through their expressions of wants and fears.
There's something real in the way that our holy emerge --
denying their wants, allaying our fears.
There's something real in fact that I'm mostly aware
and metal on metal
as brake pads wear away.
I'm not cynical enough to dismiss the notion of free will. I am, however, saying that it belongs more on a box score than a lineup card.
Having spent their whole lives in a city on the backside of its history, my parents left Akron as soon as chance allowed. Having spent only a couple years at the end of high school in a Bay Area on the rise, I have found myself wandering back, in both thought and U-Haul.
This past summer brought family trips, extended and immediate, Ohio and California, respectively. Forty years and a cloud of dust out of Akron, my Dad still finds an old friend on every corner, many of those corners still recognizable from a distant and apparently slightly misspent youth. In contrast, only a few years removed from my last attempt to return, I got lost driving on a hasty web of fresh pavement just a few blocks from my old home, an erstwhile hometown buzzing with so many people I don't know, better-heeled replacements for my dispersed generation unable or unwilling to shoulder a cost of living that quickly outran most of our career paths.
For all intents and purposes, I grew up in the Metroplex, surfing the forces of adolescent impulses as Bedford stamped rolling horse farms into metered-out lots of Edward Scissorhands sprawl. I was therefore surprised when my first reaction to the news we were moving was excitement. I loved Texas. I was hitting a stride with a Breakfast Club stew of school and friends and sports that was filling my days with fewer hours dropping dice behind a Dungeon Master's Screen, more testing chance with girls, some who even smiled back. But DFW back in the day was a community for migrant workers in the burgeoning cube farms. We stayed, but every year or two my best friends seemed to leave for some reason or another: corporate whims pulling dads elsewhere, family ties pulling moms back, a brother's addictions spilling their bounds, an asshole father avoiding responsibility with a surprise enrollment in a remote and religious boarding school. I guess I wanted to stay, finish out my last two years of high school there, but I also guess that I expected that one way or another I would succumb to the varied polarities that so rapidly pushed and pulled people through the Mid-Cities.
A few months from having exchanged top-siders and pegged acid-wash for Jams and flip-flops, I decided that my purportedly annoying penchant for "back-in-Texas" stories was a sign that I should be back in Texas. I filled out all the right bubbles in #2 lead and all the right forms in blue or black ink, and was on track to return to Dallas thanks to the generous and proud SMU alumni and their well-funded scholarship programs. My first Evil Plan was playing out quite nicely, thankyouverymuch, when grumblings about some if-ya-ain't-cheatin'-ya-ain't-tryin' problems with SMU football recruiting exploded into revelations of systemic corruption that dropped the NCAA's first "death penalty" on the entire football program.
A couple weeks later, still confident that the Evil of my Plan trumped the evil of some boosters, I was on campus to finalize and accept the scholarship...on the very day that the SMU Board of Governors was forced to admit they not only knew of, but actually approved and somewhat oversaw some of the most egregious violations. The football team had gotten the death penalty, but the school had lost it's soul.
The Back-to-Texas Evil Plan in shambles, I got an excited call at an inappropriate hour a few weeks later from a proud UCLA booster letting me know that because the initial winners of that year's Bruin nerd-off were forgoing Westwood for more Ivy-covered climes, I was officially the top consolation nerd. I took a trip south. I stayed for the next four years.
Evil Plan: The Sequel, now had me studying economics while captaining the nationally renowned UCLA debate team in nerdgasmic glory as I constructed the ultimate application to some or another law school run by demons actually listed by name in the Bible.
I dropped off the debate team, ditched economics when the math got hard and came out the other end with a degree in philosophy, hair to my shoulders, a love of teaching, and a fairly potent jump serve that once scored a point on Karch Kiraly (and to be clear, it was the only point we scored out on Venice Beach that day.)
I got rejected to every graduate program in philosophy I applied to. Except one.
I did well enough in grad school to likely secure one of the scarce academic positions that pop up each year. But as I was reading in library basements, those positions got stripped of tenure, benefits and much of their already modest pay. Finally, common sense was surgically removed when I was courted to teach paying college students classes I had never taken myself from books I had never read on subjects I had never studied.
Grad school side jobs morphed into a scheme to open a restaurant in Providence. I was out-eviled once again when my partner and I got hit up for a shockingly large bribe to secure a liquor license. It didn't help that while managing a joint I had also pissed off some low-level mob dude whose waste management company would regularly, though "accidentally," flip my dumpsters.
Late-'90's Evil began wafting in on breezes from the west, so I loaded up the eight or nine things I was able to purchase as a grad student and headed back to NorCal to cash in on the dotcom boondoggle. Through old buddies and fast talking, I was quickly working South of Market.
Selling life insurance.
I was told I would never finish the dissertation if I left. I did.
I had always laughed at anyone who would be foolish enough to plan a wedding outside, leaving already unrealistic expectations and emotions bare to the fickle weather whims. I got married, beautifully, outside bare to the the sun cutting through remnant haze of night-before rain.
I always wanted some undefined number of kids, but felt pretty strongly that they should be spawned at a reasonable pace, allowing space for each soul to grow, time for each parent to recover. My three kids tumbled into the world all within 24 months (plus 5 days!). Now I can't imagine it any other way.
My old school Evil Plans turned on a dime, desperate as I was to avoid the corporate world. I now work in a beige cubicle tucked in a Connecticut suburb for a once and future Fortune 100 insurance company that just took TARP funds. I've learned far more in my many-colored workplaces than in my decades of school.
I spent most of my life unnaturally intimidated by cheerleaders.
I have a thing about keeping the dog's water dish cold and full, but nine times out of ten, I find myself merely swapping stale water for fresh, a whole bowl at a time. Nevertheless, the dog never seems thirsty. Oddly, my toilets are never full.
My dog has been sleeping around. I can't say I blame him. In fact, he wandered off Thursday morning, and I haven't seen him since. Last night I got an email saying he was having a good time. I don't think he wrote it, though.
A calendar view of the last few years would show a semi-automatic splatter pattern of life events, often leaving me with an image of whoever is on the cosmic trigger sporting smeared clown makeup. Good, bad and otherwise, the moments that define a life have been holding the door for one another, the redshift of one blending into the the blueshift of the next so that a crack in my skull would leak its uniformly purple ambient light.
(Max's favorite color is purple. That cannot be an accident.)
I have settled into two primary coping behaviors. First, I take a lot of pictures. Most days require a second look. Second, I triage and cross my fingers. I've been picking a handful of things, focusing on them, hoping the rest don't flat line by the time I get back around to them. I run hard for a few months, then sequester myself for a long weekend to do my best to catch up on all the things I have ignored, thus far not uncovering anything fatal or criminal (knock wood).
While the dog's basic bio inputs and outputs have been met, a lingering point of stress and regret has been that he has not had the attention a border collie demands and deserves. An earthbound floppy frisbee is a sad and unnatural sight.
