Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Alchemy of Anger

My husband and I were driving to Middle Oregon, a green place sometimes reminiscent of Middle Earth if you’ve ever been there. We traveled to see his sister and had set out in the evening, stopping the first night in Eureka. Work had been very stressful and I was not at my best preparing for this trip. Realizing I had failed to pack some essential item, a hair dryer or something, we were in the Walgreens to remedy the situation.

At the checkout counter with my purchase, I pulled out my checkbook. The kid at the counter looked at my check and said, “We don’t take out of town checks.” He blinked at me, waiting.

Ordinarily, this is the kind of thing that does not disturb one feather for me. Ordinarily, I say.

“This is Wells Fargo!” I sputtered and spat, pointing to the well-known bank logo on my check. I was incredulous. The hour was late. There was nowhere else to go. This was the last in a series of indignities of the week and plucked the high-screech of my last nerve.

I stomped my foot. Yes, I actually stomped my foot. I can’t believe I did that. It was a Shirley Temple move if I ever did one.

My opponent was unmoved.

“This is AMERICA!!”

My husband observed this from a safe distance and burst out laughing. His little power-pack puffin was getting nowhere with the bored youngster behind the counter and he’d never seen quite such a fit of pique. Happy that it was aimed at the slack-jawed simian behind the counter, he whipped out his plastic credit card and saved us all from a night in jail and hospital.

I was still spitting like a dowsed cat on the way back to the motel room, sending my energy into the night.

This is still one of my husband’s favorite stories about me, uncharacteristically unloading directly on the object of my disaffection in public like a ferocious wren.

“And she stomped her little foot!” he will cry in delight, retelling the story while I sneer and blush.

My usual response to my own inner incendiary devices is to channel that explosive energy towards something useful. I don’t know when I learned to do this but it has been a useful coping mechanism for me and kept me out of some very dark places. The habit came into sharp focus for me when I was a new computer programmer working for a major insurance company in the Midwest.

My mentor Jim had coached me on how the systems worked and I had done a lot of my own work to absorb the ins and outs of our software. We were going to have our first big release that included my participation not as an observer but as the go-to person. It was like my solo debut and I had a wide-eyed case of pre-performance jitters. To make matters more exciting, Jim was going to be out of town. The training wheels were off. Jim gave me a pep talk.

“What if something goes wrong?” I whispered, afraid to say it aloud as if “it” might hear me.

Jim grinned at me, “Get mad. Just get mad.”

In that instant, I realized he was right and so very right about me. I would turn fear, uncertainty and anger into the weapon to solve the problem at hand, transforming that energy that could otherwise be dissipated into the ether into a laser beam to shoot down any bug that may flutter in the software. And in that instant, I was so glad that Jim knew me that well, knew that’s how I worked, how my engine ran. My debut was flawless and the next week Jim was proud of me. What I gained, however, was so much more than self-confidence in my abilities as a programmer. I gained control over the use of my energy to make it work for me through self-awareness.

Obviously, I haven’t perfected the technique!

That transformation of elements in just the right amount to make them work for you instead of against you is a kind of personal alchemy. All of the elements are still there: Fear of failure, anger at the issue, ennui at this being your task perhaps when you least want or need it, fight or flight. The alchemical elements of air (thoughts and conflicts), earth (tangible considerations), fire (temper, drive, inspiration) and water (emotions including fear, sorrow and love) are blended in just such a way that with your unique spirit, you can turn them from wasted energy and self-directed weapons into the power to move forward. That alchemy, the remixing of elements into new forms, in Tarot is the essence of Temperance.

Art Postcard Tarot
(c) Copyright 2010 Marcia McCord

“You’ve really got it together!” Not always.

“You always know what to do!” Not always.

“You’re annoyingly cheerful!” OK, maybe that.

Recently, I sought to help a friend who had posted their woes at having been betrayed by someone they trusted. My heart went out to them. It was obvious that this person was suffering in their disappointment. I suggested the technique of turning that anger and sorrow into energy that served them positively.

