Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Striving Artist

It occurred to me how many of my friends are artists of one sort or another. My friend Beth Seilonen just spent ten days’ wonderful summer vacation with me. She spent much of the time in my back yard in the creative process, painting delightful one-of-a-kind boards, pins and boxes into “spirit boards” complete with little planchettes. More than just her own creative mind at work, her spirit of giving was in play too, since these items are all fundraiser items to support this year’s 2014 SF BATS.

We laughed at how I had her chained to the picnic table all week. In fact, my “artist in captivity” effort was a little more participative. We visited Michaels stores in three different towns, all with just a little bit different inventory of omigoshes and gotchas that inspired Beth to spend her days in the shade of my pink crepe myrtle up to her elbows in paint.

The results are heart-warming, too. At the recent SF BATS Fundraiser event, three of the big boards sold, including a masterpiece friendly fruit bat board with a swirling lacy paper background layer. It looks like the whorls and eddies of the depths of divination.  One of the beautiful owl figural boards sold, plus a box (perfect for runes) decorated with bats flying around the sides with the familiar letters and numbers, Yes and No on the top.
Beth Seilonen's SF BATS Spirit Board 2014

Beth has just a few more of these available for sale, still with proceeds split to SF BATS, along with her joyous, jolly, irreverent Compound Tarot, a 78-card black and white deck featuring the denizens of the mythical Compound that is the Mother House for Daughters of Divination’s Facebook group. This Facebook group was recently made a secret group to facilitate its worldwide membership’s postings of fun and lampooning. One new member wondered where the divination was and we all chuckled reading the question. There are lots of social media groups dedicated to serious divinatory queries, business tips for professional readers and practice readings for students. This group, however, is the haven for diviners in serious need of blowing off a little steam. While a dedicated subgroup gets their spectacles steamed up over current favorite hotties like Cumberbatch and Hiddleston, care is taken to assure the whole thing does not go overboard into completely poor taste (although some would dandle dangerously close to the edge of that cliff), all in good fun.

In addition to having my visiting artist-in-residence for the last few days, my back yard has hosted the neighborhood children in their demand for Craft Day. First, I led my Ventura Street Irregulars in a slapdash paint-your-own-mini-birdhouse day with the kids on the block. Even the two-year-old got her hands into the mix, happily making handprints on whatever was in front of her.

Today, I had to work, but that didn’t stop Beth and her daughter Anna from having the kids over for another round of paint-your-own-box and everyone brought home a treasure.

It was little enough for me to devote my old picnic tables and plastic table cloths, a basket full of paint, glitter and sticky foam things to let artistic imagination run loose. Those were the days I loved best as a child. What a joy to give that to someone else!

I’ve always loved the idea of creating something beautiful. As a child, my favorite toys were crayons, Cray-Pas oil pastels, mosaic tiles, my father’s drafting tools, water colors, rubber stamps and stickers, looms and lanyard supplies. If you could make something with it, I loved it and spent hours making anything from Play-Doh ashtrays to troll doll quilts.

When I was in junior high, my father was smug and delighted to be able to enroll me in college-level art classes at the university where he taught. I was pleased to be treated like just another college student and worked hard for the A’s in my courses. While I faced the endless repetition of the same inaccurate history classes year after year during the regular school year, at least my summers were full of stretching my wings artistically. Dr. Acker taught me how to see, not just look at things, but to see light and dark, shape and motion, perspective and just a little abstraction. But there I also found my limitations and realized that as much as I love art, I’m probably not an artist. Perhaps more valuable than finding my limits was learning that I could help artists and bask in the creative glow.

One of my early “discoveries” was a young man in Illinois named Gerard Erley. He showed pastels in the summer sidewalk art shows. I loved his work. I bought lots of it. I knew he had “it” whatever “it” is. I gave him my sage advice, as a collector of art: “Gerry, you may do any kind of artwork you like, but if you want it to sell, you need to sell it to people who have not had the art education you have. They may not see the nod to Sargent in your portrait. But, if you paint landscapes and still life, something they understand, people will buy them. Because you make Illinois look like someplace someone would want to live.”

