Response Crafting

our experience with things we encounter every day


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granularity and gravel

Context: one long July ride. I pointed myself at Canada, by way of Detroit, by way of Gary, Indiana. I chose these places for very important reasons: because they are the sort of places I love. Because they are places that others do not. And because I was deep in a desire to disappear. 

Somewhere along the ribbon of the ride, where minutes and hours sink away and the sunshine is heavy-handed overheard, I find that I have long ago sunk into the road all around me and into my own thoughts. There is a piece of machinery beneath me and, beneath that, the fabric of the asphalt underfoot. And this is where I find my thinking.

Moments exist in their granularity.

Once a year, we spread blankets out on grass and we sit in places we otherwise never would - golf courses, baseball outfields, medians of major throughways, curbs of neighborhood streets – to watch chemical reactions light the sky. We eat food from grills and scorch the ridges of our noses in the sun, and we arrange alternating berries - blueberry; strawberry; blueredblue – along the whipped cream topping of an angel food dessert, and we later pick them out again while eating.

Days like these are built around the traditions we uphold – many of them unknowingly, many of them informal. It is the details that really make them different than any other day; the small bits that make it special – and sometimes we establish these things without knowing that we have, returning to them time and time again because doing so always extracts the meaning that we seek.

This apple pie that only Nana makes; this patterned shirt, red white and blue. The texture of this grass, where we sit and busy ourselves with the task of unbuttoning and re-buttoning this single button as we listen to but do not look at the others talking all around and up above us.

The weight of details is not just true for holidays, though. They also define the plane of the everyday; they give meaning to most all of our moments. This is where memories are made. This is how stories are born.

Other things – dreams and ideas and aspirations and thoughts – exist above all of this; they exist as a fabric draped over the details. And you can go exist up there, too; crawl up into the canopy and sprawl out across it. You are permitted. (In fact, you can take a whole weekend otherwise meant for the minutiae and instead hide away up there, above it all, grazing your fingertips along the seams and staring off into a broad, white sky.)

It’s all a balance.

Riding is a sort of middle ground, between the details and the drape. It is not, as a whole, entirely something you can your hands along; not everything about it is concrete. But it also exists beneath the canopy rather than as a part of the canopy itself; it has a groundedness; a weight. We might assume a lightness and drift above some things, but we must also cling to some part of it – a fingertip wrapped around a wire, at the very least. (And to be fair… sometimes, with riding, it can seem like a fingertip around a wire is all you have.)

There are very real things – the feel of the throttle wrapped up in your right hand; the single live wire running somewhere inside your right forearm and the cloth twisting more and more tightly across your lower back.

It starts raining and the tops of your knees grow wet and that is real.
Red lights rush at you, shove you from some place, and that is very real too.

What seems less real is the ground rushing beneath you. That is just a textile. Because while you sense you could touch it – that it is easily within grasp – there are things that make it and the whole riding thing okay; somehow psychologically feasible. Part of that is putting that possibility – of touching the pavement – out of mind and knowing that you won’t. But part of it is also believing that if you did press yourself against it, the textile, a flowing thing, would yield and give way to your touch.

highway

Moments, they exist in details. And the details of desire exist in the negotiation of having and not having.

The sun starts to settle back, easing lower in the sky. The light expands to amber and the air begins to cool and I find that that coolness is settling into me too. So I do what I do when I get cold on the bike, which is inch myself forward on the seat so I am up against the tank, crowding it, and then press the inside of my thighs against the top of the engine block.

It is a balance of pressing and pulling back; a quiet rhythm; a looped choreography of pulling heat off of his body and pulling my own away.

We are on back roads. We’re on back roads because I wanted back roads, and now, here, is a part of the trip where I do not know where we are but it doesn’t really matter; the route demands a turn out of me every mile or so and it’s late in the day and each time I stop, pulling the bike onto graveled shoulders and my gloves from my hands to check Maps, I can feel the day slowly sinking away around me.

And it’s okay. Do not ask too much here. And do not lose patience. This is what I want.

It’s nearly twilight, the air rich amber, the sky saturated and sultry, when I find myself a suitable stopping point: i.e., one with the promise of beer. I park the bike and find myself at a table, looking up at a waitress and putting to words precisely what else I want: that I want a beer. And that any beer will do. And the waitress – a rider herself, telling me this after seeing my helmet – recommends a pilsner and I tell her yeah, that’ll do just fine.

And I drink the beer and then order another and sit back and stare off and think about the fact that, when it comes to this shortlist of things that I want right now, these things – the beer and the bike and the light – are definitely some of them.

But I also think about the fact that they are only most but not actually all of them.

There are moments marked by having everything you want. If you’re fair to yourself and honest about your happiness, there are many times when you look around and know: yeah, this is everything right now. This does it for me. I want nothing else in this moment. And you can gorge yourself on having the things that you want; can indulge wildly in the fact that you have them.

And then there are other moments when you know you are going without – when something key is missing.

There are times when you cannot have the things that you most want; when what you want is not – either never was or is no longer – accessible. And there are times when you sit with this realization heavy in your lap, with your hands, palms down, resting on top of it. And sometimes you sit like this for some time, deliberating because it is not clear what you should do.

There are some things that simply cease to be. They were once a thing and now are not a thing. Or they are different things. This happens to all things, really – this is what life is. It is being homesick when you cannot go home. It is mourning the expiration of childhood innocence, if you do, as some do. It is making do without Nana’s apple pie after she was lost to the world this spring. It is sitting with the memories of moments alone.

There are other things, however, that never existed to begin with. There is no gravel here; no pain in the lower back. Here, it is built by the limitations only of what we believe. It is the ground rushing beneath, with even the visual itself a fabrication. And much like the ground rushing, rushing just out of touch beneath us, so close and yet so very far away from our plane, we protect and delight ourselves by pretending that we could touch it if we wanted; that if we did, it would not – could not – hurt us.

And sometimes, to be fair, whether or not the thing ever really existed to begin with is something that does not really matter. Sometimes the “going without” here can feel the same, and our negotiation and our compromise can feel similar.

