Posts tagged ‘Philosophizing’

November 6th, 2011

Telling Stories, And Living Them

Fifteen years ago, a client called my bosses and asked to have me removed from their account. This was a big account for the firm financially, and one that was both demanding and challenging. It was difficult not to take it personally.

I was reminded of this “anniversary” recently when I read a short post on Seth Godin‘s blog, about a business relationship gone awry. This item was so short it’s easy to recount with a single quote: “When pressed, though, she couldn’t actually recall what the problem had been, or how much financial or project damage had been done. All she remembered was that she didn’t like him.”

Yes, well, that could apply to many situations—and probably many of us have been there.


There are all sorts of ways to describe what I do as a communications consultant to cultural institutions. My colleagues and I help clients evaluate and set goals; we develop strategies to meet their goals; and we work with them to develop messages and create platforms for them to speak about or otherwise demonstrate what they do, whether that is through written materials, public programs and events, or tools like social media. (There are other parts of the job, too; harder to describe, and I often put them under the umbrella of “consigliere-psychologist.”)

But when it comes right down to it, once you push past the business jargon around “communications,” the thing that we help clients do is simple: tell their stories. The audiences for these stories may be external—journalists, or potential visitors—or internal, to help one part of the organization understand the needs of another. Ultimately, that’s what communication is all about: getting your story across as best you can, and hoping someone else finds it compelling. It’s definitely the part of my job that is easiest to explain or witness externally.

And you’re thinking: well, that’s fine, but how does that relate to this thing about relationships and getting kicked off an account?

Simple: relationships are also about stories. Whether business or personal, they are the things that we tell ourselves (and others) about how we feel about particular people or groups. In Godin’s example, the woman was essentially replaying for herself a particular narrative—a very broad one, without much detail, that always led to the same conclusion. Once these stories are written, they are difficult to re-write.

Fifteen years ago, I knew something had gone wrong in my relationship with this client, I just didn’t know what. I found out five years later when, under different circumstances, I met someone from my former client who had the details: I had shown up to a meeting carrying a backpack. To them, that said something about me that had nothing to do with qualifications, and created a narrative they couldn’t get over.

It’s easy to laugh now—especially since these days backpacks are de rigeur for many New York business men. But it’s why I think Godin’s post epitomizes the challenges and, more importantly, the opportunities of (business) relationships. When relationships are good, projects are often even more successful: the internal narrative we build for ourselves subconsciously will be better, and the work that we do and the client does will also be better. You get engaged, committed; you want the best for your clients, not just because that’s what they pay for but because you have invested in the relationship with them. Success (and sometimes failure) nurtures these relationships, but good relationships are about more than just success.

It’s also increasingly clear that these different levels of understanding are reached slowly, and often through indirect means. There are lots of news stories about social media tools being (mis)used and causing problems in the workplace, but they can be just as beneficial in helping people learn about and understand each other. These tools help people write their own public narratives, and they may be funny or boring, shocking or banal—but you learn something either way.

Commitment counts, of course. So do simple things like understanding each other’s working processes and goals. In my business, it helps to be smart, a nimble thinker, and to have a good understanding of human psychology. But the longer I work in this field, the more I find that it is often the internalized stories we have about our relationships that are as critical as the working processes or the external outcomes. Those stories are what drive emotional responses around whether we trust people or feel they understand our goals. And that is hard to beat.

October 9th, 2011

Dvar Torah 2011 & 5772

This summer, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky asked me if I would give the dvar Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah–in our synagogue, a speaking spot usually reserved for someone from the congregation. I accepted with some trepidation; Torah study hasn’t exactly been my strength. But I looked over the text for that Torah portion (English translation: Va-yera, Genesis 18:1-22:24, though on Rosh Hashanah we read only 22:1-22:24), came up with a couple of ideas, and discussed them with the rabbi.

We settled on one that seemed the strongest: to try to explore the impact of the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham, on Isaac’s psyche and life. What interested me about this idea is that there seems to be so little written about it: both the text and most of the subsequent commentary focus on Abraham, which seems rather unjust given that he’s not the one who nearly lost his life. It’s a terrible and terrifying story–and that might be precisely what makes it good for Rosh Hashanah, day 2.

The complete text of my dvar Torah can be downloaded/opened here as a PDF. Writing this was a great, and challenging, experience. For anyone who is ever offered the chance, I encourage you to accept the offer: it is not only a great honor, but a great opportunity to engage with and think about Judaism (or whatever religion) through a new, different, and very personal lens. That cannot help but enhance its meaning.

June 16th, 2011

How you like them Apples?