They deleted my message.

I realized suddenly that I probably had made matters worse instead of better. It became clear to me that the posting was not a cry for this kind of help. Whether it was meant to be a “misery loves company” rally to like-wounded friends to indulge in sorrow or just blowing off steam, purposefully giving that energy to the universe just to get it out of their soul, what it wasn’t was a 911 call for a practical aid. Because after all, my alchemy is not their alchemy and my answers are not their answers. We both know that and we are still friends.

So I’ve rechanneled the energy I would have spent on them into this post, thinking if it doesn’t help everyone, it might help someone. And if it helps someone, then that has surely turned lead into gold.

Best wishes.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Deep Pockets

“Did your husband play rugby, too?” I was at a recent Vallejo Barbarians Rugby match against the Reno team. It was a good game, both sides playing hard and keeping things moving, the kind of rugby that fans rave about. The air was cool, not cold, good for running, and the sunshine was warm, not hot. There were dogs and kids and old men and girlfriends. It’s some of the best entertainment for free in the Bay Area.

I laughed at the thought of John, with his replaced knee, very painful for him for years before the replacement, playing rugby. He would be like a tree against an axe, I thought, felled with a blow or two. Timber!

“No,” still laughing at the tree falling in the forest, “When he started this, he could barely spell rugby.” He knows a lot now, though, and has given his all to make sure our boys have beautiful Morton Field on Mare Island in Vallejo to play on. Many of the teams say it’s the best pitch in the league. We are glad to have stands for fans to sit on and restroom facilities. We wish we had more, but we run on a shoestring. It takes nearly everything John makes to keep it going; I’m never sure the team realizes how much he puts into it. But I agree that it’s better for the players to focus on their work.

Truth be told, John’s spelling is still suspect and it has always been a matter of shock, amusement, controversy and fondness for me. How does he come up with some of the spellings? In some ways, I can see traces of phonetic spelling while at other times I’m just baffled and entertained. John must be the reason computers have spell-check although as cell phone auto-correct stories show us there is only so much a computer program can do to guess at what humans mean with a combination of letters.

It’s not really John’s fault, after all. English is by all accounts one of the more difficult languages for non-native speakers to figure out. We have homonyms, irregular verbs, articles, suffixes, prefixes and colloquial usage. Our most literate may or may not understand when to use a subjunctive. I make no excuses for my native tongue. It is the stuff of legends like Beowulf and Canterbury Tales. It changes all the time and there are people, intelligent people, who spend their lives debating whether English grammar should be prescriptive or descriptive. It steals from other languages easily and without remorse. It acquires or creates new words or assigns new meanings so frequently that our authorities on the language publish a list of new words this year. It is the Borgia Family of languages, foreign even unto itself and plotting to take over the planet at any minute. It is expected to be universally understood by non-native speakers. It is poorly understood at best by native speakers. In the United States, it is assumed to be “American,” so much so that those speakers from England “have an accent.”

It is, in short, like having a pet dragon. I love my dragon.

Of course, in the USA we have “accents” too. I remember one long week translating everything my Chicago/St. Louis area first husband said to my Alabama cousins and vice versa. I found it amazing they could not understand each other and equally amazing that I could. Our English is a language divided by ego-centricity, the na├»ve belief that we are the center of our universe. Americans can be that way.

John, however, has never been an egoist about his language skills. He admits freely he is not a “native” speaker of English but grew up speaking Butte-enese, the patois of the Irish mining community blending with the Northmen who settled the cold northern shield that is Butte, Montana. It sounds a little like the movie Fargo with an Irish twist.

John will say endearing regionalisms like, “Take her easy!” as a hearty farewell. I claim we do not argue, but I expect this may count as one time I tried with waning patience to explain that taking “her” easy was sexist language likely to get his clock cleaned by someone who didn’t realize that John is the staunchest supporter of women’s rights and the gentlest man you’ll ever know. Suggesting he switch to the more neutral and less incendiary, “Take it easy!” produced a sputtering of frustration and I realized with only a little dismay that I was attempting the verbal equivalent of making a left-handed person write right-handed. I gave up. He can take her easy if he wants to.

