Response Crafting

our experience with things we encounter every day


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Managers are not Leaders.

And, in fact, the two approaches and philosophies fundamentally contradict each other on many fronts.

So. Unless you’re making conscious, deliberate steps toward leadership and away from simply managing, chances are you’re only a manager, and not a leader.

THE DIFFERENCE:
The difference between managers and leaders has been growing in popularity across management teams, with many articles and books offering guidance. Wall Street Journal wrote a management guide about the Difference Between Management and Leadership, offering some distinctions between the two:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager’s eye is on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

This last bullet is one of the most famous distinctions between managers and leaders, originally asserted by Warren Bennis, an American scholar, organizational consultant and author who is widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership studies.

The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

A manager busies himself with thinking about tasks and how-tos; with defining a process – “the way it’s done” – or, more often, simply aligning his work to it as closely as possibly, with an almost anxious obsession with “doing it right” and little regard to the bigger picture of what is going on. Doing the right thing, however, is a much more philosophical concept and makes us think about the future, about vision and dreams. This. This is a trait of a leader.

Leadership is about asking the questions, ‘what’ and ‘why’ and empowering people (followers) by giving them the responsibility to do things right. Leaders therefore work with people and their emotions. Managers ask, ‘how’ and work mainly with processes, models and systems – things.

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A Manager: administers and maintains. He or she has a near-obsession with consistency, control, and sameness and a reverence for “the way things are,” an innate fear of change and an anxiety around risk. A manager focuses on systems and structure in attempt to protect that sameness and prevent change (which inevitably happens anyway, subjecting the manager to “surprise” and anxiety.) A manager controls. And, frankly, seeks to be controlled, only passing the control on down the ladder. To subordinates. Which is how the manager sees his or her team.

A Leader: innovate and develops. Seeks to improve the things that are being done, the ways in which they’re being done, and the treatment and morale of those doing them. The focus is on people, and they have not only an acceptance of change, but a love for it – they pursue evolution and improvement. In fact, a leader seeks to inspire it, and spends a lot of energy questioning “the way it’s done” and “the way things are,” and encouraging his or her team members – who are every bit his or her equal – to do the same. The phrase “it is what it is” is by no means an explanation for anything, and the leader seeks to make all things greater.

In demonstrating the difference, I’ve always liked this:

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“LEADERS” SORT OF SOUND TOO TOUCHY-FEELY. WHAT’S THE REAL VALUE? MAYBE WE DON’T NEED THEM.
Uh. Okaysure. Maybe not. Maybe all of us can live in places where we are permitted to pretend that all things will forever stay the same. That we can control all things. And that, above all, the commitment to consistency and convention is the only professional pursuit worthy of our time.

Or. We can admit that all things inevitably change. People change, contexts change, clients change, markets change, technology changes. Things evolve. All things are forever shifting. And if you commit yourself to trying to define things, point in time, and then keep them that way forever, you’ll inevitably find yourself either left behind, run over, or ignored. And, above all, frustrated.

Leaders embrace change. They pursue change. In the least, they respond when the world evolves around them; at best, they’re at the forefront of it. They hear the pleas of the team, they lead the charge, they create a better world. (The world will never be “better” if you are instead trying to control it and keep it the same.) They collaborate with others for great ideas, they inspire rather than force. It is the leaders, not the managers, who yield greatness from a team.

“You are breathing life into what would be otherwise a mere machine. You are creating a soul in your organization that will make the mass respond to you as though it were one man. And that is espirit.” – Napoleon Hill

Napoleon Hill wrote of leadership, using the military as an example, that:

“Great results are not achieved by cold, passive, unresponsive soldiers. They don’t go very far and they stop as soon as they can. Leadership not only demands but receives the willing, unhesitating, unfaltering obedience and loyalty of other men; and a devotion that will cause them, when the time comes, to follow… to hell and back again, if necessary.”

Indeed. To hell and back again. Because this, in turn, is the limitation of how far a good leader goes in carrying out what’s important; the way in which he approaches his responsibility to his team in his work. To hell and back again.

OKAY. #LEADERS… BUT HOW DOES ONE LEAD?
Again, Hill offered quite a bit by way of guidance, writing that leadership was built of a few key characteristics…

A leader serves the team, rather than expecting the opposite, and commits himself to this role with utmost seriousness. He watches out for the team first, himself second. “You must be far more solicitous of [your team’s] comfort than of your own. You must look after their health. You must conserve their strength by not demanding needless exertion or useless labor.” And if something is owed to one of your people, you must “turn heaven and Earth upside down to get it for him.” You are last to eat; last to reap the benefits of the work of the team: “Give the man under you his due. the man who always takes and never gives is not a leader. He is a parasite.” And, perhaps most importantly: “do not ask any man to go where you would not go yourself.” A leader takes the first and heaviest blows, accepts any benefits last.

(A manager, it should be said, typically does the opposite.)

BUT MANAGERS STILL HAVE STRENGTHS! WHY CAN’T WE BE BOTH?
Indeed.

Typically, our natural inclinations and comfort zones cause us to fall in one of the two categories and exist there in perpetuity. Using something like the Myers Briggs assessment, which breaks us down across four dichotomies, we might realize that, with regard to our preferred interactions with the outside world and our level of tolerance of change and spontaneity, we fall into categories that lend themselves to more “managerial” or more “leader.”

a.) A preference for order, structure, programmed responses, formality, systems, contingency planning, schedules and scheduling, standards, familiarity, routine, planning, dates, deadlines, details, metrics, organization, caution in action, and a discomfort in all things that challenge these… this describes the “Judging” preference, which lends itself to merely managing.

b.) A preference for informality, organic changes, adaptability, casual interactions, variety, spontaneity, flexibility, freedom, ad hoc approaches, speed in action, and, above all, a comfort in unexpected changes, in making adjustments as situations require, and in taking risks… this describes the “Perceiving” preference, which lends itself to leading.

(Want to know which you are? You can take a Myers Briggs assessment and see where you land in all four dichotomies, including “Judging vs. Perceiving,” here.)

That being said, you can pull in strengths from each side. Someone who is a natural “big-picture thinker” can learn how to implement their ideas, an introvert can learn to build a network, and a manager can learn to lead.

You won’t strike a successful, effective balance between the two by accident alone – you cannot put on airs of evolving, say, from transactional to transformative relationships with your clients (or your customer or your teams) while simultaneously still approaching them as subordinates to be controlled, and expect that all to just magically work out.

That’s not to say that we can’t take pieces from each realm and combine them – to commit ourselves to those lofty aspirations from the leader’s realm while also driving them to completion via the manager’s commitment to detail.

SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? 
The problem, typically, is not the theory of joining forces, but rather the practice of it…

it would be easy to offer a condolence to each party; to pretend that both are playing equal blocking force in the progression of the other. Ultimately, however, that’s really not the case. In reality, the manager is typically uncomfortable and fearful with the leader’s approach, and becomes anxious and tense with what he perceives as a “cowboy.” The leader, in turn, feels stifled by the manager’s metrics, and becomes angry and restless with what he perceives as a “simpleton;” a “stick in the mud.” In other words, it’s the manager who resists change, and it’s usually the manager who’s resisting evolution here.

In my experience, the leader is asking very little of the manager other than the invitation to come along. The leader is fundamentally invested in finding the best approach; in evolving. It’s the manager, conversely, who is, by his nature, afraid.