June 9th, Thursday

I’m sitting at home, working on my computer–a late-2008 edition MacBook Pro, all appropriately up-to-date on its software, etc.–when the cursor starts going haywire. My hands are not on the trackpad, yet it’s jumping all over, it’s right-clicking, it’s opening windows and files; it’s possessed. Every attempt I make to control it is like Ouija Board combat, it just doesn’t want to do what I want it to do.

I closed the lid and let the machine sit. Ten minutes later, I try again. It works, briefly, and then is possessed again.

I forcibly quit all open programs and turn off the machine. Time for bed.


June 10th, Friday

On the iPad, I search for a range of related terms like “possessed MacBook trackpad,” and get lots of results with a range of inconclusive answers. One suggests resetting the “PRAM,” wherein you unplug the computer, take out the battery, and then press the power button to clear all electrical charges. Another suggests the problem is caused by swollen batteries. I open up the machine, reset the “PRAM,” and in the process check my battery. Doesn’t seem swollen.

I reboot, and I get about 15 minutes of time before … the Possessed Trackpad takes over. Mere seconds after that, it has shrunk the icons of the items on my desktop to miniscule items of something like 8×8 pixels, while also opening 20+ PDFs in a folder.

I reboot, switch batteries. I get another 15 minutes in, but not more. I manage to get TimeMachine connected and get a back-up process going–and then effectively lock the cursor out by switching on the screen saver.

The back-up completes, I turn off the computer, and I go to work. Over the weekend, I hardly touch it.


June 12th, Sunday

It’s still not working. I check my AppleCare status–good through November!–and make a date for Thursday with the Genius Bar folks.

I try running the computer with no battery. I have no evidence that the battery is the issue, but I wonder whether it’s too hot and affecting the trackpad. This technique works for the standard 15 minutes, before the Deus in Machina takes over again.


June 13-15, Monday – Wednesday

I give a lot of thought to cloud computing, which sounds fairly attractive right about now. The idea of being only moderately dependent on a single computer is alluring at times like this. (I’m writing this on a 10″ Sony Vaio running Ubuntu Linux. I try to run a Microsoft-free home.) I have my iPhone and my iPad, plus the Vaio, and aside from my files all locked up on the Mac, things aren’t so bad. Normally, I don’t like the “cloud” idea, because internet access can be so unreliable (not to mention slow); I don’t want every interaction with my files to be dependent on an external connection of some kind, a point echoed by David Pogue in his review of the new Google Chromebook.

I also give a lot of thought to how dependent I am on all this tech shit. How miserable it makes me when it’s not working. How obscenely addicted we are to something that’s been with us less than a half-century, yet feels as integral as food. Granted, I *work* on a computer; my job would be harder without one. Granted, I got my first computer in 1981, when I was 10, and I have been working with computers for the majority of my life.

But still. It sucks when they’re broken and sucks to realize how much it seems to matter.


June 16, Thursday

The good folks at the Genius Bar are kind and comforting. A trackpad issue, clearly; it can be replaced, free of charge and in under an hour. We’ll call you.

They call me. Actually, it seems like the display isn’t working properly either; with your permission, we’d like to replace it. Free of charge, and it’ll take another hour. Ok, sure, great. Thanks!

They call me. Actually … well, we’re sorry. We’re sorry it’s escalated like this. We’d like to send it out to our diagnostic repair shop, off-site. There seems to be an additional problem, maybe an electrical issue, can’t tell–but they can sort it out, and any part that needs replacing will be replaced. Free of charge. It takes five days, starting today. Did you back up recently, because if they replace the harddrive… (Yes, I backed everything up.)

And there we are. The MacBook Pro is in the shop, in the care of AppleCare. I remain impressed with the quality of service Apple provides, and feel good about the likelihood my computer will be fixed. Not to mention that I’m still left with more computing power than most people.

And yet feel naked without my “core” machine. Services like Evernote and GoogleDocs help keep me going–yay, “cloud”–while not entirely diminishing my sense that all is not right with the universe. There’s been a disturbance in the Force. I just want my damn computer to work.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE, 29 June 2011

Apple called me on June 25th to tell me my computer was ready, a few days later than originally estimated, but it’s hard to complain in this situation. I picked up my MacBook Pro on Sunday, June 26th, and they walked me through the servicing as I booted up the computer. It had been given a new TrackPad and display, as mentioned previously–and also a new motherboard, new hard drive, and a new cover. (I’m not sure why it needed a new cover, but perhaps the original was damaged in the process of repair…) The motherboard alone costs north of $500, and all told it was probably $1,000 in new parts and who knows how much more in labor. In theory, Apple is sending me an itemized invoice–but all costs were covered by AppleCare. I usually pass on extended warranty programs, but I definitely got my $350 of value out of this one.