Flat paint and kids work together roughly as well as Sarah Palin and Perez Hilton on a blind date. Trust me. I tried (at least the paint/kids part). Each glimpse revealed some new stain or scratch or minor impressionistic masterpiece bringing wedgies of frustration that I had never replaced the thin dusting of pale yellow chalk my corner-cutting builder had left on the walls as the last check cleared.
As the kids steadily worked their unique take on wainscoting the halls, that fucking paint became the sole object of misdirected and mounting stresses. A rational person would have simply repainted the walls, but that's not where I was at the time. That cheap paint refactored itself into a bright line in my mind, the boundary of what I could handle on my own, the exact point where I needed someone else -- God only knows who -- to come in and fix it. I resented and fumed about those walls because it was safer than resenting the whole house, because that might force me to consider how I was feeling about the whole set of broader duties and responsibilities that was overwhelming me. I was a real peach.
A new batch of fun soon made my event horizon again glow purple, illuminating the likelihood that I would soon be free of that paint, those walls, the house, swapping one batch of overwhelming for another. Somewhat ironically, the logistics of getting out forced me to finally break down and paint those walls. But now the task had become an assertive act of reclaiming some manner of control in my life, no longer a concession to the responsibilities I had not been able to live up to. As such, I embraced it. I took a week off and went scorched-earth on the various Lowe's paint chip stands. I started painting.
Early mornings slid into late nights for days on end, draining and refilling an iPod battery. Hours passed anonymously on a step-ladder edging the ceiling, lying on my side surgically painting trim, wielding a roller Daniel-san style, patiently up and down, up and down. Annoying holes and nicks were filled and sanded pleasingly smooth. The angry splatter of stains and markers and crayons gave way to rich monotones. Chalky flat was buried beneath washable eggshells and satins. That carpal tunnel week became a meditation on textures and drips, edges and corners. Somewhere in all those moments of tactile contact, of constant attention, one of them was the inflection point where my relationship with those walls, that house, flipped from resentment to pride.
Several, though not too many moments later, I made the never-since-doubted decision that I was not leaving the house.
If business books included dragons, aliens, wizards -- or at least a lot more shit blowing up -- I am sure I would be running a company by now. (Business books, by the way, are the plankton of the literature food chain -- a couple cave trolls couldn't hurt.) But beyond the tickling of the reptilian brain, good fantasy and sci-fi is a wonderful vehicle for morality tales.
The Harry Potter books do a masterful job of laying bare the evolution of of Voldemort's evil, weaving a slow, deliberate path from a popular but troubled Tom Riddle to a splintered and murderous soul. His unique intellect and talents build his belief that he is an exception to common sense and civility, fomenting an ever-uglier view of those not like him (the basely named mudbloods and muggles). Disrespect hardens into resentment, and resentment descends into a denial that those not like him are worthy even of the basics of human dignity, leaving them fair game for horrific acts. Rowling carefully exposes the twisted logic of the racist through a story compelling to teen minds -- minds working in fits and starts to construct their own views of character. Plus, the monsters are cool as hell and lots of shit gets blown up.
Where racism insinuates itself in Rowling's fantasy, lust for power subtly corrupts Anakin into Vader in Lucas' universe. The outlandish extremes of sci-fi provides stark relief to expose the details of how racism and narcissism can invade intelligent but troubled minds, how untreated disrespect hardens into resentment, and how, by then, you are on the fast track to the center of all that is evil across multiple universes.
Clear Connecticut weekends fill our cul-de-sac with kids -- and now teens -- aimlessly pursuing impulses, loosely overseen by us older folks tending our yards. Short of adding a small flock of sheep to the mix, the scene could not be better for an obsessive border collie trolling for someone to kick a ball or toss a frisbee. Jax's play time has been crowdsourced all his life, but lately, on my kid-free days, he has been taking his more serious canine duties on the road, cleaning the scraps from underneath other kitchen tables, barking at other doorbells, and diligently guarding the feet of other kids' beds. He has even headed to work with some of the kinder neighborfolks during the day. All in, it is a great set up as he has lost weight, perfected his frisbee technique and still takes his full shift here when the kids are on my watch.
The other day, Jax' new sugar-momma offered to take him to the vet as she had an appointment for her biological pet. Wincing as I admitted how long it had been since I had taken him in, I thanked her for her kindness. When she further suggested that I get his blood tested for Lyme disease, I winced again at my recent neglect of his required regimine of Frontline and powders and sprays. When you live mere miles from Lyme, CT, this is pretty damn important.
Turns out Jax has Lyme disease. He'll be fine after the antibiotics work their alchemy. But I'm an ass.
While I am fairly confident that I am not yet on the short list to take my turn as the Source of All Evil, the comic book exaggeration of how resentment eats away at judgment and character does strike the fleeting wonder whether The Empire ever thought of building a Death Star from composite beams and vinyl siding.
The twisted cosmic clown is either tiring or popping in another clip, but whatever the reason, purple haze seems to be resolving into more discreet reds and blues. With a little more time to reflect, I see resentments I am not proud of and judgments influenced by them. I neglected and resented those walls because I (wrongly) felt that the burden of fixing them was something that had been put on me, done to me -- a normally (over)rational guy twisting resentments into misplaced anger.
Some shrink might even look at me and my dog and make an absurd claim that I hadn't gotten him to the vet because that was the sort of thing someone else used to do, an extra task now thrown on an already overburdened me, something I could triage out because it would be somehow less my fault if something went wrong. I mean, I could see how someone else might think that. I, of course, never could. That would make me an ass.
While I don't think I am on the verge of storming the Jedi Temple quite yet, I do need to get some things in order. My guess is that the list of things I most should be doing right now is precisely the same as the list of the things I least want to do. I mean, just a hunch...
But for now, I need to fire up the iPod and get a couple chores done, including a popping a couple antibiotics into a hot dog and tossing it to a dog who just lazily strolled back in, frisbee in his mouth, pissed off that I am still typing.
I am an absolutely miserable judge of my own stress. In real time, I am generally blind to what might be bothering me, as well as how much. In many regards, this weakness has served me well. If, in fact, my lens on the causes and levels of stress was clear and focused, at some point in the first six months of having twins I am positive I would have bored a hole in the back hatch of the minivan and gone Malvo. Hell, if my internal View-Master was in good order I am not sure Max would have made it through this last weekend.
I like to view mild dissociative disorders as evolutionary, not psychotic. I am, of course, in no way qualified to hold such views.
Amid modular, air-conditioned, ergonomically correct work spaces, a disconnect between the causes and effects of stress is actually quite useful. As crises arise, I can absorb the initial blows, stuffing them deep inside my organs where they can fester into some unnamed mid-life ailment while I address the immediate issue with an unhealthy level of calm. Sometimes, I sort of feel like Kobe dribbling up the floor with 7.3 seconds left in the fourth, no doubt that some seam is going to open up for that game winning shot. Of course, Kobe sucks at PowerPoint and I lost my three-point touch a decade ago, so that arrogant fantasy really does no one much good.
