On Various Verts

“Likes good things, dislikes bad things. Not here for hookups despite my incredibly suggestive pictures. ESFP.”

So goes the majority of personal blurbs on any online dating service. If I were a different person entirely, this would be where I’d begin recounting a recent date, carefully disguising the identity of someone who didn’t consent to be written about by changing a letter in their first name. It was nice to meet you, Lundsay. Alternately, this might be the beginning of one of those “hilarious” suggestions of a new name for such a service, along with descriptions of the types of people they might specifically try to attract. Alas, no. Instead, I’m hung up on those four letters at the end. 

It is an interesting ploy, leading with a supposedly objective, scientific classification of your personality.    Sometimes this is done with Myers-Briggs, sometimes with various formulations of “introvert” and “extrovert”, lately expanded to include “extroverted introvert,” “introverted extrovert,” “desiccated coconut,” and so on. To define yourself in this way is an attempt at setting others’ expectations appropriately, and to subtly suggest that any conflicts arising as a result of this predisposition should resolve themselves by other people realizing that’s just who you are. But is this wise?

I stood up from a restaurant table recently during a meal with some friends, and attempted to make my way to the restroom. I was immediately met with loud protests from the group, who assumed I was attempting to sneak home unnoticed. I explained I wouldn’t do that, as it would involve sticking them with my share of the check, but someone quickly jumped in with the suggestion that “if Thom has decided he’s done for the night, he’d probably just pay the whole tab rather than stay until the end.” This was useful as everyone laughed and allowed me to escape to the bathroom, but I couldn’t escape the realization that I had, in fact, done exactly that in the past. I’m quite bad at people, it turns out - selfishness and cowardice combine to produce many ungraceful social interactions, the occasional Irish Goodbye being one of the less harmful examples. 

Many others are, thankfully, much better at people than I am, and as the introvert/extrovert debate rightly points out, some tend toward the opposite extreme and self destruct during any periods of silence. Anyone who has gathered together with friends or families for an extended period of time in the last few years has seen the way we now handle troughs in the conversation by collectively disappearing into our devices for a few minutes. Certain people can’t handle this, and use those moments as an opportunity to read their social media feeds aloud as though the rest of us are interested, often providing an unsettling window into the things they find amusing. The more outgoing have the upper hand in this situation, as my reticence to start a conversation is neatly complimented by my ability to ignore them.

I’ve participated in exactly one Myers Briggs exercise, one of those formal work training days where a dozen colleagues find an excuse to get out of the office together for a few hours. After listening to presentations and completing questionnaires, we were split into groups across the room, introverts and extroverts divided like boys and girls at a junior high dance, or virgins and popular kids at a high school one. After we were settled in our teams, the facilitator asked if anyone had done this before, and something important came to light. A friend in the “extrovert” corner, who those of us who had been around a while knew as someone who didn’t feel especially comfortable around people, but had worked like hell to become good at it to further their career, noted that in a previous course she had been called an introvert. The instructor had a minor mental breakdown, explaining that these are scientifically proven unalterable personality traits. They must have done it wrong the first time.

This is the flaw in the -vert divide, and is why I wish we would stop using the terms altogether. It’s not that I don’t believe we have such predispositions. But classifying them in the way we do hurts all parties involved. When my inept social skills cause me difficulty, I need two things: hope that I can improve to attain a better outcome in future, and encouragement to work at this. Diagnosis as an introvert, as though I have some genetic malfunction, both condemns me to a life of embarrassingly bad interactions with others and relieves me of responsibility for this. Is there a more hopeless place to be? Those impacted by the social failures of others are also not well served by this silly psychologizing. The mental muscle we all need to exercise to hold together a society full of other broken, frail humans is not a bland tolerance which pretends we’re not broken or frail. We only help our fellow creatures move forward by providing the kind of relational safety in which boundless patience and strong admonition to change can work together for good.

I’m bad at people. And you might be bad at silence. We both need to know that we can change, we should change, and we’re loved. Diagnosis a-verted. 

T

On Fading West

To my surprise, I have something in common with Katy Perry (apart from the whole "kissing a girl and liking it" thing). In a recent profile by the New York Times, they announced her current slogan as "i know nothing", uncapitalized in the name of authenticity. There's apparently something in the air - Miley Cyrus also recently caught a bout of restraint, having discovered self righteousness is as powerful a drug as any other on the market.

But where was I? Ah yes, "i know nothing (sic)". I don't wish to have that printed on t-shirts or in my Twitter bio, but it does describe my frame of mind this week. Next Saturday, I'll leave Fort Collins and move to Seattle, to begin a new job with Amazon. Everyone's reaction when I mention this is to ask "are you excited?" And I have no idea. The main thing I am is baffled - when will they realize their mistake? When will Ashton Kutcher jump out and explain I've been Punk'd? There's no false modesty in this, incidentally - I'm not feeling unworthy, just really confused, as if I'd been told I've got a new job as the back of someone's neck. How did this happen?! i know nothing.

