Up against the wall

My ass is in a terrific sling. I’m nearly broke, my rent is in some serious arrears, and my air conditioning is nearly out of coolant — a state I have no real hope of seeing to unless and until I see to the arrears. That happy result assumes, of course, that I don’t get tossed out on a rail first.

I’ve been living off the forebearance of others for too long. (…And it’s been a while, trust me. You could make a strong case that I’ve been doing it for years.)

Maintaining a steady income, much less acquiring progressive responsibility and pay, has always been a challenge, to put it mildly. Until a few years ago, I made a point of keeping the stakes low, of not taking on any jobs that I wasn’t willing to lose. What more really needs to be said by way of explanation than that?

Meanwhile, I sit here with a hole in my pocketbook and a chip on my shoulder. At least the two are related. Ordinarily I don’t have a problem with rolling up my sleeves and getting stuff done (give or take those spells when on account of anxiety I ignore as much as possible) but for the last six months, it’s been a challenge to do more than get out of bed in the morning. If I had cable television I wouldn’t’ve accomplished anything at all in the last six months.

It occurs to me to work, but… the anxiety steps in, to the point where I’m barely able to maintain a train of thought. It was bad when I was fulfilling the letter of my O’Reilly contract, but finishing that work hasn’t made it any easier.

I can identify three causes of this problem: conditioning, lost bearings, and impatience.

Conditioning

I fail to get the best from ambition; sixteen years of being repeatedly ignored and treated like an inconvenience put paid on that notion, and for twenty years the other side of my internal dialogue has been going, “are you fucking crazy?!” every time I’ve given a moment’s thought to getting over it. It was a hell of a job of conditioning, all the more because it wasn’t intentional; it was a case of my parents (and to a lesser degree my step-parents) mortgaging my sanity for the freedom to follow their own muses. It wasn’t so bad as being better seen than heard, but asking for anything out of the ordinary, from any of the four of them, was too often a waste of breath until I was in college… if I was lucky. Unfortunate outcomes meant raised voices and guilt trips. <sarcasm>Those were some fun times.</sarcasm>

Yes, I have some pretty thin skin in this regard. <sarcasm class="more">It sure sucks to be me.</sarcasm>

There’s no doubting that when I calm the fuck down I’m capable of a lot. Take jQuery, of all things, as an example: I don’t use it — because I don’t need it unless I’m in a hurry. I’m good at figuring things out, good at communication, and not too shabby at using those strengths to solve problems. Lately, though, it hasn’t mattered, because the thought of excelling at anything makes my blood run cold. The conditioning demands that I expect crickets or criticism.

No small part of that expectation is down to long-standing habits that lie beyond the conditioning and are so ingrained that they’re inscrutable except under direct esamination. I have the coping skills to interact more or less effectively with the addicts, the codependents, and the insecure, i.e., the sorts of people around whom I spent most of the ifrst sixteen years of my life. It rarely occurs to me until I really think about it that I might’ve fallen into a rut with respect to the interpersonal relationships in which I invest… and I’m usually at a loss to grasp how I could best change my nonverbal communication and attitudes to attract people who aren’t broken like that. The best I’ve got is to follow the Golden Rule, listen at least twice as much as I talk, and give compliments when they’re due. Other good ideas lie buried in a stale porridge of inexperience.

There’s a lot of room for positive belief in there that’s just sitting empty.

Lost bearings

The self-examination that I perform in public here, and meditiation that I don’t, have deflated the last bits of my ego that were founded on anger and fear… which is to say most of them, in point of fact. Over the last several weeks, and for the first time in my life, I know right then how ludicrous and ineffective it is to raise my voice. In the past I was content and sometimes even happy to ride the adrenaline of venting my spleen, but now I feel nothing but remorse for taking it that far.

I’m literally tired of holding grudges. I get annoyed the same as anyone, but when I need not fear lasting consequences of others’ misbehavior, I lose the point of holding onto any specific action or incident. If they want to be assholes, I say let ’em.

More importantly, I’ve managed to bring my life to a point where I don’t suffer nonsense that’s forced upon me. That was the whole point to avoiding commitments of value — I might be in state of crisis over that now because of that habit, but that’s not to say that its founding instinct was entirely poor.

However, that state of affairs does a number on my self-image. I’ve been the guy who says what needs to be said, who calls it how he sees it, who damns the obstacles the very instant he’s in any position to take them personally. That guy is who I saw in the mirror.

I don’t want to be that guy anymore, at least not all the time. That’s troublesome, because I haven’t the foggiest idea who I want to be instead. It’s only been in the last six months that I’ve come anywhere close to believing in the possibility that I can set boundaries and expect to see them respected, or reciprocate at that level. Before that, those were just good ideas in theory and claptrap in practice.

That slowly dawning epiphany puts me in a headspace comparable to that found once an antidepressant medication becomes effective: their mailaise lifted, the psychiatric patient gains clear recognition of how fucked-up their life is, and they crash all over again — in some cases to the point of attempting suicide. I feel a cleanly detached regret that things haven’t gotten to that point for me, because if they had, the responsible authorities would offer help now and ask questions later.

