Liminal Thoughts

I have held the same job for the last seven years, with a company where I have worked for almost twenty years. This week is the start of a new position, so I am thinking about transition and change. Pardon a deviation from my stories series and permit me to chew on this topic for a moment.

As a history major, one of the ideas emphasized by our professors was the illusion of causality. Again and again in the events of the past, modern interpretations string together thoughts, actions, and outcomes in ways that link them as part of an intentional sequence, yet often the plan that the historian teases out of the past is a fiction, a modern fabrication that imposes a pattern on a series, much as the eye conjures shapes in clouds.

Years ago my undergraduate thesis focused on Eisenhower. One of the stories often told about Ike, which may or may not be true for all I know, related a pair of sayings he would use with his staff. If they were being too deliberative, he would tell them, “planning is essential, but plans are worthless.” Conversely, if they had not performed what he considered to be adequate preparations, he would chide them that, “plans may be worthless, but planning is essential.” I choose to believe he did say these things, as they fit well with many other stories about him as a leader and as a planner.

I mention this of course because another quirk of the human mind is to impose patterns of causality and intention on one’s own memories and actions, summoning up a thematic arc where there was in fact none. As I look at the evolution of my working life, I occasionally find myself leaning on this narrative crutch. Twelve years ago, a bureaucratic squabble in my firm led to the dissolution of my department. In the scramble to find a new spot, I moved from a planning job well suited to my skills and temperament to a new position that had me managing capital contracts. While not my cup of tea, this nonetheless taught me a lot and challenged me in a range of new ways – managing vendors and timelines and many millions of dollars. Unfortunately, we ran out of capital, meaning no more contracts to manage. Some of my work in that role had been equipment performance analysis, and that aspect of my work evolved into the basis for the work I have done for the last seven years. This is exactly the sort of transition that could, in retrospect, look like a carefully executed progression reflecting planning by both myself and my company, but of course it was an entirely ad hoc, somewhat fortuitous, leap.

The fortuitous parts reflected the department head for whom I worked, who is a good and conscientious manager. I also learned that despite many years of having math teachers convince me, very effectively, that math was dull and that I was no good at it, it turns out that I make an adept statistician, corralling arrays of data and teasing meaning from them in ways that offered genuine insights to the operational side of the business. The less fortuitous part of that work reflected the abysmal state of IT in my firm, where data are siloed in various systems with conflicting definitions and one must put far more work into gathering the data than in interpreting it and learning from it. I fecklessly inherited a report that was forty pages of cut-and-paste madness, a collage of inputs gathered from more than a dozen colleagues and systems that took several days to assemble every month. The effort invested in compiling this document always seemed out of proportion to any value obtained from it, and as time went on this odious report came to haunt me like some Dickensian specter.

After almost two years of this being the case, the level of dread I felt for tackling this each month snowballed, demanding real discipline on my part to drag myself in and face this over and over. I do realize in a world where far too many do not have work that the horror of a monthly PowerPoint is in fact a minor one in the scheme of things. I have always been grateful for my work, the associated compensation, and the security it provides to my family. Still, I aspire to work that is meaningful and productive, even if I am not necessarily changing the world. I also found it increasingly frustrating to have my work revolve around skills that do not reflect what I am best at, or really what I enjoy. As gratifying as it was to open Excel or Tableau and make the numbers do my bidding, I wondered over and over why would anyone task me with analysis, when it is writing where I feel most naturally and closely engaged.

My work over the past few years has brought into contact with a member of a department where I worked briefly twenty years ago, and I have been able to supply him with various data and analyses that helped him to make the points he needed to as part of our legislative affairs efforts. When this man’s most recent work brought us together his last fall, we had occasion to talk a bit more about what he and I do most of the time, and the conversation suggested several ways in which I might be well suited to be of assistance to him.