In spite of his creative spelling features and occasional regional color, John not only majored in English in college and reads almost continuously, he also teaches. He started the ARC-Solano Adult Literacy program as part of the state library system's literacy program. He and the people he has recruited volunteer to assist adults with developmental disabilities learn to read, a program so improbable that many people thought it couldn’t be done.

And yet, my John is the "Ant and the Rubber Tree Plant." One of the clients now reads fairy tales to children in day care and writes in her journal. Another is starting to write about the jewelry she creates, writing for the first time in her 60-some years. And there are all levels of development, too. One client is struggling to recognize letters reliably but the most amazing thing about his work in learning to read is that he has begun to talk to others with a little confidence.

In my eyes, it is nothing short of a miracle. Here’s the nicest man in the world who can’t spell cat, who majored in English and reads like a house on fire, who has the biggest ideas in the world about how unrecognized and undervalued resources can bloom into beauty. He teaches others that they can do it. It is the essence of the 6 of Pentacles: Giving what you did not know you had to people who were not expected to be able to use it.

You do not know for certain, when you plant the seed, how beautiful the garden will be. You may not live so long to see the acorn become the tallest tree. Still, plant the seed, bury the acorn. Your action of the moment will stretch far into the future, whether you see it or not.

Best wishes.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Proper Stranger

It was another winter in central Illinois, crunchy cold, low grey skies, a thick layer of ice under the thick layer of snow. Ice and snow owned the world, making a claustrophobic bunker out of what was breezy and open in summertime. It muffled noises so that only the low thuds of doors and slow smush of tires in slush were the only sounds. Those, and the relentless wind through skeletal trees were the sounds I heard for months.

OK, I admit it. I’m not a fan of winter weather. I grew up in Florida where winter meant we wore jackets and sweaters over our sleeveless outfits. This stuff was for the birds. No, that’s wrong. The birds left, except the cardinals whose bright colors reminded me that other birds will be back, but not soon enough. Winter clothes I liked, wools and boots, jackets and sweaters. Winter that inspired them I liked not at all.
Every year we had to “winterize” or pay. Stocking-stuffers at Christmas were always accompanied by Lock-Eze, stuff to spray into your car’s lock so your key would turn. If you were lucky, you had a garage to park your car in. Most people weren’t so lucky, of course, so if you found your car under the car-size load of snow or ice and got into it with the Lock-Eze, you had to turn on your windshield wipers, grab your scraper and prepare to get out of the car again to dig it out just enough to see out of the windows. After a cold night, the first blast of air from the defroster shot snow in your face, clearing the condensation-turned-to-frost-balls out of the vents. By the time you dug the car out, it was likely that the windows had frosted over again because the defroster and heater in the car had not yet warmed up the glass. Once you had your car cleared, you had to make a choice: Turn off the engine, go back in the house, take your shower because you’ve worked up a sweat with all this work, in spite of the cold, OR hang it all and go to work pretty certain you were going to go bad before the day ended.

I memorized the snow plow schedule. In my town, after a big storm the streets were plowed alphabetically. This wasn’t too bad when I lived on Grant Street, but I could have been stuck for days on Walnut Street.

Tree branches gave way under the weight of ice and fell on the houses and cars. The snow pushed to one side had to go somewhere and was scraped into piles in parking lots and edges of yards. It had to be navigated, accounted for. Trips to the grocery were pre-meditated with surplus in mind. After all I never knew when I would be snowed in for a day or so. And I lived in town. What did they do, the people who lived in the country?

I had started my new career as a computer programmer for State Farm. I was so nervous, being a little older, not by much, but enough to notice, than my co-workers who were by majority recent college graduates. I had worked for the telephone company for six years and for an attorney’s office for a couple of years before that. I had gone back to college, gotten a second bachelor’s degree, this one in applied computer science just to get this job. My grades had been good. I was confident in my skills. But I remembered the adage that warns of any enterprise requiring new clothes.