Sometimes we look for substitutes; sometimes we even find one. But then there are other times when we know, almost without trying, that alternatives just won’t do – when we want to honor our desire and resist the temptation to cheapen it with distractions. But then we are caught – snagged in a place between wanting what is not and not wanting what really is. And sometimes we withdraw from the substitutes and disappear from the details – because if we can’t have the right thing, then sometimes we want nothing at all. If we’re good, we can make peace with that temporary disappearance place; we can wait patiently for things in our lives to further unfold; for new things of want to come at us. As they always and invariably do.

Fireflies rise up from the grass around me; exist in flickers and then are gone. I finish the beer, watch as the lines of froth sink down into the bottom of the glass.

I am done with this moment and making my way back to the bike. And now, in this transition to a different moment, approaching that machine, I look up at it and realize that there is nothing more that I want here - in this precise moment, even if no more than a millisecond – than to get back on and ride again.

And that is a thing that I do have.


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Notes from a 13-hour drive

Hours 0 – 4: The Logistics.

I-88 / I-294

Driving from Chicago to Denver. I’ve got a solid block of good drive ahead of me; hours upon hours to log against nothing but the road. And me.

Start it up.

Mental check: bags, laptop, laptop charger, phone, phone charger, keys, locked door.. dog, dog food, Something Borrowed (something borrowed from the sister; needing to return.)

Okay.

Plug my destination into Maps. Use the parents’ actual address. I know that I could have just used “Denver” for now, but whatever – it’s a more accurate arrival estimate.

For me to beat. (I feel confident that this thing can be done in 13. Even though Maps says 15.)

Get on Lake Shore. Get to I-290. Then get to I-80. Don’t miss I-80. Just get onto 290. And don’t miss I-80.

Looking at this route, though… it’s not just 290 to I-80. Why would I have that in my head if that’s not how it goes? Alright, whatever. So I take… what, 294? 88? What is this? Both? They’re the same exit? Then what? Whatever. I’ll figure it out. (I almost always figure it out.)

Approaching that 294 / 88 business and I’ve suddenly got the Maps “talking lady.” I hate the talking lady. I feel like my mom whenever I hear the talking lady. (Moms love the talking lady.) I ignore the talking lady, never turn down the radio to hear what she’s saying, and simply exit when I see that ramp for 294 / 88. (Because I’ve got this thing handled.)

After that, though, I think there was probably another fork in there. I think I simply guessed a way and, looking back, I know that I guessed wrong. Because shortly thereafter, I’m driving down a highway and something just doesn’t feel right, and I’m getting all shifty and wondering to myself: did I… miss I-80?

Map it again.

No, I missed That Interim Highway. It was never gonna be 290 to 80 by a long shot, and now I see that. I was destined to be on one of those – 294 or 88 (I see now that it was “the other one” than the one I’m on) for a while – much longer than I’d initially realized.

Should’ve listened to the talking lady.

Re-map it; grumble a little about this detour (it was probably no more than ten minutes, really, but it’s the principle, damnit) and, after a few minutes and one stop light, get myself back into proper place. Feel grateful I’ve got the phone. Move on and let it go.

But still: “don’t miss I-80. You still need to hit I-80. You’ve got a while, but don’t miss it.”

And all this time, I had you texting for a call that I didn’t want to take.

I’m sorry, but no, I didn’t want to take that call. You know I didn’t want to take that call. It was nothing personal – that call could’ve been absolutely anybody, on anything, and I would’ve felt the exact same way. I was avoiding that call and all other calls because, frankly, I was in the zone and wanted my own space, and here, right as I was escaping everyone, someone – anyone – was chasing me down the highway, running after me, all smiles and arms waving like I’d forgotten something they were just sure I’d want to have.

I didn’t. Whatever it was, I knew I could’ve gotten by without it – at least for a few hours. But you wanted that call, so I took it when you put it through to me. Even though a real good song had just come on the radio and, God, was I sinking into that good zone. I answered. And we talked. And I resented it, at least at first. I made this a little too apparent and then felt bad, because you offered to end the call and talk later and then I knew you knew. So I backed off and coaxed you back in.

No, I didn’t really give a damn about talking – I’m sorry. But I do give a damn about you, and I think that that distinction matters (maybe even matters more?) I may not have wanted to talk to anybody, but you were one of the few for whom I would’ve made an exception, and I did. And I’m glad. Sometimes life is give and take like that, and I really didn’t give so much as I let on upfront. I’m glad I took that call.

We talked for nearly the entire duration of I-88. We hung up just a few miles ahead of I-80. (I didn’t miss it after all.)

(“You can’t!” You had said, just before we signed off. “You pretty much run into it!” You were wrong there. Partially, anyway. You do not just run into it. It’s not like that highway that turns into a “T” on the route from Denver to Vegas or all the numerous other ones that simply become – “transformer” themselves into – another one without you even realizing. This is a real exit that must be navigated and deliberately chosen. I could’ve missed it if I’d wanted. But you were right in that I wouldn’t. I didn’t, after all.)

Cruised I-80 until I just about ran out of fuel. I kept my gas pedal pressed low and my finger hovered over the radio scan button. I listened to fragments of perhaps 10,000 songs.

I’m exaggerating. I do that. You and I both know this.

Stop for gas; $44. Bottle of water, two cheese sticks, granola bar.

Hours 4 – 7.5: The Chase.

I-80

Start it up again; merge; signal; lane change… pause; signal; lane change. Accelerate.

Lay it out. Let’s see what this Cruze can do and make some headway here.

Drive.

Chase pavement. Chase time. Chase the next best song around the radio.

New song. New song. New song. Pass. Speed up. Press forward. New song.

Cruise.

Approach each next car in the left lane; slow down only ever-so-slightly “too late,” hoping they’ll get over instead of forcing me to. Sometimes they do. But sometimes they don’t. Pause. Look right; signal; shift right; pause. Glance left; signal; shift left again; lay in; press forward.

On one of those times, passing on the right as nobody is supposed to do but many drivers do anyway, I passed you. You, the white “Chevy something” with a dirty grill – a “Chevy something” in the same way that I was a “Chevy something” (aren’t all Chevys just “Chevy somethings,” anyway? Aren’t all cars just “make / model somethings?” My Dad would die to read that. Either part.)

Yep, just another “Chevy something.” In all those hours – hours - we spent together following that moment I initially passed you on the right, I never did bother to decipher what your “Chevy something” actually was. Never mattered. Still doesn’t. You had a dirty grill, and that’s how I spotted you when you were lost behind me those few times, when I watched for your fast, tidy approach, covering lost ground. The white something with the dirty grill. That was you. (I never lost you from behind; never needed a better way to spot you when you were leading.)

