NOT a “Binary Proposition”

My corporate masters recently promoted me (after only ten years since my last promotion) from “analyst” to “manager.”  The money is better than before, of course – not quite as much as I had been hoping for, and still not enough to cover what I lost from part-time teaching.  But at least I am back to working forty (instead of fifty) hours a week to make ends meet, freeing up those ten extra hours for other satisfying non-financial pursuits, e.g., art, music, reading and writing.

The company regularly holds “new leader” manager orientations, for both the new and others looking to improve their managerial skills.  I attended one last week, a two-day session that ran the gamut from reviewing the company’s “leadership model” to role-playing sessions of how to work with those you manage to engage them and make them feel they are a valued member of the team.  It was all good information, even for someone who’s never been particularly fond of authority figures, and who doesn’t relish the idea of being an authority figure now.  See what I do for money?

On the morning of the second day we considered the company’s five “leadership model” metrics, with a view towards gaining a means of evaluating our charges’ performance with respect to those metrics.  Of particular concern to one individual, who made up in bravado what he lacked in humility, was how to evaluate his employee’s performance with respect to the company’s ethics metric, expressed by the phrase “[we] Live Our Values.”  He understood how things like business results, innovation, etc. admit of degrees.  When it came to living values, though, he remarked, “How do you evaluate whether someone is ‘living rightly’?  You either are living that way or you aren’t – it’s a binary proposition!”  To which 21 of the other 22 “new leaders” in the room laughed in (what I thought was) agreement.

This both annoyed and angered me – annoyed insofar as living well is NOT a binary proposition and angered because it didn’t seem to me that anyone in the room recognized what the implications are of believing this either/or claim.

Regarding “living well” (living “morally” or “rightly” or “righteously,” and not necessarily “prosperously”) as an either/or matter implies there is some threshold that one either does or doesn’t meet.  It further implies there is no such thing as the possibility of improving one’s own moral character – one either is a good person or one isn’t.  It also suggests a certain timelessness about that moral character – if one is a good person today how can one not be a good person tomorrow?

An “either/or” approach to the idea of living well is both a symptom and a cause of deficient intellectual imagination.  A complicated, messy world cannot begin to be managed with any degree of satisfaction with a simple thumb up or down.  I found it disconcerting that those who strive day after day to improve the company’s financial well-being would not see the same necessity for doing likewise with the intrinsic value of living well.

See what we do for money.  What do we do for each other, for our greater good, for love?

In an Instant, the World Changed

I was fitted for my first pair of glasses one month shy of my ninth birthday.  My teachers were tipped off to my nearsightedness when I sat in the front of the room, squinted and still couldn’t make out what was on the board.  The definitive test came at home, after Mom must have been given a report about how I might need glasses.  She held a newspaper up about fifteen feet from me, and I said yes, it was all pretty much a blur.

It’s not like I knew any different – I thought fuzzy and blurry was how the world naturally presented itself.  These were part of its charm, not defects to be corrected.  Silly me.  Mom made an appointment with an optometrist downtown – I don’t think any of the kids were wearing glasses yet, and Mom wasn’t a big fan of any kind of doctors in the first place.  The trek was a new experience for both of us.

The eye exam was a piece of cake – far less intimidating than MD visits, and not nearly as terrifying as a dentist appointment.  I do not have fond childhood memories of our dentist.  Getting cavities drilled out and filled with mercury amalgams was unpleasant enough for a six-year-old without being ordered to “stop crying or I’ll REALLY give you something to cry about.”  Jerk.  Just another instance of the little traumas growing up that I don’t think any kid ever really forgets.  They survive, of course, and make the most of their pain, but memories of the abuse never seem to fade.

Back to eyes – the optometrist writes up a script for corrective lenses.  We go to the optician counter to get measured, pick out some lovely frames (a turtle shell pattern, medium brown), then schedule a time to make a second journey to pick up the glasses in two weeks.  (I’m still blown away when an eyeglasses shop tells me they can make my glasses in about an hour.)

Two weeks later we return for the glasses.  The optician brings them out and puts them on me.  She asks, “how do they feel?”  But the question doesn’t register at all – I’m too busy being amazed by just how sharp and clear everything looks!  It’s not unlike the difference you experience once you’ve switched from regular definition television to high-definition:  the TV seemed just fine before, but the new TV makes you realize just how much clarity and detail you had been missing.  Seeing through the glasses with my eight year old eyes was like this:  the world was just fine before, and the way it looked to me was the way I was used to seeing it.  But now – WOW!  Is this what it looks like?  Was it always this sharp, this clear?  The world changed in a single instant, and I could no longer believe that it was a fuzzy, blurry place.

Before the Hordes

My dad was a salesman for an electronics company that worked with spot welders (transformers, relays, capacitors, etc.) that were used on the auto assembly lines.  It was a good job for a young man fresh out of college with his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.  He married my mom shortly before his 23rd birthday in 1946.  In ten years he fathered five children; by his fortieth birthday he had fathered another five (one stillborn).  There would be one more birth, in October 1964, to close out the stable at ten kids, fulfilling the biblical imperative to be fruitful and multiply.

