Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

Third Rail

St Helena, California, USA

February 7, 2007

This essay, Third Rail, is the companion piece to I am indebted to Anna Taglieri who inspired this conversation.

Computers changed my life.

By that I don't mean they made me a better person. I don't even mean they gave me better tools to do my job. Frankly I got just as much done in a work day in 1969 as I get done in 2007. Thirty eight years later there's still only twenty four hours in a day. From time to time, with or without computers, then and now, I complain I don't have enough time in a day to get my work done.

Rather, computers made opportunities available to me that weren't available to me before. Specifically, in 1969 realized computer work would provide a comfortable ticket to travel. It was the kind of work that paid respectably in all the places I wanted to visit.

And provide that it did. Early on in my travels I got a job at Le Lido de Paris Cabaret. Le Lido de Paris Cabaret in Paris, France is the crown jewel of the company which also owns the Crazy Horse and the Moulin Rouge cabarets, and is arguably the most famous cabaret in the world. Paris by night is an experience not to miss. I was fortunate enough to live it for six months working a regular nine to five - but at night ie 9:00pm through 5:00am. There I was, a small town boy, underground  in Paris, France, at 3:00am in the morning working the spotlights and the earliest model computers at Le Lido de Paris Cabaret when, routinely, a bare breasted girl rode by on a camel inches from of my face. It was totally surreal.

On another occasion while living in a perfect surfer's paradise right on the sands of Clifton Beach in Cape Town, South Africa I signed on with the Old Mutual, the largest life insurance company in Africa, converting their static batch processing mainframe computers to interactive machines. Computer programming by night, surfing by day. It was perfect. And in 1974, thirty three years ago, I acquired a green card  to live and work in the United States due in large part to my familiarity with computers.

But I'm not referring to the world of personal  computers and the internet. When I first encountered mainframe  computers in 1969, thirty eight years ago, personal computers, transistors, microchips, e-mail and the internet had barely become science fiction. Vacuum tubes were still extensively in use. One mainframe computer could occupy an entire building's basement stretched over many city blocks. One megabyte  of real memory was considered huge, extravagant, and entirely unnecessary. Screens and monitors were hardly invented. Keyboards were rare. Inputting programs and data was accomplished by punching holes to make a hexadecimal  code in cards or paper tape which were then "fed" into the mainframe. And the first computer bug  was really a moth - but that's another story for another occasion.

This was my genre. This was my milieu. This was my turf. This was my world. It was a big wave. I rode it for all I was worth, on and off and on again for the next twenty eight years.

And then ... just  ... like  ... that  ... came personal computers and the internet, and around 1997, ten years ago, I was clear it was all over. Mainframe computers and their related skillset were well into their inexorable slide to extinction. From being something of a unique commodity I was now in a world flooded  with hundreds and thousands  of high tech  aspirants who purchased personal computers, spent a weekend in their offices, attics or basements, and emerged as experts  who not only added to the burgeoning fury of new competition for computer work but also in so doing rapidly drove remuneration for such work steadily down.

1908 Model T "Tin Lizzy" Ford
From being a sought after automobile mechanic for nearly thirty years, overnight the tide had turned. In the new era I found occasional work fixing a few rare 1908 Model T "Tin Lizzy" Fords in a world teeming with Toyota Corollas.

Determining what to do next is always a challenge. The number of options facing me was bewildering. Even more bewildering were the implications, the consequences  of each of those options. Confronting what was coming next forced me to take a long, cold, dispassionate look at where my priorities lay, at what I really wanted.

What I discovered - much to my own chagrin - is I seemed to be better equipped to come up with what I don't  want. I could list reams and reams and reams of options I don't  want. Yet when I projected myself into a space of total freedom, a space in which I could have anything  I want, I was surprised noticing it's harder to come up with what I really  want than it is to come up with what I don't want.

I don't know why it's this way. Yet it's clear to me it's this way. At least, this is how it occurs for me.

So being it's all I knew to do, I continued isolating what I don't want. Some time during that process it dawned on me what I was really  doing was distinguishing and honoring what lay behind  all my don't wants. I realized I was actually distinguishing and honoring the priority of a third rail  in my life. The third rail, of course, is the power source for metro trains. Go where they will, unless they have contact with their third rail, there's no power for metro trains.

Slowly, very  slowly at first, I began to see if I had to start my life over again as a single parent with archaic skills, it would behoove me to stay as close to my third rail as possible (whatever that turned out to be), allowing any and all choices and any and all decisions I made for the future to be shaped and guided by the proximity they would afford me to my third rail - the closer, the better.

After I had sifted through what I don't like, where I don't have fun, what doesn't give me pleasure, what my gifts aren't, what my challenges aren't, I had created a new, pristine, totally blank canvas on which to start laying down my new life. In this context it became clear what my power source is, what my raison d'etre  is, what I had to keep my attention on, what my priority is.

It's my relationship with my children.

It's more than that actually. It's more than simply my relationship with my children. That's it. Being with my children is the top priority in my life. It's my third rail. And when I stay close to my third rail, power flows to all corners of my life.

Once I got my third rail, things started to just fall into place. Erstwhile tough choices became easy.

When choosing a new place to stay, I eliminated all areas too far away to allow me being with my children as much as possible. The perfect place showed up: the amazing Cowboy Cottage  replete with pastures, a vineyard, horses, deer, eagles, coyotes, rabbits, a river, fish, ducks, and cows.

When choosing a new job, I looked for an occupation which would minimize travel away from home and allow me to be with my children as much as possible. The perfect job showed up: driving visitors around the Napa Valley, my home turf. Even though I now have to work many more hours and weekends to make ends meet, I get to be with my children more than when I worked with mainframe computers and made more money but was away from my children for days and days and days on end.

When I considered how much remuneration I would ask for, I simply asked for the most I could possibly get without jeopardizing  the viability of the job which would allow me to be with my children as much as possible.

When I consider how much time I'll allocate to being in relationship with my new women friends, even how much time I'll devote to my calling in life, sharing light on Werner's work writing these Conversations For Transformation, I get I'll spend as much time as I can of whatever time I have left over after being with my children as much as I can.

When I consider how much money I can afford to spend on myself, I get I can spend as much as I like, basically, of whatever I have left over once I've paid my bills and my legal obligations and covered those expenses which maximize my time being with my children.

Powered by the third rail, priorities which once required close consideration and which weren't always easy to set suddenly set themselves - effortlessly. Activities which once weren't satisfying in and of themselves are now thrilling, even the most menial, when they're in service of the third rail.

It's a perfect perpetual motion machine, this exchange of power between the third rail and that which it serves. It's man dancing with his machine. It's the mainframe computer all over again, only this time transformed.

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