Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Let me say this to begin: Even genius must put its pants on one leg at a time.

A recent disagreement between members of a group studying a particular area of interest that we all share got me thinking. Like many disagreements, at least one source of this conflict was communication.

People communicate differently.

Profound, huh? I have college degrees and years of training and work experience behind that little gem. I happen to think that you probably don’t need all that schooling and experience to come to that conclusion. I think you just need a little time with other people.

It’s pretty clear that not everyone agrees with me.

I learned a very strange lesson when I was still young. I was seeking feedback from co-workers on self-improvement after having received a mysteriously-worded performance review.

I had been called a snob. In writing. In an annual performance review. I was stunned, bowled over, dismayed at the long-lasting effects those words would have on my career at that company. And I was completely in the dark. I did not get it.

I had worked so hard to be professional. I wore suits. I called people “sir” and “ma’am”. I tried to do the very best job that I could. I had lost weight, cut my Alice-in-Wonderland hair off to a more businesslike shoulder-length and wore sensible heels. I never took my jacket off. I was Barbie Doll Secretary on roller-skates.

My reward was to be called a snob by my boss. What is it that made him think that I was that way? I was to ask my co-workers. I did. Most of them laughed and shook their heads. They didn’t know.

Finally Marty, in between laughs, quiet laughs because she was a quiet person, suggested that maybe I used too many big words.

I was a scared kid in a city all alone. I had taken a chance and moved there for work to improve my life. I had been ashamed of my nearly-useless college degree in English at the headquarters of a telephone company only to find out that I was one of the few people in the building who had been to college at all. My attempt to live up to my own professional standards had backfired miserably.

As an Irish co-worker so comically put it years later, I was seen to have “ideas about myself.” My respect for others and myself translated to academic and intellectual snobbery. I was crushed.

Intellectual snobbery was the opposite of my intent. I wanted to be the more modern version of Jeeves. I wanted to quietly keep everything going in the background so my boss could succeed. I wanted to be a Secret Weapon for doing good things. And apparently I had succeeded just about half-way, the wrong half.

Years earlier, Mom had told me the results of my I.Q. test. It was a cool number and I was pleased with it but it was, after all, just a stupid test. My mother had wanted me to understand why things were easy for me and perhaps not so easy for my friends. Instinctively, I knew that it was just one measure of human performance. It didn’t tell how nice you were.

Over time, though, it became clear I was that child. I read the dictionary for fun. I exhibited other behaviors that would probably make the list of How to Tell If Your Kid Is a Nerd. I learned other people felt bad when I was happy about making a good grade on my test. I hated the thought that I might make them feel bad. I tried to help my friends with schoolwork. I realized I liked school a lot more than other kids did.

I loved dictionaries that told what the origin of a word was, Greek, Latin, French, Old English. I wanted to know where words and ideas came from, how they had changed over time, how regional differences changed language, how it evolved. In junior high, my favorite class was geometry. In high school, my favorite class was a segment on the history of the English language. I wanted to understand language in its context, in its usefulness to its speakers. I wanted to solve the puzzle of communication. So I majored in English in college. I had wanted to major in linguistics but English linguistics; my university had no such degree offering. I majored in literature with the certain knowledge that my degree qualified me to teach or go back for more college.

I wanted to be in the “real” world.

The real world landed me at the telephone company headquarters during the time when the telephone industry was de-centralizing. Somehow I survived that, reviled by my co-workers because I had one college degree, cringing when they mentioned it. I never talked about it but they couldn’t stop talking about it. I wasn’t like them. I used “big words.” In my effort to be more precise, I was completely misunderstood. I had mistakenly thought I was out of grade school and junior high school; work was just another hallway of lockers and cliques.
I reminded myself that this is the world I wanted. I could have stayed in the world of academia and wallowed in big words, reveled in them, tossed them about like confetti, shot them out of the bazookas of the publish-or-perish rules of that world. But I knew that world wasn’t for me. I needed a more difficult job, one in the “real world” where even the simplest statement can be misunderstood because of assumptions, context and emotion.

The Tower in Tarot can represent the world of assumptions crumbling under the effect of sudden change, breaking the structure and its occupants into simpler components. Analysis can be said to be a kind of Tower activity, the process of breaking things apart. It sounds so destructive, especially if you don’t have a plan for what happens next. It represents an inevitability of the instability of false assumptions. Things break down.

Ideas and problems can be broken down, too. I knew my work was Tower energy. Instead of staying in the Tower of academia and piling big word upon big word to build distance between myself and the ground of reality, I chose to work to make things more easily understood. Pick up a brick and then another. And make sense of the puzzles. It’s kept me busy all this time.

Best wishes.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, God! I was *that* child too! Still haven't quite gotten over the trauma. Thanks for making me laugh about it.