Sure enough, a job posting appeared several weeks back seeking a writer with industry knowledge and experience in data analysis. I applied, I was interviewed, the offer was made and rapidly accepted, and now I am embarked on a new set of tasks and challenges. I am immensely excited about the change, gratified to be selected and proud to be able to contribute in a way that seems more meaningful to me. The new job entails a harder commute than the old job, and I lose my large private office in exchange for a goldfish-bowl cube, but the trade off still leans heavily towards the new position.

As is always the case, I do not know where these experiences will lead, but I am struck but how much it looks, in retrospect, like there was some coherent plan in place to bring me to where I am. My undergraduate and graduate studies, the various positions I have held over the years – it is not hard to weave a story in which these reflect the execution of a carefully considered campaign. Having lived through all the moments of doubt, indecision, and regret that occasionally accompanied these steps, I know all too well how incorrect such a conclusion would be.

I wonder, then, how to convey to a young person getting started on a career the reassurance I find from this? I have spent years feeling troubled by how uncertain I am about what I want to do when I “grow up”, and yet time and again I see fragments of an underlying pattern emerge, usually out of the corner of me eye and just for an instant, but they are there. A recurring theme in what I write here on this nearly dormant web site/blog/online journal is the difficulty of meaningfully explaining the passage of time to someone young. It would have done no good to tell me, at 22, that time would help me stitch together the accumulated experiences of the next two decades into a form that would appear intentional, and yet how reassuring I would have found that if some kind soul had pulled me aside to tell me just that via some magic incantation I would have understood.

Of course, I do not know what lies before me, how long I will stick with my new job, or what direction I will move next. Hopefully when the time comes it will also look like a natural progression, a well plotted advance as part of a larger campaign. Perhaps it will even be an inflection point, and if so, I cross my fingers that it will inflect cheerfully. All of these fulminations bring me back to a couplet I first read in a high school English class in 1988. It comes from a 1967 translation by Marie Borroff of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the words have been etched into my memory since the first time I read them, preparing for Hugh Atkins’s in-class discussion: A year passes apace, and proves ever new; First things and final conform but seldom.

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A soul with no footprint

The strongest department in my high school was the English Department. Full of thoughtful, patient, insightful people, they mustered enough patience to teach literature and writing to adolescents with great care and affection for both the texts and the students. They were also a wonderful group of people outside of the classroom, and their willingness to engage a student as an adult, to share with them the things they cared about, and to foster real friendships provided a wonderful framework for both learning and development. The free spirit of the group maintained a collection of thousands of records in his classroom, and if you displayed proper care and reverence for his LPs, he would allow you to work in his room during free periods and to play your way through a dazzling, daunting catalog of music. In the fall of 1986, it was Paul Simon’s Graceland that served as the soundtrack to our classes. In the off hours, I worked my way through all sorts of great things – some of them mainstream classics that were new to me and others more obscure. For example, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians was one of these, and it changed how I hear and perceive rhythm and patterns in music.

Nick_Drake_Fruit_Tree1More than any other musician I associate with this time and place, I think of Nick Drake. Maybe you know all about Drake. He is well-known now, in his niche way. But when I was fifteen, I had never heard of him, and no one I knew had ever heard of him. So when my wonderful teacher appeared with Fruit Tree, a box set of Drake’s music, it was completely terra incognita. Gently dropping the needle onto that record while sitting in that quiet room opened a window to a powerful, vital new artist, and having his life’s work unfold for me as I played my way through those four records was mesmerizing. Drake is a singer-songwriter, a genre that is prone to self-indulgent, sullen youths with modest amounts of talent. Yet Drake’s fluid guitar playing with its unexpected tunings, the lush arrangements (that presumably made sense in the early seventies but seemed a touch exotic when I first came across them), and his clear, cool voice all combine to make these no ordinary singer-songwriter recordings. I listened to the records while reading the book enclosed in the box set, and there I learned about Drake’s brief career, his troubled mental state, his lack of recognition in his lifetime, and his premature death at 26, by an overdose that may or may not have been intentional. Matching his intricate, exquisite songs up against his complicated young life was beyond me at fifteen, and remains so for me now. I  do not know enough about creativity and depression to draw any deep conclusions. Yet I am left with his beautiful songs and I love to hear them – both to think of Drake himself and also to think of so many happy hours spent communing with the music and records found in that one classroom long ago.