On the flip side, each significant mistake in my life has occurred under the influence of misdirected stress. Eventually the seams on over-stuffed and forgotten mental Space Bags start to leak, and the evil little Pressure Gnomes glom on to some completely unrelated, and usually minor, stress of the day, piling on -- my view askew to what does and doesn't matter, my judgment poor on how to react. I stub my toe on some forgotten corner of metastacized stress poking out from under the bed, and some unrelated decision or reaction inevitably goes really bad.
That's just how I roll.
There are these moments, though, when the Pressure Gnomes get a little too cocky and their usually silent mocking laughter blows their cover. Having spent the better part of the last month navigating a swirl of airports, cars and train stations, my filters got reset. Walking through my front door and back into My Life, the stresses hit me as palpably as those curtains of hot air that office buildings throw down as you enter on cold days. I spent last night staring at the ceiling, a little stunned by it all, suddenly feeling the true weight of things left for another day.
The latter part of high school and pretty much all of college was spent tripping merrily down what seemed a clear, noble -- somehow inevitable -- path toward one or another well-known law school. At some point along the way, however, opportunities to teach and counsel combined with some truly amazing teachers to plant doubts, to insert buggy code into this program. A more self-actualized person would have thoughfully considered these nascent misalignments among outside expectations and internal drives, but I grew my hair out and joined a fraternity.
I still wince at many of the decisions and misguided goofiness of the Late College Era. I am sure I owe several apologies, and I can think of at least one situation for which I solemnly bow my head and thank our Founding Fathers for their wise and righteous insistence on the statute of limitations. My insides had gyroscoped to face a completely different direction than my outsides and I was a mess. Those more qualified might have some more technical term for it, like, "growing up."
One morning, mid-senior year, I inexplicably woke up around 5am (you'll have to trust me on how truly miraculous such an event was...and is), made some tea and went, for the first time ever, and sat on the front steps of my deco Westwood apartment building. I had an oddly clear head, but no thoughts to fill it. As LA began to pulse and shake off its collective hangover, I wandered back inside (of course, as a sensible senior, my earliest class was, always, like, the next day or something).
To this moment, I remember each step of the walk down the hall, up the stairs, fumbling with the lock that never worked right. I stepped into the tiny but functional kitchen, mechanically pulled out some bread, Jif, and Welch's grape. I assembled them according to the Ancient and Honored Rites of PB+J...took a bite. With no connection to the usual flows of causes and effects, at that precise moment, my Space Bagged anxiety about what I did not want to do took an Escher turn to something I...did...want to do. Within 24 hours, I had shelved the Law School applications and had the duck-and-cover conversation with my dad to let him know I was going to apply to grad school.
(Oh, and I will need a year off to do that, so if you could clear out my old room, that would be much appreciated, kthxbye.)
I still remember everything about that mouthful of peanut butter and jelly.
Being a grown up requires energy and will, and I am generally willing to drink it from whatever well ain't yet dry. With no regard for the consistency of metaphor, I have spent a couple decades running rich on stores of misdirected stress. But, inexplicably waking up at 5am today, I am equally without cause recalling how much more octane is found in moving-toward than can be sucked out of running-away.
I hate to overplay coincidences, but as someone who has lived with little regard for sensible expectations of cause-and-effect I would be somehow hypocritical if I simply wrote them off. While Max was not conscious even ten minutes this morning before his first time out, his absolute most favorite food in the world is peanut butter and jelly. Welch's grape.
Has to be Welch's grape.
At this moment, my only contribution to the right and proper functioning of the world is the addition of a little extra gravity to the considerable task of tugging the tidal covers up to the chin of California's central coast. I am pretty sure my help is going unnoticed, and I expect not even a hint of a thank you. The moon is a bit of an ass that way.
As my physical activity descends into the minimal set of causes and effects that modern physics requires of even the most inert mass, my head is enjoying a rare freedom to assemble the anime flashes of my recent life into steady thoughts and stable memories. Vague yearnings resolve into clear goals and slight discomforts become clear opinions, neatly filed alongside others in my evolving, although still Pleistocene, view of the world. At the moment, I am coalescing a certainty that square coffee mugs are an abomination. Without constant attention to the precise configurations of the lips and tongue, neither the flat edges nor the angled corners rise above the usefulness of a cheap prank dribble cup.
Which reminds me, why hasn't some home office Yoda up in Seattle aligned her metachloria around the fact that all of the untold millions of dollars spent over the last few decades in refining the Starbuck's experience are wasted dozens of times each and every moment by a barrista cluelessly aligning a plastic lid so the drinking hole lands dead on the seam of the cup? I'm not sure how you would do the math, but I am confident that at least 100% of the righteous positivity delivered by the sum total of all the frothy sugary caffeine delivery systems Starbucks served over the years has been sucked from the world by the uncountable ties, blouses, dress shirts and sweaters ruined by the pale brown sputum of a poorly engineered cuppa. Just think of how much early-morning self confidence has been replaced by coffee-stained self doubt? How many sales pitches just missed, how many presentations fell just a little flat? How many interviews tailed off into awkward banter ten minutes early and how many raises went unrequested simply because amid all of the other pomp and circumstance that is Starbucks none of their millions of employees has ever had the combination of insight and voice to end the borderline criminal negligence of aligning the sipper and the seam?
This has gotten me so worked up that I am ditching coffee for a bloody. The moon will have to work this next set into the shore on her own, ungrateful bitch that she is.
Unavoidable demands and inexcusable procrastination have combined into a five-year gap since the last time I was back in California. The first few hours were spent in the trite reflection of how much the store fronts and mailbox names have changed, running the course of the obligatory musings well-captured in Barenaked Ladies and Nickelback songs. A few days into it, I am finally decompressing enough that my west coast eyes can see without the distractions of my east coast worries. In a couple days, I will switch from sorting through kelp beds for a glimpse of a sea otter to sorting through attic boxes for any remnants of my past that I might want to preserve as a condiment for my own kids' ever-growing stock of memories. Such is a necessary task when your folks' home ends a 25 year run with a July 1st closing date. I am sure there is reverie to spare a couple days and a couple hundred miles up the road.
I need to figure out the whole church thing. My reasons are merely excuses, but I have not reliably added my more-than-it-should-be gravitational force to a church pew for some time now. Of course, a solo attempt to bathe, dress and wrangle a couple four-year olds and a six-year old into an hour of Rome's current-and-best thinking is understandably daunting, but that at best excuses me only one Sunday in two. It's on the to-do list, but there is some attic-cleaning in the headspace that needs to get done on this one first.
