A Poem for a Poet

This week we lost a dear friend Ann Walton back in Wayland, Mass.  She had been a childhood neighbor of my wife and a very close friend of the family for decades.  I only met her in the last couple of years, but we forged an instant deep connection.  One piece of this connection was our mutual love for words.  Ann was a fantastic poet, and had a brilliant knack for quick-witted phrases in conversations that would instantly disarm people.  She wrote and read a poem for our wedding.  She said that she didn’t think it was very good, but it meant the world to us, especially when read by Ann at our reception, in her faintly-South Carolinian way:

Here is the poem (i hope Ann would approve of my sharing it here)

New Hampshire
At our wedding I carried roses
in the shadow of gentle mountains
encircled by firs,
reaching for meadows tucked in fog.
It was our beginning
..
Indiana
We settled in an inviting condo,
freshly painted,
Kitchen counters adorned with shards–
memories of friends left behind
I watch you studying,
a pile of books stacked by the couch–
You look up and say you have waited
all these years to live this life,
then embrace me with a poem.
I’m planning a late garden,
simple this year.
I hope you’ll agree on the roses
for remembering.
.
In our last phone conversation a few days before she died, Ann pointed out that i had not yet written her any poetry, and wondered if i would do so.  I agreed to write one that night, to which Ann replied, in her typical wise-crack way, that i should “..only send it along if it is good.”  At first i set out to write something honoring Ann and the joy she’d brought to my life, but in the end after much pacing and hand-wringing, i thought the best way to honor Ann would be to follow her lead, writing about the complex, rich world of the present moment.  Here is what came out:
.
i’m cursing the cursor
blinking blankly at me
the watched pot
winking, waiting for me
to offer it a word
.
“but i have more august ideas than you can apprehend..”
i say aloud to the blinking line
“..of the Bow Road Poet..”
blink, blink
“..whose words light..”
blink, blink
“..whose quips disarm..”
blink, blink
“..whose spirit inspires..”
blink, blink
“..who says this poem has to be really good..”
.
the cursor line lingers a moment, i think
maybe mocking
but not nudging me nearer to completion
of any sort
“perhaps pencil and paper next time”
i say a little too loudly
to the cursor
blink, blink
blink, blink
.
I sent it off in an email to be read to Ann the following day by one of her children. I never received a reply. I have no idea whether or not Ann ever heard my poem. But i have a feeling she would have appreciated the existential gravity of just such a situation and would probably have written about it, so i’m leaving it alone. I will miss Ann immensely.
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A Rant About Lying or Here Comes Dishonesty

Clay Shirky’s recent blog post entitled “A Rant About Women” has been batted around by the interwebs now for a  few days, due to the conflagrative combination of  his exalted position among the digerati and the completely loaded rant that hits, in a not-very-careful way, a lot of important hot-button issues around gender, gender equality, and the ways that gender seems to play into the process of wheedling one’s way onto and up the corporate ladder.  I will leave the equality issues to the folks who have already set upon it and dive to what i think is a more fundamental omission in Shirky’s piece and the surrounding discussion.

Honesty.

In his post, Shirky all but suggests that lying in interviews for a position is an acceptable and even necessary skill – and that the problem with women is that they are less able to shirk (pun intended) their ethical responsibility to truthfully represent their abilities to a future mentor or employer.  I will leave the deeper and perhaps more important moral question (is it okay to lie if the boss would never find out?) alone for the moment, and deal in this post with the ethical question (is it okay to lie if the boss might find out?), by comparing Shirky’s illustrative hiring story with a few of my own.

In the post, Clay tells the following story:

“When I was 19 and three days into my freshman year, I went to see Bill Warfel, the head of grad theater design (my chosen profession, back in the day), to ask if I could enroll in a design course. He asked me two questions. The first was ‘How’s your drawing?’ Not so good, I replied. (I could barely draw in those days.) ‘OK, how’s your drafting?’ I realized this was it. I could either go for a set design or lighting design course, and since I couldn’t draw or draft well, I couldn’t take either.

‘My drafting’s fine’, I said.

That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face. We talked some more and then he said ‘Ok, you can take my class.’ And I ran to the local art supply place and bought a drafting board, since I had to start practicing.”

I’d like to contrast this with the two stories of my interview for my first big job as the Webmaster of a good-sized corporation.  To set the scene a little better, it’s important to know that this interview occurred at a time in my life where i was unemployed, fairly poor, and very motivated to get a job.  The first story occurred early in the interview process, where i met with my future boss.  In the interview, i let her know that i had never officially served as a Webmaster, but set about showing her that my previous experience and past ability to get up to speed quickly would more than make up for any temporary shortcomings in my skills.  The second story occurred in the last part of the hiring process, where the head of Human Resources enthusiastically offered me the job.  Her next question had to do with compensation.