On this cold winter day, I headed for the office from my apartment in the upper half of an old house. I was lucky to have off-street parking but I had no garage. The daily dig was required at the beginning of every workday. In Chicago, they call the wind that howls through the streets made faster by the physics of air pressure and the narrow pathways between the tall buildings “The Hawk.” In my town, two hours south of Chicago, there was just nothing to stop the wind. Its beak and talons were just as sharp. My office was only ten blocks from my apartment, but the blocks were long ones. It was worth it to drive to the parking lot only five blocks closer, only halfway and walk the rest of the way.

There was a great little explanation of how to walk on ice and snow. It encourages you to walk like a penguin, keeping your center of gravity over the flat of your foot for the least chance of slipping. That works great but only if the frozen surface you are walking on is also flat. If it’s sloped, all bets are off.

The sidewalks in the five blocks between the parking lot and the office building were crumpled at dangerous angles from the upheaval of the lovely large tree roots underneath. The streets had similar angles with the added hazard of the berm of plowed ice and snow to dodge. It was the daily shooting gallery that was getting to work in winter, that lovely time people fondly call the “change of seasons.”

I was well-bundled that particular day, wrapped and layered against the cold with the double benefit of providing a bit of extra padding when I fell. Oh, and that’s when I fell, not if I fell. It was a pretty good bet I was going to fall.

I stepped out of my car gingerly onto the parking lot which even after being plowed was filling up with snow again on top of the ice that had not been taken by the plow. I hobbled through the first block, hunched against the wind. I stepped in smush and slush, turned my ankle more than once. In the second block I picked up speed and looked up from watching my every step to see someone else walking, another frozen stranger in blue jeans and a coat that would never be warm enough. He was right in my path. And I couldn’t stop. In the swirling snow and icy wind, I slammed into him full-force. And he caught me, this stranger, this frosted young man.

I looked up into his eyes. We were both amazed to still be on our feet.

“You can laugh if I fall,” I coughed at him, “but you have to help me back up.”

He grinned, accosted by a sputtering blonde. We had not been introduced. I pointed ahead.

“We’re going to that building over there.”
He nodded, suddenly the plodding Knight of Pentacles, there to steady me on our way as I skittered on the glazed sidewalk. We never spoke; we only laughed the entire time until he deposited me at my office building’s front door. I remembered to thank him. He just laughed and saluted and leaned into the wind to continue his trip.  I never knew his name. I never saw him again.

** ** **

There was snow on Mt. Diablo a couple of weeks ago, way up high at the top. It’s pretty up there, up there where it belongs.

Best wishes.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

By Definition

Paranoia is the unreasonable fear that someone is out to get you. This isn’t the exact medical definition, but it works for our purposes today. Now, remember the fear has to be unreasonable. But I’m not going to talk about the unreasonable fears. It’s hard enough just dealing with the reasonable ones.

Let me back up. There’s this guy at work I’ll call Sam. No, that’s not his name. It probably says more about my character than his that I protect his identity. Usually they say the names have been changed to protect the innocent. “Sam” is not innocent. But it may not be Sam I’m protecting here anyway.

Sam is The Office Terror. After working with this person for years (I mean seriously, he might not even be a guy, ok? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that he’s a real person), I’m pretty sure Sam actually thinks up ways to make people go crazy with passive-aggressive strikes.

Honestly, we had been enjoying something of a lull in activities. Oh, I don’t mean work wasn’t busy; it has been. There have been surprises, intrigues, disappointments and little victories. It’s been the workaday world. But Sam hadn’t really struck yet this year.

But, it’s the Year of the Snake and somehow I sense that Sam may have shed his old skin just to come out with shiny new scales with the same old venom he’s packed for years. Does this latest trip to the zoo signal a renewed effort on his part to be dissembling and destructive?

