towards someone you’re attracted to for your first conversation. Dark nights spent in a hospital room listening to machinery beep and whir around me. Making a real change in my life when the status quo would’ve been incredibly easy to maintain. The only difference is that I refuse to let fear control me. I’ve seen the results of a life paralyzed by fright. Someone who views the world in an unending stream of NOs instead of being filled with the possibilities of YES.  It’s a sad and pathetic existence. My personal nightmare would be a life trapped by anxiety, alone with panicked thoughts in a prison built by my own dread and no connection to the world.

That’s why I embrace the uncharted and let go of as much trepidation as I can. Anyone who has left a mark on history did so by embracing the unknown with fervor. I hope to one day leave a legacy I can be proud of, not one filled with regret and hesitation.

Photo © Gabriel Novo

Swimming in Shallow Water

For several months now I’ve had a vague feeling gnawing at my insides. An unnamed anxiety which would manifest during the quiet in-between moments of life like the ringing in your ears while laying in bed late at night. It has made me uneasy and irritable. Quick to snap with a sarcastic barb when a kindness would have been preferred. I tried to pin down the source of this emotion with little success.

It wasn’t until reading an article by Penelope Trunk—a brutally honest writer who tears into herself as deeply as the topics she discusses—that I began to understand what was bothering me. Throughout my adult years I wore many hats at an expert level. Being an expert IT Consultant paid my debts and financed my lifestyle for a decade and a half. I was also an expert in being myself, having inhabited my adult skin with confidence and ease. Which is why Penelope’s words struck me right between the eyes when I read them.

Nobody Likes Beginnings - Penelope Trunk

Not only had I shed the life of a confidant and capable IT Consultant for that of an Indie Book Editor, but I had also discarded my old sense of self. The Married Man was now adrift and alone in the world. The Ambitious Corporate Climber had been burned out revealing a Curious Artist underneath.

The roles I had played for years were no longer available to me. I was forced to wear the scarlet B of Beginner and I did not like it. It’s a vulnerable and unsure role. You can’t be the person you want to be when you’re a Beginner. You’re not cool, calm, or collected. You’re frantic, frazzled, and fucked.

So the agitation chewing on my guts came from my return to Square One. I don’t usually mind beginning anew when there’s some sort of foundation in my life, but EVERYTHING that I was, and considered myself to be, got torn away. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

I find myself floating in the sea of uncertainty. The last time I tread these strange waters was  high school, the lovely social experiment disguised as preparation for adulthood. This is not a fun mental or emotional space to occupy. Intellectually, I understand the differences between my current situation and my past, but the anxieties are similar enough to trigger a flashback to more turbulent times.

Both periods shared a lack of control over my agency. Both had the requirement of patience for things to fall into place. Both experienced isolation. Throw in glasses and a bad haircut and the only thing separating the two moments are my wrinkles.

It’s bizarre to wear skin you thought had been relegated to deep storage long, long ago.  I’m much better at dealing with the inevitable awkwardness, but the lack of control is still a bitter pill to swallow.

Photo and Image © Gabriel Novo, Quote from Penelope Trunk

Patience and Perspective

I pride myself on a level head and calm approach in hectic situations. It’s a skill that served me well during the chaotic technology work of infrastructure migration and helped me survive many personal tribulations. I’ve honed my ability as best as I can over the years yet whenever I think I’ve mastered this particular lesson in Life it reappears with a vengeance to show me what a novice I truly am and remind me that every situation has a next level.

One specific truism which has been beaten into my head this past decade is that everything, and I mean everything, takes much longer than anyone expected. It’s an especially difficult pill to swallow when our lives as a whole seem to be moving towards instant gratification in almost all aspects. I can pick up a phone and video call a friend in Japan without hesitation, but five years after my battle with cancer I’m still picking up the shattered pieces of my life. Anywhere I am in the US a package can reach my front door in two days, but I can’t remember what a healthy romantic relationship feels like.

The farther away I get from the parts of my life I cherished, the longer I sit in these painful stretches of time before I can get back to living, the harder it becomes for me to endure the waiting. I thought my encounters with illness and death had given me sufficient perspective to weather these storms, but there are moments where my hard earned knowledge crumbles in the face of unknown timelines stretching into the distance.

You can’t even complain because every day it’s the same story and the only thing which will change your predicament is what you’re already waiting to happen. Not to mention, you’ve done everything you can to speed up the process. When things are out of your control the only option left is to grin and bear the delays.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here. Perhaps it’s an impotent scream into the uncaring void because little else has worked and I need a release valve. Perhaps there are those similarly becalmed who wish life would return to joy and see camaraderie in my words. Perhaps I need to see my struggle on the page before I am able to fully process this period of my life.

Photo © Gabriel Novo

Hibernation or Starvation

My post-cancer years can be best summed up with a single word: survival. I survived a horrible disease. I survived the side-effects of my treatment. I survived the financial devastation of medical bills and forced unemployment. I survived the emotional damage such an ordeal wrecks upon yourself and your loved ones. I survived my body betraying me.