I spent my first Sunday morning here at the Pope's local franchise, and amid all of the catching-up and polite waves to people that could not remember my name if their salvation depended on it, I was actually quite stunned by the physical transformation the church had taken on. The pulpit was now bigger than the altar and the trappings of the Eucharistic metaphysics were now pulled back to a small table. The stations of the cross were moved to the back, and the choir was moved more front and center. The traditional gold and gilt were not to be found in the new decor, but the offering and guilt remained reliably represented in the Mass. Most strikingly, the image of the cross was no longer the dominant visual cue, the Friday part of that original Easter weekend consciously and prominently replaced by reminders of what followed three days later. All of the changes summed to an overt attempt to humanize an institution two millenia into distancing itself from the flaws of humanity. Being well-schooled in the details of why everything in the Catholic church had always been thus-and-so, seeing it so clearly otherwise was, frankly, stunning. I may have my issues with how spirituality has been institutionalized, but I am not sure that us Catholics can solve our relavance simply by becoming more Protestant-like. I mean, strong coffee has its place. Water it down too much and folks are likely to simply prefer strong tea. I need to do some more thinking on all this. For sure.
We definitely have something deeply, seriously backward in our day-to-day pursuit of health. Once again, I am feeling -- by far -- the most healthy when I am explicitly trying not to be. My caloric intake over the last few days has been astronomical, a nap beats a run as consistently as rock beats scissors, and I am held in a quasi-conscious stasis by a slow, steady alternation of caffeine and alcohol. I have not walked more than 50 yards in a row for nearly a week. And yet I feel like I could go run a marathon, perhaps do some of that new math -- or maybe even one of those sudoku thingies. Sleep and fresh air mix up one powerful cocktail.
My grandfather passed away last winter, leaving my dad as the family elder and me, as his eldest son, as no one of consequence. He outlived his wife, whom he doted on and took care of in every way he knew how, and was outlived by everyone of his children and grandchildren. He passed comfortably with all of his kids by his side to say goodbye. Lay that deal in front of me and give me a pen, please. Along the always surprisingly long Pennsylvania interstate, I popped in some Dylan in hopes that last generation's incarnation of The Bard would inspire some thoughts for the words I would contribute to the services. Somewhere about Scranton/Wilkes-Barre the meatspace got rolling and by the time I hit the Ohio border I had notes written down (while safely pulled to the side of the road, of course) and had moved on to music that has been scientifically proven to kill brain cells. All good.
My oratory, however, lasted less than two hours after arriving at my uncle's place, flush with lasagnas and mayonnaise-laden salads and sodas and beers which turned into nice bourbons as the night wore on. I owed my grandfather more than I had come up with on the ride down. More particularly, I owed this goofy and amazing family that he and my grandmother had built more than I had jotted down. I just didn't know what it was.
My parents ran from Akron as soon as they could. College done, marriage blessed, first-born delivered and overseas military assignment looming, the three of us left, so far never to return to live in our shared hometown. Despite being the birthplace of arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century and perhaps the greatest basktball player ever, Akron is pretty goddam cold. It may not be the worst place to live, but there are, alas, plenty better.
Nevertheless, my extended family escaped the decaying rust belt city for the bucolic northern Ohio countryside, and over the years my trips back have served as a reflective touchstone for me. My family has had it's fair share of trial and tragedy, but all in, both sides dot the Ohio countryside with a bunch of pretty happy folks, generally sporting shit-eating grins at the accomplishments of those that followed them. It is Middle America to its core. The morning of my grandfather's funeral I realized, so am I.
I hastily scribbled some notes on the back of a mimeographed (yes, mimeographed) hymnal, and delivered them when the time came to do so. After stumbling over how to express how I saw my reflection in a the faces and rolling hills that surrounded us, I concluded, simply, "Thank you, Grandpa. Thank you for...Ohio."
I own a pretty nice pup tent and most of the equipment necessary for a fairly ambitious hike into some less than hospitable woods. One of my lingering regrets of late is that most of those provisions still lie in unopened boxes, although the tent has served some good time as a playhouse for the kids. Now, to be clear, when it comes to outdoorsieness I am much more Bryson than Krakauer (and for those who have read the former, more Katz than even Bryson). That said, I can absolutely correlate the velocity of my inner unrest to how long it has been since I have had a long stare at something truly elemental, like this Pacific tide currently swelling toward my feet. Thinking back on this, my rucksack affinity for the outdoors bloomed when I moved to Northern California back in high school. In LA, you cannot go a hundred yards without being overwhelmed by the crush of the manmade; once you get north of San Luis, you can't go a hundred yards without being awed by some force of nature, however many folks might be scampering about it.
The other day, I leaned back in a bathtub behind a glass of local wine and a view of the rising surf. Suddenly, the lazy two-tone blue horizon was broken by the breach of a blue whale, white spray reaching to where clouds blur with fog. Whatever makes a whale dance, I need to find mine.
I have always been thankful for California, too. Watching that whale perfectly framed in a picture window, now I am sure why.
Booting up my pimped out Firefox unfolds an elaborate Skynet of jumbled, poorly organized information that strangely, and perhaps pathologically, reflects how I process the world around me. An ad hoc jumble of media pumps real-time into one or another laptop always close at hand. The sources range from old, weathered institutional rocks to voices with half-lives barely longer than the time it takes to download them. News and friends and work and family are all mashed into a single big ball of brown Play-Doh. And lately, it rocks with a soundtrack of Pandora's tangents and suggestions replacing the pressure of constantly having to choose that right song from a static pile of music that my best guesses built.
Taken all together, there is a pulse to the feed, a collective nervousness or anxiety or hope or wonder, and sometimes it is just feet in the pool on a sunny day. Importance and connections these days seem to come less and less from the pedigree of the source, and more and more from the audience's level of attention. We are a fickle and petty bunch, but now that the audience is author, though, this seems more...ok...than it used to.
Starting in Rochester, with the Red Wings, and continuing with the Rangers after we moved north of Arlington, several times a summer, Dad would cut out of work early so we we could head to the park for a game. There, I would harvest and pack away images to bring life to the crackle of an AM radio. Each game required its own program, and every pitch had to be meticulously documented. I loved how a small collection of simple symbols and lines could come together to represent every subtle shift and twist of this incredibly nuanced game. I could go back to those scorecards and recreate the entire arc of a game, pitch by pitch, swing by swing, so many moments and decisions and heroic efforts strung together among an encyclopedia of rules all synthesized into a single view that could be created by a 8-year-old. I vote that any tin can we send into deep space must have a baseball scorecard on it as a proof of our vast intelligence.
By day, I am an ambiguous piece of corporate overhead, wandering home office hallways while folks in the field that actually sell our stuff and service our customers puzzle over why money is spent conditioning my air. My title is vague, my tasks varied, and on good days I am contributing ideas that fall on others to execute...hell, usually to even make sense of. Being ad hoc is an interesting way to live, but these days I am just a little nervous that I might be seen as a nice-to-have at a company struggling to support all of it's have-to-haves.