I think he laughed at me at the time. But I like to think something I said may have meant something to him. He grew in his artistry and now is an esteemed professor whose breath-taking work commands high prices from eager collectors. He makes this world look like someplace someone would want to live. And I am “house proud” of my collection of “early Erleys”.

Over the years, I’ve found wonderful friends in the arts. Sallie Evans is an artist and miniaturist whose impossibly tiny needlework has graced magazines and shows. My friends Kristine and Shotsie Gorman are both artists in multiple media, now living in Sonoma, California with their latest opening blending tattoo, tarot and painting to create a vibrant and open atmosphere for the arts in a beautiful place, a resort within a resort, Shotsie & Kristine's T.A.T. Gallery. Rebecca Wrigley, a former Disney illustrator, had the seed of an idea for a Tarot deck and while that project is still “in the works,” the spurt of creativity gave her one of the boosts she needed to complete her first novel. And my friend Nancy Truax is the art teacher at our local Catholic high school, leading her honors students to create lasting community art works such as mosaic picnic benches in a nearby public park, a mural to give community youth hope and inspiration and becoming Teach of the Year. And I have countless talented friends creating Tarot and Lenormand decks with their unique points of view, their special vision of the world and understanding of its signs and meanings.

What can I do? My own talents fall short of my wishes, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I can provide that creative space for others, sponsor their efforts, showcase their beautiful results, and plant the seeds of possibility in the hearts of artists and their champions all over. I can be the Ace of Wands, the inspiration to keep going and growing, encouraging artists of all ages to flower in the expression of the human spirit.

You can too. Sponsor the arts. Turn your favorite starving artist into a successful striving artist today.

Best wishes!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Key of D

You know Global Warming? Local warming is about all I can handle right now, although I’m a staunch advocate for the environment. No arguments, please! My blog, my point of view. You can write a blog if you want, right?

OK, now that that’s out of the way, this local warming thing cropped up yesterday. It was a warm and strangely, for Northern California anyway, muggy afternoon. I had a big plastic cup of ice water on my desk to keep body and soul together. And I was working.

I was on the phone, nothing unusual, and trying to explain the next step in a process.

Mom used to tell me that if she needed me to be quiet, all she had to do was ask me to sit on my hands. Sad to say, I resemble this remark. As much as my feet and my brain seem to have no relationship with each other whatsoever, rendering me hopeless as a dancer and probably leading to my many unscheduled flights down stairs all over the USA, my hands apparently are directly connected to my mouth.

This flailing about has gotten me into some small trouble all my life. I was always first to tip over my orange juice on the kitchen table in the morning at breakfast. My one satisfaction about this is that the “flail gene” seems to have come from my father’s side of the family. One time my half-sister was visiting our Dad while I was there too and she tipped over her orange juice at the table.

“Hey!” I shouted, shocked, jumping up to grab the paper towels. “Hey, that’s MY line!”

“You, too?” She asked in dismay and realization that what might have been dismissed as sheer coincidence was now confirmed to be a familial curse.

Well, you can probably see where this is leading. As I was in animated discussion with a co-worker about the workings or non-workings of a particular aspect of the system, it happened. I hit that cup of ice water and “thar’ she blows.”

I’m still on the phone, ever the professional if not completely coordinated, grabbing my brand new work laptop up from the storm surge of ice water. I unplugged it immediately, turned it upside down on my chair to let gravity be my friend—for a change—and completed my phone call.

Then dashing to action like the Knight of Swords, I grabbed the electronic brain in soggy distress and headed to the bathroom.

I know this is counter-intuitive. Just bear with me.

From past experience, since sadly this isn’t the first time that electronics and liquid have met under my wild gestures, I have learned that speed is essential in rescuing the drowning laptop.

I grabbed my hairdryer, tilted my victim on its side and applied heat and air until the drips stopped and no evidence of moisture gleamed.

Back at my desk I plugged that baby back in and was pleased there was no smoke and all the keys…well, there was the issue, you see.