Notice I don’t use the word thrived. I made it through the gauntlet, but I’m far from restored. Like a man rescued on the edge of a desert inches from death I’m pouring water back into my body with shaking arms. I still carry around the pieces of my former life. Every so often I shuffle through the jagged shards looking for something resembling the familiar, but I always toss them back inside the bag.

I’ve considered these last two years my hibernation. I’m holding out until Spring returns to my world and I can rejoice in the explosion of new growth. But it has been a very long Winter for me. I’m struggling to stay warm and notice the cold more each day. It reveals itself in innocuous ways such as a sudden listlessness or unexplained lack of focus. The symptoms creep up on me and compound into a general malaise.

I’ve noticed these changes. Not at first, but now they’re undeniable. My hibernation has slowly transformed into a starvation of self. My life has not reconstituted itself despite my efforts, so instead I continue in a low-powered state of being and with nothing feeding my fires the hunger turns into hollowness. I watch the starvation progress like a slow-motion accident, the horrible outcome is apparent, but I can’t prevent it, at least not as I am now.

I pour myself out into the world hoping it jumpstarts my rejuvenation. Nothing has yet sparked. So I wait. And I starve.

Photo © Gabriel Novo

Sum of your Parts

When I was a kid my father used to say, “Tell me who you hang out with and I’ll tell you who you are”  <in Spanish>. When I was in Elementary School his advice didn’t really make sense. Then in Middle School I began to see the tribes forming. Finally, it was in High School where the social experiment began in earnest. The lines were drawn in blood between competing groups and joining a circle was essential to surviving the four years with your sanity intact.

My social chameleon skills blossomed in those last teenage years. My main group were the Magnet students, black kids bussed in from all over Miami-Dade to learn how to become engineers. They exposed me to a culture that I was unfamiliar with being a Cuban kid from predominantly Spanish neighborhoods. Then there were the fringe crowds I was introduced to by my girlfriend at the time, gay kids who didn’t fit into theater or other clubs and hung out in a secluded part of the school. That’s where I learned their stories of being perpetual outsiders, shunned by family and still searching for their tribes. There were also the stoner/skater kids who loved punk and ska music who I met through another girlfriend–girls were a gateway for me to many cliques. I rubbed shoulders with jocks through my fellow Magnet students, who did all the afterschool sports, and my own short-lived stint in Track & Field. It was a melting pot of experiences achievable by my talent for sliding into social clusters and acting like I had always been there.

This proficiency made me damn near perfect for the consulting work I did as an Info Tech gun-for-hire. Every week I was in a new city, state, or country; dropped behind enemy lines with a singular mission to teach, implement, or reconfigure a piece of technology. I navigated the economic wastelands of backwoods North Carolina, brutally cold streets of Chicago in the middle of the night for Data Center emergencies, and criss-crossed the United Kingdom via train. Wherever I went my job was to execute a project, but also to build a quick rapport with the client in order to give our work a better chance at success. When you’re constantly switching between hats—nerd, bon vivant, trusted advisor, rescue team—you can lose sight of who you are.

It wasn’t until I began extricating myself from Info Tech that I realized how mercurial my core had become. The past year and a half has been spent trying to rediscover the edges of what makes me a person and rebuild the map of who I want to be in life. As I look around, my father’s words ring loudly in my ears. What I want to achieve in life, the milestones I want to reach, and the way I want to live my life are far from the beaten path. When I share these thoughts with others I now find myself as the alien in the group not the welcomed familiar who fits right in.

The wanderlust is difficult enough for many people to understand, but then you throw in the artistic pursuits, radical change in career, multiple brushes with death, and all the other flotsam and jetsam accumulated over my years, and I turn into a strange creature from an unknown world to be studied from a distance. I’m having trouble finding my tribe, those kindred spirits with the same thirst for a life well-lived.

Sometimes the words of Hugh MacLeod pop into my brain when I’m wrestling with all of this.

“The price of being a sheep is BOREDOM. The price of being a wolf is LONELINESS. Choose one or the other with great care.”

But then I’m reminded that wolves run in packs, tightly knit and cooperative, which gives me hope for the future. I believe I will find those who want a life outside of the rulebook. A life with a global viewpoint, inclusive of the world and drinking in its myriad possibilities.

Image by Hugh MacLeod at Gapingvoid

What Do You Say When the World is on Fire?

I find myself in a perpetual state of shock. The emotions swirling inside of me block any attempt at words leaving my mouth or fingertips. When I do think of something to say it feels like screaming into hurricane force winds caused by the hundreds of thousands of voices shouting the same pain. I never expected to be living in this is version of the United States.

