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Notably Quoted

It’s good for an artist to try things. It’s good for an artist to be ridiculous.
Sheila Heti in How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life (p. 18)


The Silly Putty Stalker

Do you remember that previous post of mine when I made a passing mention to Play-Doh? Well, I received an email at my work address this morning, saying:

I came across your email and post on the internet. I am looking for someone who can teach me to make Silly Putty. Have you or can you make Silly Putty? Or, do you have someone on your staff who would be interested? I live here in Portland. I am an independent inventor and … [a] device I am working on requires that I produce a viscoelastic polymer (silly putty) type compound.

What is with this guy?

I wrote back:

Are you by any chance referring to the post on my blog where I talked about Play-Doh?
Just so you know, that website is my private blog, and is in no way associated with this email address or my duties at the college. And, if this is really a serious inquiry (which I have a difficult time believing it is): no, I don' have any knowledge of, or interest in, making Silly Putty.

I am finding it curious that he apparently read some of this blog, and totally misconstrued the essence of the little essay I wrote. Either that, or today I have been the victim of a random Silly Putty spam message! But, why in the world would he track me down at work – and/or think that a Dean of Science & Technology would have any professional interest in Silly Putty? Very strange.

I’ll just call him The Silly Putty Stalker.

Now, here’s a report of one person’s response to my mass emailing last weekend regarding the existence of this blog. The message I received back was to comment neither on blog-entry content nor writing style, but rather to provide a very long (826 words) rambling reaction to the fact that I once mentioned the Evolutionblog (identified as “commentary on developments in the endless dispute between evolution and creationism”).

Now, why pick on me for that?

Of course, I’m sure I’m being challenged because that blog is pro-evolution, and basically critical of those concepts identified as “creationism” or “intelligent design.” So, there’s a little guilt by association going on here: which happens to be totally warranted in this case.

My position on these matters is quite simple. Believe what you want. Go ahead. It’s a free country (well, more or less). But, please, let’s keep science in the science classroom, and allow those other ideas (which are not scientific theories, but rather alternate belief systems of some kind) to be addressed elsewhere. I’d even allow discussion in other kinds of classrooms (philosophy? religion?), but…

Intelligent Design is: Absolutely. Not. Science.

Psychic Prisons

I’m in no way a student of The Classics. I regret to report that my formal, “classical,” general education has been woefully inadequate. So, when I now (presume to) speak about Plato’s Republic, and “The Allegory of the Cave,” well, you’re going to need to take what I have to say with not only a grain of salt, but maybe an entire wheelbarrow full!

I was browsing Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization (1986, my copy of the first edition) today, still (always!) trying to make some sense of my world. (You know me: I can’t seem to shut off my mind!) In the chapter that examines the metaphor of “organizations as psychic prisons,” the discussion begins with a description of Plato’s cave allegory.

The Wikipedia summary of the allegory (copied, pasted, edited) goes thusly:

Imagine prisoners who have been chained since childhood deep inside a cave. Their limbs are immobilized, and their heads are fixed as well, so that the only thing they can see is the cave wall. Behind them is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised walkway, along which men carry From Great Dialogues of Plato (Warmington and Rouse, eds.) New York, Signet Classics: 1999. p. 316.shapes of various animals, plants, and other things. The shapes cast shadows on the wall, which occupy the prisoners’ attention. Also, when one of the shape-carriers speaks, an echo against the wall causes the prisoners to believe that the words come from the shadows. The prisoners engage in what appears to us to be a game — naming the shapes as they come by. This is sum total of their life: the only reality they know.

Now, suppose a prisoner is released and is able to stand up and turn around. At first, his eyes will be blinded by the firelight, and the shapes passing will appear less real than their shadows. Then, if he is dragged up out of the cave into the sunlight, his eyes will be so blinded that he will not be able to see anything. Gradually he will be able to see darker shapes such as shadows, and only later brighter and brighter objects. The last object he would be able to see is the sun, which, in time, he would learn to see as that object which provides the seasons and the courses of the year, presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some way the cause of all these things that he has seen.

I’m wondering if this allegory may be the source of the term “thinking outside the box” – for certainly the freed prisoner is absolutely forced to “think outside the cave” when confronted with a world so dramatically removed from his prior experience. What a total shock to the system to be freed, leave the cave, and discover what’s there to be found!

