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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:

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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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The number one rule of being a manager

In order to do good work – in any realm really, but especially as a manager, where our day to day going-abouts have such tremendous influence on those around us – there is one thing above all other things that we must do, and we owe it not only to ourselves but to the team entrusted to us to do it well.

We have to root our work in love. We have to have passion. 

We do not have to love everyone, nor do we have to love all things.

On the contrary, we actually shouldn’t… and attempting to do so is to live out a lie.

But we do have to find and focus on the thing or things that are tethered to our very beings; the things that make us want to get out of bed in the morning; the things that make the good fight feel easy; the things that we go to bat for without even thinking about it.

While the specifics here can vary, it really comes down to two directions of focus, and a great managers can fall into one of these two realms:

You either love the product, 

or you love the people who do. 

Ideally, we are impassioned – deeply – by the pursuit and delivery of whatever is on the horizon; whatever the team is driving against, whether it is the design and development of new product or its next release; improvements in performance or innovations in design.

But if we don’t love the product – if perhaps we work in a corporate or consulting environment, where this product is something that is not ours and we’re not sure it excites us at our core – then we still must operate with genuine love for something. And if it’s not for the product, then this love should instead be for the people – the team, the client, the customer.

But even if we care more about the people than we do the product, we have to assume that they care about it. And the more it matters to them, the more their wellbeing should matter to us. This means that we are considerate of their work streams, their suggestions, their investment. And most importantly, if nothing else, we can’t go around recklessly ripping the rug out from underneath a team that cares deeply about a product or project simply because we don’t feel the same. 

If we can’t find a way love in either regard – can’t find a way to care passionately about the product or the people – then, frankly, we shouldn’t be managing either one.  

As managers, it’s best if we feel passionate about what the team is driving toward. That we love the product, the project, or the goal.

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But if nothing else, we must at least love the team.

sled-dogs-hoffmann_49760_990x742And if we don’t love either one, we shouldn’t be managing them.


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The other side of an ending

I wrote recently about Part I of an ending: “the end of a good run.” – in short, the way good things end and our immediate reactions around it.

There’s more to the way things end, though – there is the subsequent rationalization; the way that we can choose to interpret an ending with more understanding; and really, even more love.

This is Part II – the other side of an ending.

Losing something that meant a lot – pulling up during one hell of a run – is damn hard. And the more you care about something, the harder it is to lose.

The reality, though, is that things end. Thing are always changing.

And of course, if all is fleeting, it can be said that we should not be attached. But at the same time, if we’re being fair, we can also feel compassion for the human experience and recognize that the loss of something most precious to us is the most painful experience, however fleeting, of all.

And so our first job is to not attempt to inhibit attachment or mourning. Embrace grief wholeheartedly.

Many beautiful things are beautiful because they are fleeting. Grief is part of beauty. We should be unafraid to embrace grief thusly. Grief is only a side effect of love. And to prevent grief would likely mean to prevent love – to smother and stomp out any indications in its early stages.

And that’s simply no way to live.

Live with love. Accept that things change; love may fade away. And in that void comes grief.

We tend to recoil from impermanence and the ending of things, but the reality is that beauty fades; love and grieving, “like separation and connection,” exist only with one another.

And when things end, you have to release them. It is your job – your obligation, as a person – to relinquish it.

Give it back to the universe. 

“Everything is always changing. When we take loved objects into our egos with the hope or expectation of having them forever, we are deluding ourselves and postponing an inevitable. The solution is not to deny attachment but to become less controlling in how we love.” – Epstein, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart

Everything is transient- impermanent. And part of a good existence – part of “life’ing” well – is not only recognizing that, but accepting it.

“It is possible to have a relationship to transience that is not adversarial, in which the ability to embrace the moment takes precedence over fear its passing.” – Epstein

And the ability to love something for having happened takes precedence over fear of it going away.

Love.

Love hard.

Love as though there is no ending.

But also maintain a single thread of appreciation for its potential impermanence; for the fact that all things shift and change and evolve and, yes, things end. And when your things ends and you see grief on the other side, sit in the appreciation that that grief marks a sense of sincerity for what you gave.

And then let it go. Relinquish; release; give it all back to the universe.

And rest assured that this, too, is love.

After all, if you really love something, you set it free.

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Making something from something

It’s not about building something from nothing.

Not really. Not here. And not most anywhere.

We almost always start with a something. Start with an impulse. Start with an inkling. Start with an inspiration. Or simply start with our current circumstances.

But what something? From where? Which one? In a world of countless somethings, how do you come by the something that will yield another something? How does that situation go?

I.) Which matters more: the “something” we make or the actual “making” of it?

a.) Anything will do (“it’s the effort, not the end, that matters”)

There are people who wake each morning readied for any task in front of them. They roll up their sleeves, make your problem their problem, and treat everything with a sincere, straightforward attention. They are characterized by their work ethic – the fortunate and admirable ability to throw themselves at most any task in front of them. They’re the farmers and ranch hands; the handy-men; the personal assistants; the quick-thinking nannies; the EMTs; the “honest” horses. The do’ers.

For them, the best use of one’s energy is an honest exertion each day, and the working itself is more important than the thing against/with/to which it is done. They tell themselves and would tell others: make work your favorite. That’s your favorite, okay? Work is your new favorite.

Pick any something. Choose one. Pick any thing. Doesn’t matter.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, a king of Ephyra, was punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever. And maybe we can uproot the tale, reject the implications, and imagine unto Sisyphus an optimistic ending: one in which he finds a sense of purpose in this endless, otherwise meaningless pursuit.