The last couple weeks, I have been focused on a single arcane task supporting a broader effort to make sense of our long-term strategies and all the things we are doing to fufill them. Working with a bunch of folks who have actually been schooled in how this business stuff works, I have had the task of gathering together what each group aspires to do over the next five years and lay it out on a single page so we could see where we are, where we are going, and all of the things we planned to do to get there. Now, I am not the person choosing the strategies or discerning the necessary tasks at hand, I've been just sort of running a different game in parallel to the real one, that odd pitcher out in bullpen throwing a side-session at the same time the starting nine are fighting for a win. It's brought some late nights with several (alas, metaphorical) transistors stacked up under my pillow, but these days they seem tuned to some scintillating all-insurance talk stations. My task is to create and fill out some sort of baseball scorecard for a $4B company playing a five-year long game. On one sheet of paper.
I am using really big paper. And really small fonts.
It was an Indian Summer morning a couple hundred yards from the Pacific, a week before our wedding overlooking the Atlantic. Demanding as it was, our world was clear, and it brought lots to do and a long way to go in the next ten days. As the shower steamed up our tiny apartment bathroom, I flicked on the old radio that always balanced badly on the back of the toilet. Hmmm... Sarah & Vinnie, mindless morning banter talking over the latest plastic pop. No will to change it, I let it drone on, hoping only that could provide some white noise to tamp down a head swirling with today's work and the upcoming event.
In the shower, although I couldn't hear the words, I sensed that the tone had changed. The rhythms and pulse had...slowed. When I got out, the self-congratulatory laughing and faux sexual tension between the mannequin hosts was replaced by increasing periods of dead-air that had not been heard on morning radio in decades. Something about a plane. Maybe two. No, one. Wait... It was three. My morning pace slowed as the information accelerated. I don't know why I stayed there, sitting on the edge of my bathtub, witnessing our world shift fourteenth hand, a cheap morning show on cheap radio on a cheap toilet delivering history. By 6:45 am, PDT, it was clear enough that even 3000 miles away, I wasn't going in to work that day. That day, neither sardining into a ferry nor chancing the Golden Gate seemed to be...prudent.
Half an hour later, needing supplies for a day at home, half-dressed, slacks and button down, never-finished tie, my bare feet in flip-flops, I wandered through the grocery store across the street among a couple dozen other refugees from the ferry that would not run for several more days. We zombied through aisles, idly picking off whatever the hell you buy on a morning like that. We looked up at speakers that usually provided only a pillow of pop music, as if seeing the staticky sounds from these unexpected sources of news would some how make their meaning clear, help us synthesize these random bits of information that none of us had ever thought could be combined in quite this way.
My Blackberry has a little light that beats green...green...green as it sits alert awaiting anything new from one of the many sources it continuously scans for even the most subtle shifts in my ever-widening world. Email, gmail, Twitter, Facebook, God only knows how many news alerts, a Bertie Bott's selection of IMs, texting, and, of course, an old school phone for engaging with closer to a human voice. If the quiet green makes me a little anxious, I can turn it to a blue-green alternation by slipping a BlueTooth into my ear, ready for that next call, maybe scanning a Skynet mini-me on the small screen. If it stays green too long to be believed, I might pop out the battery and reboot it. Just to check.
A red shift rarely indicates any sort of world shift. But that is ok. That just means planes are drifting lazy -- and aloft -- against a crystal blue sky. Today's home runs so far are all of the standard, muscular style. (I was there when Ellsbury stole home -- pure -- against the Yankees.)
So far, the pulse of this Memorial Day weekend assures that come Tuesday, the right folks will retain their faith that they should provide gainful employment for an info junky with the attention span of a housefly. And although a pulse of red let me know that an old cheerleader crush forgot cream for her coffee this morning, I can't help but smile that the world is gentle enough today for that to be worth talking about.
It's been a hard, two-week run of expectations rapidly outpacing resources, with a pace of input so frantic that my sight never felt clear, my head never felt smart.
This slowing down is welcome. And, frankly, wholly unexpected.
I have not taken care of my lawnmower. Not at all. It returned the favor at the end of last summer with weak, polite coughs as I sat on the damn thing, turning the key over and over hoping for a more throaty, consistent response. I blamed myself for my neglect, set aside a couple grand and Googled options for disposing of a cold, dead lawn tractor. But a couple weeks ago, as my unruly lawn began to tank my neighbors' already squeamish property values, I channeled my varied stresses into raising this thing from the dead. Now, mind you, I am a moron when it comes to engines (plumbing, too, for what it's worth). Vegas was not long on my odds here.
All instructions were followed, all parts carefully removed, cleaned, replaced, returned.
My mechanical neighbor watched this all unfold over the last couple weeks, and finally, he was moved to pity. Today, he came over, looked at my work, and declared it Good. He even complimented me on the shininess of some parts that he did not know could actually be shiny. But the damn thing was as unresponsive to me as my kids during a good Tom & Jerry chase scene. He scratched his head and muttered, "it's almost as if you have bad gas in there."
"What do you mean, 'bad gas'?"
I mean, with all the parts that I could see and reach being so tight and shiny, how could the gas being a few months old matter that much?
Ok, now I know.
So, the beast finally turns over, purrs nicely, and then...dies. We try again several times, same pattern.
"It's almost like your air filter is clogged, choking it off....you did change the air filter, right?" (He clearly had lost faith in my grasp of the obvious.)
"Yes. Of course I changed my air filter. I even cleaned and soaked the little green spongy wrapper thing in engine oil like the book says"
But, as it turns out, while a little bit of oil on the pre-screen is good, a lot is not, well...better. I had soaked it too much, effectively gumming up the air flow.
My neighbor finally realized what he was dealing with. "Look," he explained, "all the parts and widgets on an engine boil down to this...they mix rich air and gas with enough of a spark to drive a well-oiled set of pulleys and levers to do something. Your gas is old, your air is dirty -- and you also need more oil, by the way. Air, gas, spark, and oil. No machine, however, well-maintained, will work if the right stuff isn't flowing through it. Siphon the gas, clean your filter and change your oil. Try it."
My lawn is now nicely mowed.
Air, gas, spark and oil.
In grad school I spun out way too many brain cells on the arcane notion of "supervenience," a big word for saying that the grand and abstract arises from the small and mundane. The notion of supervenience has been bantered about academic circles for a half-century or so in an attempt to debunk the Platonic notion of a distinction between us and the divine, between what we do what do and whether it has been somehow blessed by some external power as Good, Right...Beautiful. The idea is that the Big, Well-Ordered, Capitalized Words arise from the lower case and unpunctuated, as opposed to our days being judged after the fact by some Cosmic Court, and then externally shot up with some hypodermic full of Right and Good, some at-the-table turkey baster injecting righteous flavor and Beauty.
But this is a silly digression into a big word inappropriate for such a slow day...
When my hair was longer and I was much more sure that I was right about most things, I poked around in Buddhist texts, now remembering far too little of what seemed so revelatory then. One story has stuck with me, though...
Hearing of the wisdom of a teacher and his followers, a man journeys to a monastery. Greeted at the door by the teacher himself, he is asked, "why do you join us?" He replies, "I am looking for enlightenment. I want to know what you have discovered, the deepest meaning of life."