Anyway. I passed you on the right, just like I had passed countless cars before you. I slipped in just ahead of you, tucking myself in behind the car in front of you and you, timing it just before I got too hot and heavy up on the car in front of me in the center lane. That maneuver was not half bad, if I can say so myself – perhaps a little too close for some people, but not too close for either me or you. I didn’t think much of it – or you, to be honest – until I lane changed to the right again when I got a good window shortly thereafter. And you followed.

Frankly, I had initially – immediately – discounted your driving ability and aggression on account of that window in front you being there for me – and for you sitting there behind that left lane car long enough for me to join you. I rejected that initial assumption, however, by the second or third time I saw you shadow me in a lane change.

It occurred to me, early on, that you might just be drafting. I didn’t really care. I was going to drive like this, at this speed, regardless of what you wanted to do, and if you wanted to play it safe and tuck yourself in behind me, I really didn’t mind at all.

You weren’t drafting, though. You were legit and you were in this with me. In one long open stretch of road, when I shifted over to the right lane and cruised at something well into three digits, you came smoothly up around and in front of me and held the left lane. I complied, swept in behind you, and we rode that way for a while, you doing all the heavy lifting and dirty work in the left lane for a while, while I reaped the benefits behind you, before we switched again.

That’s the way it went, back and forth like that, both of us trading leading position. The swaps always happened either a.) in open stretches, after we’d spent some time in a position or b.) when windows between cars and differing lane speeds (sometimes we took the opposite gamble on lane choice) forced us to. But either way, we had a good rhythm. And we took care of each other; left windows in front or behind where we could; watched our braking as the lead; let the other back in after a right lane move failed (I’ll admit I made more plays there and these “right lane fails” were far more often mine. The “letting back in” was mostly you.) We made good partners.

We never raced one another – not that I was aware, anyway. And we never did the thing where we hold side to side speeds in neighboring lanes to make eyes at each other across the dashed white line (again, not that I was aware.) I knew you were male. I knew you liked to ride with your left elbow propped up against the edge where the bottom of the window met the door. And that’s all that I cared to know. We were comrades but we were quiet; focused on the road and the task at hand, which was, to be clear: devouring the asphalt mile by mile.

You had the tail and I the lead in the left lane when we passed our only cop. Both of us floated to the center lane and eased off, but you dropped back. I fell back then too and laid low with you for a while; consoling you through the rear-view and trying to coax you forward with real and actual words you’d never hear. But you were spooked and you hung back, and I left you there for a bit as I moved on. I understood your apprehension; I don’t know why I didn’t share it. I left you but you should know if you don’t: I was pleased when you finally recovered and regained ground, re-emerging in my rear-view.

We entered Des Moines together. The highway widened; accommodated more lanes and with them, more traffic. I lost you at some point early on, as the road became saturated, and we rode through much of Des Moines apart. I periodically scanned my rear-view but more or less drove on. This, I think you can agree, was our unspoken agreement. The rear always had a way of finding the lead. And was expected to.

And you did. I was surprised, actually – it had taken so long I thought I’d lost you. But there you were, coming up quick behind me, moving through traffic. I could tell it was you even before I saw the dirt on the grill – a white car moving through lanes like that was all too familiar to me by now. You found me in the right lane and you were gaining ground, nearing me, closing in… and right before you were pressed up behind me, some faceless lady, utterly oblivious to the universe of everything unfolding around her, drifted her colorless something over right in front of you, closing you off from me.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. I like to think it was funny to you too. It had to be. How could it not?

Man, we had a good run, didn’t we? Three-fourths of a tank, we rode together. Which is an awfully long time, really, when you think about it. I wish I could say for sure what those minutes were – how our time together measured in hours (as I am sure they were in the multiples) – but I never really cared to glance. That drive was better unmeasured in minutes; those were places where time had no reign. All I ever gauged over time was fuel, and I know we shared an “almost but not quite entirely” full tank.

I watched as it dropped over time. I knew when I had a half tank. Quarter tank. Eighth of a tank. I knew that I’d need gas soon. And I knew that that meant that you would need gas soon, too. I had no way of knowing where you were with this, but you couldn’t have been much better than me.

It occurred to me, around this point, that I didn’t know how to end things. You could exit at any point – for fuel; for your destination. Would you try to coordinate a stop? I had decided early on that I didn’t want to. And I wasn’t sure how I was going to communicate my decline to you if you tried; how we would say goodbye. I never knew when I would lose you, but I knew that I ultimately would, and I made peace with that going in. I hope you did the same.

In the end, my decision either way didn’t matter. Had I known that our separation by that faceless lady in her colorless something was the closest we’d ever get again, maybe I would’ve waved goodbye or something. As it was, I continued taking windows as I saw them, with you hung up behind me, and miles later, when I was well out of Des Moines, I knew I’d left you somewhere.

It’s better this way. Maybe you already know this. But if you don’t, you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you: it’s better that we exist only as we do in each others minds. Meeting each other IRL would’ve shattered the special. What would you have said to me, or I to you? There’s no exchange of information, no objective to pulling off at the same stop and sharing words. All we would’ve done is sabotage the simplicity of the three-fourths tank and that road beneath us that we shared.

Stop for gas; $47. Bottle of water; two cheese sticks.

Hours 7.5 – 11: The Introspection.

Nebraska

Start it up again. Accelerate. Merge. Shift lanes. Cruise.

It’s different now. Breaking up a flow usually does that. We can choose to disregard or recognize it; embrace it or reject it.

I make a deliberate choice to take this.

This. This is the phase I crave as a passenger – the richness of sinking into silence and solitude.
Shapes and brake lights and following distances fade, lose the sharpness of their edges. Color emerges – in particular, the softness of the amber afternoon light.

Summer gets me every time.

I commit to the “this-ness” deliberately; wholly. I turn off the radio; quiet everything external that is not a necessity. I hold my speed but cruise more quietly; hang back a little in approaches and extend more patience in navigation. I settle into the drive and into myself. And I think.

