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our experience with things we encounter every day


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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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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.


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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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and then I went a little west

Context: I rode west from Chicago til I hit the Mississippi. Then rode north along it for about 100 miles before cutting back.mississippi

I lay a wire out along the road; tack it down a little in places so that I can follow it, and then I do.

The wire existed in my mental mapping and now it exists along the edges of the road itself. It jig-jogs along the shoulder, tumbling sometimes into the gravel; scampering over the crests of hills; dancing and erratic just ahead of me.

I take a track that first goes a little south, then a little/lot more west.

I pass corn fields and fields of weeds and wildflowers, cows, siding houses, and pick-up trucks. The road is cut in places; broken apart at the edges and un-smooth across the lanes. I am sipping from a mason jar of Americana and running my thumb along the sweat as it gathers on the glass, watching it catch and fall in tiny streams. The air and the earth are patchwork amber.

I am riding through the middle of America. It is a quilt spread out in front of me – something a little worn; a little scratchy; a sweet subdued.

These sort of places have something to do with me. And they have nothing to do with me.

I left in the afternoon and so I ride directly into the sun as it sets. The sky is clear and cloudless, and as the sun shifts its weight to the right and sinks lower, the light starts to get snagged in the tree line along the highway, flashing too bright between the bodies of blackened branches.

I can’t see as I ride into it. I take snapshots of the road when I find it again in the shadows of the trees, memorizing the terrain ahead of me in these split-second moments and riding in blindness in between.

There is a body beneath me. And this body has much meaning for me. It has a heartiness. A heaving. A heat.

I reach a hand forward and press my palm against the broad surface of a neck, resting it along the long lines of muscle, where the fur has become matted, pressing each finger into its own groove in the coat. There is a coarseness to the mane; a thickness to each horsehair between fingertips.

I’ve got horsehair in my mouth and dirt beneath my nails. This is how I like to live. Where the sweat and the dust gather along the greatest planes and I can move with free range of motion against them. There is a fiber. A body. A mass. There is a heavy breath; an exertion and endurance to each expedition.

I luxuriate in the rough and tumble. I am drawn to what is rugged.

muscle

mane

Some like it “pretty” and I get that too. But it isn’t how I like to live. I like it in so many other ways – I like my things with grit. Mostly because I believe that our existences are meant to be a little messy; I think we are equipped to stare into the sun. It is still meant to be beautiful, absolutely, but perhaps not as simply as some define it. Sometimes what’s worthwhile runs in currents deeper. And sometimes it’s worth the work.

I know this way is rough and steep. 

But I have trust in this route, though I’ve never followed it. And I have trust in those who agree. 

The road slows as it moves through the small town, where heat rises off of cracked cement and there is signage on bricks and dirt-cheap cans of too-warm beer; it is like a man’s name that is both timeless and unnoteworthy – a thin, solid slab of meat. A Hank. An Earl. A Bill.

I am walking. Sometimes I walk alone like this, in spaces that are not my own but, in their isolation, might as well and somehow still belong to me. I’m alone out of choosing and I’m alone out of necessity and I’m alone out of causation.

Because I wander among the weeds instead of walking along the sidewalk, and sometimes people take this as an assault on their sense of structure, which they sometimes equate to their sense of being.

I am not the only one like this, though.

street

There are others who wander, too. Who play in the art of getting lost, just for getting’s and losing’s sake.

For people like us, there are different types of journeys and a certain sorts of place. Places we can go where we can get some space.

We’ll all race along the roads, chase down strands along the shoulders and find other ways that offer meaning. We’ll sketch our figures in black and white; we’ll paint ourselves in ink. We’ll run our fingertips along the fibers as we weave. We’ll pioneer the land looking for good places and where it’s right, we’ll find ourselves a little rooted there before we even realize. 

We may build out little spaces with a deliberate sweat; we’ll erect them with consideration and each will be a sort of home.

There will be dusty floorboards beneath our bare, flat-footed feet and we’ll drink our coffee from chipped mugs. We’ll build a veranda off the kitchen and paint our bedrooms walls with trees. We’ll bring the outside in and we’ll take the inside out and we’ll live like this, in all places at once, for some amount of all our days.