• • • • • • •

As I commute about my life these days, I listen to podcasts on my iPod (using the excellent podcatcher Downcast). I listen to a pretty standard array of shows – news, opinion, arts. I also listen to things like Aviation Week‘s Check Six, as I have always been a plane buff. I listen to a few about design, among them one called 99% Invisible. This show by Roman Mars mirrors his love of architecture, design, infrastructure, and urban decay, and it also veers in other directions, too. I was startled to hear this week’s episode, which was a rebroadcast of a show done elsewhere in 2009. (I should mention this episode is very distinctive stylistically, and it is pretty affected. It’s very different from the style of production found in the regular 99PI shows.) The show is about Nick Drake, and it challenges my illusion that I and only I know about this musician. If you have liked Drake for any amount of time, not much in this show is will be new to you, but the interview with his early producer is interesting. What startled me though, by nudging me to think about a few dates head on, was the timeline of Drake’s life. Born in 1948, dead in 1974, I first heard him in 1986. I had not thought about that interval, but it is only twelve years from his death to the time when my teacher appeared with that box set. Twelve years? Twelve years! In 1986, the booklet text describing Drake had embedded itself in my mind as if it were a chronicle from another age, an ancient time. As I think of it though, twelve years is a long interval for a fifteen year old – nearly a lifetime.

You know that your perception of time changes as you age. You know that the years accelerate and that the phrase “a long time” connotes a different interval to you now than it did years ago. Yet there are not many occasions when you are confronted with an example from your own memory of how far that perception has shifted. Stuck in traffic the other night, when I was not thinking about merge etiquette, I cued up Drake’s album Pink Moon and pondered the sensation of time. Like an effort to recall a dream, despite the initial intensity of that moment when I realized how long those twelve years had seemed to me in 1986, pursuing that thought has had me reaching for ideas that elude my grasp. As the series of dates and intervals sorted themselves out in my mind, the earlier recollection faded away, replaced by my present sense of time and its passage.

• • • • • • •

Should you wish to ponder your own changing perception of the passage of time over long intervals in your life, might I suggest the following soundtrack for those thoughts – twenty-eight minutes of Drake’s album Pink Moon?

Merge etiquette

I was on a highway this evening, in rush hour, driving a route I take three or four times each week. In one stretch, there are three lanes, and the leftmost lane is an exit lane to one route, while the center and right lanes merge into one lane that feeds onto the main route through town. The lanes are marked so that the right lane is the one that ends, and the center lane is the one that remains.
In practice, how this works is that the well-behaved drivers move into the center lane, while those who cannot read signs seem to accumulate in the right lane. Once they put their phones down long enough to notice that their lane is coming to an end, they often merge fairly smoothly into the center lane. It is the left lane that drives me batty. Cars race along in that lane, some of them actually headed for the exit, and the majority angling to dive into the center lane, ahead of the countless cars they just passed. A few of the cars have out of state tags, and it is quite likely they do not know the traffic pattern and their behavior is an honest mistake. Most of these speeding cars do have local tags, and you know they drive this route every bit as often as I do. They zoom past, no turn signal, no brake lights, and then right as the dashed white line turns solid, they veer right – just as you knew they would – and barge their way into the flow of traffic. Some drivers see them coming, and tighten ranks in a way that is very understandable yet not at all safe. Some drivers are literally blindsided by these cars, and the brake lights flick on as they dodge these line jumpers. Every time I sit there in the middle lane, I wonder what goes through these people’s minds?
Presumably they do not like waiting in line, but of course, that statement applies to everyone on the highway. Presumably they are busy, they have places to be, they have jobs to get to, families to care for, comfy chairs on which to sit, and again those statements apply to everyone on the highway. Do they not think of this at all? Do they consciously think they are better, their time more valuable than all the sheep they pass? Do they feel bad as they do this? Do they sneer at the chumps?
As wrongdoing goes, I realize this is small change. Most of the time, these people hurt no one, although they do often endanger others with their impatient maneuvers. Yet I cannot help wishing there was a state trooper lurking where he could ticket this behavior. These drivers are so selfish, so self-involved, and their driving speaks so loudly to their unwillingness to behave in a civil manner. When people decide to live together, part of the compact they make should include respectful behavior that exhibits the equality and respect we would all choose to have afforded us. The Golden Rule at work, right?
There is no greater point here. The world has its share of jerks, and this does not constitute some powerful new observation on the human condition. Still, it saddens me each time I sit there in the middle lane, watching the jerks get where they are going more quickly than I am because they cannot be bothered to wait their turn with their fellow citizens. I think it reflects a thread in American society that is broken, a lack of civility that is a symptom of much bigger problems with how our society chooses to live with itself.
What examples of selfishness and incivility do you see in your daily lives, and do you think these behaviors speak to any deeper trend?