I start with the easy, obvious stuff: the costs of the drive, for starters. With gas the way it’s going, it’ll cost me about $400 one way. I could tame the speed a little, but it probably wouldn’t save me a ton in fuel costs. And it’d kill this competition that I’m having with my Maps. And I want that. More than the savings, whatever they are.

$400, though. That’s… that’s a lot. $800 round trip. That’s a flight – a substantial one, even. Iceland was like $500. Central America even less than that.

I try not to think about it. I made my choice. Let it go and move on.

So I start asking myself some deliberate questions… the big ones; the ones I most enjoy. I ask myself about happiness – both everyday and in the big picture. This… this is perhaps my favorite thing to think about. I recover and unpack my “long-term things” from where they live, tucked back a bit, and do the things I like to do with them, one by one and then all together. I line them up and then spread them all out; hold them in my hand, small but surprisingly heavy in the center of my palms, and then put them into my mouth and roll them around for a while, as I did with pebbles as a child.

How do they taste right now? How does this feel?

It’s not half bad, actually. Maybe even better – though marginally – than the last time I made this drive, and definitely better than the time I made the drive before that.

I’m happy. I’m happy enough – enough for now, enough for this to be working, and enough that I feel this is headed in a good direction. But what else? I contemplate this; bring it out and let it breathe a little as I drive.

I should have gotten popcorn.

You know, I could be a truck driver. I could drive trucks for a living. Happily.

It is not my first choice. But I could do it and be happy.

I could also probably live here – out there – in the middle of nothingness. Maybe not now. But at some point. And I could be happy doing that. Maybe less happy than the truck thing, at least right now, but yeah I could do it. And if I could live there – right there, in the trees, or roll myself up into that tall, tall grass just off the shoulder of the highway – I think I could be happy.

I think of you and only you when I think of this (and I often do.) I think of that drive in Oklahoma, when I was zoning out into the trees just off the highway and mused out loud: “I want to live in there.” “In where?” You’d asked, looking. And I’d clarified, “in there. In the trees.” And you laughed, a real laugh but in an endeared way, and then you said, in a way that made me smile: “you’re so weird.” I laughed too then, and let you see me that way – you and only you, though I doubt you ever knew that. And every time I look out from the highway and get the urge to wrap myself up in the “over there” grass and trees again, I think of you and the way that you knew this, and the fact that that was okay.

You were supposed to be happy too, you know. I can’t think of you much anymore, so I don’t. But when I do, I still feel as strongly: you were supposed to be happy, too. That was the whole point, and that’s all I ever wanted for you. That’s all I ever still do.

I go back to the things; the introspection. It’s easy enough to do this, once you get the hang of it… Take out your whole life in cardboard cutout form – it’s big; unwieldy; gives a little in some wrong places and has to be braced, using odd muscles and an awkward form, as you lift it and move it, set it down in front of you, arms stretched almost too wide, to accommodate it’s stature. This is you. This is your existence. Carve it up and cut out pieces at free will; this is what it’s all about.

I do this, for hours on end. I take pieces out and stand back, size it up without them and evaluate the way things look. Put things back; move them around; experiment with tentative additions. All of this is nothing but papier-mâché – layers upon layers of chewed paper, bound together with an adhesive such as glue, starch, or wallpaper paste. Get some saliva in there. Get into it. Peel layers back off and try others.

All of this is nobody’s if not yours alone. All of this is nobody’s but yours.

This is true for me and you and everyone we know. Some people are just more involved than others; some of us are up to our elbows in paste. I myself prefer to live with the perpetual taste of pulp.

Stop for gas; $45. Got my damn popcorn.

Hours 11 – 13: The Arrival.

IMG_9352
Start it up again. Merge back on; accelerate.

I find I-76 shortly after rejoining the highway and, hitting it, the road transforms into a stretch of endless “quiet,” sprawled out before me for my private consumption. This road, almost empty, has no agenda of its own, nor is it subjected to the agenda of anyone else. It’s only me, passing the occasional other, and none of us impose any permanent inscription on this surface. I lay it out, hold my speed, and stretch my fingertips out into the gray-green grasses to gather up the colors as they pass me.

It’s twilight now. This is lavender… more lavender than lilac and the difference between the two is, I feel, important. Those are very different colors, and this sky and the air around me? It is lavender. It’s purple that is blue and not pink. And soon the sky will shift to brilliant cobalt; a vein of gold pulsing from some faraway place.

I can breathe this light; I can lick the cool spots as the highway sinks and, if I’m gentle enough, I can taste the subdued texture of this landscape.

14879101_img_1824

I’ll arrive soon – sooner than I would have designed; certainly sooner than I would have demanded. This drive never feels long enough, let alone too long. But all drives feel that way to me. I could live a life of infinite driving.

My phone died a long time ago. That hour-long call at the outset. (It’s okay; I still don’t regret it.) I know that I’ll feel my way home – finding my path once I hit Denver will be muscle memory. It always is.

The footing of these roads – I-25, to Santa Fe, to Mineral – is something I could navigate blindly. I have made these lane changes, held these curves, timed these lights so many countless times in my life that they are ingrained; they exist somewhere in my wiring. I ride them without thinking.

There are few things that offer the specific pleasure of riding a familiar drive – it strikes a place that most other things don’t touch. And in this final half hour of my drive, approaching home, I reside in that place, and it in me. I’m tied to these roads each time that I take them, and tonight is no exception. This is some special sort of simple bliss.

I have to prepare myself mentally for this arrival; recondition myself for normalcy and return myself right-side from my inside-out introspection. I do this, tucking things back into place, making myself decent.

This is what it means to have a real existence. You cannot live forever floating across a freeway. And I know this.

As I pass things from my past, I reevaluate what they mean to me; weigh them with special consideration for a sense of loss; gauge them for nostalgia and make sure that they are all still okay. They are. I am. I can come here and leave it again without paining or mourning for it. I know I’m fortunate to have these parts of me – things to come back to, routes to find my way back to them, and ease in leaving them again.

I used to think of you each time I came back home. I used to take everything out of that old shoebox that I keep all the way in the back; sift through the photos and it all felt a lot heavier for a long time. Now, I weigh these items and recall their moments with a lightness and a warmth, and nothing more. That’s now. That wasn’t always the case. You know this.

There’s a place for you inside me. There’s a place you hold – will always hold – that nobody else will ever have. And it doesn’t matter that we haven’t spoken in as long as this has been. That place away back there will always belong to nobody but you.