For some: the meaning is in the exertion. And the boulder itself – or the discernment between one boulder over another – matters less.

b.) Only a certain thing will suffice (“the end must warrant the effort”)
There are other people who spend their lives looking; searching; scrutinizing. They exert their energy strategizing; plotting; discerning between one thing and the next. These are the thinkers, the restless, the revolutionaries. For them, the ends – not the means – matters more, and if it’s not the right thing, they won’t throw themselves against it. The meaning comes from the context.

These people are just as willing to roll a boulder up a hill – to endure hardship and exert energy against something – but, for them, only a discrete expected direction will warrant the work.

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 II.) How important is the “something” from which that “something else” is made? (The importance of intent, deliberateness, and purpose)

To what extent should we survey the boulder landscape, make decisions by weighing thorough investigation, through searching, through exhausting all avenue and potential avenues, and considering the universe of alternative outcomes?

a.) Accept something.
There is no other opportunity available (or you choose not to pursue it.) Energy expended is not in maximizing the circumstances. You accept that you are pushing a boulder – this boulder – up a hill. You take little time to survey whether this is necessary, whether there are alternatives, or whether or not you will exert any real effort. Your focus is merely on hunkering down and “dealing with it.” This is passive.

b.) Choose something.
Something perhaps in between the “anything” and the “only a certain” thing — you survey the boulders available to you, and commit yourself to one. Maybe you put your hand against each one, and maybe you pick the one among these that feels “the best.” Or maybe you don’t. You certainly don’t have to – because it doesn’t have to be the perfect one; the point is that you pick one and push.

c.) Find something.
Search for and put your hand against as many rocks as possible. Look for the one that feels right. If none of them feel right at first, keep looking.

This is an act of a.) love and an act of b.) will. It takes both. With will comes the strength to heave yourself against a goal; with love comes the motivation to do it in a way that is good; that does no harm unto others. And here, in the combination, comes passion.

The cycle of climbing and trying; tripping, failing, falling. The ups and downs of one continual progress; shifting up, shifting down, clearing obstacles, enduring setbacks, moving on.

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III.) The meaning of “making something from something:”

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor, best known for his best-selling book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” in which he works to address the issues of existential neurosis through “logotherapy” – “healing through meaning.”

In this work, Frankl identifies three things as being the most important for a meaningful life:

Love“love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire… the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Attitude – “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” // “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Purposeful Work - “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

When he was in Auschwitz, Frankl made a number of things “his thing” – from impossible living situations to manual labor to emotional turmoil. He accepted what was available to him and committed himself to survival.

Frankl believed that people are primarily driven by a “striving to find meaning in one’s life,” and that it is this sense of meaning that enables people to overcome painful experiences – that even in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanized situation, life has potential meaning and that, therefore, even suffering is meaningful. He is quoted as saying, “What is to give light must endure burning,” and this conclusion served as a strong basis for his work and theory of logotherapy and existential analysis, which argues that striving to find a meaning in one’s life – not power, not pleasure – is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.

a.) Accept that which we cannot change.

If we cannot change a situation, then we must change our attitude.

While Buddhism focuses on the liberation and alleviation of suffering by overcoming ignorance and attachment, Frankl instead argues that the end goal is to find meaning within it – that suffering can actually be embraced as a means of uprooting meaning, and that “to suffer” is not synonymous with “despair” – that “despair is suffering without meaning; as long as we choose to ascribe meaning to a moment, we can rise above despair.” That life has meaning in all conditions. And with meaning, tragedies can be molded into personal triumphs.

“I would not share the opinion of Sartre, who said that we have to accept and shoulder – courageously; heroically – the absolute meaninglessness of our lives. But rather what I think we have to accept is the incapacity to recognize the ultimate meaning in intellectual terms.” – Frankl

But the important distinction here is that Frankl only chose to “endure suffering” in the concentration camp because his suffering was unavoidable. His purpose was not to endure it, but rather to survive it, and even among limited options, he was constantly looking for more purposeful work – positioning himself as therapist, doctor, and aid while in Auschwitz.

And once freed, he did not prod through life merely accepting and acquiescing to whatever was set in front of him. On the contrary, he deliberately pursued work that promised to be even more purposeful: neurologist, psychiatrist, author. He dedicated his life thereafter to existential analysis and therapy.

The point here is that “to suffer” is not the end goal. The point is to focus on meaning beyond the suffering; it presumes that the suffering will pass.

b.) Change what we can, when we can, when the opportunity becomes available:

While Frankl appreciates that our freedom is a finite freedom – that we are never fully free from restrictions or constraints; that sometimes our circumstances are set (at least for the time being) – he also advocates neither searching nor settling for hardship or suffering, if the situation can be avoided. Neither endeavor makes someone a hero. Endure your suffering with a sense of purpose, if it cannot be avoided. But end the suffering if and when you can.

There is a difference between people who are able to pick themselves up and get over life’s problems and those who are not. The decisive factor is decision – the freedom of choice; the freedom to come up with a decision. It is deciding for oneself “I would like to become this way or another in spite of conditions that should only seem to fully determine my behavior. I should act freely as a responsible being.”

It’s “not just a question of deciding to survive, but a ‘why’ of survival – a reason, a passionate end – that motivates that.”

c.) Prioritize the pursuit of a purpose.