The result is that I’m terrified of fucking up what could be a very good thing, if I do it right. Most people have had at least one significant relationship with a Member of the Appropriate Sex that engendered fervent recitation of Shepard’s Prayer or a close analogue. Lately I feel that sentiment over my life as a whole, and the apparent result is paralysis.

Impatience

Just becase emoting in anger leaves me feeling like a horse’s ass, doesn’t mean that I don’t get annoyed or even angry with the failings of others, much less that I fail to recognize personal shortcomings, be they others’, or my own.

Working means — particularly for me and others who are wired like me — dealing with unconscionable amounts of bullshit. The world has no shortage of ass-covering, dishonest, indecisive, risk-averse, self-involved, insecure, bullying, clueless, and complacent fuckwits; these characters are disturbingly common in my line of work, even on good days. Since water seeks its own level, it can be said that I’m not entirely free of these traits, either.

Working with these people — and living with myself, when I’m down the rabbit hole — brings out the worst in me. Why can’t you just write the check, take the advice, and stand the fuck clear so that the work can get done? Why can’t it ever be that easy?

I’m quite confident that I could heave a rant of several thousand words on this subject, but you”d feel alienated and I’d be going far off message in my own head. Another time, perhaps.

When I look for the root cause of my impatience with sinecures and their ilk, I’m forced to shed light on the conditioning again: so many years of being called upon to take responsibility for my mistakes while being denied so many opportunites to strive and take credit for successes, and so much time spent repairing damage caused by the mistakes of others, leads me to an easy — albeit regrettable — self-righteous fury when I’m confronted by people who actively avoid responsibility for anything. This sentiment also stirs itself into my current state of affairs, by virtue of the lifestyle that I claimed at the beginning of this piece… because to be entirely honest, I can’t fool myself into believing that I’ve acquitted myself much better, lately.

Three solutions

Web sites are designed to solve problems and satisfy needs. Fifteen years of building them leads me to the habit of proposing a solution to go with each problem, or at least offering upturned palms.

If you’re still reading, what follows is a big heap of Obvious. Even so, I need to think this through one part at a time.

For starters, I’ll reduce the problems. I am:

In short I need to alter the conditioning, own the values I have left, and give my goals emotional precedence over the obstinacy of others without passing withering judgement on that obstinacy.

Re-conditioning

I’m really stuck on this one, in part because it casts its shadow over my entire life, and also because it’s ultimately dependent upon the actions of others. The conditioning is founded on my experience, not deliberate programming undertaken by the people who raised me.

The easy part is affirming to myself that I have powers of judgement enough to tell good ieas from bad, and intellectual gifts powerful enough to choose and implement the good ones. However, I’ve never been one for affirmations. There’s something awfully hokey and artifical about them that fills my head with lemons.

However, there’s an important detail that’s easy to miss: everybody wants things, and some of those people even believe that they can obtain them. A smaller subset is willing to ask for, and accept, help to that end.

This raises a constant (and for me painful) fact of childhood: in contemporary America, children are resource sinks who have little to offer in return to their families, and even those who are willing to contribute or pull some of their own weight for the benefit of their households are discouraged from doing so (by law, even!) until well into high school. My misfortune was in being raised by parents who believed that if you couldn’t eat it, drink it, smoke it, or wear it, and also demonstrate its importance, you oughtn’t spend money on it.

I fell into the same way of thinking, which is a big part of why I’ve assiduously ruled out much possibility of marriage or family until further notice. Breaking vicious cycles is pretty important to me.

I know how I got there. I can dig my way out by remembering that I can provide people with things they want, if I’ll take the time to find out what those things are. If I can do that, I can shamelessly allow myself the entitlement of pay and occasional praise for work well-done.

An inventory of values worth owning

I can no longer build my ego around my willingness to roll on anger and push back against Wrong. Other than that militant belief in fairness, what else do I have in the way of values?

The question I cannot answer easily is if these values are enough. The first two — rightly implied to be those on the list that I value most — coexisted peacefully with the anger and the baggage. The other three are shakier, mostly because there are plenty others out there whose faith in themselves is far better developed than my own.

Holding all the aces

It’s been too easy for me to approach every possible setback by girding for battle, because that’s what I was brought up to. Mom had a “conveniently short” memory (convenient for her, anyway). Between that and an early childhood spent through the wringer more often than not at the hands of my half-siblings from Dad’s first marriage — there were five of them, and only one of me — I fell easily into the habit of fighting reflexively for every inch of ground that I could.

Reflecting on the formative experiences makes it easier for me to see why that constantly en-garde state is so off-putting: I go in ready to fight even when there’s no fighting to be done, and that attitude poisons a room pretty quickly. Verbalizing a willingness to cooperate only gets me so far, because the more “martial” aspects of my attitude are impossible for others to miss.

My first step to a solution, then, is to remember that I rarely need to fight for anything as a matter of course. I’ve gotten better at keeping that in mind, but the fact that I’m bringing it up again, speaks for itself.

More importantly, what matters most — that someone else is being a fuck-off? Not really, as long as I can still do my job competently.