To make a list of people and places I will miss is a fool's errand, as I will inevitably forget someone and accidentally upset them. But the fact that I will miss anyone/anything at all has genuinely surprised me over the past few days. Had you asked me a week ago, I'd have thought about it and confidently said that, while I love my friends and family around here, I'm still a single 28 year old, and the only good thing about that is the ability to move anywhere for any opportunity at any time. But as reality has set in, I'm unexpectedly somber. You all have made more of a mark on me than I'd thought, Fort Collins.

In a few weeks, when I'm settled and doing less wandering around in a daze, I'll write something more reflective. But while I'm caught between being elated at a wonderful new opportunity and confused about leaving behind so many people I care about, I'll be honest that I don't have anything more to say than that. I'm super excited about everything that lies ahead, and I wish I could take you all with me. 

One apropos thing was pointed out to me recently - several years ago, after a year and a half on the front lines at ADP, I had the chance to work on upgrading all of our clients to a new product, in a project which put my career on the map in a way it hadn't been previously. It's fitting, then, that the very last thing I've worked on there, 6 years later, is another new product which replaces it. Life very occasionally ties itself in a neat bow.

Here's to the future! i know nothing. 

T

 (p.s. a logistical note - I leave Colorado next Saturday, July 8th. If you're reading this, we should see each other before then.)

On Blue Lake and Beyond

As soon as I got out of the car, I knew the day would go differently than I'd planned. I'd driven up to Blue Lake, a favorite hike of mine 4 miles west of Chambers Lake. Solo hiking is as close as I get to therapy - nothing so far in my life has led me to believe the presence of an expensive judgmental stranger will be useful in unwinding the week, but the sound of a river rushing down the canyon is a pretty reliable path to "calm." I'd spent an excellent morning up here on Labor Day, and was interested to experience the other end of the season. There's plenty of tree cover throughout, and most of the route is marked by blue arrows, pointlessly pointing out that the well trodden bit between the trees is the trail.

Alas, "seasons" are differently defined at 9500 feet, compared to my idyllic foothills city - up there, the snow hasn't cleared by May 13th. Determined to make something of the day, I stumbled ahead, only occasionally ending up groin-deep in slush. For about a quarter mile, I was hopeful that it would get better as I got farther along - that the part under heavier shade from trees would have experienced more snow melt. I went to school in Ault. As with so many areas of life, my optimism remained undimmed until I'd gone far enough that turning around would have constituted significant effort - with the journey back to the car looking equally unpleasant, I conceded it would be a slow, soggy day.

The snow was deceptively firm at first. Like the crispy mashed potato on top of a shepherds pie, it sounds hard when tapped with a fork, but under no circumstances should someone stand on it. Moving tentatively but quickly seemed to be the best strategy. The descriptions of the ground in Lewis' "Great Divorce" came to mind, designed to keep you moving toward the goal by being uncomfortable to stand on for any sustained period. Having no certainty about what precisely was beneath my feet, I rapidly reevaluated the utility of the blue arrows.

And then they ran out. I hadn't noticed last time, not really needing them. Suddenly, I had no more ideas about whether to head north, south, east, or west than I had ideas about which direction actually was north, south, east, or west. Fortunately, snowpack is relatively good at preserving footprints, so I headed off in the direction most feet had printed.  This is a conflicting situation to be in, though - how do I know this person went the right way? Will the footprints lead to a summit, or a corpse? To avoid dwelling on that unpleasant thought, I noticed a dry patch under a tree, and hopped down the bank to rest.

Unable to escape the feeling I was trapped in an overworked metaphor, any energy gained was used in the climb back onto the path. I resumed tracing a stranger's footprints, and felt glad it wasn't possible to confuse a person's shoes with any other animal's paws. One in the eye for all the "dogs are better than humans" people I know. Although a dog  (and a sled) could have pulled me more effectively. Thinking about it, however, so could a car. Which would have had made a far more dependable track.

A discarded Nalgene poked through the snow. This didn't seem like a good sign - no one looking to lighten their load discards their water. On closer inspection, it was full of urine. Why had someone urinated in a container, when the woods are entirely capable of withstanding the deluge? This strikes me as the same sort of person who leaves the plastic film on the screens of their electronic devices. As I pressed forward, I caught an encouraging sight - enough snow had melted to form a viable path. It had been there for a considerable distance, I realized - why hadn't I moved over sooner? Mr. Footsteps hadn't either. Perhaps he, like me, had considered forward progress challenge enough without also looking for better alternatives. Walking on mostly-dry earth was a welcome relief, but the nagging sense it would end soon stopped me from truly relaxing (see "work, why vacations don't" in index).

I've no idea why I assumed summit-or-corpse were the only potential outcomes. Abruptly, halfway from the summit, footprints stopped entirely. It seemed wrong to turn around, at first - I'd been following someone so long, I'd adopted the general direction as my own. One nagging thought crept in as I continued forward, though - If I keep going and this isn't the right direction, what if someone later follows my  steps? 

Out in the woods by myself, thoughts of any impact on my fellow man were far from my mind. Additionally, anyone who has met me would know I come after "spitting into the wind" on the list of reliable navigators. On the other hand, I don't know anything about the footprinter I've been following, either. Any myths we believe about our lives being independent as long as we're "not harming others" vanish when we realize we're imprinting the earth with each forward motion. 