I pull into the neighborhood – “their” neighborhood? “my” neighborhood? The article doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not sure if it ever did. It is just this place. I belong here when I am here; I can come here when I please. We all belong to so many places at once, and right now, this place is where I am.

13 hours, 15 minutes. I am at this destination.


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How great management is a lot like great horsemanship.

da vinci sketches

On the surface of riding, you’ll find a lot of prescribed, black and white basics on “how to ride.” But understanding the mechanics – like “using leg,” for example (which one, at which time, in combination with what else) – will only get you so far in the world of horsemanship. It’s not how you become a great rider.

The same thing can be said for managers. Almost anybody can read up on “how to project manage” – with gantt charts and burn-downs and status reports. But there is a difference between people who understand the basics of “project management”… and managers who internalize how to truly lead a team.

The difference between competence and greatness in either realm lies in the subtleties of perspective, personality, and how you partner with others.

Trust.

God, so much trust – at every level, from the start, but especially as the stakes are raised. When you guide a horse over a large fence, you trust that he has the strength and skill to clear it and land solidly. In turn: as he throws himself over it, he trusts that you are doing right by him – that there will be a ground on the other side, that he will not get hurt, and that you will be with him when he lands.

Similarly, it’s so important that you trust a team member to do what he does and do it well – and to sit back sometimes and just “give him his head.” When a developer makes a recommendation, a great manager trusts his expertise; when he pushes back on something, the great manager will trust it’s for good reason. And this trust goes both ways: it’s equally important that you work hard to earn your team member’s trust in return – to always do right by him, watch out for his well-being, and ask of him only what’s fair. He should wholly believe that if he works an all-nighter or relinquishes a recommendation, it’s justified.

Levelheadedness.

Going hand in hand with earning trust, exhibiting good judgment, when entrusted to call the shots, can mean the difference between success and catastrophe. Both management and riding call for a degree of consideration, awareness, intuition and conscientiousness – not only in day to day decisions, but in what we ask of others.

Motivation can be fragile, and having influence over a horse or team member’s morale is something that should not be taken lightly. Great managers engage their teams in challenging tasks, but also ensure that they are positioned for success. Ask too much or put them in a position to fail, and you risk demoralizing them.

Humility.

The most effective riders know: It is always the rider’s fault; never the horse’s. (The most frustrated riders are those that discount this rule or try to find exceptions.) The horse can do nothing but horse, fundamentally. It is the rider who must take it upon himself to identify and resolve issues; to take ownership of all fall-outs.

A great manager assumes responsibility for everything that may go awry in a working relationship. If a developer does not deliver, it is only because of something like unclear or inconsistent communication, unrealistic expectations, or broken morale – i.e., something that falls within the manager’s realm to correct.

Forgiveness.

Pretty much goes hand in hand with “Humility” – a great rider absorbs mistakes, makes corrections, and emphasizes fresh starts. He never takes his frustration out on the horse, and exercises tremendous patience in reconciling issues, resolving setbacks or working through a learning curve.

People are innately imperfect. We are all messy and we make mistakes. We have to bear this in mind when working with others, and the best managers look to play the long game rather than dwell on short-term shortfalls. Like great riders, they don’t take their frustrations out on the team, and they don’t sabotage morale by making team members bear the blame for mistakes.

Accommodation.

And flexibility. And empathy. Great riders take the time to learn each horse, and invest energy in identifying and riding to its differences. Skittish, sensitive horses require a quiet rider with a light hand; bomb-proof horses may call for a lot of leg, while hot-tempered one may call for a little more “whoa.”

People are not drones, so there is no “one size fits all” approach. There is so much value in learning each team member’s motivations and quirks and then managing to them accordingly – understanding how each person operates and accommodating disparate personalities across a team. Because when you recognize people as individuals by working with their differences rather than quelling them, you also grant them the space and security to showcase unique strengths as well.

Respect.

With horses, you ASK for things; you never DEMAND them. You do not tell a horse to stop or go or change directions; you ask him to. And if a rider’s default “fix” for issues with his horse is to bind him up and load him down with more gear – rather than rebuild the relationship – then he is failing. (Great riders are as effective with their horse riding bareback as they are with all their tack. It is only the weak, ineffective rider who cannot “control” his horse as he is.)

With both horses and team members: they hold the power. Not you. Standing face to face, stripped of any external factors (crops and spurs; hierarchies and performance reviews); it is inherently them – not you – who has the power of performance at the start. A horse is physically stronger than his rider; a developer wields far more technical expertise than the average PM. Your approach in how you negotiate influence over that physical or mental wherewithal, or convince them to share it with you, is what sets the mediocre rider or manager apart from the great one.

Bad managers bark orders and tell people what to do; make threats and escalate issues to others. Great managers build relationships and ask for things. They perceive the team as equals, and believes that they are not above the team, but rather a member of it.

Direction.

Even if you’re asking rather than demanding, it’s tough to get much out of the relationship if you don’t know what you want or where you’re going. If you are riding a course, for example, you cannot possibly expect your horse to know which fence is next until you guide him to it.

Same thing goes for managers: you have to carry the knowledge of direction. You are responsible for knowing where the team is going. And although this direction can be defined through discussion and consensus – obviously particularly in the “people” context – you are still the one responsible for driving.

Clarity.

Once you’ve got the direction, you have to make sure that others clearly understand what it is. Both riding and management demand a lot of straightforwardness from those who are entrusted to guide – and part of that is communicating clearly, and in a way others understand.

Great communicators believe that communication breakdown is on the fault of the deliverer. If your message isn’t getting through, it’s on you, not your listener. Communicate in their language and in ways that make the message clear to them. Effective teams have strong communication, and it is largely the responsibility of the manager to ensure that it’s working.

Composure.

Forget all imagery of the cowboy hollering at his horse and spurring him into a sudden gallop. An erratic, unpredictable, or overbearing rider renders his horse unnerved and uncertain; over time, the relationship breaks down entirely. Great riders are “quiet” riders.

Great managers are sane and cool under pressure. An emotional, volatile or demonstrative manager does little to put a team at ease. Consistency and composure go a very long way.

Confidence.

