Moe Carrick made another great contribution to this project by introducing me to Bruce. I believe they met each other through TEDx. Bruce’s role in that as well as his being a physics professor at COCC are just a couple of the ways he leaves his mark on this world. We met at the Science Center at COCC and chatted in one of the sky boxes that look out over the mountains. Bruce was so upbeat and energetic and, as he mentions later in the interview, he was wholly present with me during our conversation. Bruce, much like his wife Dawn, is so kind. I can definitely understand why Moe suggested I meet with them together. I’ve yet to have that experience, but I’m looking forward to that happening.
Who are you and how would you describe yourself?
You know, it's a heck of a question. There are all kinds of easy answers and none of them feel quite right anymore. The place I'm at now - which I guess is the only place you can talk from - I'm actually trying to figure out if the person I thought I would be and the way I hoped to feel right in my life when I got to 61 is gonna still stick. Right? Now that I'm here I'm like, Why am I feeling like I should be different than I am? When I was 40, I thought, Well, that's how I want to be when I'm 61. I'm kinda that person I was hoping I would be - somebody who's engaged with the community, somebody who communicates science to the outer world, somebody who's a partner and a parent and a member of the community. Yeah, it's all working. It's all happening. Why do I keep looking around for something else to do? It's not like I don't have plenty to do.
One model that I find is really useful for me in terms of describing how I sit in the world, when I was in music school, one of the things I discovered is that I am a terrible section leader and a really good number two. And being number two - being the person who supports the person who has the drive to have a giant vision that they want to carry - as long as I share that vision, I'm a really effective behind-the-scenes number two. Help things move, help things potentiate, help things happen. And so I think that's - in some functional way - that's who I am. That's what I do here at the college is I just try to help things move. I don't have any massive agenda for myself. But lots of people around here have brilliant ideas and so if I can help their brilliant ideas move forward, then great.
What matters to you or what motivates you?
So, I think what motivates me - the common driver that just always shows up and chases the new shiny - is curiosity. Somewhere a million years ago, my dad read me the Kipling story about The Elephant's Child with insatiable curiosity and that just struck a chord and that's been me ever since. There's nothing I'm not curious about. It makes me a version of a jack of all trades and an expert of none. But that curiosity is what drives me. That's the driver, right? Always following something that seems interesting, but it's also always connected with trying to make the world a better place. In some small way - not in some big way - it's not about being a politician and leading anything. That's just not me.
The usual argument for somebody who's been at the college 30 years is, Well, why don't you be a dean? Why don't you be a vice president? Why don't you affect more people more effectively? Right? Move up the chain, then you can make this a better place by making decisions that impact thousands of students instead of the 50 that are in your class. And it's like, No. For me, the people that I can actually make a difference to - a real difference to - are only the ones that I can physically touch; the only ones that are within arms reach that I can speak to face to face; that I can know enough about them to try to actually respond to them. This is not some abstract, Well if I make better rules, then more people can have a better life. It's absolutely true, but it has nothing to do with me. So, sort of in that same I'm a great number two and a terrible section leader - I'm much better at this level; at 50 students in my class; at two students in my office. Zero... zero interest in leading the department, the college, the anything. None. I guess I really do fundamentally believe that the only way to change the world is for everybody to reach out to their community that they can touch and change it there. Know where are we going, collectively, but let's reach out and change the people that are in our sphere - our direct sphere - and then let the edges of our sphere touch the next sphere.
On the other side of that, what concerns you or what gives you a heavy heart?
I get frustrated sometimes. For me, that's a really hard question in a different way because I've been gifted with a form of the human chemistry set that makes it really hard for me to stay in a dark place for very long. So, it's taken me a lot of years to realize that this is not everybody's experience about their emotions and how it works is really different. And for me, it turns out, even if I've had a really bad day, if I just go out for a walk, sleep, wait 24 hours, it will be manageable. It always comes back. What makes it a bad day? It makes it a bad day because I had this cool idea I wanted to purse and somebody told me a I couldn't do it. And I'm like, Really? Seriously? Right? So, you know, I'm cranky. And if that happens three times in a couple of weeks... which something about February always leads to that. So, at the end of February, ever year, like most teachers, I'm just in this really kind of grrrrr place. But, after many years, the rational part of me says, Yeah, but you know, Bruce, the result of what all that no stuff that happens in February is, is every year in April, you go 'Well fine, you're gonna tell me no. I'm gonna go way out on a limb in that direction and I'm gonna do something as creative as I can think of how to do that basically walks me around your no.' So, there's this huge benefit. All the best things I've done in my career as a teacher, in my life as a human being, have come because somebody stood in my way and said No... multiple times. So okay, Please do that. Stand in my way. Tell me no. And then I'll remember that that's just a way of me having to figure out that the route that I was on is maybe not the most amusing and fun and creative route. So, you'll help me find the better way through the mountains. So, that's what I tell myself. And then I go home and get pissed. But then it goes away - 24 hours later it goes away.