The teacher smiles, opens the door, and says, "Good. Come in. First, we eat. It is late, and the day has been long." So, he eats a simple but joyful meal with the monks and the teacher. Afterward, he asks the teacher again about enlightenment and meaning. "Of course. Now, we sleep. Tomorrow is a long day." He does, and after being directed to a morning meal, he again asks, "Teacher, I am here to learn, to gain enlightenment. Tell me, please, what is your secret? What have you learned?" The teacher replies, "I know that our crops need tending or we will soon not have food for our meals. Come, help us." Growing frustrated, nevertheless he does what the teacher asks, and for days each request for insight into the teacher's mind is met with another request to eat, sleep, attend to necessary chores, or occasionally sing and dance when the work is done.
Frustrated, the man finally confronts the teacher. "Teacher, I have shared your table, tended your crops. I have talked among your followers, even danced and sang with you all as I have waited to be shown the secret of your enlightenment. Teacher, with all respect, I have been patient, and I have done all you have asked as I have waited to be learn the secrets of your enlightenment. Please, teacher, help me clear my mind, please show me what it all means."
Looking puzzled, the teacher asks, "Again?"
I love basketball, but can't stand the on-again-off-again effort of the NBA regular season. The playoffs, though, are a different game altogether, a rare stage where the transcendent effort and will of a superstar can carry a team, change momentum, create a legend. Lebron and Kobe are rising to their names this year, with Rajon and a couple others unexpectedly flirting at the doors of greatness. I have always been struck by the clarity and consistency of a thread that weaves through how all the great athletes describe what the game feels like when they are at their best. Whether it is locking in on a 97 mph fastball, reading a shifting 3-4 in the shotgun on a hurry-up inside of two minutes, or taking an in-bounds with 5.6-and-everything left on the clock. They all talk of how, in those moments, the what-if complexities just drop away, leaving only the clear sight and sharp mind of what-is. The game, in those moments, just slows down.
This was was an unexpectedly slow day.
Maybe it was just growing up in Texas.
The trip from 20 to 30 was a slow spiral from coffee-shop idealist to bar-stool cynic. Grand Ideals dropped into lower case and Big Ideas slipped into what was available that night. Intellectually, I went relativist, subjectivist...I have even stood accused of being existentialist. But here's the weird thing...while my head let go of the big ideas of Right and Good and God and Beauty, I never gave up the notion that there were people out there that had, in fact, figured it all out. Sitting in sumptuous deep leather chairs somewhere, where dim lights still reached high ceilings, Capitalized Words Were Still Bantered Over Priceless Cognacs.
I guess I had abandoned the idea that it would be me that would ever decipher those big things, but I never let go of the idea that some folks actually could, perhaps even had. I hadn't given up on the idea that some thought in capital letters, I had just given up on the idea that I was one of them. I remained an idealist. Just a really, really shitty idealist.
Maybe it was just leaving Texas for California.
This is not a new tale, merely my own pulling back of Oz's Curtain, of busting through a candy factory roof after witnessing marvelous rivers of chocolate .
But from 30 until now, well, I have seen some things. I have met a couple Oz's, chatted up a Wonka or two, even hyped a couple dirty rivers until we all believed them chocolate. Some days I am even expected to slip behind the curtain myself and flick the levers that sustain the illusion. Truth be told, I think conspiracy theorists give humanity too much credit. That level of complex, sustained evil may simply be well-beyond any concatenation of us goofballs. Look, even the Wall Street weenies couldn't make it 30 years, and the best and brightest of Hollywood couldn't even bring a solid TV conspiracy show to a coherent close. Even when given a second chance.
The fact is, The Illuminati, well, they're just a bunch of well-meaning idiots.
They is us.
I've riffed on the humans-ain't-smart-enough-to-pull-off-a-Dan-Brown-novel theme for a few years now, completing my own personal lower-casing of pretty much the entire evolution of humanity. It's kept my humility on a working par with my views of those above me. But I have been taken down several pegs lately by my kids that are spinning up their views of what they wanna to be when they grow up, and their stories are all written in Title Case. (Even when the Big Idea is driving a street sweeper because if the roads aren't clean the cars will crash...)
And cynics make for shitty dads.
So, a million blog posts lie in how I have come to feel a little more worthy of these Big Red Letter conversations with my half-size muses, but let me cut to the chase. I'll loop back over time, but it goes a little something like this...
A king needs his jester . I'm beginning to believe the best kings could play both roles.
(The best queens probably already knew this. I expect them to tell me so.)
And really, in the end, is it all really anything more than something like...
Find excellence. Then dance.
(And PS, my sister is much better at this mix than I. Always has been. Hats off and a deep bow to K8.)
My kids somehow conspired to grant me a peek at my life through their eyes (it involved dancing and chocolate and balloons and rain) Then they each faded lightly, allowing me a glimpse of their hearts each rising and falling softly, breath by breath...asleep in a warm house solid against wind and, I think, a little thunder.
And as the world might have it, I had this amazing opportunity to think these moments through, feel them all, with a drink on a porch fingering a nice cigar, feet bare in a welcome, drenching spring rain.
And even then, my mind wandered to other moments. Tensions building to all the things that might and should and could come next. A couple thoughts of what I might want this all to lead to when it all came down, when I figured it out, when I finally and responsibly grew the hell up...
And something caught me raw, the snag of a third-day razor, realizing I had just lost some of this moment in pursuit of...something not...here. Something else. This moment had faded into wonders of what other moments at other times in other places might somehow be like.
Unique shimmers of this moment melted into the gray of some lengthening shadows.
I am starting to think that my core issue is less that I am not doing enough and more that I am really just not good at recognizing those cameo moments when all I have done might be paid back in wonder and joy. I really need to fix that.
I need to unfold myself.
Frankly, I think I have even started to annoy my dog who now spends most of his time visiting various neighbors around the cul-de-sac, leveraging his fuzzy puppy-eyed evil for table scraps and a relentless game of fetch. He comes home from time to time, but his expanding social options seem to have made him even more cocky when he now begrudgingly drops by to sleep.
The whining snuck up on me. Things, all in, aren't bad. But they surely aren't simple. I work for a company in a pretzel of a financial mess, while many of the people and things I value right now fold up on each other in some absurd origami. Not...bad. But not...simple.
So I whine. But I'll get over it.
I am, however, getting a whiff of something different in the nose of this whine. In the past, when the tannins grew tart, I would revel in the inevitable transcendent moment when enough things reached near-crisis level that I could blow off any one of them because some other one had reached an even sharper peak of crapitude.
Realizing this moment had always been amazingly liberating. I would find this clarity to look at one pseudo-crisis and, instead of overreacting, conjure some what-if, some scenario in which some other frenetic demand was even more urgent. What-if...(aha!)...that?!?! And what-if I didn't, couldn't deal with this fire drill right now?
Just that pause would bring perspective, and I could often just walk away from it all, letting things I had spun up to into the silly to resolve themselves on their own.