“What are your salary requirements?” she asked. “I require $65k per year,” i said, “but i will take more if you think i’m worth it.”

She offered me $67.5k .  I worked very hard there with fantastic support from my boss and from my colleagues, who encouraged my efforts to grow into the position, learning along the way.  I was given a great deal of freedom, and my boss showed incredible trust in my decisions.  There was a strong bond between my boss and i, and i never feared that i would be discovered as a fraud.  I am still in contact with many of the people from the company 10 years later.  Now contrast this relationship, based on a shared ethic of trust, with Shirky’s recommended alternative: After lying to my boss to inflate her perception of my skills, i would have then had to continue the ruse with the head of HR to ensure that my salary was in-line with my inflated worth to the company.  I then would have had to skulk around my job, always fearful of being found out, and perhaps even distancing myself from my colleagues for fear of them finding out.  In short, while Shirky’s recommended interview tactics might have increased the theoretical odds of my “getting in the door” it would have simultaneously and greatly increased the theoretical odds that the place on the other side of the door would have been a defensive, model I type of environment that would surely have stunted my long-term professional development.

I say that if Shirky’s claim that women are less prone to lying about their qualifications is true, then i will be hiring more women in the future.

Public Service Announcement On Home Invasions

2010 began for us with a bang.  Quite literally.  At around 8am while i was still asleep, a man in a hooded sweatshirt began banging on our front door and trying to get in.  My wife was downstairs at the time, and thankfully did not open it.  Instead, she came upstairs and woke me  up.  Still quite groggy, I first went to the upstairs window to see who he was and if he meant well.  We both sensed that he did not, and this was confirmed when he then began attempting to kick in our door.  My wife immediately called the police, but it was clear that there was no way they would reach us by the time he made it through the door.

By the time i was able to get clothes and shoes on and get to the top of the stairs, i could see that the man had nearly broken through the door, as you can see from this photo:

Our loyal door hung on by a thread

From the top of the stairs, i was faced with three options:

a) engage his rational faculties verbally before he broke the door down,

b) engage his fear faculties before he broke the door down,

c) engage his rational faculties verbally after he broke the door down, or

d) engage him physically after he broke the door down.

With only a few seconds left, i chose option b, and slammed the door closed as hard and as loudly as i could, hoping to intimidate him a little.  Fortunately, it seemed to work.  He stopped kicking the door, but proceeded to look in the window and yell that he wanted to speak with J*** who he thought lived in our house, and who had apparently perpetrated some sort of vile act against a member of his family.  In the end, after a bit of heated dialogue, he wandered away, threatening to return.

I learned a few things through this incident, that i thought i would pass on to other folks (especially folks who live in a sleepy town like Bloomington) as a public service announcement:

1. Locked Doors Are Good Doors – We live in a very tame neighborhood, where i am quite sure that people leave their doors unlocked. In speaking with a police officer after the incident (who had later caught up with and questioned the man), it became clear to both of us that it was a very good thing that ours were locked.  Due to the man’s irrational state, a confrontation inside our house would certainly not have ended peacefully.  Our locked door bought us a minute or two to think, to call the police, and to avoid having to have a potentially violent confrontation.

2. Don’t Defend the House – My first thought was that, if i had to engage the man, that the best approach would be to leave my wife upstairs while i tried to surprise and disable him downstairs.  This is, i think, a very normal response.  But it is wrong.  The police officer recommended fleeing in such a situation (where the intruder was not out to get us personally) out another door in the house.

3. Listen To Your Gut – My wife’s gut feel was that this guy was not stopping by just to wish us a happy new year.  She called the police pretty quickly, where i would have waited to see what our visitor wanted first.  She was right in listening to her gut.

4. Art Really Does Inform Life – As i descended the stairs, anticipating the fact that i might have to physically engage some stranger in my house, i quite literally had the fight scene music from the Star Trek television series playing in my head, which at first scared, then amused me.  It might be a symptom that i just watched too much television in my youth, but i prefer to think that in my moment of fear, William Shatner and Gene Roddenberry were somehow watching over me.

Contemplates, Detractors and Mutual Understanding

I and those close to me have noticed for many years that i am not completely “normal.”   Initially this lack of normalcy was chalked up to the fact that i was an only child.  Or that my intellectual aptitude was different.  Or that my parents were quite young when i was born.  Or any number of other factors, including the fact that i am male, from an entirely blue-collar background, the grandchild of an abusive adult alcoholic and many other factors.  This lack of normalcy manifested itself in many ways.