That D key felt funny. It wobbled. It slipped off its moorings and into my hand, leaving the stump of the tooth exposed like a raw nerve.

Since denial is the first stage of mourning, I tried to fit the D back in place, then inspected it more closely. It had melted, a case of “friendly fire” during the drying out process and was now too deformed to sit securely in place, let alone be usable to type the letter D. Salvaging what I could of the situation, I was happy to learn that in spite of the button being ruined, the stump of the key will produce the letter D reliably. I hadn’t actually ruined the computer, only that one letter.

Well, now, how to remedy this?

I called the Help Desk. You know Help Desks. They are populated with eager people from other countries whose accents or volume are such that a deranged technology victim cannot understand them. This leads to the victim often being rude to the poor Help Desk person. I work hard not to be rude to the people who are trying to help me.

“You want deekee?” the earnest young woman in Costa Rica asked me. “What application on your laptop is deekee?”

Many answers spring to mind, none helpful.

“No, I need the chicklet that says D.”

“You need chickee deekee? I do not know that application,” she says, uncertainly.

“No. Sweetie. Look at your own keyboard that you have under your hands right now. Find the letter D. See the little plastic thing with the D on it? I need that, just that.”

“When you will in Irvine be? Technician will give you deekee.”

“No, that won’t do. I’m an 8 hour drive from Irvine. It’s like two whole countries away. I need you to send me a D key. I’ll put it on myself.”

“Oh, I can only have technician fix your deekee,” she says, and I wonder how on earth I can keep a straight face with this conversation. “You have to order deekee yourself to do yourself.”

I’m silent for a moment. At least my hands are still and there is no ice water nearby. I consider finding what’s left of it and pouring it over my head for relief.

“I close your ticket now, ok?”

“Sure. Thanks for your help.”

I go to the self-service application and find that I could order the D key or a whole keyboard at any rate but they will not ship it to my home. It has to go to one of my company’s offices. That’s the 8 hour drive. I reminisce on how technology was going to make people’s lives easier.

I send an email to my co-worker Alicia in North Carolina, begging her to send me a replacement D key. She refers it to her local Technician who good-naturedly offers to mail me the necessary item. I thank him profusely, noting that he would not believe the hilarious conversation I had with the Help Desk.

I now await delivery so I can fix my D key myself. I think I need a break.

Best wishes.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Next Page

My friend and co-worker is the Page of Wands. At least, that’s how I think of him. He was hired as a replacement for another friend of mine, really good guy and very smart, who was laid off, mostly because he didn’t want to move and take a cut in salary doing it. While I miss the guy who got laid off, because he was so knowledgeable about the business and an all-around good guy, I like the new guy. But they can in no respect be considered equivalent resources.

My buddy the Page of Wands, or PoW as I will call him here, is struggling a bit with his job. He’s expected to know systems that haven’t been documented, turned over, demonstrated, kept updated or otherwise even tickled in years. Because his title is Senior Business Systems Analyst, he’s just naturally expected to know all this stuff. This is dangerous, but at least PoW has an awareness of the danger. That’s one of the reasons I like him.
Picture Postcard Tarot
(c) Copyright 2010 Marcia McCord

For instance, if you knew a guy who was a Senior Pilot and you plopped him down in, say, an Alien Aircraft, where the knobs were meant for differently shaped hands and what little labeling on the control panel was in a language that nobody knows, would you feel safe? After all, the business requirement here is, “Fly this thing and land it safely where we want it to go.” He’s a Senior Pilot. He should know how to fly, right? Except, he’s never seen anything like this. And no one can help him. Feel safe?

“Who is your business user?” I ask him, suddenly afraid for him and anyone else near the Alien Spacecraft that is the software he’s supposed to specify, describing in detail how it functions and how it should function and what users can do with it if they are a certain role and what they can’t if they aren’t and all that.

“You are my business user,” he replies, with all the faith of a puppy.

“Yeah, but…I don’t KNOW anything about this stuff,” I protest. “There has to be someone who wants you to do this besides your boss, right?”