Is there a modern-day equivalent to the cave? Could our families, workplaces, and/or significant relationships ever be considered versions of the cave? Is it possible we are (or can become) so myopic in terms of how we view the world that we think the shadows on the wall are “reality”?

And, what if we removed ourselves, even for a little while, from the warm cocoon that is our family, job, or relationship, and took a look around at the rest of the world? What would be our experience? Would it be similar to the freed prisoner, who, if he ever went back to the cave, would undoubtedly have significant problems trying to communicate his experience “outside” to the others still imprisoned there? How would it be possible for “the enlightened one” to share his knowledge? What resistance would be met? What ridicule and contempt would he experience for, saying out loud, his newly-acquired version of reality? How could he ever function in the “old way” (seeing and naming the shadows), when he knows “truth”? And, how could the prisoners ever accept an entirely new perspective without the external experience themselves? Wouldn’t this type of new information, so different from their own, be viewed as a tremendous threat?

Aren’t we, everyday of our lives, trapped in the illusion that our experience is “real” – and the only thing? Aren’t we convinced that this is “the way the world works?” Aren’t we, more often than not, content to remain in the dark – neither risking exposure to alternate ways of thinking nor seeking new experiences? In what ways do we all have the tendency to be(come) psychic prisoners, trapped in a reality that gives us a totally skewed understanding of the universe?

[See Morgan, 1986, p. 200, for the discussion that was my inspiration for these questions.]

Soundtrack Suggestion

Chains, my baby’s got me locked up in chains.
And they ain’t the kind that you can see.
Whoa, oh, these chains of love got a hold on me, yeah.

Chains, well I can’t break away from these chains.
Can’t run around, ‘cause I’m not free.
Whoa, oh, these chains of love won’t let me be, yeah.

I wanna tell you, pretty baby,
I think you’re fine.
I’d like to love you,
But, darlin’, I’m imprisoned by these...

Chains, my baby’s got me locked up in chains,
And they ain’t the kind that you can see,
Oh, oh, these chains of love got a hold on me.

(“Chains” - Carole King)

Cellular Response

Last spring, after the breakup of a significant long-term relationship, and during the most anxiety-producing days surrounding the decision of my “interim-position” status, I developed extreme muscular tension in my legs which had some other, rather scary, side effects. Ever since then, I have taken a, more-or-less, physical-therapy approach to the problem and, after long months, was making progress: almost able to see light at the end of the tunnel by December. However, over the holidays, I had somewhat a reversal of fortune, and I seem to be more symptomatic these days, rather than less.

I’ve approached this as primarily a muscular issue, with anxiety as the root cause. I've done many, many sessions of deep-tissue massage and ultrasound in order to attempt to settle my leg muscles down. Some of the early work, with the deepest massage treatments, produced rather dramatic emotional responses on my part. The work on my body would result in waves of feelings of sadness and loss, for example, and I would end up crying in the office before I was able to gather myself together and get dressed to leave. As I started to get better, less symptomatic, I stopped having such responses. But, yesterday, again, as we worked and probed and pressure-pointed spots on my lower body, I was once more similarly affected. Like a tsunami, feelings of extreme sadness rapidly, and without warning, totally engulfed me.

Although there are a number of possible explanations for what's going on (including neurological), I suspect my body is sending me some kind of message that, to date, I've not totally deciphered. But, my working theory is that the overwhelming loss, and potential for loss, that created last spring’s anxiety led my body to react the way it did, and that the depth of the physical pain — memorized at the cell level — is reflective of the severity of the emotional wounding. Further, when my physical being is poked and prodded in just such a manner, there’s a direct link to the emotional scar tissue. The physical part of the experience yesterday was quite painful, of course. But, the emotional aspect, for me, was profound. And, today, twenty-four hours later, I'm still processing and asking “what is this all about?”

Which part of my being do I heal first: my body or my soul? How do I go about doing that?

REALness, Authenticity & Leadership

I last wrote on the topic of becoming REAL (as defined in The Velveteen Rabbit). Actually, the more time I spend thinking about this topic, the more I’m coming to the place that that kind of REALness is more accurately aligned with age, maturity, wisdom, and being SIGNIFICANT to someone else. Yes, the Velveteen version of REALness appears to be a response to being loved for a long time.