My parents have often recalled that, as a young child considering whether or not to do something wrong, that i would actively calculate whether or not the “crime was worth the time.”  When the payoff was good enough, i would commit the crime and do the time, often without complaint.

Later on in my teen years, my best friend and I would spend hours (often in the midst of a game of “21” or “horse” on the basketball court) talking about what it was that made our friends, family, politicians, celebrities or other people tick.  We were fascinated with people and their actions, and with the connections between the two.

Throughout High School and College, though i loved to be around people (i was relatively popular with classmates, and went to lots of public events, parties and other get-togethers), i would frequently take off for solo trips – sometimes for days at a time – to the beach, to the mountains or to the woods where i would write poetry, read, or just think – sometimes about people, sometimes about myself and sometimes about the the ultimate nature of reality.

As long as i can remember, though i have enjoyed travel, i have generally found just as much novelty in exploring local environments or in meeting new people close to home with different ethnic, socio-economic, religious and intellectual characteristics.

I have from a very early age seen serious sports as a type of performance art, have really felt that all people are deeply equal in the eyes of their creator and should be in the eyes of their fellow people, and that it is logically impossible for me to always be right.   I have always believed that diligent, excellent work was important (though i did not always act in accordance with this belief).  People have always often told me that i am hard to “rattle,” emotionally, but other people (sometimes the same people) have noted that i tend to do things with passion.  I often am very un-impatient in long lines or delayed flights, as it gives me time to observe people as they deal with interesting social situations.

The combination of these characteristics might have been painfully enigmatic for me except for the fact that i could actually feel the combination, and have had many years to come to terms with the enigma.  Too, i have no good option but to accept this odd set of characteristics, since they seem to be the “me” that has been developing (philosophy wonks might say “being constructed”) for many years now.

Other people, on the other hand, have not fared so well with this enigma – often becoming confused in their analysis of the unifying theme, if any, which might serve to shed light on who i am.

I think i am realizing now, at the age of 38, what one of the major unifying themes might be:

Contemplation

Oft understood to be a hermit who goes to the woods or a mountain to live a life of thought separate from the world, “contemplates” have been popularly misunderstood.  Really, a true contemplate (without getting into a deep philosophical discussion here) is a person who can and does “contemplate” – views or considers with continued attention : meditates.  And this sort of meditation can occur anywhere.  It can happen on a delayed flight or in a long line.  It can occur in a local bar with a group of friends or it can occur alone on a New Hampshire mountaintop at sunrise.  It can occur on a basketball court or standing, as a 2-year old child, in front of the forbidden stereo knobs as he contemplates, meditates on, within his limited capabilities, the deeper dynamics of a moral/ethical situation before him.  In every situation, though, the contemplate has a constant longing to look beneath the surface, to understand the underlying dynamics, to get at the non-obvious things of life.

Detractors

The behavior of the contemplate can be problematic for those who are not  familiar with their way of being.  Their behavior often appears to be at best odd and at worst unhealthy.  For example, to the more extrinsically oriented, the contemplate can seem detached from her emotions when she does not immediately join a popular cause, when she does not immediately reciprocate when accosted, or when she is calm in the midst of pain or tragedy.    To the more prestige oriented, the contemplate’s lack of self-promotion can appear wishy-washy, and his lack of mutual back-slapping can make him seem withdrawn or unappreciative.  To the more fundamentally oriented, the contemplate’s unwillingness to immediately accept popularly-accepted norms seems loose and dangerous.

Mutual Understanding

There is no easy way to create mutual understanding between the contemplate and the not-so-contemplate, and perhaps there is no need, but i continue to search for ways.  It is worth noting that neither the contemplate nor the not-so-contemplate hold a higher position in my judgment.  The difference between them is not one of value, but instead of orientation to the world which then manifests itself in spirit and behavior.

Welcome to My More Academicky Blog

For those of you who don’t know, i’ve been blogging pretty often over at the BigTreetop blog about various things having to do with business, social media, and the growth of BigTreetop.com. As i write in that venue, however, i’m frequently editing myself to ensure that the text is going to be useful to small to mid-sized business owners (the bulk of that audience) who only have a few minutes of time. So this blog is going to contain some meatier (read, deeper and longer reading) versions of some of the thinking on the BigTreetop blog – geared more toward the academic or toward the business owner with a little more time/deeper interest in my research.

I hope you’ll enjoy the reading!