And when the thunderstorms and the snow and the heat come over the world and the sky wages war against us overhead, our sort of house will stay grounded – hold fast to this spot in the earth and endure the elements with steadfastness. And we will tuck ourselves inside away from it, come in when we’re dripping with weather and exhausted by it, and the house, it will hold true and simply be.

There is a give and take in situations such as this; sometimes we’ll make sacrifices; other times, we’ll make demands.

Sometimes we are the house. And sometimes we will be the weather.

And we will have to learn these moments from one another and avoid being the same at once. And these learnings will take time. Because sometimes, things, they are circumstantial. Something previously known as fixed becomes fluid when another moment contradicts it. We break down and rearrange our understanding of a thing; lose sight of the wire running rampant along a road until we rediscover it miles later and, seeing it hop back onto the asphalt, feel reassured once again that our route is right. We build and rebuild our sense of this existence and of being, by chasing the wire down on the road. 

There will be cold nights, when even crowding the beings beneath us won’t suffice and we’ll have to seclude ourselves away from them. There will be hot nights, when our spaces are too small; too contained and we’ll be shoved out and go searching for the refuge of the rain.

But on warm nights, we’ll sit on the worn, weathered wood of our built back porches, our feet rooted in the cooling grass, and we will drag our fingertips now along the horsehair of acoustic instruments and share the softness of their sounds.

And as one of us strums, another will have song.

“Come,” one will say. “I’ll tell you a little story. It won’t take long.”

We’ll tip our drinks in each other’s directions and we’ll laugh as we agree: “here’s to now.”

And we’ll go on unwinding our horsehair fibers, like wires, running along the road and into dawn.


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Enjoyment is beautiful. But attachment is tragic.

I just got up.

I woke up early but slept in late, and during this “in between” time, I was lying mostly awake with my face facedown, drinking in the sheets.

When I finally got up, I put my contacts in but did not brush my teeth, and then made myself some coffee.

And now I am braced at a balcony railing in the middle of this late morning air, holding a cup of coffee in one hand, standing with my weight set to one foot and the toes of the other resting on the top of it. I am looking out and into the white light paleness of the morning sky.

I am drenched in the sunshine. It wrings itself into my eyes.

It is saturating the edges of my skin that face it. And I can stand here, staring along the lines of sun by setting my line of sight away from it, feeling it beat down onto or into my being in indirect ways, for almost as long as I’d like.

Almost.

I take a sip of coffee. The first sips of the mug are always almost too hot – initially a little bit violent before it eases and gives way to something lukewarm. Eventually I will drink this whole cup of coffee, and then at that point it will be gone.

Eventually.

For now, though, there is heat from the coffee and heat from the sun, and I am standing and soaking in all of it. I am thinking of hot and think also of coolness, and I am thinking of bodies of water.

Water is an absolute. Things are either in the water or they are not. I can dive in and my whole being is, obviously, entirely in. But even if I am only sitting at the edge of a pool or a boat or a dock, with only my toes immersed, these parts, on their own, are either in the water or they are not. And when you see your self fragmented, you can also see that the act of submerging the parts is, on any level, an act of absolute.

I am submerged. Or I am not. And the minute I step away, I have taken myself away from it – and it from me – and when I do, I let it slip away.

And there is a rightness to both of these things – both the submersion and then the stepping away.

coffee

The sun rose a while ago. Some days, it rises just before I do, the light virginal when I meet it. Other days, it is boisterous by the time I come out to it, a young adolescent cocky while cruising in a parent’s car.

It will move across the sky as the day progresses. I can meet the light at twilight, when it is winding down and putting itself to sleep. And I let it. Of course I let it. We all let it. It would be lunacy to wail at a railing, to put our hands against a cooling surface and shout at a light to just… to just come back.

We cannot cling to the sunshine as it sinks away at the edge of sky.

But this loss of it each day doesn’t stop us from enjoying it. When we think of the sun and then sunshine, we think of the moments when it is overhead – or, perhaps more specifically, we think of any number of its various stages of being overhead, from barely a breath in the east to a soft sigh in the west.