Meaning

The complications of a busy life conspired to thwart my plans to attend my twentieth college reunion. When I didn’t appear at the appointed tent, a classmate of mine texted a where r u, because Professor Chatfield was asking. Jack Chatfield is my most beloved history professor who had embodied all of the things I most treasured about my college years. This man, my academic hero, had been in declining health for several years, and I had come to understand, through other mutual acquaintances, that he was too ill to visit. “Not so,” texted my friend in Hartford, “I am with him now, and he misses you.” Immediately, we hatched a plan, and last fall, I set foot on the Trinity College campus for the first time in nineteen years.

I have spent almost a year trying to order my thoughts about that weekend. They are complicated. The weekend was exhilarating, devastating, reassuring, shattering, and far too brief. It included a visit with my professor I will never forget, time spent with a new friend, a moving memorial for a man I did not know, boozy carousing with two of my closest college friends, and a very disturbing introduction to a man whose life was in free-fall.

This post will not tackle any of the above. What brings me to my keyboard today is the word meaning, as in something that is important or worthwhile, with purpose.

When people find out I was a History major in college, a modern American diplomatic history major to be specific, they laugh. I do not begrudge them that response; I laugh too. When you look at what I do each day, it does indeed sound ridiculous that I once dedicated so much time, effort, care, and passion toward a discipline and topic that is very remote from anything I do these days. While I could proceed on a tangent about the value and versatility of history as a discipline, I will spare you from that. Nonetheless, I can still recall the energy, the sense of calling, and the satisfaction I felt studying these topics in college. Almost all of that grew out of the benevolent, productive, patient guidance of my professor, who imparted such palpable relevance to the events we discussed that they seemed every bit as vital, if not more so, than the contemporary world around us.

As one unraveled the events and motives and assumptions of the past, the dense web of connections between the people of centuries ago and of today caught the light of first recognition and glittered in a way that maybe only a twenty year old can see. Revealing the swift flowing continuum that connects us to our forebears filled me with curiosity. Seeing current events react to forces unleashed long ago changed my sense of time, giving me my first sense of how immediate the past can be. The lectures and discussions and readings from those days fired my mind, and filled me with a sense I did not bother to name then, but which I can clearly label now as meaning.

I did not pursue my history studies out of any conscious search for meaning. I pursued them because I found them captivating. I believed then – as I was raised to believe – that the pursuit of that feeling would lead to the sort of excellence and drive that would lead me to a calling. I studied history as an undergraduate with no proper sense of where that might lead, and when I closed in on graduation, I found two paths before me – academia and the law. My gut told me the last thing the world needed was another lawyer, and I knew too few lawyers to understand just how diverse that profession can be. My gut also told me that I would never teach at the caliber of my beloved professor, and I knew too few teachers (as peers) to understand how many different ways there are to be an effective teacher. So I turned my back on these things that so excited me, and sought meaning elsewhere.