[Insert your own details here.]
But this whine around, I am finding the usual transcendence a bit troubling. My normal course is to trade one worry off against another, put one panic off for another that is just an inch more red...lather, rinse and repeat...until ya have done a cycle or two through all that ails ya. the Irish Spring moment is a slap upside the head with the reality that if each could be trumped by another, perhaps none was as serious and urgent as I had originally overthought. Peace and calm slipped in where self-righteous needs to solve and fix had once flipped all my light switches on.
But this time, I'm not feeling so sanguine. My day job has long, long been more than somehow...external to me, the people and commitments and rippling implications on others are now settled in as core. At 4, 4, and 6, my kids are now...like...people. Real, live personalities, at least two stronger than mine. And I seem to have gotten over enough of my own personal shit to find some ports open for family and friends that have been over-secured for far, far too long.
So here's the deal. This time around I am not liking the idea of letting the emotion and importance and urgency of things fade, one trumped by another. I want to linger and learn, pause and ponder, stay and immerse myself, finally, in some select few. I guess the lesson is that up until now I have been spreading myself way too thin peanut butter. I guess before I thought that I had my ways of dealing with all that, sticking and moving, never being too deep in any one thing that I couldn't get deeper in another until in some MC Escher fashion in looped back on it all to restart at zero.
But you know, I think I am done with that.
If I have so many godammed important things going on that any one could trump another at almost any time, I think I can do the math to prove that, in fact, not a single one of those things is, actually, godammed important. At least important...enough.
But, and here is the kicker. I can point to three beautiful things currently splashing in baths upstairs right now that...each in themselves...prove that selfish argument wrong. Dead wrong.
Back in the dot-com days -- and it may still be there -- there was this groovy-ass deli at a poorly engineered Market Street intersection in SF where all the tattooed with pipe-sections-as-earrings bike messengers would hang, as hip in their heads as Kerouac used to be up-the-street and back-in-the-day. More importantly, this deli made this sandwich...This Sandwich...this amazing sandwich that took two sweet slabs of some sort of wheat and put them top-and-bottom around a full inch of peanut butter, buttressed by uncut slabs of banana. Dessert, lunch, decadence...health food? Whatever. Just perfect. That...that...my friends...
...that is peanut butter.
[Insert metaphor here.]
I started this blog oh-so six-or-seven posts ago to lean on outside pressure to keep me writing, and more importantly, to keep me writing in ways that, well, didn't suck -- or were at least on a trend away from that-which-sucks. But it hasn't really worked. The first posts were, alas, really riffs on the few ideas that have stuck in my head in the decade or so since I last took writing seriously. I cranked them out, flashed a wry smile, and then found that everything I was writing -- and I have actually been writing quite a bit -- since my last post was falling flat. Attempts to opine led to no point. Introspection slid into self-importance. Even the humor seemed mean-spirited.
Sometimes writing flails because the mouse-trap mechanisms that connect mind to keyboard are all fubar. Sometimes writing flails because the keyboard is just faithfully tapping out the notions of a head that is all fubar. I think writer's block is the cheap way of blaming the writing skills for not having anything to say.
I have had nothing to say.
With all the historic events swirling around me, I have only reactions, not opinions. I feel like a brontosaurus looking up from a pleasant over-sized frond after hearing a massive boom, wincing at a brilliant flash, and then thinking wtf? as the last thought of my species. (And even there I pop an over-stated metaphor...)
When I take the step and admit the fact that I don't know what is next, that the world right now is too close, complex and concentrated to have any rational insights of any use...well, then I turn to my reactions and they are...limbic.
So tonight, I'm getting that there are times when getting through shit might mean that you don't try to put too many words around said shit.
So tonight, I am getting that my trash-bin writing sounds self-absorbed...because it is. And that is not a problem with my writing, it is a problem with the writer.
So tonight, I am learning that sometimes getting through things requires a little distance from those things until it is done. Real-time is not always necessary. Or good.
So tonight, I am thinking that I never really knew why my dad taught me to save for the rainy days, to put things aside for when life stumbles. I've never really stumbled. I've never felt a rainy day that was anything more metaphorical than wet.
So today, it rained.
And tonight, I finally admitted that it is the proverbial rainy day. And I am glad I listened to dad. Even if I never admitted it.
So tonight, I wrote.
A simple, quick scene of me in my parents’ room, back in the day in Rochester, watching my dad lace up his basketball shoes on his way out for a men’s league. The room placed the date, and the date placed my age. For some reason quick math fired off in my head to tell me that in that image, my dad was the same age as I was…right then.
That was the first moment in my life that I could actually remember my father being my age. It messed me up for days. Where I was at 28 was surely, certainly, and without a doubt unworthy of the respect and awe that the 5-year old me could recall holding for my dad when he was my age. Pulling on those black and white Adidas high tops was the precise moment when I stopped wishing I was a kid again and resigned myself to being a grown up.
I’m a little messed up again these last few days. I have no idea where the thought came from, but I realized that Emma is the same age I was when my dad was getting ready for that basketball game; the boys are not far off either, really.
I'm feeling...like I need to get my hair cut.
A bad morning. I woke up late to cranky kids who couldn't even decide on a flavor of pop-tarts when I had given in to my convenience over their health. The whole get-to-school system got completely fubar when I had to shave and dress with the cell in my ear to deal with some work crisis that I never really understood. Finally, after clothes and shoes fly back and forth from the top of the stairs to the foyer and back, I focused an inappropriate level of my anxiety on Emma finally getting her coat on so we can get in the car. I helped the boys, grabbed some coffee. No coat on the girl. I ask again. Get the boys in the car, buckled, back inside… No. Coat. On. The. Girl. I lose it more than I should, “Why didn’t you put your coat on yet!?!?”
And she stands toe-to-toe, gathering all of the righteous anger a 5 going on 6 going on 15 year old girl can muster and screams, “BECAUSE. YOU. DIDN’T. GET. ME. MY. PINK. SOCKS!”
I fall back on my butt on the steps behind me, open my arms, and give her a huge hug as she starts to cry. Dammit, she is right. Dammit, I am an ass.
A good afternoon. We are pushing hard at work. We are a Dairy Queen swirl of internal and external needs for change and everyone on my team wears the goofy paper hats I remember the soft serve folks wearing at the DQ next to Pennington Field back in the day. Not everyone around us, however, is down with the change. After a few months of a Godzilla vs. Rodan struggle of old versus new, a much needed infusion of cooler heads stepped up with a surprisingly effective and energizing half day session on managing change.
I am generally a pretty cold skeptic toward what often seem like scripted and overt business-psychology ruses, but in this case, breakthroughs were made. The key moment for me came later in the day when we were discussing how hard it was to get folks to buy into key messages when the resident guru stopped the conversation with an old saw. What you say and how you say it are way, way low on the priority list when crafting strong, effective communications. Start first with what you want the audience to know, feel, and do.
Know. Feel. Do.