A manager must overcome his or her natural fear in implementing some of the leader’s approaches and relinquish his death-grip on the system. In turn, a leader should take time to see some of his initiatives through, strengthening the discipline and detail necessary to make the high-level, end-goal things happen.

If, that is, things are not already happening. 

WHO WINS IN A STAND-OFF?
Answer: Whoever is achieving the business objectives more successfully. (Or, if applicable: whoever’s overshooting them.)

Sure, if a leader is simply causing trouble, and leaving his or her team in ambiguity and confusion, with very little to show for the big ideas and innovation and change he or she is so hot on pursuing, then, okay, wrangling may be needed. In this case, it’s on the leader to learn the system – to take a seat, pipe down, and fall in line.

But if a leader’s initiatives are happening – if his “grandiose plans” and “big ideas” and “reckless ways” are paying off – then, frankly, it’s on the manager to let it go. To get on board, pipe down, and buckle up. To embrace some of the leader’s approaches, relinquish his compulsion to control, accept the inevitability of change and embrace the greatness of the team at large.

And frankly, it’s this latter one that’s more often the case.

TL;DR
Managers are, by their very nature, a dime a dozen… I can say this because, if they were honest, they would have to agree. Their very subscription to the system means that they are a part of it. They embrace it, fit themselves into it, and simply follow suit. In aligning themselves to the structure, they reduce themselves to mere parts of it. Leaders, however, fundamentally exist outside of it. They are constantly searching for better. Their value is in their individuality. And while they can be created through good mentorship and training (and a bit of empowerment), are far, far more difficult to come by.

So the goal, ultimately, is to build a team of leaders who can also manage. Rather than building a team of managers and pretend that they’ll one day, somehow, make out as leaders.

Want a great team? Learn to lead.

Want a great company? Learn to let your leaders lead.


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Is your work even worthwhile?

When it comes to work – how we view it; how we do it – there are some important points to make on what is actually worthwhile, and what isn’t.

The confusing thing is that we are, overall, sometimes convinced – deliberately led to believe or otherwise infer – that the latter is the former; that activities that add no value whatsoever are, in fact, the value-add tasks that we should be doing. And then we end up dedicating our energies to these and overlooking the world beyond them, in which the real value can be made.

Here’s the difference between value-add work and work that isn’t – a very brief, probably over-simplified scale of adding value in our work, from the lowest point on the scale to the highest.

Level I: the taking and putting of things in places.
Documentation. Organization. Collection. Categorization. Administrative tasks. “Let us put this book on this shelf;” or, more commonly: “let’s save this document to this folder.” “Let us take this thing and put it somewhere, presumably for future use. Not today.” The storing and securing and stowing away of things rather than an immediate, let alone worthwhile, application of them. It’s embarrassing, really, how many people fill up their entire days – months, years, lives – busying themselves with tasks such as these, with little more to show for it at the end than a curio cabinet of trinkets found. With little consideration for their actual use.

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Level II: the over-simplifying and summarizing of things.
This one we learn in school, so I understand, partly, why so many of us cling to it in practice, in our day to day adult lives. This is the regurgitation of things heard. The simplification of things into bite-size pieces; the TL;DR of other’s thoughts so as to avoid the act of chewing on them, in their entirety, for oneself. The reduction of other’s viewpoints to easily-accessible, malleable things; the sometimes frantic, anxious compulsion to “just get to it already;” to have some rule, some drilled-down thing, that can be (see previous) tucked away. For future use.

19dvc4zmyf4r2gifLevel III: the blind, mindless application of things.
The taking of a new process or policy or practice and applying it, without question, probably because someone “higher” in the corporate (or social) hierarchy suggested it. The binge-eating and then force-feeding of a concept because you read it in a book or your boss wants you to do it. The eager acceptance of a thing as handed and the anxious application. “That’s just the way it’s done,” we say. Or “it is what it is.” “We’ve always done it this way,” or “do as told.” There’s no reason and, so far as we care to comprehend, there’s no real reason for a reason – suggestion alone is reason enough to carry on.

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Level IV: the analytical dispute of things. 
Critical thinking. Sure, critique even. You’re not sure why, but something doesn’t sit quite right. You can scrutinize, dissect, find the holes in logic. You haven’t quite worked out what should replace these things, so you don’t. All you know is that you think or may even be convinced that, as they stand, they don’t work.

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Level V: the analytical application of things. 
Note: analytical. This is not the blind, mindless application, as previously noted. You work through the angles and you figure out which pieces make sense, and then you use them. Pick and choose intelligently, make sense of things, and get things done. (Nordstrom’s customer service is famously summarized in this way, offering their employees one single rule: “Use good judgment in all situations.”) Use your brain.

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Level VI: the origination of things.
No, not documentation. Not the capturing of things in a different place and then trying to pawn it off as a new thing. No, “origination” like actual originality. Ideation. Creation. Creativity. The real and substantial putting of something new out into the universe. The taking of risks. The doing of novel and useful.

And no, this new thing is not always good. In fact, more often than not, it’s rather not good. And a good new thing is certainly of higher value than a not-good new thing. Obviously.

Point here is: creativity trumps simple critique. And both of these trump simple cumulation.

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What is good design? Fork vs. Garlic Press

Why a fork is a better design than a garlic press:

Once upon a time, I interviewed with a very good local design firm. I was meeting with one of the directors, and he asked me: “what’s your favorite kitchen utensil?”

“Probably a fork.” I said.

He was not impressed. “Well. How about more of a… gadget?”

So I told him “my blender,” adding as explanation: “because I use it almost every day.”

“Okay…” He said. “Is it… a cool blender?”

“No,” I said. “Just a standard one.” (And if that does the job (it does), then why would I need more?) 

He nodded slowly; almost sadly. Though the interview had only begun and would go on for another hour, it was apparent that I had already “failed” in his mind.

The problem, I knew, was that he wanted my answer to be far more cool – like a coffee pot that also functioned as a dishwasher and could tell me next month’s weather forecast – in Dutch. In other words, something “interesting” or “unusual.”

Desperate for me to offer a better answer, he suggested, “okay, how about a garlic press?”

I didn’t take him up on this. Mostly because I very.strongly.disagree.

Frankly, not only do I think “garlic press” is a horrible answer, but it may be one of worst (e.g., least-loved) kitchen utensils, a realization that dawns on anyone who has ever a.) used one or b.) endeavored in serious cooking. (Note: I did not say this to him, because he was actually a pretty nice guy and the context did not call for this.)

Here is the thing:

The garlic press does not actually do its job.

And if it does, it certainly does not do it quite as well as we envision.

Many the most novice user, trying the garlic press for the first time, will watch in dismay as the garlic just becomes mashed into the utensil rather than chopped and deposited on the other side, as we want to imagine. (I personally bought a garlic press and used it a whole two times before I grew frustrated of having to wipe all the garlic mush off – and out of – the utensil.)

Chefs and cooking aficionados don’t use garlic presses at all, evidenced by their absence in any Food Network show. In fact, the garlic press is somewhat abhorred within the culinary world, for a number of viable reasons: the press taints the garlic in much the same way silver spoons taint caviar. It is also a “one trick pony,” taking up more space than its limited utility warrants. And some of the garlic – the part too small to be pressed entirely through – is inadvertently wasted.