This story would not be complete without the tale of renewal that goes with it. Once the machine was booted up, the third screen asked me if I wanted to restore my computer from a TimeMachine backup. I closed it up right at that spot, and went home. At home, I connected the external hard drive that is my TimeMachine backup, and hit the option for restore.

I have had to do this once before, and it is always a nerve-wracking few seconds: everything depends on whether the backup itself has worked. But it had, like a charm–and 90 minutes later, my computer had been returned to it’s original state, with all my files and all my settings intact. (First thing I did after that? Update it with all the files that had been in holding since the repair process started … And then I ran another backup.)

Back when I had a Dell, I had one of the worst computer repair experiences ever. The man who came to fix my computer (after making me sit at home all day) spoke virtually no English, and didn’t have the right part. When he came back the second time, he had the part, but because of his language deficiency wasn’t in a position to tell me what was wrong with the computer when it still didn’t work. In the International Herald Tribune recently there was an article about design and functional items, and how good design can help users with even complicated tasks. I think Apple products sometimes need more descriptive support than people think, at least for some users. But the author is dead on in describing the ease of use issue as central to Apple’s strengths. This experience just proves it, on a few fronts, from service and repair to restoration. Apple products may not be infallible, but few are. What matters, though, is how the systems manage the fallibility, and whether it’s designed to protect and help the user.

March 8th, 2011

For Lester

I’m not much for euphemisms about death. People don’t pass (either on or away); they die. I think the man I’m about to eulogize would have agreed with me.

Not that Lester Mazor (1936-2011) was above a good euphemism when it suited his purposes. Lester was, among other things, a master of subtle language–of making direct statements that also embraced a particularly enigmatic psychic space that made it hard to tell what he really thought. As a person, his views on humanitarianism, justice, equality, and power were all crystal clear. (He was for the first three of those, and generally skeptical of the latter.) As a teacher–and he was a master teacher–he managed to cloak his own views in ways that forced his students to think, to confront their own (mis)perceptions and prejudices, and to dig a little deeper.

I first met Lester when a friend convinced me to go to a “Law Lunch” that Lester and some of his students had organized in one of the Master’s Houses on the Hampshire College campus; the speaker was someone from Eastern (then Soviet) Europe. “Law Lunch” was definitely a euphemism. There was lunch, that was literally true. But “law” was part of it only insofar as a discussion of what it was like to live under totalitarian rule is actually about “the law.” As a professor of law and legal philosophy, with an interest in Eastern European culture, politics, and history, Lester knew what he was doing. He made the the system at Hampshire work for him, and he used it to attract and build out programs and student participants across the spectrum of his and their mutual interests.

For me, that event was a hook from which I couldn’t wriggle off. Through one vehicle or another, he introduced me to people who remain friends to this day, all while pushing–sometimes gently, sometimes less so–towards the intellectual and academic areas needed to help us grow. When a friend and I expressed an interest in Kafka–an outgrowth of a reading for some other class with him–he encouraged us to teach our own class on it, and taught us how to learn even more in the process. When the study of Dead White European Males seemed in danger of being overthrown completely, Lester helped some of us organize the “DWEM Sem.” Then by co-teaching it with us, he stirred in all the radicalism needed to keep the conversation lively and the academics sharp and relevant.

This was all during an era of turmoil, the last great moment of revolution before the one we’re in now, from the reunification of his beloved Berlin, to the liberation of Eastern Europe, the fall of the Soviet Union, the first Iraq war, and the election of the first Baby Boomer president. Through all of that, Lester remained a stabilizing force, that rare kind of person with whom you can study history as it’s being made. And now, as then, it makes me mindful–amidst the exhilaration of freedom–of the ways in which justice can be brushed aside. Lester was a revolutionary, but he wasn’t in it for the fervor.

There’s something euphemistic about the term “memorial service,” too; I’m not sure what Lester would have thought of that one. Calm and sometimes paternal, I had seen him cry and I knew his larger-than-life exterior was a container for a larger-then-life heart. Still, I think he would have readily signed on to the idea that we do these things–memorials, public eulogies, remembrances of those just … passed–for ourselves more than for the dead. And if I’d ever said I’d write such a thing about him when he was gone, no doubt he’d have shrugged his shoulders and given me one of his little “hmm-mmms” that seemed to emanate from somewhere deep inside, and then suggest that I check both Aristotle’s “Poetics” and Norman O. Brown‘s “Life Against Death.”

I have mine right here, Lester, and Brown quotes Jespersen quite clearly: “Men sang out their feelings long before they were able to speak their thoughts.” Consider this my song.