I didn't turn around immediately. On some level, the danger of being an unusually convenient food truck for a bear or mountain lion would at least have spared me the walk back to the car. But it would also have permanently denied me the summit. Retreating back to the blue arrows until the path is more clear felt like defeat, but a summit next month is not a defeat. It's a summit.

IMG_1050.JPG

The end of the line (today). 

On Your Left!

I yell that a few times a week at fellow Poudre Trail cyclists. Most often, both I and they are wearing headphones, so it's unclear what the point of this activity is. I suspect my feeling like I've done the right thing is what keeps me doing it, despite the lack of any actual evidence of it's usefulness. Traffic signaling meets virtue signaling. This is also why people buy greeting cards, in case you've ever wondered.

"On your left" is also the way I've generally described my political leanings relative to my circle of friends. The roots of it are easy to identify - growing up in the UK in the 90s, the wave of enthusiasm which brought Tony Blair to power was palpable, even as a nine year old, and it was natural that I'd be interested. As a teenager in the mid 2000s, cocksure of my own understanding about the world like everyone of that age, the U.S. and U.K. governments were busy tearing apart the Middle East and giving massive tax cuts to big businesses. The narrative was easy to understand and had practically made it into the water supply - the American right was evil and the UK left had betrayed their principles. As the decade drew to a close, America had it's own euphoric "Tony Blair" moment, as the right (left) candidate for the moment arrived and was swept to victory. A couple of moments stick in my mind from November 2008:

- A coworker having their car stolen on election night, and claiming she didn't mind, because Obama was president, and so things would work out, somehow.

- My grandmother, in my mum's kitchen, exclaiming "right. So when do we get our free healthcare?"

That wasn't evidence of any lack of understanding of the political process on my grandmother's part, incidentally. It showed her confidence that dramatic change would happen soon - a common attitude among many at the time. But what exactly was the change people wanted? 

Having had the intervening decade to think about it, it's the economic argument of the left which has always resonated with me - with respect to the market, the government's useful function is to encourage enterprise, discourage greed, and use the difference to bring in those at the margins. Increasingly, though, that economic perspective is available only if we also sign up for a raft of unrelated social ideas. Holding radical views such as "the family structure which humans have used to organize themselves for thousands of years is broadly the right one," leads to an immediate divorce from the left. I'm not sure this is wise, and I think it's close to the heart of why 2016 turned out the way it did.

One of the more encouraging noises on this subject was Obama's comment on Marc Maron's podcast that some Americans felt he was more concerned about transgender bathrooms than the economy, and that this was a problem. He was right, but word didn't travel far enough. Six months later, Clinton's proclamation that we need to "make America whole" demonstrated a firm commitment to her social program over any redistributive economic strategy. Even post-election, the left is still drawing lines in the sand in unfortunate places (warning, that site has an autoplaying video. It was difficult to find one which didn't).

Where does this leave us? In two years, four years, six years, will those who think the government should take an active role in helping smooth the rough edges of capitalism still insist on talking loudest about the genital social issue of the moment? I expect they will, unfortunately. 

On your left? I'm not sure. 

 

 

On 2016

“It was a bad year.”

This is the nicest way to express what many people seem to be saying about the past twelve months. Why, though? Because Donald Trump killed David Bowie? Given the political trajectory the year would take, the man who sang “Loving the Alien” and “I’m Afraid of Americans” needed to be silenced early. I think the reason for most people’s 2016 antipathy runs a little deeper.

Facebook noticed something earlier this year which I think helps us understand our current cultural moment: they noticed that people were sharing more content than ever, but the content wasn’t their own. (note to Bloomberg, I would happily have linked to your original version of this story, but it has an autoplaying ad. Please stop urinating in the internet swimming pool).

In years past, users shared their status (words about how they were doing) and their photos (evidence of how they were doing). Lately, users mostly share links to other content – badly filmed youtube clips of a stranger’s kids not actually doing anything interesting, quotes wrongly attributed to Stephen Fry, etc. Most commentary at the time explained that this was due to privacy concerns – the wider our virtual circles, the less we want to share with everyone inside them. I think this hints at the right idea, but it’s much more basic: our lives are complicated, and we don’t know how to express that, so we opt for cat videos.

“How are you?” is a stupid question to ask under most circumstances. That’s not a novel observation, but I think it gets at the heart of hashtag expletive 2016. When asked to take stock of the past year, we generally talk positively for the same reasons we ungrammatically say “I’m good” when asked how we’re doing – the actual answer is tricky, and if we have to pick one of the two binary options, we’ll opt for the one with fewer follow up questions. In 2016, the tide turned, and the usual response to “this year sucked” is a reassuring nod followed by “I know.”

Collectively, we’re all understandably jumping on the opportunity to have feelings affirmed which are usually left unexpressed. But does that mean it was a bad year, really? Or are we all so lacking in relationships deep enough and safe enough to process the good and the bad honestly, that we run toward generalizations which let us validate our more painful experiences? 2017 will be terrible and wonderful, full of celebration and sorrow. Here’s to knowing and being known by those with whom we can share all of it