If you check out “garlic press” on Wikipedia, you will see that chef Anthony Bourdain calls them “abominations” and British cookery writer Elizabeth David once wrote an essay titled “Garlic Presses are Utterly Useless.”

(Interestingly, the utensil most beloved by many chefs? Their knives. Which, in addition to innumerable other uses, enable them to prep garlic far more efficiently than they could with a press… Fancy that! That we could possibly ever love something so stupidly “simple.”)

So if most people detest using garlic presses, the design is fundamentally not good… instead validated only by the imagination of a.) its inventor(s) and b.) the consumers who are seduced into buying them.

It is not at all warranted by reality.

And yet here I come across a designer who suggests to me that the garlic press is somehow a “better” answer to his question of favorite utensil – one more “deserving” of my adoration - than the fork.

And I think that this is the wrong approach to design. That the merit of “good” design and our esteem of it is largely based not on how “unusual” it is, but how well it functions in our life.

Good design is not about being “cool.”

It is about improving the quality of our lives.

Beloved products are those that help us do something. And when we are talking kitchen utensils, those that actually help us get by in our day to day lives and accomplish our everyday needs are obviously far more influential on our happiness. We cherish things that work for us. And a fork is a great example.

A fork always does its job.

You will never hear people complaining about a fork. It gets food into our mouths – e.g., it works – and it does it efficiently, without ruining or wasting the food in the process. It is intuitive – it doesn’t make us think. Even the most “uncouth” user, holding the fork all wrong, can effectively muddle through.

This, to me, is the mark of a great product – one deserving of our adoration.

(For a deeper testament to its appeal, consider this: the fork became ubiquitous despite being considered “vulgar” in the 11th Century.)

Consider your “favorite” of anything – pair of shoes; website; shirt; show. Cost aside, is it not the one you wear, visit or watch most? (If not, you may have a skewed sense of priorities.)

We love the things we use most. And we use the things we love most.

To suggest that anyone should (or would) feel otherwise is a bit unrealistic.

And this is really not so much an exercise in trash-talking a designer – or design in general – so much as it is an illustration of the troubling disconnect between what designers think is “good” and what users actually favor. Designers think nuclear mousetrap. Users prefer a baited empty bucket. This is, in fact, one of the primary reasons I am drawn to design and product – and building beautiful solutions that elegantly, painlessly solve problems and make us happier – happy to the point that we promote them to ubiquity, making them “real” rather than shelving them somewhere.

I think there is so much to be said for the elegance of simplicity; the quiet and subtle sheer joy that a user experiences – but may never vocalize – when something works just exactly as he wanted it to and, in doing so, resolves a want or need. And I think there is great work to be done in building solutions that strive to quietly create long-term satisfaction (that is, under-promise and over-deliver) rather than disappoint us with the opposite.


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Fives reasons to do Lent even if you’re not Catholic

Lent starts today.

I realized this only when I logged on to facebook this morning (guess I’m not giving that up*) and saw a bunch of Lenten articles – like this infographic on fasting, and this one on top ten things Americans give up – and suddenly realized: “oh, yeah. Is that today?” (Cue that mental scramble where you quickly run inventory on what you’ve already done since waking. Guess coffee is out, too*.)

*Not really. You could still give up either facebook or coffee for Lent, even after unknowingly slipping up. It’s not about perfection. It’s about the practice. 

Cue also, however, that desire to talk about Lent at a higher level. I’ve written about Lent a couple of times before. In 2013, “Let’s Do Lent,” And in 2014, “The beauty of Lent and why it works for anyone.” And this year is no different, in sharing the merits:

1. It’s not just about “religion.”

Even religion shouldn’t really be about “religion” for religion’s sake. It’s really about bettering the human spirit, human experience, human condition. It’s about our own and our collective wellbeing.

Lent is traditionally a Catholic holiday, but Christians aren’t the only ones who practice fasting or abstinence. The Buddhists have their own version – Vassa – which runs throughout the rainy season in Thailand, mid July to mid October (yeah, 3 months instead of 40 days.) And same goes for some Jewish practices, including Yom Kippur. As well as Hinduism, Jainism, and Islam.

So even if we aren’t religious, logic might dictate that if all of these different religions practice some form of short-term or seasonal asceticism – abstaining from worldly pleasures – maybe there’s some merit to it.

Nietzsche explored it in his essay “What do ascetic ideals mean?” And Alain de Botton in his “Religion for Atheists” and his TED Talk, “Atheism 2.0,” And the New York Times and Huffington Post have covered similar angles: “a religious ritual attracts even nonbelievers” and “why this atheist is observing Lent,” respectively.

There is merit at the core of religion – intent to give our life meaning, direction and purpose. And even if we shun religion, we can still develop and embrace a moral code. It does not matter what you “call” yourself: if you want to be a better person, live deliberately and with intent.

In short: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, yo. 

2. It marks a timeframe. 

Much like each New Year marks the opportunity to improve by way of resolutions and we see Jan. 1 as being a day to “restart,” Lent can be a similar secular signifier. Marking these days as starting points takes some of the guesswork out of the “when” of self-growth.

“Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, meaning “spring” – much like German Lenz and Dutch lente. It is derived from the Germanic root for long, as the days (hours of sunlight) lengthen during this time of year.

And with spring comes the opportunity for “spring cleaning” in all parts of our lives. Similarly, Lent offers the opportunity for rejuvenation and regrowth.

3. It inspires an analysis, assessment and improvement of our nitty, gritty everyday.

3a. Reducing (or kicking) negative habits or thoughts frees us, even if only temporarily. 

In order to focus more on one thing, one must also learn to focus less on other things… because our lives are increasingly complex, something has to change in order for us to get out of the continual spin cycle of life… Giving up something that is a regular part of your life… allows you to focus more.” – Todd Peperkorn, Why Lent Should Matter to Everyone.

This is particularly true when it comes to time. (Put simply: if you’re not watching TV or surfing the internet, you have to be doing something else.)

Freeing ourselves from negative activities, habits or thoughts fundamentally creates white space in our days. Limiting vices frees up time and attention for better pursuits…

3b. Building the positive: that now-freed-up time and attention can be diverted to focus on what matters. 

We don’t exist in vacuums.

Don’t simply suppress – we aren’t at our best when stifled and left to stagnate. Instead, that stillness offers the opportunity to redirect our energy to something good.

Once white space is created by the elimination of a thing, we can then fill it with a more desirable action or thought. This is true with time and habits, but it’s perhaps even more true with thoughts: obsessing over not doing a thing is almost as toxic for our mental energy as just doing the thing. That’s not the point. The point is to then feed ourselves with positive things – to replace our thought process with things we want to “obsess over;” to fuel our energies with positive fodder so that we naturally divert away from negative input.

4. It fosters the change by offering the framework to do so.

To live with discipline is to live deliberately. And to live deliberately is to live well. 

Eschewing discipline – direction, deliberateness, intent – is only to cheat ourselves.

“Our inner lives must be lent a structure and our best thoughts reinforced to counter the continuous pull of distraction and disintegration.” ― Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

Without a degree of discipline or framework – whether prescribed or self-defined – we become anxious and restless; listless and floating.