“Any human being is concerned with something out there in the world. Is concerned with a work to do; a job to complete; a task; a meaning, a mission in life waiting for him; for him exclusively; to be materialized, to be actualized by him and by no other person. Right now. Who else, if not he.” – Frankl

Not for himself but for a cause to serve – something or someone. This is an act of tremendous love – love, most likely, for another person. Short of that, however, love for a cause; love for something; love for life’s work.

d.) It’s not just about meaning, but the search for it.

A person has to decide what he or she will be in the next moment. A human being is the father of his future. It is our power and responsibility to chart our own course; map our own way; pursue our own purpose. To move not in any direction, but in the right direction.

IV.) So. About them boulders…

Let’s take “the boulder” to represent absolutely anything that might consume our mental and physical energy — “work,” good or bad.

Worst case scenario: we’ve got no boulder at all. Or reject those available to us. 

We have neither productive work nor suffering — nothing consuming our energy, welcomed or otherwise.

Ideally (and realistically), this situation is short-lived — even in the absence of deliberate pursuit, we will most likely encounter something which warrants our attention or energy, even if it brings hardship. Which is good, because with no boulder whatsoever, our existence becomes a vacuum, and we are stripped – cheated – of any opportunity for purpose; our life is rendered meaningless.

And “if there is no meaning in his visual field, then man takes his own life.”

Next scenario: we have only one boulder available to us, and that boulder brings only hardship; suffering to be endured

There are two opportunities for our boulder to offer the opportunity for meaning or purpose: a.) as suffering (the obvious, #Sisyphys) and b.) as deliberate, chosen work. In the event that we find ourselves in the former – being asked to suffer – our focus becomes survival, with the motivation and the reason being: something “on the other side.” (See last scenario.)

Next scenario: we have chosen any boulder from the few that were readily available, and do so because it’s just as good as any to roll up a hill. 

If this is enough – if we find purpose in the pushing of a boulder alone – then that’s fine. But this is only really satisfying if our purpose in life is rolling boulders up hills, when the act of doing so will always bring more meaning than any boulder in particular.

If, on the other hand, we have a hunger for more purpose, and if we’re exerting the energy anyway, rolling this boulder up this hill, then we might as well throw ourselves at something that brings us satisfaction. Otherwise we risk never have anything more to show for that effort than the pushing of a nameless boulder up one nameless hill.

Last scenario: we search for the one boulder that means everything

When we pick the right boulder, the act of throwing ourselves behind it becomes a labor of love; the strain and hardship incidental.

“If there is a meaning to fulfill – if man becomes cognizant of such a meaning – then he’s ready to suffer, he’s ready to offer sacrifices; he’s ready to undergo tension, stress and so forth without any harm being done to his health.” – Frankl

Meaning armors us against hardship. And meaning makes our pursuits – and our life – worthwhile.

man walking bike up hill

cycling uphill


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The end of a good run

The “good run” we had while we had it and what it means to have it “good.”

In short, you run a team hard.

No. It’s more than that.

You are fortunate enough to work with an incredible team – who wants to run hard – and, overall, you just let them. You clear obstacles, protect them from attacks, and urge them on when their confidence or their will wavers. You get a good feel for how much they want to be asked, and then you run them against that. You get a feel for their level of love, and you press on when it falters.

And here’s a bit how that day to day looks:

They endure for the sake of the goal and you endure for them. You take blows. And doing so feels easy – obvious – because you are all – all of you are - in this and you want to see it through.

And here’s how that day to day ends:

Suddenly, things put on the team become too much. The truly impossible is asked of you – it is not a task that seems unsurmountable and yet challenges the team’s passion, but rather a wave of toxicity that washes out their passion altogether.

The team takes a hit you can’t protect them from, and suddenly you know within an instant that too much is being asked of them; too much is stripped away. And it’s obvious that it’s impossible to carry on.

And just like that it’s all over.

And in that moment – the moment of reaction, after the moment of realization – the only thing you do (the obvious thing in its “only-ness”) is to slow it all down and turn your attention inwards; to pull up, pull out, and salvage what’s left of their spirit.

horse

It ended with a conference call.

We didn’t fully realize when we were on the call that that was where it would end.

Frankly, it had all “been ending” for a while and we all knew it – had all been watching the approaching horizon, the tiny traces of that far-off fuzzy place where, we could see, the rivers dried up and living things were strung out in the sun.

So although the call was a bad one – we had known that much, of course, while we were on it – it was, in and of itself at the time, arguably no worse than the usual. It was the same mixture of bullshit and toxicity and political power-play challenge we’d already faced more times than we bothered to count (never bothering to count not because we didn’t care, but because we cared too damn much to do so.)

And all that really needs to be said about it is: by the end of the day on the day that it happened, it was apparent that that call had been the end of it all.

It was by then – by the end of the day – obvious that it was much heavier than we had initially realized. And heavy enough that we didn’t have to let on. That it would always be the moment where things had come undone.

Those of us it mattered to were there; those of us who weren’t there could never understand.

And of those of who knew – who were there; the team at large – there were two of us who led it. There was a whole team in the trenches; two of us at the front line. All of us had endured that call, but it was only the two of us were in a real place to pull up following it.

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 8.17.31 PMTo pull up: in horse racing, when the jockey makes the decision to withdraw the horse from the race during the race itself by deliberately slowing down. Most of the time, it is because of injury – when the jockey sees a critical problem and knows that allowing the horse to continue in the race would very well cause further injury; when pulling up is a precaution to prevent further hardship. The jockey slows and eventually stops the horse in the middle of the race and does not allow him/her to continue. It is always done in the best interest of the horse; done for the sake of horse’s wellbeing. And many horses have been saved because the jockey salvaged him in this way.  

