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Archive for October, 2012

You find them among the side streets off side streets, the places that are never traceable by GPS, where you can never get pizza deliveries. You can only find them on foot, but better that you never try.

But if you do, you may find them where the hulks of cars are stacked like dirty dishes, in garages of white plaster, where the concrete in the bays is so slick with old oil that you could skate across them in your running shoes. Their hair is thin and snarled, and their overalls stiff with grime. They are the automancers, and you really do not want to meet them.

But if you do, be sure you bring the first part of the price with you. No need to tell you what it is, if you have come so far. Nor I would not encourage you with specifics, any more than I would suggest you come without it.

But if you come, pay the first part of the price before they ask. You will not want to hear more of their voices than needful.

When you have paid and are calm again, they will cram their sleeves above their elbows and demand that you pick a car from among the wrecks. Choose well, but do not take long in making your choice, in case they choose for you instead.

But no matter who chooses, they will read for you. What they will read is the rust, the warps, and the punched-in hollows. Pondering the cylinders, your heart’s health is seen, and your lungs in the manifold of the exhaust. Scrawled in the corrosion of a battery may be the span of life that is left to you, and in the web of cracks across a windshield the blindness that will leave you to stare at nothing in the final months of your life. No matter how you felt when you hunted them out, by the time you leave, you will not want to hear.

But your ears will not help but hear, nor will your eyes forget, although in the middle of many nights after, you will wish they could. And a time may come when you look for the automancers again, this time carrying matches and oil.

But if that time comes, better hope that your feet no longer remember the way. They say that automancers’ shapes are fickle in the full moon, that they sport then, headlighted on the highway. They say, too, that a man who spoke against them lingered seven years on the road in their service, his belly pitted by potholes and his will kept by the holder of his keys. They say many things about the automancers, and many of them are true, including the contradictory ones.

When the craving to find them a second time is upon you, better that you remain at home. Better that you surround yourself with friends, if any remain when they learn of your visit (and they will always know, no matter how much secrecy you pride yourself in having). Rather than finding the automancers a second time unwanted, better you stay where you are and let them find you, when the time comes to pay the second half of the price.

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In the last couple of generations, modern industrial culture has seriously reduced the range of acceptable emotions. Certain emotions are not only unpleasant, the conventional wisdom goes, but should be avoided at all costs. However, the older I grow, the more I become convinced that this attitude is not only wrong, but actively harmful.

One of the most obvious examples of this attitude is the insistence on extroversion. Today, the model of the well-adjusted person has become an outgoing optimist who lives and works in groups, and feels uncomfortable alone. Not only are projects in schools and businesses increasingly done in teams, but even yoga and meditation, originally intended for private reflection, is done primarily in groups. By contrast, anyone with a preference for occasional privacy is seen as maladjusted at best, and at worst a potential perpetrator of another campus shooting.

This either-or distinction is a distortion of Carl Jung’s original concept, which described two poles of behavior, and was never intended to label people. Nor did Jung intend to condemn either extreme. Equating introversion with maladjustment is as accurate as it would be to condemn extroverts for being irresponsible and unable to focus; both extremes might include such behaviors, but actually cover a far broader ranger of behavior.

More importantly, as Anthony Storr points out in Solitude, many forms of creativity and original thought seem to require extended periods of introverted behavior. For that matter, the most successful forms of collaboration tend to be like the one used in free software, in which people work alone in the initial stages of their works, then collaborate for peer review and tweaking. By devaluing introversion, we are probably also undermining creativity – which may explain why movies with three or more names on the script rarely produce anything memorable.

Similarly, certain states of mind, such as depression and anger, are seen not only to be unpleasant, but to be avoided and medicated as quickly as possible. More – any decisions or conclusions reached in these undesirable states are questioned, or excused as being the indication of an unsound mind.

In some cases, that might be so. But always? Probably not. Depression and anger are natural reactions to events like the death of someone close, or being treated unfairly.. While dwelling endlessly on such things is unhealthy, accepting them for a certain amount of time is probably necessary for coming to terms with them. Denying this need, or trying to shorten the time in which such emotions are indulged may be as mentally unhealthy as removing a cast before a bone has had time to knit back together is unhealthy physically.

