Life

007: Pretending to Understand

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What do you sometimes pretend to understand that you truly don’t?

I’m in something of a bind at work.

You see, the dayjobbery is in Information Technology, but I’m on the “administrative and quality” side of that technology. It’s not like I spend my days debugging or writing code, or figuring out which language works best, or comparing one program or tool to another.

The dayjobbery is also at a company famous for engineering knowledge, which means I’m already surrounded by very technically competent people who would be perfectly happy without people like me cluttering up the corridors and taking up bonus paychecks.

Now I am known to be the “most technical” member of my immediate team. Which may or may not be accurate, but is similar to saying I am the “most empathetic” public executioner or the “most honest” politician.

This sometimes combines in a situation where I am asked to own a technical application, the scope of which is often beyond me. And as previously discussed, I have trouble:

  • Saying no,
  • Admitting failure, and
  • Looking foolish or ignorant.

This is a potent cocktail for utter disaster.

It’s never come to disaster, of course. Historically, I have always been able to use a combination of Google-fu, a vast network of friends who are skilled at vastly different things, enough charm to delay the requestors and a certain low cunning to – in general – come up with an answer that satisfies people and fixes the immediate issue.

I have learned, too, to keep notes on how I fixed the thing that time, to ensure the next time it raises its head I have an answer, even if I don’t fully understand WHY this is the answer.

I have tried to make myself more interested in these technical components, but it’s a hopeless case. I don’t much care why a program or function works the way it does. I’m far more curious about why someone would lay it out in a certain way, or the history behind how this program was selected, or any of those other, more human factors that wrap themselves around the tool.

That curiosity makes me very, very good at the “administrative and quality” side in which I actually work. Just not at the technical sides of administering quality tools.

006: A Recent Dream

It starts with a dear friend. We are talking earnestly together, side by side, I don’t remember what about, but it seems like a very deep conversation. As we continue to talk we drift onto our backs, and are now floating through the air, like you would float on inner tubes down a lazy but still-moving river.

The sky above us is dark and full of stars, but not only stars. The fronts of houses, two-dimensional and in primary or secondary colors, appear along either side of my field of vision. I am put in mind of Venice, though these houses are colonial style, neither Mediterranean nor ancient.

There is a feel of age, though. And each house is a single color. They are more like cardboard cutouts, or proscenium backdrops for some theatre in the darkened sky. We are still talking, and now our hands are intertwined as we float and converse. It is intimate, but not precisely romantic. Sharing depths without the rise of carnality.

The sky vanishes, my friend vanishes, and I blink at the alarm clock (which I do not have) which now sits on my nightstand (which is not my nightstand). In twenty more minutes my alarm will go off, and I will have to get up, and I might as well get up now. So I go to the bathroom and shave using a badger brush and a straight razor, with a half-filled glass of red wine at my elbow. I’m tempted but I do not pick it up; it’s morning, after all, and a workday.

I do not drive to the office, there’s seemingly no need, for I am instantly there and in conversation again, this time with our new CIO – my immediate boss as of a week ago. He is asking questions and I am responding reasonably, but I’m tense despite this. I do not like the set of his eyes as continues to ask me questions. Eventually he nods, satisfied, and I leave his office.

It’s then that my *real* alarm, the one on my cellphone, goes off. It plays a tune by Joseph Fire Crow, a Lakota musician, titled Meadowlark Sunrise. The tune is sweet, played on a flute but with strings and percussion in the background. I find it a calming way to wake.

I’m not surprised by either half of the dream. My friend has been much on my mind of late, and I’d like to enjoy another late-night conversation that takes me out of the everyday. I was insistent that I could not oversleep this morning, as I had promised my team-mates to be present for a physical fitness challenge. And being under new management, it’s not surprising I should find the office intruding on my private visions.

I’m unsure of the meaning of the straight razor, though. Perhaps there’s more symbolism in that razor, in the wine, in the old-time alarm clock, brass and analog with two bells on the top. In the floating proscenium buildings which look beautiful but can never be lived in. Personal symbolism in a very personal dream.

Note: This was written in late March. Dates may not be accurate.)

On Art: Time and Tactility

I spent this Saturday afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago, an incredible institution that never fails to inspire jealousy. Not the admiring jealousy inspired by the visual artists I know personally – the ones who found their craft in the visual or tactile realm and who work like demons to improve their skills (and I am jealous of you, one and all, for both your dedication and ability to create something that can be touched) – but something deeper, that revolves around a time when art seemed to mean more.

I always forget how much I adore John Singer Sargent and Ivan Albright. Both seeing the art from a distance, as it’s intended to be seen, and getting up closer than I’m meant to, to look closely at the broad strokes of thick paint and color. When I inspect those, I remember that each stroke was a choice made, a decision on color and thickness and direction. I remember that each of those tiny decisions, strung together, created a miraculous result.

I’m not foolish enough to believe this is only in classical paintings. Digital art is the result of just as many tiny decisions, strokes of a mouse or Wacom tablet. Photography requires painstaking work around composition, light, lenses and structure. In sculpture the placement of chisel to stone is, in general, less observed than the glory of the end result. And in good writing, every sentence takes as much work and effort as every brush-stroke.