I’m first-generation American and was raised to believe in the land of opportunity; where you work hard, aim high, and can achieve any dream you desire. Instead what I’m seeing, on a daily basis, is a dystopian future creeping into our current events. Freedoms are eroding. Doors which were once open are now slammed closed and thoroughly locked. The inclusive spirit that made America a melting pot has now been replaced with blatant xenophobia. If my parents had been fleeing a communist dictatorship in this day and age there’s a strong chance they never would’ve made it onto American soil.

Some will say our newly enacted policies are a form of protection against those wishing to destroy our country. I say that we’re on a slippery slope and in banning a country of people wholesale—under the guise of national security–we’ve laid the groundwork to start banning other “undesirables” from our shores. Which can easily transform from restrictions to expulsions and we’ll see our country diminished like a balloon leaking air.

I noticed the us vs. them mentality festering in our culture around the same time we started labeling each other red states and blue states, but the reality is that life is much more nuanced and complex than a binary classification. None of the people foaming at the mouth for our borders to be closed and the refugees sent packing have ever met the people they’re railing against.

I’ve broken bread with a university educated Afghan man who fled his war-torn country and was working in an English kebab shop because the UK wouldn’t recognize his degrees. He just wanted to live a normal life like anyone of us. Same for the Lebanese kid I met in Northern Virginia who was studying medicine at Georgetown University so that he could join Doctors without Borders. His family would’ve been flagged under the new “extreme vetting” simply because they’re Muslim and fleeing a country under siege.

Change their countries of origin or religions and the stories would sound just like the ones you hear from the people in your town or family. The hopes of those searching for a better life are universal.

Sadly, this is just one small part of the inferno that’s threatening to engulf this wonderful country and its kind-hearted people and I fail to understand why a fire fueled by hate will make anything great as opposed to reducing everything in its path to ash.

Photo by Gabriel Novo of Niatron at the Women’s March. Sign quote from the Maya Angelou poem “Still I Rise

The Nerd Who Hates Binary

I spent many years of my life in a constant state of travel between cities, states, and countries which gave me an unprecedented look at people across a wide spectrum of life. Many folks who I never would have bumped into if not for our paths momentarily crossing as we got from point A to point B. Time and time again, I marveled at the complex lives around me. The solemn woman in Tampa who was on her way to unplug her comatose sister and dreading that she might have to adopt her nephews. A gregarious Czech man in Dusseldorf who plied me with beers and espressos till the AMs as we suffered through an overnight layover at the airport. 70-year old traveling buddies who drank me under the table on Belvedere martinis, straight up with a twist, while regaling me with tales of Reno, Hawaii, and San Francisco.

All it takes are a few moments amongst the people sharing this world and you quickly see that humanity is a beautiful tapestry of grays. Not the black and white, us versus them, 0 or 1, divisive categories we’re so often corralled into. It’s what makes me hate labels the older I get. Not once has a person I’ve met, and made the effort to converse with, ever been solely defined by a label or demographic. The few words I use to describe myself are merely entry level descriptors for the social chameleon that I am.

I hate individuals who treat others as talking points instead of human beings. Life is fluid, people are fluid, ideas and viewpoints have more nuance than news sound bites and internet headlines lead us to believe. You can’t tick a series of boxes on a checklist and have it equate a person. That’s a fantasy held by those with no desire to expand the boundaries of their limited worldview.

Let’s try disposing of trite labels and getting to know one another. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

Image by Christiaan Colen on Flickr.

Trying Something Different

It’s interesting how the human mind shifts gears whenever it approaches the end of something—a time period, a struggle, a relationship—reflecting on the moments leading up to its conclusion. An attempt at understanding is made even when no chance at comprehension is possible. Then, like sifting through tea leaves, we try to predict our futures based on what came before.

I’m incapable of predicting my future even more so than the average person. Uncertainty has lodged itself permanently into my way of life. Medical uncertainty, geographic uncertainty, and a multitude of other variables that refuse to be solved. I always sucked at the “where do you see yourself in X years… question and it’s only gotten worse. I’ve given up on trying to map things out and will instead roll with the punches.

That being said, this past year has left me punch-drunk. I’ve been battered within an inch of my life, but I’ve learned a valuable lesson, one that I’ll be using in the coming new year. My natural inclination in life, and social media, is to share my intent. Whether it be a new undertaking or a goal I wish to reach, I’ll shout it from the rafters hoping to connect with the like-minded while holding myself accountable to a nebulous them. 2016 has repeatedly shown that this method doesn’t work leaving me with ashes in my mouth and a trail of broken ambitions behind me.

Rather than continue on my loop I’ve decided to make a change. A small shift in my being which I hope will yield huge benefits. Every personal project will be a secret project. Every life move will be revealed after the fact. I’ll focus on the doing and not the announcing of things. Perhaps this will help me avoid God’s laughter. Yes, I understand the irony of broadcasting my desire to stop public disclosures, but I am still a writer and oftentimes need to work things out on a blank page before an idea makes sense even to myself.

Photo © HBO, edits by Gabriel Novo