The aftermath of an ending.

So I think we woke up the next morning knowing.

I know both of us considered not going in. Both of us knew that we would.

“Good morning.” I’d messaged before leaving my place, though I rarely ever did.
“Morn’,” he’d replied.

And then I said nothing. It perhaps warranted a follow-up, but I didn’t offer one.
And he had said nothing in turn.
Both us knew what it was. And what to do.

We met each other there like any other day, and yet this day was different.

He walked in during our morning scrum call, as he so often did.

And before I could confirm our dispositions, I saw the sweater – something somber; something gray; something that all but matched my own – and messaged him, feigning play.

“Oh good.” I said. “You got the memo.”

It’s stupid, the sweater thing. It doesn’t mean anything.

All it was was that it was the first day that he had busted out the serious winter sweaters – a thick wool number, maybe cabled; I don’t recall – and, more importantly, the first day I had as well. Both of us wearing a dark shade of gray. Both of us also in dark pants. The first day for both of us, wearing these sweaters; these dark colors. Both of us on a day set to hit 70’s; a day when the morning commute alone had reached 62.

He read it – I saw him – but he didn’t reply. He only stood, leaning against the wall, neither looking at me nor looking away; looking ahead, at the room, focused but quiet, wearing an unfamiliar energy. Neither listless nor buoyant (those are him.) Just a solidity. A certainty.

And that was the moment that I knew for sure that he knew. Knew, just like that, that we had both seen the end on that call the day before. Knew we together would pull up the team. And be done.

We had had our discrepancies in focus over this era and had not always been aligned, but here at the end, we were on the same page again – knew without saying that this, right here, was a moment already beyond. And that we were here simply because we’d agreed without having to agree: One last time, we’d show up and see each other through to the end. This day was an acquiescence. And, more importantly: a mourning. All our own. For the end of our own good run. A forfeit for the sake of the team.

We didn’t mention it. Not at first. The day picked up as it typically does:

“I need to talk to so-and-so.”
“Yeah, I need to follow up on such-and-such.”

And we each went on about our morning.

And then, hours later:

“Lunch?”
“Soon.”
“Where?”
He knew where. It was always the same, every day.
“The grocery store.”

And so we went. As we always do.

We eat in silence for a bit.

It’s him who says it. Suddenly. To an outsider, it would have seemed out of the blue.

“We’ll want to let them know.”
“I know.” I nod. “So-and-so is out. I’ll talk to everyone tomorrow.”

I message our account executive. Set down my phone. We continue eating.

And it was almost entirely that simple; that straightforward. We went on in silence, holding our palms pressed to the neck of the team, tapering speed, quietly evaluating the damage. We ease up; collect the energy and gather it up in a sling; ease off and take on the weight. There is an obvious paining here. I don’t think it will endure forever, but it’s enough to leave the track.

I know we’re both listening to the windedness; feeling the strain of each breath as our own. We’re leaving the track; our hands running down on the legs, desperate not to find signs of distress. There’s a pain in the chest mirroring the pain in the team; there’s nothing we can do now but hope for the best, our backs to the track.

“Remember that one time we bought a nice bottle of champagne right after we successfully delivered the first time?”

“Yeah.”

When we had delivered on the first big thing – the only big thing; the first and the last; the whole point of this whole thing and the thing that kept it all tied together this long – I had picked up a really nice bottle of champagne for the three of us that were there then – he and I and another – and we drank to our success at one of our apartments.

And now, this much later, in this context – sitting amidst the smoldering heap of what was once our domain, perched on some smoking remnants – I realize suddenly that I want to do it again – one more time – a bottle of too-nice champagne; a stoic and hearty toasting to this place that was once our own.

“I am in a mind to go buy a similarly ludicrously expensive bottle of champagne and toast to… all of this. Right now – at 12:15 pm. That’s my mindset.”

He says nothing.

“I want to go sit perched somewhere… some place overlooking all of this; a place to see it all but not be seen – a place that doesn’t really exist. A highway overpass… a parking lot would do.”

And we know without defining specifics that when we get back, we’ll both wrap up; pack up; head out. From there, I’ll grab the bottle; we’ll find each other in a parking lot, and I’ll pull the champagne from a paper bag; hand it to him to open; he will; and I’ll pull out two stacked paper cups from the grocery store coffee bar – they’re branded with the same grocery store name on the side. And he’ll pour them halfway full with champagne.

We each hold our cup into the air in between us. There’s no forcing this. It’s a thing without asking it to be a thing. We’re both present, in full.

An appropriate pause. And then I offer the obvious – the boastful; the benign:

“To all of this.” I pause, then add: “It was a good fucking run.”
“It was.”

We take a drink. Or maybe just I drink. I don’t watch to see if he does.

And we review it all a bit.

Lessons learned. Peaks. And then we bullshit; laugh a little. It’s appropriately retrospective; appropriately both heavy and light. We finish the first cups; refill them again; finish those.

“Finish up what’s left, okay?” I mean the project. I’m obligated to play PM to the end here.
“I know.”

Of course he knows. He’ll play his part, too, to the end. In the ashes.

“At least we have other things to go to.” He says, because he really is quite the optimist when he’s “on.”
I laugh. “You have other things to go to. I don’t.”

We both know that this is true – I am bound to this, lashed to it. And we both know that the captain will, in a way, go down with the ship here – at least until another project comes up. That I will stand in the rain replaying the race even long after the horse is safely put up in a stall; I will carry this on until it’s exhausted into the soil.