“Secular life is not, of course, unacquainted with calendars and schedules. We know them well in relation to work, and accept the virtues of reminders of lunch meetings, cash-flow projections and tax deadlines. But it expects that we will spontaneously find our way to the ideas that matter to us and gives us weekends off for consumption and recreation. It privileges discovery, presenting us with an incessant stream of new information – and therefore it prompts us to forget everything.” ― Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

Lent offers the framework to practice this. All we have to do is opt in. And opting in to the framework does not require subscription to its full context.

5. It not only fosters a better life, but better enjoyment of all life’s little pleasures

This part actually isn’t talked about in asceticism. In fact, one gets the pretty distinct impression that one might instead aspire to forego worldly pleasures and indulgences with the objective of never coming back to them. And in some instances, that may be the case.

In other instances, we always intend to come back. And sometimes, part of this exercise of withholding is a desire to experience it all over again, better, with refreshed senses. Because going without something builds appreciation for it. 

Nothing makes you appreciate life quite like a near-death experience, and nothing makes beer or chocolate taste quite as good as denying yourself the indulgence for a while – say, forty days.

Lent offers the opportunity to get off of the “hedonic treadmill” and dodge “hedonic adaptation” – the phenomenon we all experience when new things – be it vacations, promotions, new cars, etc. – lose their appeal and ability to make us happy over time. (Lottery winners, for example, may experience an initial emotional high, but report about the same level of happiness they previously held after time passed. Similarly, paraplegics reported below average levels of happiness for about two months on average after the accident but eventually returned to the set point they previously held.)

Our common solution to this plateau in happiness is to chase more – another vacation, another promotion, a nicer car – only to have it happen all over again. Hence the treadmill.

The other solution available to us, rather than pursuing happiness by chasing constant novelty and input, is to simply step off the treadmill and deny ourselves the input. To take a break.

Coming back to a worldly pleasure after an “ascetic hiatus” brings the same – or similar – rush of happiness as the first time did (or pursuing the next thing would.) The act of making do without and then coming back to a thing we enjoy, in and of itself, makes us happy.

In short: it’s not just religion. It’s about deliberate intent – in actions, in thought, it life – and using that to create richer meaning and wellbeing for ourselves. 

Not sure what to give up? Well, Buzzfeed’s willing to help you decide.

Cy Twombly, untitled (Roses)

Cy Twombly, untitled (Roses)


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The two ways to see creation: action vs. artifacts

Software development, writing, cooking, business strategy… all of these are fundamentally creative – a process that yields a product. And when it comes to the way we see these sorts of things – the ways we direct our attention and the things on which we focus – we can choose one of two things: a.) the product created, or b.) the process of creating it.

We can see the creative process as a.) a means to an end, or b.) the “end” in and of itself.

The real value is on the act, not the artifact. 

It’s not that I don’t value the artifacts. On the contrary, I absolutely stress the importance of actually delivering – “doing the thing.” We get paid to deliver on our commitments, and I put very high emphasis on doing so on time, under budget, or within any other metrics, as defined.

My argument is against treating that product as the one-and-done holy grail. 

Delivering on a commitment only counts one time. It’s a stepping stone. A moment in time. Achievement is never the end of anything, and shipping a produce once doesn’t mean what you’ve shipped will matter forever.

My argument, in other words, is against treating “the product” as “the finished product.”

A good thing is never really done. It either lives on, evolves, morphs and changes… or it dies.

So once those things – the deliverables – are out there, they aren’t really “finished.” A website, an application, a piece of writing, or a meal is never a stand-alone, static thing meant to exist in perpetuity. On the contrary, deliverables are merely point-in-time, short-term representations of the work done to date. Meant to be evolved against.

So the focus should not be on putting it out there and then ridding ourselves of it, wiping our hands clean of its creation, and moving on as though we have no obligation to its survival. On the contrary, creation should be viewed as an ongoing process – a “doing” rather than a thing getting done.

Creativity is the relationship to an idea or a team or a product, not the means to an ends in producing it.  


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Why I write

Some people, it seems, want to write in order to sit on a pile of writing. They see the act of writing as an almost “necessary evil” – a means to an ends – in order to reach some tangible representation; an end result. “I want to write a novel,” they’ll say, though don’t know what it’s about. Like “I want to run a marathon, so I guess I’d better start running.”

I don’t write like that. Some runners don’t run like that, either. They run purely for the love of running – or, perhaps, to satisfy some other daily need, to de-stress, perhaps.

For me, writing accomplishes two very important things:

First, writing alleviates the burden of carrying the idea around. I write to release the tension of the idea; to rid myself of the mental baggage. Writing, in this sense, is a basic need; a way to free myself for moving forward. If I don’t write, scraps of an idea will cling to areas of my thought process, injecting itself into other tangents, tugging at my attention until I validate it somehow, process it, and set the little creature down. My writing is an act of moving through ideas more quickly, clearing things and making room for others; keeping the mental space a fresh, always-churning palate. Writing is looking at a little beast and saying, “Alright, you. Yes, I acknowledge you. I have given you a name and set you free. Now run along.”

Second, writing helps me develop the idea. As I said, sometimes the idea is just a fragment or a question – something to be pieced together or thought through. So after I first bring the little beast to the forefront of my mind and acknowledge it, I am also turning it over, as though to say: “here, let me have a look at you. Let me see what you are.” I bump it against a working context, built up through this ongoing process, and try to define its edges and see how it fits in.

So, my writing is rarely about the curation (or perfection) of some precious artifact. In fact, quite the contrary: it is not a preoccupation with capturing something, but rather a need to release it; to process it, see it for what it is, and then set it down, lighten the mental load, and allow myself to move on to other things.

In understanding the value behind this “release” and its role in my ability to continue to function and move forward, I might liken it to some sort of machinery. You have to allow the release of what these things give off; you cannot, say, contain or ignore the exhaust of a locomotive. Doing so eventually stifles and kills their entire functionality. You have to allow for this in order to for the engine to go on working.

This shift in perspective was my biggest takeaway from writing one million words in 2013. First: writing like that – in order to hit a word count – didn’t yield pieces that were very worthwhile. Writing to build a stock pile is meaningless. And, as such, I realized that the stockpile is meaningless: that if I lost the entire curation of words – all one million of them – it wouldn’t matter; I still had the gains of the creative process itself. And that’s the point.

Blogger Sarah Kathleen Peck wrote a beautiful piece on this, in which she asks of us: “are you in love with the product? Or the process?”

“Sometimes, as writers or as makers, we become obsessed with the outcome. The work itself as object, as product – not as process.”

To combat this, she urges aspiring writers to focus on the act of writing, not on the aspiration to have something written.

“Instead of creating perfection, we write just to write. Learning to write isn’t about beautiful sentences pouring off your mental fingertips; it’s about creating a habit and a relationship to the process.”

“The act of making is about the act of making, not the outcome.”

Write to move through things. In freeing the ideas, and freeing yourself from them, you create a high churn – a fertile environment for new ones.


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Soft focus as a way to seeing

Greatness comes, in part, from the way we see. And, more specifically, the ways in which we don’t.

There is a phenomenon in photography – a lens flaw, really – called soft focus. It is not simply “out of focus,” but rather the result of images that are blurred due to spherical aberration –  an effect that occurs where there is an increased refraction or reflection of light. It signifies a deviation of the device from the norm, i.e., an “imperfection.”

In photography, the resulting image is sometimes described as “dreamlike.” And when we assume a similar, soft focus in our real lives, it too comes from a state of relaxed – or “imperfect” – attention.