One of the things I remember from those early years was how every so often he’d bring home reel-to-reel tape recorders, from large “portable” ones – they had handles and weighed maybe twenty pounds, and could handle 7” diameter reels of audio tape – to much smaller battery operated ones, one with 3” reels, another with even smaller ones (Two inches?  Who remembers?  Small.)

It still boggles me a bit that he’d bring these things home from work.  I guess his workplace would occasionally get some new equipment, and company was glad to see him haul the old stuff off to his home so his kids could play with them.  Play with them we did; the Olson 20 pounders had this little green tube of an indicator light that sat between the two reels of tape that would bounce reactively to whatever audio you happened to be recording.

I came across some of those old audio recordings years later.  The two oldest siblings at the time were five and three years old, saying their names and home address and telephone number recorded for all eternity – or, at least as long anyone held on to the tapes before they’d disintegrate.  Number three was maybe two then, and I don’t think the fourth one had yet been born – so we’re talking sometime around 1952.

It was one of the first times I ever got a real sense of what life must have been like in the house with only three children.  It crossed my mind that Dad was not only a lot younger and more energetic then, but that, with only three children, he could give each of them some the “quality time” kids need to have with their parents.  Of course, with every subsequent arrival, the time that Mom or Dad had to give to the kids would shrink – their responsibilities increased, and the time so easily available before became an ever increasing rarity.

I Got No Game

“Living well” means finding that passion that is bigger than you, that lures you and seduces you, that blinds you (or distracts you) from what a serious folly it would be to spend any significant amount of time with it, and then going ahead and investing it with every hope, every dream, every ideal that ever meant anything to you – and say “yes.”

Is this an unreasonable stance, especially for someone who is far too “sensitive” (another word for “weak” in humanity’s jungle)?  No – such a stance is not nearly intense enough.  The world seems to regard “sensitivity” as a failing, not a virtue.  And that pisses me off to no end.

Following another miserable relationship failure, I was referred to a social worker at a local hospital.  I only remember her as too pretty to talk to, too rich, too much out of my league.  After one particularly useless session, I joked (wink) that all I really needed was to work up the nerve to jump off the platform in front of the train at the el stop.  The rich and pretty social worker did not have a sense of humor about this sort of thing; I was coerced to “voluntarily” commit myself to the hospital psych ward.

After the week at the institution, city public services hooked me up with another social worker.  She started off our first session by reading me the riot act – “pull your weight, or I’ll ship you back to the psych ward myself.”  The threat was of secondary influence; the greater persuasion was her promise that she wouldn’t bail after twelve weeks, that as long as I worked at it, she would stay around for as long as it would take.

One of my therapy goals was to understand what I was doing to give women a “just friends” message, the opposite of the message I wanted to give.  My self-esteem and self-confidence were pretty much non-existent, so I relied on a lot of humorous self-deprecation.  I didn’t think I had much to offer, that women were far more interested in my mind than in my body.

The therapist felt I misjudged the power of the connection between the mind and the body.  She claimed that the power of mind, of language, of words, was much more intimately intertwined with the body than I might think, and that this was probably truer of women’s experience than of men’s.  “Never underestimate the power of words,” is the paraphrase I remember.  I was glad to hear it:  maybe I could charm my way into a beloved’s thoughts, past the body no one fantasizes about.

Thirty plus years later, I wonder whether “the power of words” is only a crutch of an idea that keeps me going.  Words will get you noticed – but will they close the deal?  There is another whole level to this game – and I have no idea how to play it.

Where Are We Going?

Sometime in the late 90’s, maybe 1998, I was visiting my sister in North Carolina.  On Sunday, we went to Mass at her nearby church.  The congregation was filled with people of all ages, but I especially noticed one young mother trying to persuade her small daughter to keep her voice down during the goings on of the Mass.  The daughter seemed to me to be perhaps four or five years old, and hadn’t really yet grasped the experience of what it meant to be in a public, solemn place.  The child’s voice was not especially loud, conversational, bored, only a little whiny – but of course, in this place, readily noticeable and not exactly the sort of attention mom wanted.

This was the case from the beginning of the service until, after the Gospel but before the homily began, the young mother decided that it was time take her daughter out from the proceedings, perhaps to the “cry room” back in the church vestibule.  As they were making their way out of the pew, and I swear, I will remember this for as long as I live, the little girl looked up at her mother, and through a few choked-back tears, asked in a somewhat cautious voice, “Where are we going?”

My sister and I joked about the matter after Mass (she too had noticed the girl’s lament), about what mom might have whispered back to her as they removed themselves from the congregation.  Of course it was too cruel to suppose that tales of fire, brimstone, and eternal damnation were being told to such a small child – their desired crippling psychological effects are much more likely to take hold once the child reaches the age of reason.

But I digress.  I remember hearing the tone in her voice, not really one of fear, I thought, but something of curiosity, something of the unknown, something – of hope.  Or maybe these are just my own projections upon this particular event.  But I like to remember it as a moment ripe for philosophical reflection and exploration:

Where are we going?  Where are any of us going?  How do we get there?