The dander raised by the actually obstinate is more of a challenge, though. Very few clients or bosses will be a perfect fit; I’m called upon to assume that even in the best business relationships, I will from time to time encounter episodes of pointless obstinacy. All I can do is remember that flawed projects are not always failed projects… and that if I find myself working on a project that’s doomed to failure by the obstinacy of its sponsor, my best choice is to get it finished as quickly and cheaply as possible. The sooner I can distance myself from failures I tried to prevent, the sooner I can move onto projects that will succeed.

Music

Depeche Mode, “Walking In My Shoes” (Random Carpet Mix)
@amazon
@allmusic

Note: yes, I’ll probably go through my entire DM tracklist at this rate… but ya gotta admit, it’s appropriate to the self-loathing that I’m trying to wring out of my head.


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Three Problems

Three Problems —by Ben Henick, 31 July 2010

All journal entries

  1. Talking About the Weather
  2. To the Rafters?
  3. Coming of Age with Killer Apps
  4. Race to the Bottom
  5. Meditations on Decay
  6. Net Neutrality, or the Lack Thereof
  7. Three Problems
  8. Post Mortem of a Book Project
  9. The Egg and the Chicken
  10. Yellow Dog
  11. Digging Through the Clutter
  12. Lessons from Mom
  13. Being Careful What You Wish For
  14. Out on a Limb
  15. Beliefs, No. 1
  16. Like a Chimney
  17. Does Not Compute
  18. Past Trends, Future Results
  19. Beyond These Four Walls
  20. Competence, Confidence, and Reality
  21. Anesthesia
  22. King of the Mountain
  23. “A Deer in the Headlights”

Disclaimer: This is definitely self-indulgent. If you don’t like it, read somebody else.

This nook of the Internet is my antidote for Twitter. ©2010 Ben Henick, all rights reserved.

Job, or hell?

Yesterday I happened on two links. (Good grief, I love the Web.) The first is an e-mail alideshow of sorts aimed at the guts of some hypocrite named Spencer, the author’s (erstwhile imaginary) boss. The second is an article in Slate discussing the (un-) desirability of low- to mid-level service jobs.

…And then there’s the story of the flight attendant who on Monday found a spectacular way to say “take this job and shove it” after being verbally assaulted at length by a passenger.

All three pieces are a kick. Reading them in rapid succession, as I did yesterday afternoon, is a kick in the guts. The article about jobs-in-general particularly evoked from me a visceral response.

Rich get richer, poor get poorer

The sense of entitlement to profit that I raised a few days ago is evident in every talk about compensation I’ve heard about, or participated in, in the past several years. It seems to me like the vast majority want labor for the cheapest they can possibly obtain, while remaining content to throw handfuls of money at senior management and holders of equity — even ones who, as it turns out, contribute little or nothing.

It always seems like the same old story: hire somebody with the basic minimum of proven ability in order to get away with paying them as little as possible, train them up to the minimum needed by the organization, fire the ones who don’t take comfortably to that scheme at the instant they’re identified, and work the others to the bone until they burn out.

I believe that on some level, most people recognize that this is going on. However, I struggle to understand why. It seems axiomatic to me that people who feel valued will work harder, yet the trend moves toward every possible effort to remind people that they’re replaceable and ought to get the best out of things while they can.

Compassion vs. sociopathy

The only fact that adequately explains this prevailing state of affairs is broad, unwitting subscription to the system cobbled together from the amoral rants of a mildly nutty Russian emigré. On balance that would not be so bad, except that like that ethos’ nemeses — Communism and Christianity — “Objectivism” works a hell of a lot better in theory than in practice.

I see two deep flaws with this ethos, deepening my my confusion. First, we can’t all be Howard Roark; lots of us lack the temperament requisite to that outcome. As much to the point, if we all could have and act upon that power, civilization as we know it would rapidly descend into barbarism. One man’s clear thinker is another’s cold-hearted sonofabitch, and the latter type is awfully good at inducing conflict.

Second, human beings possess and act upon compassion compulsively; the ones who habitually refuse or fail to do so are (rightly) called sociopaths. We all recognize that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and communities tend to raise the minimum when given the chance. Cutting loose that weak link instead… goes a bit far.

Meritocracy

The happy finish of the labor market’s neo-Nietzchean race to the botom can be found in two virtues that are compatible with all of the belief systems in play: honesty and fidelity.

As it stands, the realities of social (im-) mobility leave some with first-class tickets, and consign the rest to steerage barring both outstanding luck and superlative effort. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that anyone who manages to climb their way out of steerage won’t be shoved back down by some vindictive asshole.

Rewarding honesty and fidelity in the workplace — and penalizing those who lie, cheat, and habitually cover their asses — would go a long way toward making the labor market a better place for everybody.

We have the technological capacity to discover and promote out of steerage quickly the ones who’ve earned it, as a matter of course. We can do the reverse for those who feel most inclined to rest on their laurels. Why don’t we?

Music

Hey Lewis & The News, “Workin’ for a Livin’”
@amazon
@allmusic