Quite simply, when we see with soft focus, we see almost as though without seeing.

out-of-focus-photo

When we relax our visual intake, allow our intuition to take over, we may see literal things less “clearly,” but what we gain in doing so is breadth of awareness.

This phenomenon of seeing without seeing applies to a lot of different world, and being good at something is often attributed to something like it – having a “feel;” a “touch.” Being able to move through something with a softness of focus; settling into intuition.

MECHANICS

Author Robert Pirsig talks about the challenges a mechanic sometimes faces when working on a machine – particularly, those that are, at initial take, impasses. The problems that offer no immediate solution, rather than those where the answer is clear.

His recommendation for resolving such issues is to sort of stop trying to resolve them. To “just stare” at the machine. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” Pirsig argues. Just sit with the problem, and “live with it for a while.”

And to not only sit with it, but relax our demands – on ourselves, the machine, the problem. To stop forcing or chasing down a solution if we don’t see it. Rather,

“We should not evaluate what we see. We should keep our mind a blank tablet which nature fills for us, and then reason disinterestedly from the facts we observe.” 

“Disinterestedly” – softly; lightly. Rather than focusing directly and intently on the thing, we see it – look at it – in a more relaxed way.

HORSES

In equestrianism, “soft eyes” is to ride with “open” vision and peripheral attention – awareness of your entire field of vision. Horsemanship expert and author of “Centered Riding” Sally Swift explains:

“Soft eyes are much more than just a way of looking. Using soft eyes is like a new philosophy. It is a method of becoming distinctly aware of what is going on around you, beneath you, inside of you. It includes feeling and hearing as well as seeing. You are aware of the whole, not just separate parts. Ponder the implications of this technique, this tool. The two ears of your horse are always in front of you, but so many of the important parts are under and behind you, where you cannot see them.”

Swift directs riders to relax their visual acuity and direct more attention to the tactile interaction between themselves and the horse. Her recommendation pertains to horsemanship, but “soft eyes” is actually a concept used in many sports in order to relax the athlete, expand their peripheral vision, and increase their awareness.

ART

We do this in creating art as well. When shading in particular, one cannot assume a harsh, direct line of sight; cannot see each individual mark. Rather, we must unfocus and see softly – absorb the drawing as a shape rather than a series of lines. And then it comes to life.

It’s as though you “feel” the shape; are recreating the shape – the shape itself, not the image of it – through the tips of your fingers.

WHERE AND HOW TO LOOK TO SEE 

The problem, of course, is that we can’t “disinterestedly observe” everything. We have to know which pieces are integral, and which are not.

“The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one… is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality.”

We must first have an objective – a direction; an intent. But you do not need to know what you’re looking for. In fact, “if you know which facts you’re fishing for,” Pirsig argues, “you’re no longer fishing.”

But as long as we know where to look and where to direct our focus, it behooves us to then soften it; to widen our vision, broaden our visual intake, and see more.


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The ugliness and the beauty that is art

There’s a grotesqueness to this whole concept of “art;” a repulsive thing we do with “les objets d’art” – the things we find or make within it.

THE UGLINESS OF ART.

Art is often ugly because, in making it, we kill things. And then condone the killing of things and celebrate the massacre by hanging the carcasses up on walls.

You see, art, it comes from life. It is a part of “the real world.”

But when art is at its ugliest, it is merely the pelt of what was life – “a part of it” only because it takes from it, destroying the essence in the process. And most art, once created – once captured – then ceases to be a part of life’s continuum.

The admiration of art at its best can be beautiful. But the reverence of art for art’s sake – that is, the art on the wall alone – is perverse. And sort of sad.

Author Rebecca Solnit puts it well when she says:

“Museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer.”

Yeah. That’s pretty much precisely how it is. There is a perverseness in preservation, a staleness in the spaces where things hang.

“Something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.” - Rebecca Solnit

IT’S NOT JUST ART.

We do this to people, too. We think “love” or the adoration of another being is nothing more than the act of containing them somehow – categorizing, controlling, stripping away their mystery and sitting them up in a way that works for us. Some of us believe that “love” – or even “friendship” – means exercising control and making demands on one another. Act this way; do this thing. Be this person for me.

It is gross, really, when you think about it. In the same way that it is “gross” to put artifacts in museums. This is a different sort of coveting. A consumption through control. Be still; be stable; be secure. Be this way and stay the same forever. 

ARTISTS CAN BE UGLY, TOO.

And sometimes artists are just as selfish; just as motivated to simply capture and contain.

Many artists do not create art in an effort to enlighten. Some don’t even create art in an effort to entertain. Many, in fact, are creating art for the very same or similar perverse reasons their audiences adore it… namely, to soothe their own desires or insecurities.

In Mental Floss’s article “27 Responses to the Question ‘What is Art?'”, we find that many artists speak of art only in these forms, seeing it as:

  • An indulgence, pure and simple – “Art is a habit-forming drug.” Marcel Duchamp, French-born American artist
  • An attempt at immortality“Art is a revolt, a protest against extinction.” – André Malraux, French novelist, essayist, and art critic
  • An attempt to capture and silence something – “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.”Saul Bellow, American novelist
  • An attempt to “calm” – to escape - “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter… a soothing, calming influence on the mind.” – Henri Matisse, French artist
  • The stripping or “cleaning” of something“To me the thing that art does for life is to clean it – to strip it to form.” – Robert Frost, American poet

To “clean” it? Since when does life need to be “cleaned?” If you are really moving through life regarding it as fundamentally “dirty” or “too complex,” saving it from itself (or you from it) in paint or paper, then something is askew. (This perspective in reads eerily similar to “cleansing,” as in, like, “ethnic,” to me.)

And all of these reasons are grossly askew; repulsively indicative of a value system gone wrong.

AN EXAMPLE:

There is a massive fallen tree in one room of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sort of.

It’s a fake tree. Modeled after a real tree. Once found in a meadow, now sitting in a room.

LI-AIC-RC-005b

The piece, titled Hinoki by artist Charles Ray, not only violates everything that is good about life but quite literally destroys it – specifically, the piece’s real-life origin and inspiration. And it is a clean-cut, accessible example of the ways in which art and artists sabotage.

Artist Charles Ray describes the piece through story:

“I spotted a fallen tree in a meadow just off the highway. I was instantly drawn to it. It was not only a beautiful log, but to my eyes, it was perfectly embedded in the meadow where it had fallen decades earlier.”

The log’s beauty, then, being fundamentally rooted in its “embeddedness” – its context (its surroundings) is integral to its appeal. Ray knows this – outlines this first in his description of its beauty; citing the context as even more important than beauty of the log itself (“it was not only a beautiful log, but… perfectly embedded.”) Not only, but also. Furthermore. Moreover.

And yet, even though he sees the value of the context, Ray destroys this altogether.

The reason is that, although he can enjoy the beauty of nature as a passerby, he is not at peace with the very essence of nature and the fundamentals of the natural world – namely, the inevitability of decay, which he sees as tragic:

“Pressure from the weather, insects, ultraviolet radiation, and gravity were evident. Total collapse appeared to be no more than a handful of years away.” 

And so he decides to “save” it, and he covers up this compulsion by ascribing heroic language to his intent:

“I was inspired to make a sculpture and studied many other logs, but I realized that I was only interested in this particular one.