Truly great riders exhibit an almost unwavering confidence, optimism and belief – in themselves, and in their horses. When the horse’s confidence flounders, a great rider has enough of it to carry both of them, and will work hard to build the horse back up.

Great managers carry the torch; they have enough strength and belief to support the entire team if need be. This isn’t about “hiding” emotion – you should still be a real person with your team. Rather, the confidence should be deeply-rooted and far-reaching – both sincere and shared.

Love.

If you do not deeply care about your horse’s physical or mental well-being, then you have absolutely no business working with him. Obviously the same goes for people.

I have said before that the absolute most important thing is that you treat your team right. They are your everything. If you don’t understand this or don’t agree with it, then you should not be managing one. Embody your team’s cares and concerns; get them what they need; protect them against distress. Above all, take care of them.

In short: do right by those with whom you work – especially those you are entrusted to guide – and they will probably do right by you.


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The beauty of Lent and why it works for anyone

…”Lent?”

Yeah… in lay terms, the practice of “giving something up” for the “40″ days (it’s really more; Sundays aren’t counted) between Ash Wednesday (the day after Fat Tuesday / Mardi Gras) and Easter.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Lent is meant to “prepare men for the celebration of the death and Resurrection of Christ.” Wikipedia describes it as “the preparation of the believer — through prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial. During Lent, many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penitence.”

That’s pretty heavy. (I mean, “the preparation of the believer?” Yikes.) And I guess that’s not too surprising, since the Christians – particularly the Catholics – are, overall, not really the positive, party animals of the religious realm. (I can say this – I was raised as one.)

But while the idea conventionally comes from Catholicism, its application is not confined by it.

Everyone can adopt Lent as their own.

If you strip away the Christian connotations (sacrilegious, perhaps, but hear me out), I think you’re still left with something pretty damn legit.

“[Lent] is time for introspection, mindfulness, a deeper connection to our spiritual nature and letting go of things that do not serve us.” – Kathy Gottberg, Lent…6 Powerful Ways Believers and Non-Believers Can Benefit

Introspection. Letting go of things that do no serve us. In my mind, that’s not really about religion, per say.  It doesn’t need to be, anyway, because, fundamentally, this whole thing is really about the human spirit. (Religion is always just the avenue for much bigger things.)

It’s about becoming a better person.

Okay. But why call it “Lent” if you’re not Catholic?

Oh, I don’t know. You don’t have to. But I do. And I think a lot of other non-Christians do as well, mostly because people thrive in contexts that:

1. Align our values with like-minded others… or, in the very least,
2. Offer “common diction” with which to discuss them. (“Lent” comes prepackaged with meaning, so we don’t have to explain as much when talking about what we’re doing.)

If you don’t like it, then use a different term – or use no term at all. You don’t owe anything to anybody – in fact, you don’t have to talk about it at all, if you don’t want to. If you would rather approach it differently, then do.

What Lent is not about:

Suffering or “beating yourself up” - tons of Catholics would probably disagree with me here – the Catholics love their guilt – but I really argue that Lent is not about focusing on the negative. It’s about self-improvement through self-discipline and self-awareness, not self-punishment. It’s about bettering the human spirit – namely, your own.

Strengthening will power or “badassery” Yeah, okay – “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” True in general, definitely true here, and a valid benefit of “doing Lent.” But even so, it shouldn’t be the primary focus. This isn’t simply about “toughing it out.” It’s bigger than that.

“Comparing notes”  – if a Catholic gives up chocolate and doesn’t tell anyone about it, is it still Lent? Yep. Most definitely. In fact, one can even go vegan without broadcasting it. This all really shouldn’t be “for show.” You can quit smoking, start meditating, stay sober, go raw vegan, forgive, repent, and/or abstain – all without having to tell anybody.

What Lent is about: spring-cleaning the human spirit

The word “Lent” fundamentally means “spring” – much like German’s Lenz and Dutch’s lente – and is derived from the Germanic root for long, as the days (hours of sunlight) lengthen during this time of year. At its core, it is a time of rejuvenation and regrowth.

 a.) Simplicity, focus, and appreciation

It has to do with minimalism; focusing on necessities over indulgences; gaining appreciation for the things in life that actually matter. These are the upsides.

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.

Lent is a tremendous opportunity to slim down your life and your luxuries; gain an increased overall well-being; restore focus on what matters, and ultimately restore a deep appreciation for whatever it is that we are giving up – and our lives overall.

b.) Emotional well-being for you and others

It’s about stripping out all of the baggage and beefing ourselves – and others – up with the good; doing away with negative emotions and projections, and emphasizing the positive ones in their place:

IMG_20140329_140112_780

We can weigh ourselves down with a lot if we’re not careful; a big part of Lent is realigning ourselves with what’s actually important, fixing what’s wrong, and soothing what’s hurt. Grieve if you need to grieve. Apologize if you have wronged someone, sink into repentance for as long as it makes sense… and then move on and unburden yourself. Lean into the good things.

Ultimately, Lent is about learning to live a better existence – working toward “Life’ing” more successfully.


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How to manage projects properly (hint: people > process)

So, here’s something that’s sort of off this blog’s beaten path, but something I (obviously) care a great deal about: there are a lot of bad Project Managers out there. And it sort of… baffles me. We, as a group, can sometimes be pretty grossly off base and/or misaligned in our line of sight and prioritization of the things.

It’s kind of amazing how many people call themselves a project manager and yet somehow fail catastrophically at actually, properly managing projects. It’s remarkable that we as a group haven’t made a worse name for ourselves by now (though maybe we have and I’m just willfully, woefully unaware.)

Either way, I would really like to speak on behalf of all PMs out there who suck slightly less – or perhaps, if we really nail it, don’t even suck at all – and share some thoughts on what I think are key differences: namely, the things that we care to prioritize.

Here’s how to not fail at PM:

IMG_20140302_174407_360

At one end of the scale (i.e., the top priorities):

Here’s what should be at the very top of your list, when it comes to what you actually, actively, aggressively manage:

>> your team.
Treat your team right. They are your everything. If you don’t understand this or don’t agree with it, then – quite frankly – you should not be managing one. You are not above your team; you are a member of it. Don’t mistreat them on personal or professional levels, and don’t ask them to do anything that you yourself are not willing to do. Your team members are not a collective unit at your arm’s-length disposal – they are an extension of you; your worth is what you, as a group, do, and you are only as good as you allow them to be. Trust their expertise. Go to bat for them. Carry their torch.