“I have to go.” He said. He has a call.
“Mm hm. I know.”
“You okay to ride?” He asks, as he pulls his keys from his pocket.

This. From the guy I had met on a steel-wired tight-rope, charged with an impossible timeline for getting across. The guy I had grown to know when we had done just that, leaning against and then away from each other, working our way across it only by taking each other’s wrists and making a commitment to trust – wholly trust – and lean back, away from the wire.

Niagara Falls Tightrope

This, from the guy on the tightrope. This, after a year and a half. We had navigated ships through jutting rocks in pitch black together. We had moved boulders together; dislodged brick walls and buildings together; charged headfirst into fires together; traipsed through fields of barbed wire together, blood going unfelt and ignored at the fronts of our legs. And, hell yeah, we had led that team. Run the team. Protected the team. Done right by the team. Gave our all to the team. To the bitter end.

And here, now, at the end of it all, here is him asking me if I was okay to ride home.

“Yeah.” I said. “I’ll be okay.”

Okay. This was, of course, the word for it.

I used to tell the team that everything would be okay.

Now, I no longer will.

Not because everything isn’t or won’t be. “It” – the “it-ness” of a much bigger picture – it will, in a much different way.
But “everything” will no longer be okay in the way I once meant it (and I always, always meant it with all matter of sincerity, when I did) because there is no longer an “anything,” let alone a question of everything. Not in the way that “it” was.

We all know this.

And so, because there’s nothing more to say – nothing that has to be said – we say nothing.
Just the hug. The sincere one.

“We did good.” He says.
“Yeah. We did. Better than they’ll probably ever realize.”

He eyes my nearly-empty paper cup.

“You want me to take that?”
“I’ll finish it.”
“Okay.”

And then he’s in his car, driving away.
And I’ll be riding away too, soon.

I look down at the rest of the Veuve in the bottom of the paper cup. And then I finish it.

Me, drinking the last of my champagne from my wilting paper cup; me looking at the remnants in the bottom before tilting back – I had expected to finish in two sips; I finished in one – as I look off at the bare brick facade of a building now gone in front of me.

And then there’s that familiar thing, at the corner of the eyes. Crying but not crying – a gathering of emotion without real display. I am only finishing the rest of this drink and here’s this reaction; a thing that simply happens, neither provoked nor pushed down.

Because I can feel the real pain coming up through the legs of a horse who ran hard. I can feel the heat and the damage of a team that gave it their all and perhaps gave too much, and through this pain, I want to believe that I let them run right; pushed against love right; willed for their will right; and, yeah, pulled up in time right. I want to believe I did right by them and our hardship. And that all of it was as worthwhile as it seemed.

I fold the cup – gently, conscientiously; this is not an act of crushing – and put it into my bag; take out my phone and tap out a message in closing:

“Thank you.”

It doesn’t even have to be said.
It could never be said enough.

“Ditto,” he replies, from the road.

[There’s more to the way things end, of course. There is the subsequent rationalization; the way that we can choose to interpret an ending with more understanding; and really, even more love. Read Part II – The Other Side of An Ending.]


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glitter vs. gold

I light a lighter.

I watch the flame, then hold my hand over it, gauging the heat as it pierces the air and reaches my palm. I lower my hand; feel the line of heat cutting into my skin; feel it sharpen. I will play with it until I get burned. 

We bring these sorts of things upon ourselves. 

 

We find a thing that feels good.

A cup of coffee. Black. A cotton t-shirt, two old shoes. A sandwich. A cookie. Cold beer.

This thing has a sort of warmth that rises up around us; snags and captures our attention.

Yes. This thing. I like this thing. 

And we want more.

Steam some milk, a dash of sugar.

An iron, some leather, a crease. A donut; a cupcake; a slice of pie.

The first beer after a rough day; the first drink of a night with promise. The burn and the warming of whiskey.

The thing begins to seem less flavored or nearing flavorless; the taste begins to lose its edge.

And so.

 

a.) We chase it.

The thrill of pursuit. The high of the hunt. The flicker and the promises of pleasure.

Macchiato, caramel, extra hot. Smoking. Smoked meats. The elegance and mastery of heat. A label, a luxury, a line. 

Driving. Driving fast. Driving fast and dodging cars; driving despite other drivers.

The objective sharpens. The context – our relativity – seeps away.

Let’s saturate these sensations and drown our senses and sensibilities. Let us get drunk on our indulgence. Let’s turn today free and blur the idea of tomorrow.

Come on, darling. Let us toast to the here and now.

We run it down. We find a frenzy; become frantic in our attack at its all-ness.

We want to exhaust it; map the ends of it.

Heaving. Heaving. The sweat at the edge of a brow; the maddening frustration of an endless pursuit. 

The fury and the crash of a lurching ocean; a storm overtaking the laws of nature and the work of man.

We dance at the edges of these things, flirt with the limitations of their makeup against ourselves. Almost always, however, with these things, we will exhaust ourselves before we’ll ever exhaust the ends of the earth or these endeavors.

The sun rises the next morning.

We’ve got tubs of glitter overturned across the hardwood; sparkles echoing in the light. 

The washer is rocking, a spin cycle awry. The bath is running; the water, long since cold, spilling over its edges. Bleeding out and over the floor.

Oil floats iridescence across the water, ribbons and rainbows in the sun.

There’s mildew in our bathrooms and mold beneath the cake.