At one point, I determined that its armature could its pneuma, the Greek word for breath, wind, or life. Later, I considered making an inflatable sculpture but realized that the tailoring of the form would bring an unwanted complexity to the surface. It then struck me that the breath or life of the sculpture could be manifested in the very act of sculpting. Making a wood carving of the log by starting from the inside and working my way out wold bring a trajectory of life and intentionality to this great fallen tree.”

A “trajectory of life.” The irony here is that his very efforts in preservation of a thing, rather than honoring or respecting its own trajectory, is, in fact, an interruption of its true trajectory. In his grandiose gestures around preservation and protection of a thing – a bit of nature; a piece of the natural world – and in his investment in capturing it, in stillness and silence, for as long as possible, he actually destroys it.

Literally.

“With several friends, I transported the tree, cut apart by a chainsaw, back to my Los Angeles studio.”

And after he destroys the tree, interrupts its natural trajectory, and destroys the beauty of its context forever, he goes through great pains to somehow recreate it; rebuild it as a simulation.

“Silicone molds were taken and a fiberglass version of the log was reconstructed. This was sent to Osaka, Japan, where master woodworker Yuboku Mukoyoski and his apprentices carved my vision into reality using Japanese cypress (hinoki.) I was drawn to the woodworkers because of their tradition of copying work that is beyond restoration”

The problem here, however, is that this was never a “piece of work.” This never belonged to Ray or anybody else for their sole consumption or destruction – “restoration” or recreation. It was something belonging to the natural world; something that they plucked out of that context and then mauled.

“In Japan, when an old temple or Buddha can no longer be maintained, it is remade. I visited Japan often and had a difficult time bringing this work to completion and allowing it to go out into the world. When I asked Mr. Mukoyoshi about the wood and how it would behave over time, he me that the wood would be fine for 400 years and then it would go into a crisis; after two hundred years of splitting and cracking, it would go into slow decline for another 400 years. I realized then that the wood, like the original log, had a life of its own, and I was finally able to let my project go and hopefully breathe life into the world that surrounds it.”

It’s a funny use of “life”… self-deceiving and, frankly, a bit delusional, because he did not honor this log’s life, let alone create for it any degree of pneuma – breath, wind, or life. In fact, far from it: he killed it. Destroyed it altogether, and instead put out an imitation.

And it’s not just Ray. This is, in fact, the whole essence of “The Museum” – a space in which things are protected; preserved – kept lifeless and still, for silent admiration, in this cold, false context.

Artist Martin Puryear lost much of his life’s work in a fire, resulting in what he called “a period of grieving.” Grieving. The only reason someone would grieve over this is if they valued their artifacts over their own artfulness – if they had made the mistake of valuing art not as a process for creation, but as the end product – what is done.

Puryear did finally come around, embracing the trauma also as “an incredible lightness and freedom.” But not all artists do. In fact, many artists seem to have every bit the skewed perception and value systems that the rest of us do.

SO? WHO CARES?

The problem is that this is not about art – either the making of it, the end products, or the enjoyment of it. The problem is that it’s about value systems, and value systems are about the way we live our lives and, ultimately, our happiness.

Our value systems are the difference between worthwhile lives and those that aren’t. When we over-value imitations and mock-ups, and when we spend our lives agonizing over containment and preventing change, anxious that we’ll lose control, we set ourselves up for unhappiness. Because all things ultimately change – and fade away. Trying to fight this is futile.

When, instead, we make peace with the inevitability of change, when we embrace the fluidity of art and see art as an ever-changing representation of what is real, something to treat lightly, then we set ourselves up for a richer way of living, with far greater contentment and ease.

WHAT IS ART?

To start, a dictionary offers:

  1. The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power; works produced by human creative skill and imagination; creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture.
  2. The various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.

Note: the expression – the act of expressing – rather than the expressed. The application. The action. The creative activity, not the creation. It’s an act, not an artifact.

This gets us partway there.

WHAT IS GOOD ART?

Art at its worst is the stripping and plundering of what’s real, the taking away of life itself in order to render something lifeless; to keep it precious. This is the ugliness.

But art can be beautiful. And it can add value to our lives.

In order to do so, though, it should highlight, not replace. At its best, all art can ever aspire to be is illustrative – to bring our attention to a thing without destroying or recreating it. The whole of the world is beautiful. Beauty does not belong to art alone, and the most beautiful art brings awareness to the beauty of life.

It should teach us to appreciate these things when we encounter them in reality. If we must enter a gallery in order to see something as beautiful, if a thing must have a frame or a pedestal to warrant our attention or our praise, there’s something wrong with our perspective.

Art, at its best, can teach us to see. Can enlighten. Can capture and communicate something only as a moment in time; art is something meant to be seen once, lightly, and not revered or revisited. Art is a moment of seeing and then of moving on, and the enjoyment of art contributes to our private curation of experiences meant to fuel the way we encounter those before us – not just at the next painting, in the next room, but in our real, day to day lives.

I would break “good art” down into two categories: how it is created, and how it is consumed:

  • The act of creating / creativity: the intellectual process – to share thoughts; to respond; to create; to “try.” To communicate, to express, to either join and/or catalyze a dialogue about life and our own nature.
  • The end creation: fodder for someone else’s intellectual process - to offer some illumination or inspiration for anyone who might find it and join the dialogue, even by way of thought, reflection, or ideas.

Art is fundamentally a part of a dialogue – each piece is a story. And stories are integral to the way people understand their experience. They’re the constructs with which we create meaning from our lives.

“Good art” is treated lightly – appreciated, richly even, and then set down. Move quickly. Make art lightly; quickly; easily. And move light on the heels of others’ art.

IMITATION VS. CREATION

I elevate art to “creation” over “imitation,” the former being the fundamentally superior value and motive, even if the two overlap.

“Good art” comes from the desire to create – to contribute rather than capture alone. Art is the process – not the keeping of things precious but rather their creation.

That being said, of course all art – all of everything, really – is, to some degree, imitation. We all borrow our inspiration for all things from somewhere; all pull from other things in order to yield something new.

Imitation is okay.

But the point is which should be more closely cherished – the imitation or the imitated. And the problem in aligning ourselves with the former – the fabrication – over the original and the real.

Imitation is far more tolerable when it directs the audience to the original, when it serves to inspire us to see and then keep moving. Imitation is ugly when it, instead, permits or encourages us to instead lock the thing up in a cage and keep it there; when it indulges us in our capacities to contain.

Art is about honesty. And humility. Art contributes to a dialogue, and is meant to direct us back to life, not replace it.

“Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”Paul Klee, Swiss painter

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”– Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter

Good art directs us back to the thing, and the thing will always be better, on account of its originality; being real.

Art teases out a desire and/or piques our interest in something, communicates ideas about a thing or inspires conversation about a thing, but the focus and reverence is always on the subject, not about the object in which it’s merely represented.

A photograph or a painting of a flower can never be more beautiful or cherished than the flower itself.

The only reason we would feel otherwise – that we would love the imitation over the original – is because we’ve built up “backwards” values (preferring containment and immortality – control – over what is real.) To live this is way – to cling to things that are not true (namely: believe that things are more “beautiful” when they do not change; the delusion that beauty isn’t fleeting or that its fleeting nature can be controlled) – is to live very poorly.

WHY WE LIKE WHAT ART WE LIKE

Art compensates on what we’re looking for – what we lack and/or what we seek. 