Until you have that clear in your own head, you will stumble over what you say and how you say it. As soon as you get that set…gold. KNOW. FEEL. DO.
The one thing I am most trained and purportedly experienced in is communication, on many levels. The one thing, however, that I most consistently screw up and suffer grievous metaphorical head wounds from getting wrong is also…(wait for it)…communication. Home work family friends north south living zombies rocks trees and emerging life forms…I am either on or off when it comes to the words. I don’t do gray here. And I am a poor predictor of when I will actually get it right.
So back to Emma. In the negotiating of that day’s wardrobe, I had bartered approval of her wearing the outfit I had chosen if I would let her swap for the pink socks she had grown to love in the 8 seconds she had been considering her affections for such things. Now, the whole morning ritual includes kids getting dressed and then ceremonially gathering at the bottom of the stairs to put their socks on…together. Then their shoes…together. THEN…their coats. In the tumult of the morning, I had made it known to Emma what I expected. I had even gotten her all worked up about the importance of this grand and mighty task. But, in failing to deliver the pink socks…I had left her unable to do what she knew she needed to do, something she felt she wanted to do. I left her…frustrated. (heh.) Good on her for telling me about it.
Now back to work. Most of us are very good at relaying information. Fact known Here is transferred to the appropriate There…via email or voicemail, or (archaically) memo, or (even more rarely, in person). We deliver facts and dry knowledge with the pompous certainty that the implications are self-evident, that the desires and drives that this little factotum inherently…means…are somehow energizing from the moment they are uttered. That somehow knowing something implies caring about it, that facts imply feelings.
Even in those instances where we get all jazzed about what we are saying, and we get those around us fired up to do something about today’s bit of insight, the whole scene falls flat if there is no sense of what anyone can do about it, whether it is because the path to success is not clear or the value in making the effort just does not seem…worth it. Either way, we flatline.
So, you told someone, but do they give a shit? If they give a shit, do they know what to do about it? If they know what to do about it, do they give enough of a shit to do what needs to be done? And even if they have all that…NOW…do they have what it needs to be done?
Know. Feel. Do. If you are going to say something, anything…what do you want your listeners to know, feel, and do? And have you done what you need to ensure that the next time you say something people will care enough to do it? So you said it, do they give a shit? If they do, have you done your share to get it done?
Even if it is just getting the pink socks you promised out of the dryer…
I work with a guy who spent several years at Gartner, a research firm that tracks the business of technology. Gartner takes special interest in how and when emerging technologies will be ready for companies to lay down bets on them actually, you know…working.
The mojo behind firms like Gartner (and Forrester and Jupiter et al.) lies in their ability to quickly summarize complex technologies and the landscape of options in simple ways that even us ADD marketing folks can grasp. Forrester is famous for their wave and Garter counters with their magic quadrant. What is nice about working closely with someone from this world is that he can take our wacky ideas and thinly stretched plans and give that gloss of professionalism, make them look like we actually know what we are talking about. (I mean, of course we do…and, like, stuff.)
Gartner also lays claim to a model they have dubbed the “hype cycle,” that lays out a typical evolution of the roller coaster of perceptions a promising new technology will face in the market place. The fact that key stages of the cycle bear snark-laden labels like, “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” “Trough of Disillusionment,” and “Slope of Enlightenment” makes it clear that Gartner is not looking to be especially complimentary of the zeitgeist that tends to follow the “next-new-thang” in technology circles. Expectations rise unreasonably fast but give over to a harsh fall the morning after. Disappointment is presumed in this model.
Cynical as it may seem, the hype cycle has proven to be exceptionally prescient since it debuted around 1995. Gartner likes to tout how it was used to predict the bursting of the dot-com bubble, and annual updates of where the latest shiny toys fall within the cycle are anxiously awaited and oft-cited events. Having noodled around South of Market, dabbled in start-up ventures, and stumbled trying to get new technologies into battleship companies, I declare that the hype cycle is real.
I concede, of course, that while real, the basic mass hysteria notion underlying the concept of the hype cycle is not a Gartner original. In fact, what got me thinking a little more about this was the fact that nearly every mention of this idea leads to my Gartner alum colleague quipping that, “EVERYthing follows the hype cycle,” with a smirk revealing that this he is not trying to be especially complimentary of the fundamental order of things.
It is a cynical notion, a lemming rush to unrealistic expectations followed by an almost inevitable plunge into disappointment. The ray of hope in the model comes when cooler heads prevail and find a more reasonable, practical, sustainable role for some of these once-hyped technologies that bring real benefits to consumers and long term value to the shareholders.
The thought that takes me down the rabbit hole here swirls around whether my Gartner pal might be right in the ubiquity of the hype cycle and, if so, whether its underlying jab at inflated expectations applies more broadly as well. To put a finer point on it, we all get excited…we all get disappointed…with everything from relationships to jobs to lottery tickets to unopened FedEx. But…so what? For instance, if you take the sober rational “big company shareholder value” approach to emerging technologies, you never toe the leading edge (let alone rail grind the bleeding edge), you stake claim in being a fast follower, a conservative adopter of technologies that have already proven their value and scale. I get it. Trust me. Even the hippest of technology companies can deliver duds.
But let’s get away from the technology of business for a moment and consider that initial rush of the new. If you run a business funded by other people’s money, then being easily excitable, being one who rushes to the mere possible…these are not traits that likely make you a good steward of outside investment. Fair enough. But say we are talking about our own expectations and dreams and fears AND we grant that we are weak sauce irrational at our core, running up the escalators that would have gotten us there anyway, hoping hype this time will deliver it all, knowing that likely it won’t. Knowing that statistics tell us beyond a reasonable doubt that we are reading too much in to what could be with that new ________________. Knowing that we will likely be disappointed.
The Big Honking Question: knowing all that, do I go all eTrade monkey and go for it, or do I go Fortune 100 CEO and…wait it out, catch the things important to me only once they have demonstrably leveled off at the “Plateau of Productivity?” My prose betrays my preference.
My biggest regrets come from making my biggest decisions buying in markets on the Productivity Plateau, picking up the Consumer Reports best buys from among the proven and safe picks…making my decisions based on the roller coaster rides others took. Such acts are safe…transactions. Fair…exchanges, like for like. Such acts are not the stuff of dreams.
But here is the subtlety…and in this is all. The trick, I think, is not in chasing all that is shiny, no more than it is in accepting only the safe. I think it lies in something like knowing that passion and loyalty and commitment and wonder can only come from riding out the whole cycle, placing bets, being there when it is risky so you have a well of value to draw on later. That means getting on eyes open, knowing that the first hill on the roller coaster is always the highest, but also that it is the only one that has a shot at giving you the momentum to get through it all. And that sometimes it won’t. Fair enough. I need to make myself strong enough to handle that.
But, given a choice, get me high. I know it won’t last just like that, but I have to be ok with that.
So, in short…please, disappoint me. Soon. It’s the only hope in the long run.