We are choking on sequins; blinded by light.

 

Or.

b.) We set the thing down. Let it go. Walk away.

 

Our lives are built with toothpicks. We exist in soapy bubbles.

We are tiny routines and little habits, and though our world feels like the whole world to us (or vice versa), the reality is that our firsthand perception of the world – that being those bits that constitute our day to day life – are really quite small.

We stand eye to eye on opposites sides of a bed. It’s got this great big white down comforter, and we are both touching it, tugging and about to stop tugging, having an unspoken debate on the appropriate investment in smoothness. We each try to put this on the other.

We could sleep against the floor. Don’t you remember?

And yet here we spend our mornings agonizing over down.

 

I drank a cup of yesterday’s coffee.

I had already poured it and taken a sip before I realized, was already pot committed, so to speak, before I set to brewing more.

My boots are weathered, the leather uppers worn away from shifting. I don’t want to run the chase.

I unzip them, running metal teeth open along my calf. I peel dampened, dirty socks off of cold feet.

And I walk barefoot over an earth that goes from moss to mud. Each footstep is all I need to know.

Leave the rest behind.

 

We take ourselves away from our day-to-day lives and tuck ourselves into places where most of what we believe we need is stripped away. We land ourselves in destinations made of almost nothing, and invest our senses in an appeal and allure that lies in its simplicity. We turn our attention to earth and trees.

It is not the first of everything, but it is certainly the first of something. And on this we agree to agree.

It is a measurement. A playing out; a proving that “happy” can be made of this alone. And, just so, that we can do it.

Here is a place of “only;” not a place of “and.” The most exciting things are the earth’s textiles, jutting up against the sky. It is an earth’s carpet – a soil built from fallen leaves. A frog. Here, a frog. There, it had been a toad. I took each one into my hand. A soil; smooth rocks… smooth though the walls are rugged; jagged; chiseled. The wet shine of an iris; the fog of an exhale. A composition.

The earth turns into water at the edges of many versions of our world.

And when we step here, we are standing low on rocks with water ebbing against them and looking out across a water of metal. We stand at the edge of this and we brush up against something new and yet familiar. There is a gentle rising of a tide much warmer than expected; warmer than it needs to be. Below the surface, something that clings in a way that is welcomed; embraced. Desired.

We wade in. And then we wait.

I am present. I don’t wander and I don’t stray.

 

There is something here about rocks and shorelines. What was it that was said? Something… something. Something about the way the island was built; something about layers of lakebed washing up; a speculation.

Here, though, we are against the earth. Wading into warming waters; working our way through forests, our feet sinking into stone-studded soil; dwarfed by the formations of rock.

White rock. Broken rock. Great big cubes of broken rock. Great fragmented blocks of rock.

Eyes cast up at these things. And we imagine – without realizing – what we can do with it.

We can carve from rocks the sort of things that suit us to consume; we can chip away at the face of cliff and break it down; take away what we can carry; take bits home with us, to use as the walls of towers we erect. And this tower shall be our home.

We do not call this thing a castle. That would be old fashioned. It’s not called that anymore.

There is no prince; no princess. It is just a place in which we be.

 

Or we can leave the rocks as mountain faces, stand before them and then look up, climb a line of sight across the edges that tower over us.

There are walls of white stone; three layers of exquisite; the silhouette and likeness of a rook. An indulgence in simplicity and understated; the unsaid.

rocks

Driving. Driving slow. Driving at the speed of absorbing warmth and pattern and color.

The loll of warm water beneath boats. The gentle, indiscernible rising of a tide.

Ducking under fences, walking across the natural grasses of a pasture, making our to horses we have no right to touch.

Running our hands over their faces, along the broad, flat plane of their cheeks. Leaving it at that.

Ducking into little diners with brown pleather chairs and wood-paneled walls because we think it’s charming and quaint to go to places like this. Drinking bad coffee out of chipped mugs with the speckled pattern. Order the “famous” waffles with cherry topping and marvel to find the cherry, not the waffles, worthy of the claim.

 

The leaves. The leaving.

Things are falling both into and out of place.

 

The soft hum of a silent room.

I am tucked up against a window frame, watching buses one floor below.

Toenails painted pink with the slow gesture of each deliberate stroke.

I am sipping at black coffee; scar tissue goes unseen against my palm.

The street, wet from the rain, shimmers below me.

The oils in my coffee are iridescent.

The sun is rising overhead.


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The this and that and the in-between.

I left a little later from work today. I didn’t realize it was later until it already was.

I did the work that I wanted to do in the time it took to do it, and it was 4:15 by the time I realized it was 4… 5:45 when I realized most of the office had long since left. And it was beginning to get dark when I realized that I had better head out if I wanted any part of my commute to be done in any part of the remaining heat of the day.

Riding the bike into the fall, I have realized that this – gathering up the heat from the sunlight – matters.

I am not even a minute or two on the highway when I realize that I am facing a sky as my terrain – that I’ve caught that precise time when the streetlights along the highway have all come on already, though they aren’t needed for a moment more, and the day, in this moment, still clings bright, stretched taunt against the edges of the sky. I’m standing stark against that window that is not quite daylight and not quite night – a place that exists in a measure of moments. And then is gone.

It is both delicate and godlike in the way only skies – and only sometimes – seem to be.

I am riding underneath and into it, but I am heading not west but east, into the wash of what is illuminated by the light source behind me rather than into the light source itself. And seeing this wash in front of me is like finding myself at the crest of a hill suddenly bombarded by a scenery that’s taken me by surprise. And, seeing this, I find that I am taken aback with a sudden sense of serenity. For one moment, there is nothing and nowhere except the this and right now.