But art only does this because all things do this. This is how we go about buying clothes, how we choose hobbies, how we occupy ourselves in our free time, how we shop, how we eat. And yes, how we love.

If you look closely at the things that you prefer, you will notice a trend. Looking first in one category alone and giving names to the reasons you like them, you will see similar adjectives across the pieces. Branching out to other areas of your life, however, and working to describe them, you will notice that you likely have a “short list” of words for the things – and people – that you love.

One might find pieces to be arousing – attractive in rich ways – if one is open to seeing a person has an essence, and able then to see similar essences in things. I like presence, substance, heaviness; a groundedness, a certainty, a weight; a rawness; an honesty; authenticity. I like something I can “press against,” and I disdain the dainty; the precious; the made-up.

We want our art to fill the gaps. We are looking for things, and the things we see in the art we like mirrors the sort of things we seek in life.

“The art we love is frequently something we’re drawn to because it compensates us for what we lack. It counter-balances us. When we’re moved by a work of art, it may be because it contains concentrated doses of things we need in our lives.” – Alain de Botton, philosopher, What is Art?

(One might ask, of course, how we and our partners can share a space together, if we choose people that represent the sort of things that we’re chasing for ourselves. After, it we succeed in both finding them and building ourselves out, in some ways, we may grow to share the same “space,” which leaves me to wonder how we then yield to each other. But that’s another tangent entirely.)

The adjectives themselves – the ones I use to describe my favorite art – is, admittedly, an immensely subjective stance. Others who are every bit entitled to their own viewpoints and every bit as intelligent, including at least one person who’s very dear to me, instead prefer to see art as “beautiful” – they pursue beauty in the objects in their lives.

And this is okay, because it’s not about defining “good art” as a static set of adjectives, but rather recognizing the act of assigning the set for ourselves, which is on some levels, something organic and ever-changing.

The curation of art, then, is not about les objets d’art themselves, but about their process – of creation, of cultivation, of communication with other people; a way of understanding ourselves. 


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The act of buying flowers alone

Sometimes the ice on Lake Michigan is at the water’s edges, clinging to the shallow, jagged places of its body. But on other days, the ice is in the distance, pulled way from the shore, no longer accessible, mere breaks in the color at the horizon.

At some point this morning – late morning, after coffee and some errands – I realized that I would like to buy myself some flowers.

That I would buy the flowers myself.

And that, furthermore, this outing should take quite a long time.

I pick the store with care. I not only want a proper floral shop, but I want a good one. I want to pay “too much;” I want this moment to carry that pain, to mark it as something outside of the off-hand, afterthought purchase I sometimes make while buying groceries. I want to take something substantial back home.

I step into this store – the windows are so heavily lined with plants and the interior so dark that, approaching, I almost think it’s closed. I find the door open, however, and step inside, and immediately: the heavy, slightly sweet, incredibly distinct smell – not of flowers, but of good soil, or of mulch. And I’ve arrived.

There’s a woman busying herself with a few flowers, moving from bucket to bucket and, having made her selections, pulls one stem at a time and tucks them gently into one hand. At first, I assume she’s another patron. Until, after a moment, she looks up at me and says hello.

“Hi,” I say back, lingering a bit just a few steps in. “I’d like to buy some flowers.”

“Okay,” she says, coming closer. Her gray hair falls in waves around her face, and she’s holding the few flowers loosely in one hand, and I find her more beautiful than she probably realizes. “What are you looking for?”

I glance over at the buckets, run my eyes over this tiny world of color and texture and shape, and say to her, as though to myself, “I’m not sure, really.”

I look back at her; she’s waiting. And I’m debating what else to say. I know I can still duck out here; I can still get out of this. I can give her the word “roses” and move on. And let her do the same.

I don’t, though. I go on.

“I need something… certain. Flowers that are neither trite nor dismissive; neither too somber or serious nor too silly or too fun. They have to hold their own, in the room. Uphold me, I suppose. To be frank. Something substantial; something with presence. Something that can hold space.”

And then I add, because I realize: “I’m asking a lot of these flowers.”

And then I stop, and look at her. And she just sort of stares back at me. And there is nothing at all but our silence.

And there’s a sort of heartbreak in that.

Maybe I put too much on her, expecting her to understand what I mean when I say things like this. I know it’s a matter of personality – perspective – and not a matter of expertise. And because I know that, I can forgive her this.

And maybe all or some of this would have happened.

If she really had ever looked up at me and looked at me in these ways and then asked, “what is it, exactly, that you’re looking for?”

But in reality, she never did.

In reality, she looked up from her work only briefly, with what I perceived as a slightest grimace of interruption, and said to me, “let me know if you need anything.” And then went right back to her work.

And that was that.

I thanked her, fell silent. Let me know, I repeated to myself. Let me know.

There is no opportunity there, really. It’s an un-invitation. A passive, disinterested statement. An offer without really being an offer. Just… let me know. How can one ever approach someone with the sort of things I had and try, somehow, to “let someone know.” So I remained silent.

And set myself to the task of translation alone.

I will find flowers that are substantial; that hold space.

There are walls of flowers, shelves of flowers; it’s a tiny store, and it’s tightly packed. Buckets of flowers, from tables and on to the floor; huge, towering plants lining the walls. And I suddenly just want to be here, and yet am filled with a sense of anxiety. The proximity offers both comfort and dismay. I want to nestle into the flowers without touching them; want to run my hands over them without bruising; want to move through the store, bucket by bucket, but do so cautiously, so as not to brush against the stalks.

The roses are immediately discounted. They’re far too boastful; far too presumptuous – beaming from their own section in the store, a brilliant array of reds, pinks, whites and yellows, as though to say “we are the obvious choice; we are everyone’s idea of ‘beautiful.’ You would be fortunate to have us in your hand.”

But no, not today, roses. Almost never, really – I don’t love you the way that so many others seem to. But definitely not today. You are too grotesque; too obvious. You have your own seriousness, but no seriousness whatsoever for the task at hand. No… not quite that. You do not yield enough for the task at hand; or perhaps are not discrete enough for the task at hand. Bringing you home would mean bringing home little more. No seriousness, I suppose, for my agenda – my needs – over your own. Buying roses means subscribing to them, and right now I’m needing more.

Tulips. Maybe.

Tulips are every bit as obvious as the rose, except far less boastful; more demure. Their downfall, really, is that they smile “springtime,” and for the moment, I am not sure they’re up to the task.

Then there are these huge, stalky lily things – massive, towering beasts – stately things, really, and unabashed. Their downfall is my own – I simply do not really care for lilies.

Hydrangea, I actually like, but today feel is too delicate; too playful. This bunny-nibbles adorable of a statement flower – a flower with a sense of humor; a giant snowball composite of tinytiny petals.

And then, the orchids. I nearly go home with the orchids, which I don’t typically like, but ultimately get turned off by their delicate nature. I’m looking at these petals and I’m thinking: “I’m not even sure you’d get home. And it’s probably best, to be honest, that you stay here.”

Thankfully, there is no baby’s breath. Has baby’s breath, at long last, gone out of style? One can only hope.

There is, however, eucalyptus. Dried, even. And I eye it and think to myself: “for pete’s sake, will this never die?” I, for one, do not care for the dried eucalyptus. It’s a disaster of a bouquet “ingredient;” a stem that all but sabotages the enjoyment of anything, flower or otherwise, in its near vicinity. A thing that washes everything in the room in a heavy dated-ness; something 1980’s, potpourri.