Most of the time that’s true. Every once in a while, something bad will happen in software development and someone in technology management will decide they know how to make a better system than the business users do. While that in itself isn’t a bad thing at all, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is usually the business appetite for such a project. Sometimes, and I have worked at these places in the past, sometimes the technology management needs to prove that the system needs to be on a different, more up-to-date technology platform. Say, you could do this from your Dick Tracy watch, right? But the system isn’t really suited for a watch-sized user interface or the people who are going to use it every day don’t have and don’t want Dick Tracy watches, etc.

I’m trying to make a sometimes complex idea easier to understand here. I don’t think anyone is asking my buddy PoW to do things on a Dick Tracy watch. At least, I hope not. Just given the high-level nature of the system, watches would be the wrong user interface. Just sayin’.

Lucky for PoW, there is a business user to talk to. I’m hoping this helps PoW but it may not.

He admitted to me that he was expected to know a lot of stuff he doesn’t know. When he applied for the job, it was as a Junior Business Systems Analyst but they hired him as the Senior Business Systems Analyst. Now, his bosses have expectations of him that he never meant to convey that he could fulfill.

So we have two mistakes here: one, the bosses hired a junior guy to be a senior guy and are now disappointed. Two, the junior guy said yes to the job offer. Now they are both stuck.

I’m not saying PoW can’t learn. Pages are students. Students learn. PoW is the Page of Wands not because he is the slickest thing since sliced bread, but because he has a really limited attention span. He can absorb information in small chunks at a time. He’s not good with slogging through vast folds of information, separating the bullhockey from the puck, so to speak, plodding through on his own to come up with the Right Answer. He’s thrilled if he’s told, “Go get the widget; it’s in the left rear corner of the blue box.” He will bring it right back, no problem.

Pretty soon, if you take some time with him, he gets why the widget was there, why “left” and “rear” and “blue” were important and meaningful. He learns as he goes. But it’s a long distance between the Page of Wands and the Magician.

Is he set up to fail? Maybe. To mean that means that there was some diabolical plot to make PoW’s life miserable specifically. Seriously? I doubt anyone has done that. Stalkers and sociopaths might do this, but generally people in business situations have a “nothing personal” thing going on. In fact, to PoW’s dismay, they may not be thinking of him at all. After all, no one cares about your career, working conditions and personal comfort like you do, so no one is likewise looking to upset those things. The bosses are likely thinking about their own career, working conditions and personal comfort, right? PoW’s situation may have just wandered into their path nearly by accident. I say nearly, because management is supposed to pay some attention to employees. The attention isn’t always what you’d like, of course.

The upshot is of course that PoW is in over his head and he’s not the only one who suffers for it. We all have to pull together to make up for the gap in his experience and confidence. Often the business users, the people with their hands on the keyboard or other user interface of a system, are not particularly skilled at software analysis. If they were, they might be doing software analysis instead of whatever the topic of the system is. And yet, without some grounding in the business topic, it’s hard to ask the right questions to get at the right answer.

As much as today’s business leaders would like to think that one business analyst is much like another, that just isn’t the case. People aren’t interchangeable parts. As much as business wants it to be true, you can’t trade a “60” in for a “30” and get the same productivity. The loss of productivity is often greater than the salary cost savings of a less-experienced person. The problem with this is that the people who made the decision to hire the junior guy and make him do a senior job are the people least likely to be burdened with the gap in ability. It’s the other people in the group who are charged in different roles with making a project successful that carry the burden of the less experienced Deer in the Headlights like my buddy PoW.

Don’t call PoW stupid or untalented. That’s not fair. He meant to be junior. His big mistake was saying yes to the job offer. The stupid or untalented tag is apt for the people who were not paying enough attention to the true skillset needed to do the job and, dutifully following directions, hired someone with the right salary range, period.

Don’t ask me either why software development costs are not reduced when underqualified candidates are charged with doing the job of a senior resource. In the meantime, I’m helping my buddy be the person his boss wishes he magically were. There's only so much I can do.