It occurs to me that this is perhaps – no, probably – the first time I have ridden home from work in this light.

streetlightParents used to tell their children to “come home when the streetlights come on.” Some parents did, anyway. Maybe some parents still do. I’m not sure mine ever did.

And to “go home when the streetlights came on” meant that children would stay out a little later in the summer; come home a little earlier come fall.

Tonight is earlier than last night. Tonight just a bit later than tomorrow. Either way, though, at this moment, I too am “going home.”

I am in this place and not that place. I am here because this place, it seems that it has… “more life to it.” That’s not to say that my life is here in this place – certainly no more than my life is in that place – because though the sky seems to be going that way, every day is a shift; a bit of a deliberate transition to doing so.

There are inhales. And there are exhales. And then there is that pause in the in-between. That moment when the lungs and the chest and the body hang suspended, in suspense, preparing themselves, in silence, for the next.

There is a decision to do and there is the doing; the commitment to something and then the act to follow through.

Our lives are a made up of countless mappings of these moments – those transitory times between what was and what will be; those spaces we traverse to get from this to that. The delicate and godlike; the beautiful in-between.


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How to love

What is “love?”

Despite their differences, my partners all had something in common: they were all once “somebody who embodies something I am pursuing.” And I approached the partnerships as “sidling up next to them on our separate but similar walks.”

In the past, the “something I am pursuing” has ranged from straightforwardness and stability to adventure and art, exploration and experimentation; to playfulness and laughter; to ambition and drive; to the philosophy of meaning and purpose; the invaluable merit of productivity.

I am driving at and fully expect to live out my own image of greatness, as defined by an individually-curated set of values. And my expectations, likewise, are for a “great” man, with his idea and embodiment of “greatness” more or less mirroring  my own.

Ayn Rand, I discovered earlier this week, defined love in a similar way, saying: “Love is the expression of one’s values, the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person, the emotional price paid by one man for the joy he receives from the virtues of another.”

Put more simply: “Love is the response of one’s own highest values in the person of another.” Love is the realization of values.

And if love is the realization of values, then in order to love, one must first know what their own values are.

Where love originates

To love another – to recognize one’s own values in someone else – one must first believe, buy into and build out a value system that one can stand behind. To see them elsewhere, one must first define and embody them for oneself.

“Only a man of self esteem is capable of love – because he is the only man capable of holding firm, consistent, uncompromising, unbetrayed values. The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.” (Rand)

To love another, we must first love ourselves. Deeply. Wholly.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow is famous for his proposed hierarchy of needs – an illustration of human needs, outlined as a pyramid, in which he positions physiological (air, food, water, sleep, etc.) at the bottom, followed by “safety,” “love and belonging,” “esteem” and then, at the top, as the final need achieved: “self-actualization,” which Maslow articulated simply as “what a man can be, he must be.”

This level of need refers to what a person’s full potential is and the realization of that potential. Maslow describes it as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. And while I think Maslow was right to call this out as the chief “need,” I disagree with his assertion that “to understand this level of need, the person must not only achieve the previous needs, but master them.”

Self-actualization is indeed our greatest achievement; the pursuit of our purpose is our chief purpose. But until we have accomplished a sense of meaning and purpose for ourselves – until we have identified our full selves – we can’t give our full selves to others, via love. And just because many people attempt life in the order Maslow proposes – to first find love and figure someone else out, and then, only if there’s time and energy left, figure out what to do with ourselves – doesn’t mean this is the way we should be doing it.

To love another, we must first love ourselves.

How to do love

The portrayal of “love” in cultural references and media, often represented (superficially so) as “romance,” has done us a disservice. Sometimes, it seems, we harbor these notions that because relationships and love are such an invaluable part of life, that they are best positioned as the end-all, be-all endeavor – and that our success in finding and preserving love, even through artificial means, is the foremost metric of “life-ing” well. That we are obliged to focus a large part of our attention on the emotional wellbeing of this other person, positioned as a “partner.”

But a “partner” in what, if this is our focus? If two people dedicate the majority of their energy to simply sustaining their relationship status – even if only one person is doing the investing, in persuading or preserving the other – then what has happened to these two people’s lives?

The real meaning of life – and the measure of a life successfully lived – isn’t in dedicating energy to love alone. Securing and keeping a partner is not the end goal – and though love adds a tremendous amount of meaning to life, the meaning of one’s life does not depend on it. The measure of our success in life does not hang in other people, but rather in our own selves.

Our real task in life is to find something that gives it purpose – to find work in which we can act out our greatest values and yield value unto others. And when we choose partners, though we search for those who share values, we also ideally want someone whose attention is on their own purpose – on exercising those values we share. If neither person does this – if they meet and instead drop their drive at whatever purpose they may have fulfilled – their potential, within the context of the universe, may never extend beyond one or two single beings.

Any person, partnered or not, should operate with a degree of self-sufficiency and independence in judgment, in pursuit of our own ideals. Our focus, first and foremost, should always be on fulfilling our life purpose and acting out values. We should do this as individuals (for ourselves) when we’re single, and we should do it even when we are also someone’s partner… and we should demand the same from those people with whom we partner.

“Life’ing” well means that our energy and attention is focused ahead on common life goals rather than each other. The energy generated from the partnership supports and fuels bigger life goals.