As for these emotions offering a skewed version of reality, why do we assume that the optimism that we believe is typical of a well-adjusted person is any more accurate of a perception? Personally, I have seen more projects – and companies – spiral downward because of decisions made by an optimist who was unable to admit when something was going wrong. A depressed person might at least anticipate problems so they could be countered, or admit problems when actually faced with them. In the same way, an angry person might drive themselves harder for success. Instead of accepting only one attitude as realistic, I suspect that we need to accept a much wider range of emotions as sometimes offering useful perceptions.

Yet another example is the nervousness and anxiety typical of someone who moves into a new job or set of responsibilities. When you stop to think (and even when you don’t), there are valid reasons for feeling uneasy. There are many things you can’t know about your new position, and you want to prove yourself to colleagues and ultimately become a success.

Many athletes and performers recognize such feelings – actors call them “flop sweat.” But rather than pretending that these feelings don’t exist, they worry when that not having such feelings will lead to a flat and uninspired performance. The trick, they will tell you, is to control these feelings, to channel them into the performance. If you can do that, you will have the extra edge that leads to outstanding performance.

However, we don’t admit that flop sweat is natural, let alone teach people how to cope with it. Instead, we give it a name like Impostor Syndrome, elevating it to a psychiatric condition – which except in a small minority of cases, it usually is not – giving the sufferers one more thing to worry about and elevating the feelings into some vast, impersonal force. Instead of teaching them how to reduce the anxiety by practice or planning, we encourage the sufferers to give themselves affirmations, or seek the approval of others. We encourage them to look for placebos rather than solutions that are known to work, and, as we do so, we are probably both preventing the development of competence and encouraging mediocrity.

I am not the sort of Puritan who believes that suffering is necessary for success, or needs to be sought out. But I do believe that it must be confronted directly, not avoided. Too often, in our panic to avoid the least unpleasantness, we limit ourselves and short-circuit the processes that are necessary for accomplishment and competence. We mean well, but in enforcing extroversion and pleasantness, we may also be suppressing necessary and useful emotions.

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The last time I worked in an office, I couldn’t wait to work from home. I had lost what little tolerance I ever had for endless meetings, and HR managers dragging everyone from their keyboards to play morale-building games of charades. Yet no sooner had I started working from home that I started looking for other places where I could sometimes work. The search continues, eight years later.

The trouble with working from home, especially when you live alone, is that you can easily spend days with no human contact. Yet finding the right work space elsewhere is difficult, too, since I would prefer to walk or cycle, and, although I want people around me, I don’t want so much noise that work becomes impossible.

Less than twenty meters from my door is a gazebo surrounded by flowers. Unfortunately, it’s in a courtyard where children are playing at most times of the day. Their parents are usually in the courtyard, too, idly chatting, and while I’m glad enough to talk to them when we meet at other times, I have been unable to convince them that when I’m carrying my laptop I prefer not to talk.

The same problem exists with the pool in my townhouse complex. I’d love to sit by the water on a deck chair, and dive in to do a few lengths while I’m working out how to word something, but, when I try, neighbors persist in asking what I’m doing.

Less than a kilometer away, there’s a rec center. It has an open area full of tables, which is often used by ESL tutors to meet their students. Unfortunately, it’s right beside the gym, where troops of adults and children are constantly passing. Also, every now and again, the staff decides to discourage people using the tables, so I can never be sure that the tables are available.

Not much further on are coffee shops. Unfortunately, one is too quiet to bother with. Another is wedged into a corner of the supermarket. A third has glass down one side, and by early afternoon feels as comfortable as a greenhouse, even on cloudy days.

Besides, I feel like a dilettante working at a coffee shop – and more of a bit of a freeloader, even if I buy something every couple of hours.

The best solution I’ve found is to sit in the shade under a tree in the local park, where I can hear the nearby stream and watch people pass on the sidewalk. However, when I do that, I usually drowse, leaving my work half-done.

Usually, the off-chance that I might get work done in any of these locations seems to small to gamble on. Instead, I stay by my work station, half-convinced that I am missing something somewhere, being productive, but convinced that by staying I’m one day closer to a curmudgeonly and lonely old age. Yet even that seems a brighter prospect than returning to an office job.

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