All of those, however, are backstage work. Invisible unless you hold it close to your eyes and make yourself remember that human hands were behind this creation. The thick brush-strokes of the painters whom I admire and most envy reveal both the genius which went into the entirety of the composition, as well as into each individual component.

This is, perhaps, no more than some idealized artistic myth. I’m prone to both mythmaking and idolization.

Admittedly, my sister took me to the Institute to particularly see the revamped Arms and Armor exhibit, which she knew was always my favorite as a boy and young man. What red-blooded American boy doesn’t love knights and implements of destruction? The new exhibit remains impressive, and you should go to see it, but for the reasons listed above I am more struck as a grown man by Whistler’s Mother (also here on a limited run) and Sargent’s portrait of Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth).

Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth), John Singer Sargent, 1897

Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth), John Singer Sargent, 1897

005: Hateful Repetition

Today’s question is, “What do you do repeatedly that you hate doing?”

Heh. Only ten minutes? All right, let’s pick one and dig deep:

I hate that I internalized the idea that my own dreams and desires should never come before those of other people. My mother, whom I love very deeply and by whom I was beyond fortunate to be raised, recently told me she didn’t do my sister and I any favors by implicitly teaching us this mindset and explicitly reinforcing it.

My personal role, as I’ve seen it, has almost always been in support. To be there for what other people needed, to lend my muscles or mindpower or financial or emotional resources to the people who mattered to me. Or, in the absence of any of them, to whomever came along and needed help.

It’s a trait that has landed me in hot water with scam artists and sob stories. It’s cost me a great deal over the years in terms of deferred personal growth and pleasures or wishes denied. It’s not something I enjoy about myself, but it is rooted so deeply inside of me that standing against it causes a huge disconnect and massive discomfort.

I’ve been through therapy and life coaching. I’ve read uncountable books on self-help. I’ve tried assertiveness training. None of it takes away the very real psychic turmoil caused when I want to do one thing, and someone I love even suggests something different.

On top of the trouble it causes me, it doesn’t make me easy to live with, either. It took over ten years of marriage to understand that a yes-man doesn’t make a terribly good husband; and thank everything that is that we decided against having children.

As a friend it may be easier – you can typically rely on me to go with the flow, unless it’s something really important like avoiding a restaurant I know is terrible. Still, I suspect that even then, people would prefer I express a preference.

There have been times I’ve overcome this tendency. When I was at my very happiest in my skin, around 2010 or so, I had less trouble putting myself first and expressing my opinions. Unsurprisingly, I made a much bigger and better impression on the people I met and dealt with at that stage in my life. Over time, however, old habits overrode that other, stronger, more assertive part of my personality.

That said, I’m better than I was. I am still working on it. But while putting others first certainly sounds like a noble ideal, it’s something I hate about my character, and yet repeatedly indulge in.

Are there other, worse vices which I hate but repeat? Oh heck yes. Eating and drinking to excess, making excuses, passive aggression. As well as everyday behaviors like biting nails and mindlessly surfing the internet. I could go on all day with things I do repeatedly but hate doing, but as an exercise in digging to find the root causes, this is the one which consumes me, and which I suspect underlies many of those other vices.

Unless, of course, you’d prefer I hated something else. In which case I’ll do my best to please.

004: This Year’s Greatest Experience

“What experience from this past year do you appreciate the most?”

For the past 11 months, I have served as an Area Director for the Toastmasters organization. It has been, by turns, fulfilling and frustrating, rewarding and … really, really difficult.

In terms of appreciation, however, it’s hard to beat this experience.

Taking on this position inspired me to take on greater challenges in the office, and in other spheres of my personal life. I have said “yes!” with enthusiasm to several opportunities which I would have hesitated to accept in the past, even when I was unsure of my capacity to execute them with perfection.

I have met such a large group of warm and wonderful people, all of whom are invested in improving their skills and being of service to a larger cause. They come from all over the Chicagoland area, and when the District is split between North and South I will miss seeing several of them, but will rest well knowing that they are continuing their good work in another sphere. I consider many of these people friends, and several of them as inspirations.

I’ve learned a great deal about myself and have improved my skillset as a leader. While I could have done more – and I will always feel I could have done more – I have certainly grown in terms of dealing with challenges and setbacks, in terms of long-range planning and in dealing with sometimes difficult personalities.

I no longer fire off immediate responses to questions which can be set aside until more important matters are attended to. I have learned to keep my hands off those projects and clubs which are running well, relinquishing control and delegating authority to the proper individuals. I have also learned how to most effectively step in to offer assistance when it is needed.

At some level, too, I have learned to lose more gracefully. In this year, not all my efforts have borne fruit. Some clubs into which I put my time and energy have decided to discontinue their charters, and ideas I advanced have been turned away by others. I have yet to be able to find a replacement for my position, which is a source of some vexation.

Still, I do not take these as slights on myself or on my capabilities. Instead, they are lessons in the famed serenity prayer, choices made by others which are beyond my actual control.

For that knowledge alone, along with many other insights and opportunities, I can truly say that I have appreciated this challenge.

I can also say, however, that I will not pick these reins up again lightly. I enjoy crafting words and phrases, speaking in public and sharing my knowledge with others. The administration and oversight of others is something I can now gracefully relinquish into hands which are unknown to me, but which I am certain will be up to the task.

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