Permanent darkness? No. The long-term darkness is just about people whose lives are irredeemably screwed up by circumstances beyond their control. That's just sad. If I can't do anything about it, I'm not gonna wander around feeling terrible because the world's unfixable. I was just listening to Tim Minchin this morning and he's like, Get over it, right? Life sucks. You have happy moments; you have sad moments; you live a life; you do the best you can can and then you die. Okay. It's cool. I can do that. Take the moment that you're in, try to make it as good as you can, and move forward. And so, TEDx is one of those kind of things. It's a chance, right? It's way outside of my comfort zone. It's way outside of my skillset. But, amazingly, people who have that skillset invited me to be part of the process, part of the team, part of the... I've learned more from them than I've ever given to them - every step of the way.
What do we mean to each other - person to person?
I'm not sure that there's anything else. It's the only meaning that there is. For me. If I'm my best self - which plenty of times I'm not - but if I'm my best self, whoever I am with, you occupy my full attention. Feels very Buddhist at a certain level, right? I'm really trying to be in the moment. With you. About this. This is what I think today at this moment. It will be similar tomorrow, but can't possibly be the same. All I can touch is what I feel right now.
We, for a long time - Dawn and I - did a martial arts practice - 25 years - and one of the things that was really lovely about it is that push that's part of all the Zen-based, Buddhist-based practices, which is you just go. The point of practice is to go and practice. It's not to get some place in particular. It's just to be there in the moment, feeling the person you're working with, responding to them appropriately - caring for them, lifting them up, being lifted up by them. What else would you want to do?
I feel like if we could live that kind of life from moment to moment to person to person... literally two minutes ago, I was walking by and a student who's been out because of a medical issue for a couple of years and really been working hard to try to get back to school, but has tried and then been driven back out because of medical issues and then it resolves and tried... and they're back. That's just HUGE for me that they're back. We've stayed in contact. We've tried to - in those moments - tried to bring some tiny bridge back to what they want to do. And when it fails, then we just take the bridge apart and we try to build a new bridge. And so I feel like the fact that that student is back and it looks like it's gonna stick this time - it's been two years of trying to help it happen - it's a total win. And hopefully completely invisible except to that student and me.
What does it mean to you to be part of the bigger picture - the larger community as a species?
(Sighs, long pause) So, today, I think I would frame that as... (laughs) today, it feels like what seems important to me about that is to engage with your life as an insignificant member of the bigger thing. But the insignificance is kind of important to me. I don't need to be significant to be part of the human race. I don't need to be significant in the universe to be the caretaker of this planet. And all I can caretake is that which is within my reach. But yes, I'm part of a really big community, but I'm just a little cog. I'm a blood cell in the being which is the planet in some sort of New Age kind of way. Although it is - it's just a giant, complicated organism. Sentient? I don't know - I'm not worried about whether it's sentient or not. But I'm part of the puzzle and I'm trying to do my bit to make it better for the next generation; trying not to leave it as screwed up as possible. I spend a lot of time apologizing to my students for my generation. We have not thought long-term about the planet that we're creating for the next couple of generations - my generation. Not because collectively we've been complete idiots, but we haven't responded to the learning in ways which says, Oh, we might want to be cautious about this if we actually care about other parts of this giant thing called the human race. So, yeah, my role in the bigger sense - the way I see myself in the bigger sense - is hopefully sort of the way if blood cells have a brain, how does a blood cell see its role in life? I'm an important part of something, but I'm not the center of existence. I just have a role to play and I'll take whatever skills I have and do that role as well as I can. And if I can make my little corner of the world healthier, then that's my job.
What do you think your role is then - in those terms - when dealing with issues of violations of human rights and this perpetuation of social injustices of varying degrees? How does that affect your life and what kind of accountability do you think you should have?
I think one of the challenges that I haven't resolved very well in my life is... there are things that happen that are outside of any sphere of direct influence that I might have and there's clearly evidence that by banding together with other folks who are equally upset by that stuff, you can accomplish things that you couldn't accomplish if you just sort of hold your frustration inside that micro community that I normally operate within. I guess I have not found a way that works for me that feels like it's an effective use of my time in the big balance of the world to participate with those sort of global issues - whether it's protests, whether it's letter-writing, whatever. And so, the rationalization I use is that, for me, I feel like I'm more likely to have a direct impact by working really hard to help educate the students that cross my path to be more effective thinkers. Because if I can send a thousand students out into the world as adults - as human beings - who are more effective thinkers, I feel like I will have a much more significant impact than if I stood up and shouted really loud. So, for me, it feels like a long-range thing - I'm trying to change things now so that the ripple going forward will change things more. That feels like a more nuanced kind of an approach, but it's also more consistent with me. I'm trying to launch a piece of a future solution. I don't see that I have the kind of tools, strategies, and impact to leap up and force change now.