We work together, not in the same organization, but in different roles essential to develop, enhance and maintain software in a certain business area of our company. After many years of working in technology, I have a certain perspective that suggests that the needs of business override the needs of technology and it is up to technology to provide the tools the business needs to fulfill its goals. As an overall corporate requirement, there may also be the need for technical tools to make all that possible, probable, affordable, fast—oops, fast is actually a business goal and so is affordable. But you see what I’m getting at. Basically, unless the company is a software company, it’s in the business of doing its business.

One of the things we use in our different roles is a facility to share documents pertaining to this work, a repository of essentials to do the work of software development in all its phases: “discovery” with its “what if” tools, analysis, requirements statement, development, testing and quality assurance, deployment of changes and post-deployment support. There’s a lot of stuff out there needed to do each of our jobs and there’s no denying, by me at least, that it takes all of us to do it.

That’s where this 3 of Pentacles “teamwork” card starts to turn over and look like team-sabotage, team-foibles, team-panic, team-“need to know”-ness. Our internet world opened up a whole new vista of sharing of information. This was actually a terrible shock to just a few old-timer programmers who had been used to being treated like local gods, having the hearts of young trainees and unsuspecting business staff cut out on a stone altar…well, ok, not exactly. But some people were very much into hiding what they do because they saw it as the secret to their longevity. If people knew what they knew, there goes the indispensability thing.

The new thinking is that the sharing of information and teamwork is what you are valued for. It's the idea you bring to the table today and the way you work things out with others. That’s the theory.

Sam’s not into that. Sam, I’ve come to understand, has a completely different story going on. Sam recently cut off nearly everyone’s access to the shared facility without notice, citing a self-righteous reasoning that people should put their stuff somewhere else. Basically, if he didn't want to read it, then it wasn't important. People should share elsewhere. This is typical, nearly predictable.

For one thing, he likes nothing better than to get everyone riled up. He will not only start, but continue email wars with co-workers. Instead of the friendly co-worker’s response to something new such as, “Hmm, I see what you mean. I have some concerns about that, but before jumping to conclusions, let me ask you a few more questions or go back and think it over for some possible ideas,” Sam has a couple of patterns.

He might ignore the request, then claim never to have known about it until it was too late.

We learn to date and timestamp requests and make them official with witnesses so that doesn’t happen—as often—so he might also just start arguing with the person about how much time their request is going to take. Usually the argument lasts much longer than doing the request itself, proving that he actually did have time to do it but time is on Sam’s side.

Once he wastes yours, you can’t get it back. The best way to deal with this is to refrain from engaging Sam in conversation. Sadly, Sam is in a position of minor power, a first-level supervisor who manages the workload of his team.

One of my favorite (not) variations of Sam’s approaches is to make sure that an assignment is given to one of his team members with insufficient or incorrect information, even to the point of saying, Do what I say, not what is in the document. While the programmer is working on the incorrect solution, Sam makes sure that no one talks to the programmer but himself. During testing, when issues arise with the change not being according to what was requested, Sam declares it too late to fix anything by the release deadline and presents all management, for Sam loves to perform in front of crowds, with the long list of things that had been promised but will no longer be possible because his team must now fix the thing that shouldn’t have broken in the first place.

(Yes, I’m still breathing.)

We end up spending more time in “Sam-maintenance” than we do in getting actual work done. Thus is the downfall of civilization, I expect.

Such sterling behavior could not flourish, especially for years as it has, without management support. It is my opinion that Sam’s boss likes him in the abstract and really wants to keep it that way. He only occasionally is forced to look into what Sam is actually doing. The deadly combination of support and neglect allows Sam to curtail the activities of at least thirty people who otherwise could make good progress and work things out. Needless to say, even his own employees are tired of it.

I’m lucky to have a good relationship with many of them and can ask such unprofessional questions in jest—IN JEST, really— as I did recently to another victim of Sam’s reign of terror, “Is it still against company policy to kill Sam?”

My friend hesitates. He is a wise and kind person with a quiet sense of humor.

“Company policy?” he asks, “Or popular vote?”

We move on from there having come to our agreement that company policy does indeed preclude that as a possible solution. Somehow, we make things work.

Best wishes.