Let me note the meaning I am pondering is professional and intellectual meaning. I have been deeply fortunate and truly blessed to find genuine happiness and meaning with a wonderful wife and a terrific family, and I would be lost without them. I am solely addressing meaning in a work setting as I turn these thoughts over. We live in a world where our work, our occupation is a fundamental part of our identity and self-worth. When you meet a stranger, see how long you can speak with them before one of you asks some variation of “what do you do?” Society admires people whose work has true meaning, and it also admires people who find meaning in their work. Most of us were raised to pursue meaningful endeavors, and most of us raise children who we steer towards a life in pursuit of meaning.

I have now been out of college for more than two decades. I’ve worked miserable hourly jobs, I’ve worked poorly paid internships, I’ve worked some small independent side jobs, and I have had a series of related jobs that string together to form a career. I’ve been good at some of the things I have done, and I have even been better at them than any of my colleagues, which fosters a rewarding sense of true contribution.

Curiously, the work I do does not build on any of the talents I consider to be my best skills. In fact, I have been moving further and further away from them over time, like an unmoored ship borne by the tide away from where it is meant to be. These days I am a statistician, and I am certain that any of my math teachers would have placed big bets against my ever finding employment tied to my quantitative abilities. Strangely enough, I am a solid statistician, but I bet you can guess what I do not find in that sort of work: meaning.

If this meditation has veered too far towards whining, I do not mean it to. First off, the evolutions I describe are all of my own making, outcomes from decisions made in an ignorance of my own design. Combine that with the fact that I live a fortunate, safe, happy life. It is the death of my professor that brings these things to the front of my mind. I think I have managed to forget, or maybe suppress, the vibrancy of what I felt as his student. Recalling his cadences, his corrections, his encouragements, and his piercing curiosity as we debated the events of the past, the vital, electric immediacy of that time together is so far removed from anything I ever find in my work these days, and that gulf alarms me.

I wonder if the passion I felt then was a function of not only the man and the material, but of my age at the time? If I somehow slipped out of my life today and returned to all those same things, would they kindle the same feelings within me now? Or has the passage of twenty years dulled my capacity to feel that? I don’t think so, I don’t want to think so, but is that a realistic assessment or simply wishful thinking? It is difficult to step back from the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other nature of life and contemplate these most fundamental issues.

Actual phrase heard in a meeting

“Our developer is very skilled at future-proofing her code to protect our downstream milestones.”

Thank goodness I did not know at twenty that I would endure phrases like that in my future years.

More Kitty Hawk discussion

Over the past year or so, I have run a series of articles on the fate of the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, a 1956-vintage American carrier retired last year. Information Dissemination recently linked to an interesting conversation between Manu Sood and Jason Verdugo in Defence Professionals here. I cannot vouch for this proposal, but I do find it interesting to see how some people are thinking as they fathom a response to China’s naval buildup, especially given the fact that the United States Navy is clearly not funded in a way to retain its current lead during this challenge.

China consistently provides the most intriguing diplomatic and military challenges in current world affairs – I am fascinated to see how our relationship with China evolves over time. So many parallels between the inability of the Western-mind to divine Soviet intentions and our current confusion over China’s aspirations and ambitions. Where is today’s George Kennan and his long telegram when you need him?

My thanks to ID for the tip; I find that blog to be consistently among my favorite three sources. The copy editor in me does wish they did not seem to use unedited voice recognition transcripts for their articles, but I like them enough to copy edit pro bono. It is a fascinating read.

D-Day + 65 years

World War II demanded countless campaigns that all command our memory, but today we remember the invasion that led to the fall of Nazi Germany – the Normandy landings that began Operation Overlord.

A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of the U.S. Army First Division on the morning of June 6, 1944 (D-Day) at Omaha Beach.
A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of the U.S. Army First Division on the morning of June 6, 1944 (D-Day) at Omaha Beach.

Photograph by Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard

I encourage you to take a moment today to think of the bravery and sacrifice behind this endeavor.