To “love” well means that we spend our time combating and conquering the world side by side, rather than turning inward and combating and/or conquering one another.  

Lennon and Ono

This is not to say that relationships don’t take work or care. They do. But any relationship that consumes enough attention that other pursuits are put at risk should be considered a poor one, with a “good” relationship defined as one that supports our pursuits with an appropriate (e.g., proportional) level of “overhead.” Energy committed to maintaining a relationship shouldn’t conflict with or draw from the energy that should otherwise be spent on life purpose.

A word on compromise

In work, we give our employer hours of our day, our week, our life. We commit mental headspace and physical energy, and we do this day after day because, on some level, the whole thing is worthwhile to us… Ideally, our work allows us to live out our values. At a minimum, however, our work does not demand that we forfeit them. If it does, (hopefully) we leave. If we don’t, we die a bit each day, carving off and giving away too much of ourselves over time.

A compromise is only worthwhile if concessions are mutual; it “should be a breach of one’s comfort; never a breach of one’s convictions.” (Rand)

This is a trade  – an exchange which benefits both people by their own independent judgment, in which each party neither seeks to take advantage of the other, nor allows himself to be taken advantage of.

Love requires a degree of honesty, fairness, and respect. It demands balance, at whatever level both parties are comfortable. In the same way that we cannot expect to withdraw more than we have invested; we cannot expect to get by on emotional “credit” alone, and we cannot allow our partners to do so, either. At least not for long.

Compromise and sacrifice is an important part of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. We yield, give in, meet halfway. And even dying – or risking death – for a loved one has merit, in the moment when doing so might mean saving the one we love. This has honor. But bleeding ourselves dry in love, over the long term, is not honorable. We shouldn’t do it. And we should not expect or allow others to do it either.

“Man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” (Rand)

A word on passion

I suppose it might sound a bit like I am advocating some sort of “loveless” love – a scenario in which love is approached a bit like a business exchange. And I guess maybe I am, but if that’s the case, I am doing so only in the sense that I am also suggesting that business, too, should be approached with purpose, with intention, with a deeply-rooted sense of drive and deliberate energy. All of life, actually, should be built around identifying and acting on our values, and if I am saying that love should be treated like work, it is because I am saying that both should be treated with passion.

If life is built on values and love is founded on finding someone who shares our own, then of course it makes sense that those values – and the ways in which you drive at them, both together and separately, in both tangent and parallel lines – are the precise fuels for the greatest fires. And that the richer the shared perspective, the mutual initiatives, the joint purposes and drives, the greater the burn of the flame.

john-lennon-yoko-ono

How love ends

We pursue work that offers the opportunity to live out and into things we think are important. We leave work when it no longer does – when things begin to tug in the wrong places; when strain is placed on our own fundamental way of being, and when too much energy is exerted toward “maintenance” and not enough on the actual work itself – the pursuit of what is good and valued.

The way we love and the way we search for meaning is through the identification of values – initially our own, and then their embodiment in other things. The way we lose interest and even the way we may form sentiments of hate is when things begin to feel like a drain or all-out assault on our values.

There are a lot of things that don’t matter. Even things that once do matter may eventually cease to hold value, and once they do, they – rightfully – cease to serve as a container for any amount of real attention.

People change. Circumstances change. Given enough time, everything changes. Sometimes you change. Sometimes they do. Sometimes it’s simply that things do. Either way, though, sometimes you find that what once stood for a mirroring of values no longer does.

On leaving

Achieving a meaningful life – including worthwhile love – “means a commitment to the reality of one’s own existence. It means that one must never sacrifice one’s convictions to the opinion or wishes of others. The one must never attempt to fake reality in any manner.” (Rand)

If ever the compromises feel too substantial – the investment greater than the payoff; the energy exerted to be toll on the wellbeing – then it is not only our prerogative but our responsibility (to ourselves, of course, but also to others) to say so. If values are no longer aligned and if we are exerting tremendous effort willing an imbalance to rebalance every morning, then we owe it to all involved to make it right. No person should commit a life to re-inflating a beach ball that goes flat each night. We only have so many clock cycles, and everyone’s are far too valuable to invest hours in things that will no longer pay off.

On being left

Life, at times, drowns us in emotion. And in order to navigate the things that happen, life, it also demands rationale.

If we are to accept that love is a transaction – a trade; an unspoken (or spoken) agreement – that both parties enter voluntarily, if not happily, and we accept the boundaries of “compromise” – the discrepancy between appropriate sacrifices and dishonorable ones, then the responsibilities of the person who has been left are clear.

The universe dictates that we cannot seek or desire any more or any less than we have earned. What determines what we’ve earned? Put simply: what others are willing to offer or trade in return.

When a man interacts with others, whether there has been an exchange of money or energy or emotion, “he is counting – explicitly or implicitly – on their rationality, that is: on their ability to recognize the objective value of his work.” (Rand) To choose to interact with others is fundamentally to honor and respect their judgment.

We cannot sincerely love someone while simultaneously discounting or rejecting their judgment. If you love them, you trust their decisions regarding their life values and how they are arranging their life to live them out. If you don’t trust their decisions when it comes to their values, then what you feel cannot be genuine love.

This is not to say that these emotions don’t consume our conscious. They do. And it’s okay to honor these emotions and sit with them for a while. But after that time has passed, we have to recall ourselves to the forefront. And start over.

And know that it’s okay.

"This Line Is Part of a Very Large Circle." Yoko Ono, 1966

“This Line Is Part of a Very Large Circle.” Yoko Ono, 1966

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