If they’re working sixteen-hour days at the office, you should be too. If they are going into the office on Saturdays, then you are as well. If they are making a very strong recommendation for something and aren’t getting traction, throw your weight behind it, too. Embody what they do. You’ll have a richer, deeper, more complex knowledge of the project’s status and health; you’ll be able to resolve blockers in real time; and you’ll share the experience of what’s actually being sacrificed and invested by your team – and if they’re being pushed too much. Because if they fail? So do you.

>> your client or customers.
Your second job, after taking care of your team, is doing right by your client or customers. Have face to face conversations. Spend time onsite, in their offices, and learn to speak their language. Treat their time and money as your own time and money, and learn to see them as friends. If they bug you four times to go get drinks - especially if it’s done at the peak of the project – go. get. drinks. The client is trying to tell you that you matter more than the project; do them a solid and grant them the same consideration. Recognize the privilege of rapport, and make investments in the relationship. These people – not their projects – are your company’s long-term lifeline, and their project is simply the result of a relationship well-managed. Care for them accordingly.

The middle of the scale:

>> your product.
Know what’s up. Intuitively understand what the product is and learn how to care about its success.  Your client has likely invested a lot of time, money and resources to get where they are bringing your team on board, and they are probably more invested in the product than you can ever be. Regardless, do the right thing and try to get partway there. If you know of a better solution, offer it. If you think they’d be better off with a different approach, say so. It’s not just a matter of not planting landmines – it’s also a matter of paving the way for their future growth, after you.

>> your timeline, budget, or milestones.
Too many project managers out there blindly manage to black and white metrics. And I argue that they’ve got it all wrong.

I don’t mean that timeline and budgets and milestones don’t matter – they absolutely do! But managing to them is only meaningful once the other things – your team, your client, your product – are taken care of. And if you forget this and you are destroying a team or producing a faulty product for the sake of getting it to market “on time; if you are killing morale and mistreating people for the sake of hitting a deadline, you are failing and you have already lost. You may be able to check off a box – “under budget!” – but in the context of life, no checkbox is as “real” as the way you made your team members or customers feel if you ran them over in the process. Their feelings and the way they will perceive you will last far longer than your status report.

It’s fine and fun to play The Career Games and be ambitious and productive, but ultimately, when you consider the bigger picture of What’s Actually Important in Life, timelines and budgets don’t actually qualify. That milestone you were shooting for? It may matter a great deal to the project, the program, and the people with whom you work in the short term, but in The Grand Scheme of Life, it’s all “fake.” And if you lose sight of this context, you’re losing at the biggest game of them all – that being our shared short existence.

And at the low end of the scale:

>> your documents.
Success doesn’t happen in Microsoft Project or Powerpoint. Success is evidenced in them. Pull your head out of your artifacts and go sit in the trenches with your team. Go have a face to face, heart to heart conversation with your client. If you haven’t done right in the relationships and haven’t reached reasonable rapport, haven’t committed yourself to producing a good product and don’t internalize the metrics within which you’re doing so, then you done messed up and probably need to start over – do not pass “Go;” do not collect $200. It’s only after successfully doing all of these other things that a project manager can sit down to document what’s going on.

>> your process.
I am continually surprised by the number of managers out there who make it their job to preserve and protect a process; to serve as crusader of some convention, even though it may or may not be working for their current project. If you are a Project Manager, it’s your job to manage the heart of the project, not its paperwork or process.

Here’s the final word: if your prescribed process is pulling you away from any of these other things, the decision between which one to foster and which one to disregard should, I think, be self-evident: if you choose Process over People, you’re failing hard. If, on the other hand, there’s no conflict between following your process and taking care of everything else – if everything is working in perfect harmony – then chances are good that you probably didn’t need the process spelled out to begin with.

In the end, if you have your priorities straight, and you care for people, a lot of other things sort of work themselves out.


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good, better, best UX

User Experience is a delicate thing in a project life cycle. Though the end result is (ideally) beautiful and good, the process of getting there can be a bit tumultuous… and though there is a lovely complexity to the discipline (and final product), I have noticed a few key distinctions that seem to make all the difference in how effective the process seems to be, for me and the teams with whom I have worked…

First, the negative end of the spectrum – how it looks when things don’t go so well:

IMG_20140301_180742_491

the good:

i.e., “The Default;” “The Expectation.” As a product owner or other major stakeholder, I explain WHAT and WHY. I articulate the things that we are thinking of and the reason that we are thinking we (or our users) might like them. Iterations and dialogue ensues.

the bad:

As product owner, I not only explain WHAT and WHY, but also weigh in with the HOW. In addition to asking for certain things and explaining the reason behind them, I suggest or push for specific design solutions, techniques, and ideas. The fallout here – and how “bad” it actually is – varies, and the reason may be anything from a distrustful client to a UX team member who is new to either UX or the client product. And the end result – and how “bad” that is – may range from strained communication and weakened working relationship to a poorly-executed, misguided solution that took longer than necessary to reach.

the ugly:

Explanations just don’t get us there. As a product owner or stakeholder, I may offer a WHAT, a WHY, and a HOW, but things just aren’t working. Maybe I don’t know what I want, or my communication is poor; designs come back too late or with too little product-relevant tie-in; there’s no natural rapport between us and one or both of us is lacking enough expertise and energy to get the other person there.

IMG_20140301_180837_335

But how about the other end of the spectrum? Here’s what it looks like when things are working well:

(still) good:

(see above) I still explain WHAT and WHY. It’s fine. It’s expected. It’ll get the job done.

better:

As a product owner or stakeholder, I just articulate the WHAT. I explain the things that I am looking for – what I think we would like to see – and the UXer inherently understands the WHY and definitely has a few ideas on HOW we are going to get there. This is an evolution, attained once the UXer is more familiar with the product and inherently gets what’s going on. The client is good at being a client, inherently trusts the UXer, and lets them do their job. There’s some good rapport happening here. It’s a beautiful place to be.

best:

If you thought “better” was beautiful, just wait til the real magic happens… when things are running as a well-oiled machine and, as a product owner or stakeholder, I “explain” very little. I don’t have to, because the UXer and I have formed a partnership. We get where the other one is coming from; we know what each person is bringing to the table, and we both understand what’s going on with the product overall. Perhaps the most magical thing here is that the UXer ultimately brings suggestions – the WHAT - to the client team, too. And, by god, they’re good.