I move on.

There are endless other flowers I consider but don’t know the name of. I consider each one on basis of color, of shape, of size, of overall presence. I step through each bucket, lingering on those I’ve never seen, coming back to those I’ve seen before, giving each one a once-over.

And then… the protea.

Oh, the protea...

The protea and I have an understanding. We get each other, this flower and I. The first time I ever received one was all but love at first sight – the gifter, it should be said, took a real risk with the investment, admitting it was done on whim alone, made on intuition of my “me-ness” while eschewing all intuition on “what flowers are.” One of my oldest friends, a writer herself, worked in a floral shop, and told me that the protea is often considered, at best, a “masculine flower,” often added to arrangements intended for men.

And, well. That certainly fits.

It is an anti-flower. A slap in the face of a flower; a sculpture and a boldness of color (except, ironically, the king protea, which is all sculpture and no color, massive but faded and muted in a mere hint of a pink.)

Problem is, she doesn’t have my protea preference in stock and this bugs me – I want what I want today, after all, and had she had the “right ones,” this whole flower-buying endeavor would have been all too easy. Instead, she’s got pincushion and king – at $8 and $15 a stem, respectively – and what I think she’s missing is the true “artichoke” shaped one – the princess, the queen, the pink mink or pink ice. But these are here and, for what they are, aren’t bad looking. So I note this; continue on.

I make a round over each bucket what seems like several dozen times. I am probably in this tiny store for over thirty minutes, moving no more than a few feet from side to side, simply weighing each stem by its parts and then again as a whole; compromising on perceived shortcomings and yielding, boosting each flower into the best version of itself, all the while, this evaluation, maintaining the framework of what I need: something certain; substantial. Something that can hold its own and, just maybe, something that can sort of hold me. Or, short of that, hold space.

I do this all the time, the thing I am doing here with flowers.

I describe wine in this way, too.

I inadvertently isolate others – or myself from them – when I take a sip of something and then say something like “this is an older woman. She wears a lot of jewelry – but it’s real pearls and tastefully done, not heavy costume baubles.” And that’s important, because other times, it’s the baubles. And other times, it’s not an older woman, but someone else altogether – a clean-shaven younger guy (almost too prettily-kept) or a girl obsessed with baking. Or whiskey, it’ll taste like a memory I’ve never shared and instead chalk up as “that old-school licorice; the stuff that’s pink.”

I think of this thing that I do – this connection between flowers and wine and so many other things – as I start to pull some stems, dripping, from their buckets.

I finally do commit to the tulips. They’re friendly enough, and they mean well, and they can hold up the more substantial flowers I will ultimately pick to uphold me. I also grab some greens – greens really make the arrangement, for me.

And yeah, I do go with the protea. The pincushion, not the king, because I simply cannot handle the wash-out today. But I cannot leave protea behind- this is a day for the protea; this is the sort of moment he’s called on, and so, of course, he has to come.

And then I add a few others; grab a vase, and approach the woman to get rung up.

She takes the flowers from me, and goes to wrap them. “Did you find everything you were looking for?” She asks, bundling my flowers in a huge sweep of paper.

I’m silent, watching her wrap them.

I don’t know how to answer this.

I cannot know what answer to give, because she’s asking without asking; scarcely knows what she is asking; merely making conversation. Should I acquiesce; give in? Answer the question she’s asking; offer a non-answer, an answer that means nothing? An answer that does nothing for me and, almost certainly, near-nothing for her?

Or do I dare offer the real answer? The answer of, quite simply and yet probably infuriatingly ambiguous: “I don’t know. I won’t know until I get home.”

Because I don’t know. I don’t know whether I found what I’m looking for, and so I don’t know how to answer.

And I’m weighing all of this and moving through it, deliberating, still silent and thinking when I suddenly realize that she’s realized that it’s gone on too long, when she glances up, looks at me watching her, with a look on her face that reads: “could you be more rude?!”

And then I panic a bit, startled and still hurt, and offer, in condolence: “yes. I did.”

She nods; looks back down. Finishes the wrapping. Runs my card, and then I’m gone.

I have heard that, in being good communicators, we should seek first to understand rather than to be understood. But if we take all of life to be one giant conversation – if all this, our every day – is taken as one ongoing dialogue, and if we always give of ourselves to understand the other, is this enough? I mean… when’s your turn? Must you rely on someone else to someday stop and ask, “what is it, exactly, that you’re looking for?” Must you simply suffer in silence?

One of my aunts is from Thailand. Her first and only language, up until well into adulthood, was Thai. When she first moved to the states, I saw her struggle through and then break down the language barrier, picking up and adopting English and her one and only way with words. And yeah, she eventually got along just fine.

But one day she ran into a fellow native Thai speaker – another woman, close in age, who, similarly, had moved to the States only as an adult. And for all of the years my aunt had spent mastering English, there is no way to describe the ease and lightness she expressed in setting it down and stepping into that better-fitting garment she’d long ago left behind.

Because there is nothing quite like the sparkle that a speaker takes on when conversing in his or her native language with a fellow native speaker, especially after that speaking has been suppressed by lack of an able-eared listener. When he or she finally, actually feels understood. And the struggle (the weight; the paining) before you are.

And I think to myself, as I leave with my bundle of stems, that this is a bit how I feel.

How it feels, to be frank, to buy the flowers myself. The feeling of being not quite understood.

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What it’s like to roam a winter plain

And thereby came a gentle winter.

We walk these fields, traverse these snow drifts, run our eyes along the delicate breaks in lines that give away – perhaps betray – the shapes that lie below.  As far as the vision can stretch, there is only the span of more and no visible limitation to the greatness of this plain. I have been here for a while.

Out here, there exists a sort of nothingness. And, in that vacuum, a sort of everythingness – the sheer promise of our own fabrication.

And it’s not enough. It’s never enough, in this way, to get by.

We expected worse – a further onslaught; a more biting cold; some pain – and yet here we find ourselves, alone and almost bored at the sheer silence of our own pursuits.

It is not enough to do the work or to simply love; to extend from ourselves a degree of energy or aspiration, out into the void, our simplified version of how we’ve interpreted another thing outside ourselves – a place, a thing, a being. An idea. A principle. A value.

This is not to say that one viewpoint, for the world, is more or less correct – that, when cast to sea or set to popular vote, one of these things has more rightness, and that we are compelled to run our own lives up against it and see how it pans out. Certainly, this evaluation can be done – one can subject our own principles to the masses. But we can only do so as means of compromise between their differences by way of sacrifice; as means of carving from both so that neither can stand whole. It cannot be done as means of proving “rightness.” In the world of such a void, there is none.

The truth is, few dedicate any real attention to considering the most important questions. Few even venture this far out into the fields. The more you do, the farther you’ll stray, the less you’ll want to bump it back up against them, and the less, to be honest, that you should.

On the contrary, the more you spend considering these questions, the farther you will go from the common, the closer you yourself will get to your own rightness – of mind, of action, of thought. Ultimately, your own principles are truest to the version of the world that matters most – that being your own.

The best you can do, with any certainty, is set out and go looking; to stare off across the snow, and move on toward your own something.

But the most you can hope for is to find someone out here on their own accord, gauging the sun, the snow, and the brilliance in much the same way.

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