We do not think of its absence and mourn for it. We think instead of the times when it’s richest.

I sometimes forget that my grandma died.

I saw her in the hospital and I sat by her side and I talked to her in the context of knowing. I went to her funeral and I bought her flowers – they were purple, because white was not right; white was too mundane.

And yet still she does not exist in the paste tense for me. She is an essence. She still exists in the present.

And yeah, sure, maybe there is something wrong with this. Maybe.

Or maybe, instead, that’s how things and people should be for us. Maybe that is how we should see them – as an essence; as a set of things that means something to us. Maybe they can stand for and instill some emotion or headspace and maybe that reaction succeeds them; maybe it can be something that goes on even when they are no longer there.

This is how our world works for us. Love and enjoy each thing as it comes at you. Love it fully and completely; soak in the sun and drown yourself in it. And when it comes time for night to take over, let it slip away.


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Endings – real vs. artificial; felt vs. missed

It is funny that we sometimes put arbitrary, artificial endings on things. And then get sad about something that hasn’t even stopped.

People ask me how my Labor Day weekend was.

And sure, I can talk about my weekend – mostly at a high level, because I’m like that, so I’ll say “it was great – I went for a ride” or “awesome – I read and/or wrote some words” and that’s enough for most people and an okay exchange, I think, for both parties.

But other people ask me how my summer was.

Past tense.

And I may play nice, but I bristle a little.

Because it’s odd enough that we see this holiday in this way – as a constructed “end” of summer. Because, you know, it’s… not. We’ve got the autumn equinox and when it comes to summer ending, that’s when it actually does. So when we talk about Labor Day in this way – as marking The End of Summer – it’s weird because we’re not actually discussing the real end – not the transition of celestial bodies – but are instead talking about the end of some connotation; some abstract – the end of… what? Of fun? Of sunshine? Of sangria?

And that’s the odder part about it – that there’s this element of sadness; an unnecessary mourning for something that doesn’t go like that. “Summer” – in all these “soft” senses – isn’t really clipped to an end at that date.

We’ve still got so much weather left to live after Labor Day.

In fact, in the three years I have lived in Chicago (which isn’t long, but it’s enough), I have found that by far my favorite time of the year is mid-August to mid-October, when the air is still heavy and the temperature eases, and the whole thing has this aura of… lovely; “forgiving.”

Because time, it is a continuum. And seasons cycle into each other a bit more gradually than we sometimes give them credit for.

On the other hand, some things really do come to an abrupt end. And sometimes we miss these endings entirely. 

Other things really do wrap up like that and wholly cease to be.

And it’s funny because sometimes, with these things, there is no milestone – no marker. Sometimes the moment itself is so tiny, we miss it altogether, deciphering it only in retrospection and “rediscovering” it in this way miles later down the road. And for all of the hoopla we make about the endings that scarcely matter, sometimes we miss the ones that actually mean something when we’re there.

You see a film together. This moment is next to nothing going in. This moment is forever a milestone looking back. You don’t even remember what film it was or if you got popcorn or who else was there, though you know that others were. You are pretty sure you watched the whole film – and maybe you even liked it; maybe it made you tear up a little; maybe it was that good – and at the end of the night, you are pretty sure that you say goodnight like countless times before, but despite all the things you aren’t sure of, you are absolutely positive that you never knew that that goodnight would be the last.

There is no holiday for that sort of thing; no notification on our calendars to alert us to what’s in store.

It’s sort of futile, then, to burden ourselves with our own idea of when we think something is ending.

We invite unnecessary sadness to something that didn’t even stop. We neglect to notice the moment when other things already have. 

So the resolution, then, is a sense of presence: an appreciation for a moment (and, perhaps more importantly, a continuum of moments) while committing ourselves to a.) not missing its meaning, while also b.) not making it out to be something its not, all while c.) not rendering ourselves too senseless to realize whether or not the one that follows it is nearly identical; to stay awake to whether or not the things carried out beyond that, and how. 

chicago-skyline-sunset

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