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Cue some or all of the things.

hands

A woman lifts a bottle of chemicals, dyed milky blue, into the frame. She smiles, moves her mouth around some words, smiles some more. A child – not her child; someone else’s child; a child of an unknown person – runs into the frame, blonde hair bouncing, and then back out of it; a dog follows; the sound of laughter and barking is dubbed over their movements. They are gone.

The woman blinks; pauses… offers a theatrical sigh, and then smiles again. “At least I have this” She gestures to the bottle – her product – her arm sweeping across the frame. “This, I can always rely on.”

Cut to her swallowing her pills with a glass of milky-blue liquid while waiting for the wash cycle to finish. She retches, regains composure, finishes the glass. Never was the same after the third – maybe fourth – miscarriage… she doesn’t bother now to count.

A man is in the park. He has a sickness; his clothes no longer clothes, hanging off of him, barely covering the parts which they are meant to cover. He claws at the tree bark, his fingers dirty and then shiny on top of the dirty. He mumbles obscenities to himself and no one; shouts them in long, ropey sentences that cling to people as they pass him.

He has a lot to say but is saying nothing.

Cue overuse of every obscene, offensive, gruesome or otherwise unpleasant word in vocabulary, just for effect, so that audience understands the very vulgarity of situation. These things are hundreds of insects and all imagery of black; things draped too heavily over everything; things like suffocation and/or subtle feeling of slime. Stress sadism; include all references to death; kill characters off by hanging or “instant heart attacks on the spot.”

Cut back to imagery of a dog lapping up the milky blue.

How is your “wholesome” now?

I wrote this after finishing Naked Lunch. This is about the most that I thought of it. I could think of little else while reading. Cue overuse of everything. Cue repulse and cue despair.

And I think now, looking back… this is literature? I don’t know. It is, obviously. It obviously is. But somehow, I guess, I think that we deserve something… better? I think we can leave ourselves with feelings better than this. And why not? Why shouldn’t we expect to have something better than sadness when we set down a book? Does instilling dread and darkness in a reader make the work somehow more valid? Maybe it does. After all, these are real feelings that have validity in the human spectrum of emotions. They “count” just as much as any other; perhaps setting down a book that steps outside the bounds of “reassuring” is more important to our being. I don’t know.

Cue uncertainty. Such being human.


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On Being Human

da vinci's Our existence can be so incredibly rich. We can create. We can destroy. We can do and think all sorts of new things into the world around us, and we can build for ourselves some beautifully complex lives – if only we view ourselves and our short time with a fair; appreciative; constructive; honest eye.

Woodrow Wilson, in his work “On Being Human,” covers a few key aspects of what it means “to be human” – and, furthermore, a few things to bear in mind if you want to do this thing “well”…

1. Humans are messy and we make mistakes. Though we may fancy ourselves rational, intelligent, steadfast individuals who are fully capable of making excellent decisions for ourselves (and probably others), the reality is that we aren’t.

“Man is much more than a rational being, and lives more by sympathies and impressions than by conclusions. It darkens his eyes and dries up the wells of his humanity to be forever in search of doctrine.”

2. Humans are “best” when genuine. Life is most meaningful when we saturate it with authenticity. The art of being human and the way to get “good” at life is to unfurl apprehensions and false pretenses; relinquish the “should’s” and “should not’s,” and fight for what feels real rather than flounder through what isn’t.

“Genuineness is not mere simplicity, for that may lack vitality… Genuineness is a quality which we sometimes mean to include when we speak of individuality. Individuality is lost the moment you submit to passing modes or fashions, the creations of an artificial society, and so is genuineness.” 

3. Humans are privileged to be able to make our own decisions. We can build our lives however we want; this is something

“Each has that choice, which is man’s alone, of the life he shall live, and finds out first or last that the art in living is not only to be genuine and one’s own master…”

4.  … But we are also responsible for making decisions well.

“Each has that choice, which is man’s alone, of the life he shall live, and finds out first or last that the art in living is not only to be genuine and one’s own master… but also to learn mastery in perception and preference.”

We are naturally drawn to things in life that appeal to our “humanness;” those things that are created by others who sit back into their own “humanness” in putting them together.

Our experiences are made better when they feel natural; easy. We like it when others present things to us in this way. And, in turn, our experience is enriched when we ourselves lean on our own “human” tendencies; when we develop and exercise an ease and naturalness in the way we interact with our day to day lives.


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From UX Booth: Intention vs. Interpretation

UX Booth published a great article recently on the fallout between intention and interpretation in design.

“Both interaction designers and information architects want to design objects with a singular meaning. It’s a noble, albeit impossible goal. The best we can hope for is to create more consistently meaningful experiences. To do that, designers must better understand the interplay between designer intention and user interpretation: the ways that we can influence – but not dictate – user interpretation.”

INTENTION

Giving more consideration to our intentions as designers puts us in a better position to create their manifestations. This begins with asking “what are we assuming?,” “what are our design principles?,” “what will this work affect?,” and “what else effects our user’s perceptions?”

INTERPRETATION

The next step – often overlooked – is to examine how users interpret those manifestations; to consider the direct, indirect, and contextual interpretations of our work. This includes asking questions like “what is the content?” and “what is the direct textual material we’re designing?,” “what is the indirect textual material?,” and “what are the contents in which this product is used?”

Bridging this gap will, of course, largely depend understanding context and strengthening communication…

Read the rest of the article on UX Booth


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“Becoming a unicorn” (according to a nerd)

In the interest and spirit of celebrating my very first week with my new firm, The Nerdery, I would like to present to you one of their most recent webinars. It features two of my fellow Nerds who, over the course of about an hour, discuss the science of “Becoming a Unicorn” …that is: “Going From Visual to UX Design.”

Curious about UX? Fascinated? Impassioned and yet isolated outside? Beguiled on the barrier to entry? Look no further than Fred Beecher’s advice, gathered up for you here:

Want to see a little (or a lot) more of The Nerdery blog? You can!

Alternatively, if you would like to join in on future Design Science webinars from The Nerdery, get signed up, yo.

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