Do you have a sense of purpose and does that combination of words mean something to you?
(Laughs) So, like a lot of things, I feel like I know what it's supposed to mean. I think I have come to believe that this stage in my life that the idea of some ginormous purpose - some candy cane out there that I'm chasing - has not been particularly useful to me. I am much more interested in shortening my view from that long view and asking, What can I do in this moment, in this day, in this week, in this season for the people both that I care about or that I care to serve that will make things better in some way? And that's enough purpose - I don't need any more purpose than that. So, if that's purpose... yeah, but we usually use purpose to mean there's some grand goal in my life. No, there's no grand goals in my life. Not interested in grand goals. Not because they're bad - it's just they don't work for me.
What do you want more of in your life?
Time (laughs). Sure, what I want is more time. And so, as a teacher, we always are like, Yeah, if you just wouldn't give me so many classes to teach I could do a better job. There's a certain reality for people like those that my colleagues are and me - the people that we've gathered together at this community. It almost doesn't matter, actually - if you gave me only one course to teach, I would still work 60 hours a week because there's not enough time to do the job I want to do. It doesn't matter how much time I have. So, yes, I would love to have more time, but would I be less busy if I had more time? Which is the usual thing I'm thinking, If I had more time I'd be less busy - I could take a moment to sit down. No, I have to decide that I need to take a moment to sit down and like not be busy. That's my disfunction - I haven't figured it out yet. So, yeah I work too hard. Yeah, I don't get enough sleep. But on most days, I get to be around - besides my wife, who's a fabulous human being - I get to be around a whole host of colleagues who are in their individual ways just the coolest people. Just the coolest people. Everywhere. And my students, too. It doesn't matter... there are so few real jerks out there in the world. So few. There's a few, but not too many. And I don't seem to ever run into them... for very long (laughs). Maybe I run the other way, I don't know.
Do you have anything else that you want to put on the record?
Well, the only other thing I think I probably want to put on the record is just a thank you to you because your site and this process and some things that have sort of coincidentally all come to sort of pass over the last couple of weeks have, in some ways, restarted an internal and an external conversation about how you build community and what does it take and what makes community? Does it actually take people to go out and build a support structure within which community can create? Or do you just participate and in participating does it take care of itself? Is it self-organizing or does it need external support? Some of the time? All the time? None...? It's become a much richer conversation about several of the projects that I'm looking forward to in the next 20 years. All the different ways I could do that - some of them are more passive, less centered on trying to drive the project, some of them are a little bit like this project, right? What happens if you just surface some things that are already going on? Will a community coalesce around those surfaced ideas or does it take more than that? And sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't, I guess. But the conversation has gotten much better as a result of this. So, this conversation is dropping into my life at a really neat moment for me.
Do you want to ask me anything?
Well, the thing that I was curious about reading through all these folks that you've talked to in this conversation about community - I'm actually really curious - do you have an answer for the question of how best or more effectively to build community? What does it mean to build - what kind of strategies are there to build community?
Great! That's a great question. I'm starting to understand that the way one answers a question is a choice. And not so much to choose the truth or not the truth, but a choice of which aspect you want to focus on. I tend to focus on the heavier aspects. So, an idealist answer - a more optimistic answer - would be to say that I think I'm building a community over time. I think I'm planting those seeds that you mentioned - to build a community - that I'll start to notice eventually. That's the optimistic side. The side that I feel a little bit more often - that really effects me more than that - is that I'm wondering how much one person should do before they start to feel a sense of community.
I feel often quite alone - and that irony is not lost on me. And that kind of leads me to come to this place of just frustration. And as I proceed through this with the feeling of being alone, there's just so much room for doubt and questioning my own sanity and wondering if things are worth it or not and all that. But, as I sit here with you now, all of those thoughts are gone and it's in the moment and I feel it. And then I go home and I'll spend more time with you than you'll spend with me as I transcribe. And it really means a lot to me - all of these interactions really mean a lot to me.
So, I guess I want to say - to answer your question - I think we have to be deliberate about the time that we spend with each other and what we want to take away from that time. You can very easily come and go, interact not interact, grab your coffee, eat your lunch, go to somebody's house for dinner even, and be there or not. Or you can just decide that you're gonna make all of those things matter. If you want to have a more genuine experience at the coffee shop, you need to have a freer schedule. Right? If you want to connect on a deeper level, you need to be more open to where that might come from. So, I think it comes down to a choice. If people want community, they can have it. They can decide that they're gonna get it and they can make choices in their life that make that more possible.
I think as a culture we have some work to do there. The systems in place - things are categorized and they're on a schedule and it becomes difficult to allow for that under those parameters. I'd like to see some of that stuff shift and change 'cause I think our getting along, our communicating with one another, our learning from each other are some of the most important things. I think there's an answer in there somewhere to your question.