Best wishes.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Foot in This World

Cat Philosophy 101: "Good morning, Tony, are you being good?"

Tony, in his delight at having been sought for wisdom and affection, steps on the power button for my computer.

"Mama, tell me about BEING first. What is BEING?"

A familiar brief whistling sounds and then my screen is black with nothingness.
Art Postcard Tarot
(c) Copyright 2010 Marcia McCord

I work from home so that computer is my lifeline to well-being and existence. It is something like the oxygen tank for the scuba diver, something other than optional. It is, at least, the beginning of the day and my brief absence is likely not to be noticed.

I quickly resuscitate the work laptop and resume my online presence with my company, answering questions, joining meetings.

Tony gazes at me, demonstrating BEING. We have not yet discussed it as he wished. He takes a brief break from BEING and assists me with my yogurt, acknowledging that cherry is not his favorite flavor. He prefers blueberry. Some sticks to his chin and he dutifully dispatches it.

Tony is a good listener. He doesn’t talk much, except to note the status of the food bowl, to express displeasure at the BEING that is Louie the Dog, to hide under the day bed until Derek the Housekeeper has completed his work and to escape the possibility that large trucks like the trash truck with air breaks and many-geared transmissions might someday make their way to the second floor of my house to hunt down and…he is not ready to verbalize this.

He likes a hug now and again, especially after a long weekend when I have been away from my desk in The Office where he lives. He prefers my left shoulder always. If he should accidentally start out with a tight embrace with barely-flexed claws upon my right shoulder, he will realize his error, no matter what room we are in, and switch to the obviously better left shoulder. He leans tightly into my head and neck, preferring his back legs tucked under his ample kitty girth, his tail free to speak its mind. He places his chin against me, communing with BEING and TOGETHERNESS.

He stays there a while, sometimes falling asleep. He will sometimes set about rearranging my hair, especially if it is freshly washed, as that is his vocation. Smearing his cheeks upon my head, licking my scalp, breathing in the scent of NOBODY BUT US, he leaves his mark. MY Mama, he says. We were made for each other.

But what about BEING?

I can type and talk with a 17-lb. cat on my shoulder if he does not exercise his claws too deeply or luxuriate to his sharp teeth in my hair or swish his tail in response to the speaker phone requests for software testing, documentation, solutions to problems, business compromises, win-win scenarios. I can BE with him and do what I need to do.

What is BEING?

Why would he ask me these questions, I wonder, and why would he think I know? I am that I am? I am that I imagine myself to be? I am, beyond my own imagination? I am, beyond the physical world of fur and stripes and cat drool and purrs, of claws in tender skin, just deep enough to be felt and not so deep to draw blood. I am that I feel, that I dream of houses I never lived in and never will, that I sense lives not my own, a past too distant for this time, a future that might have been and another that might be yet.

What is BEING?

Tony disengages his claws and paws and purrs and fur, his bulk no longer braced by my neck. He licks my hand and steps to the desk, settling in like B. Kliban’s meatloaf upon papers and books and decks of cards beneath a lamp that has not been plugged into electricity for at least ten years. He regards me in peace and understanding as only the Hierophant can, with the knowledge of BEING and NOTHINGNESS, with a foot in this world and one in the next.

So many people have trouble with the Hierophant, the card that teaches, that presumes to know what we do not know and seeks to impart its truth, so often in a language misunderstood, where words have meaning but meaning is elusive.

I am re-reading Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, perhaps my favorite book of all time. The main character is a linguist, a good-hearted Jesuit, who travels afar to places never known before, studies language and culture, seeks understanding and comes away with the greatest of understandings: The smallest thing can be misunderstood on the most fundamental level with direst of consequences, even by brilliant, well-meaning, alert, eager and thoughtful minds.

A friend laughed to tell me often, “Why do you hate me? I haven’t even tried to help you yet.”

What is BEING? Tony asks me, not to find out the answer, but to teach the student. I am CAT, he smiles and closes his eyes as a book is closed after the lesson.

Best wishes.