Typically, though, I think of the term “being REAL” as being AUTHENTIC. I believe that being authentic is a critical factor to success in human relationships in general, and effective leadership in particular. Authenticity leads to trust which can lead to great things being accomplished.

You might ask: what exactly is authenticity?

Well, the phrase “bein’ who you are” comes to mind, first of all. Being real or authentic has a lot to do with displaying your true self to the world, without pretenses or “phoniness” (as Holden Caufield might say). Openness, honesty, and transparency are also other synonyms that seem to fit. At any rate, traits such as these in an individual are ones that I admire, am attracted to, and lead me to trust another. I will trust someone when I believe (when I feel) that the other person is allowing me in enough to see who they really are. They tell the truth. Their defenses are down; they allow themselves to be vulnerable. They are, simply, human, and comfortable with themselves. I love the connection that’s possible when individuals are truly authentic with each other.

I see authenticity as an important characteristic of great leaders, as well. Leaders by definition, after all, need followers. And, what inspires one to follow? Well, trust, of course. How could I possibly be expected to follow somebody I don’t trust?

So: Who do I trust: Who can I trust?

Answer: Someone I really know.

In my role as an academic dean at a college, my role is one of leadership. It is that by definition; anyone with the title of “dean” has some power by virtue of the position and can exert leadership (demand followership?) — if you think that that’s really possible. My style is not to rely on power, control, and role-definition, though, but rather to provide a kind of leadership based on trust: trust in me, trust in my decisions, trust that I’ll do the right thing, trust that I’m someone who has everyone’s best interest in my mind and in my heart.

When I came on board as the “interim dean” (and I'm still interim, eighteen months later), Katrina asked me what my priorities were going to be. I said, “relationships. This is probably not what you’d expect your Science & Technology Dean to say, but that’s me: not necessarily talking, thinking, or behaving like a science guy. I knew that to be successful (not ever having been a dean, department chair, or even a full-time faculty member anywhere, ever), I would have to build the trust of those around me as rapidly as I could. During the very first meeting of the entire Science & Technology Division, the first day of Fall term, I deliberately started to work on building that trust. At the beginning of that meeting, I took a healthy portion of time to “tell my story.” I outlined my biography, highlighting a few of the twists and turns that I’ve taken in my personal and professional life, and exposing, I guess, some of my “philosophy of life.” I believed then, and I still do, that this was a very important thing for me to do in terms of relationship- and trust-building.

I’m told that I’m an effective leader. If such is the case, then I think that’s happened because people trust me. And, I believe that they trust me because they know me. My goal is to be as honest and forthright as I possibly can, with no secrets and no secret agendas. I am who I say I am, do what I say I’m going to do when I say I’m going to do it — and do my job as competently and conscientiously as possible.

I don’t think that great leadership ever happens without trust. And, in my case, I know I could not ever see myself in a leadership role without letting those around me, know me.

Becoming REAL

I don’t know what it is about me, but I seem to attract women into my life who apparently think of me as “little-boy-like” ... perhaps, want me to be more little-boy-like? (Or, maybe it’s something else that’s going on?)

For example, a very important person in my life right now gave me a teddy bear and some Scooby-Doo bubble bath for Christmas this year. Then, back when Katrina and I were together, I remember she gave me, at various times, a Mr. Potato Head set, some Play-Doh, Miracle Bubbles (with wand), and a couple of children’s books: The Velveteen Rabbit and The Runaway Bunny.

What is this about, do you suppose? It sure has had me a-wonderin’. Not only do I feel grown up, at least most of the time, I’m starting to feel, well, old sometimes too. How is it, at age 58, I score a teddy bear for Christmas?

Of course, as I have this on my mind, I go to the bookshelf and find The Velveteen Rabbit. Truthfully, until Katrina gave it to me (on Valentine’s Day 1998), I had never heard of it, though I’ve come to learn that most of the rest of the world has. Since then, I admit, I have come to rather adore this book. Although it’s definitely a little-kid’s story, written at a sixth-grade reading level, it has a message about life and living that is very wise indeed.

After all, it’s a tale of personal growth and transformation, answering the question about how we change. How does one become REAL, is the question…

Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real. It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand. (p. 13)

Doesn’t that just about say it all?!