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Optimism in reality-based reality

My father died in 2004, far too young and unexpectedly. I was 28, and had led enough workshops and meetings and given enough presentations that I wasn’t afraid of speaking in public, which made it immeasurably easier to give two eulogies.  The first was an adoring tearful speech, written in advance and delivered in Wisconsin at his funeral while standing at a podium and wearing a suit. The second was four months later at his family memorial at the cemetery, and I spoke extemporaneously in jeans and bare feet.

The second time around, I didn’t present the same paean to my personal hero, instead saying something even more true:  My dad was a jerk sometimes, but it wasn’t because he was cruel or a cynic, but in fact the opposite.  He was a jerk because he saw so much good in people, saw so much possibility, and was so often disappointed in what people actually did that he couldn’t maintain the optimism any more.

He lived in a reality-based reality, and it wasn’t always kind to him.

~~~~

Yesterday was the kind of day that sent me home to eat Chinese takeout, pick up an epic space opera novel, and turn off the internet.  It had a couple main pieces.

I turned off the internet because that’s the main way I interact with the professional community at large, and through reading a series of online conversations, listserv postings, and discussion boards, by the end of the day I had reached my saturation point.  When I logged off, I believed that we are an obstructionist, recalcitrant, history-focused bunch of stick-in-the-muds who prefer talk to action.  Based on what I was seeing and reading yesterday, we are.  And I couldn’t take anymore.

I picked up the space opera because in fiction, problems are solved and resolved.  There are answers and ends.  There are lights at the end of tunnels, and sometimes they’re trains, but the heroes are always clever and the train never wins.  After a day of running face-first into tunnels that only had trains, never lights — on campus, in SUNY, and then in ALA — I needed some evidence, even fictional evidence, that someone, somewhere, can solve a problem.  Any problem.

And I’ll say that the orange chicken and crab rangoon soothed the ache of knowing that tomorrow I would have to put on my big-girl pants and go back and do it again.  We all cope as we must, and some MSG and deep fried dinner is one of my tactics.

~~~~

It’s easy for me to see how idealists can end up like my dad, with cutting wit and less patience for failure than is kind or generous.  Very easy.

I propose a project that’s inarguably in the best interests of a huge campus constituency, get 70% of the stakeholders on board, and am shot down because the current iteration of the project satisfies the other 30% of the stakeholders and they don’t want it changed, and campus politics being what they are, they’re an un-fightable constituency.

I volunteer to do free teaching and mentoring for a professional organization because it’s the right thing to do, and then am told to jump, flip, and pirouette through a brier hedge for the privilege of doing so.  Oh, and go find a vendor to sponsor the snacks, too.  Kthxbai.

I watch, helpless, as in the most stable of our campus relationships, miscommunication, structural problems, and differences in organizational culture lead to he-said she-said screaming matches that I simply cannot solve single-handed.

I hear reports of librarians who can’t let go of the past, see rehashes of the same discussions repeated anew, hear about proposed administrative ‘solutions’ that ignore the core mission of libraries, learn that there are no leaders to fix the problem of leadership in an organization dedicated to cultivating leaders, and have no idea how to effectively manifest change anywhere.

At the end of the day, it’s a wonder I don’t do worse than crab rangoon and Honor Harrington.

~~~~

The thing is, I really am an optimist.  Like my father, I see the endless potential of the human race, of my profession, of my colleagues.  I know we can do this.  It’s  just in my nature to believe that we can beat that train.  And, all evidence to the contrary, I’m not giving up on that belief.

In part because I don’t want to be the female version of my father, the woman who’s charming and cheerful and patient and kind right up to the moment when she’s a total asshole with no tolerance for anyone.  I skirt dangerously close to it as it is, and if I give up on my notion that the hedge can be leaped, the train can be stopped, and people can change, I’m just going to become a very-occasionally-likeable curmudgeon.

So how do you remain an optimist in this reality-based reality?

Orange chicken, David Weber novels, and an offline armchair only get you so far.  After that, some actual work is required.

Part of that work is the simple act of grabbing the one string you can pull on to start unraveling things. Of finding the tiny passage in the hedge that you can slip through if you just turn sideways and suck in your gut.  Of running fast enough that you can make the leap onto that train and hold tight.  Abandoning metaphors, part of the work is simply to find a way into the problem, whatever it is.  To find something that you can latch onto, something you can use as a lever for change, something you can make an impact on.

And part of that work is accepting that sometimes you have to take a big-ass pair of scissors to the knot that needs untangling.  Sometimes you have to accept that you’re going to scratch the shit out of your arms and legs as you push through the hedge face-first.  That the train? The train is going to hurt, man.  And you stand up, and start moving forward, and you take it.  You do it.  Because someone has to.  Because it’s right.

Because you’re an optimist.

Because reality isn’t fucking around, and neither are you.

Because if you don’t stand up and try to fix it, no one else will, either.

~~~~

And so.  Today.  I’m going to stop looking longingly at the the Weber novel open on the arm of my chair, get up from this comfy seat, put on something respectable and pretty to match the smile I’ll put on my face, and go to work, where I’ll try again to be a big damn hero.  It’s possible I might get there just in the nick of time.

10 Responses to Optimism in reality-based reality

  1. This is why I have hope (it’s probably also why I love mystery novels and dystopian fiction) – because there are people like you and the others I know, both locally and nationally, who are working to try to make things better. It’s a long, hard road, and hopefully it helps to know that you’re not the only one working towards fixing this stuff.

  2. I’ve been struggling with some of the same kinds of things. I participated in a committee for a professional organization last year, and even though the committee members were really open to new ideas and excited about making positive change, we were often stymied by institutional structures that have been around forever and are nearly impossible to circumvent. It made me realize just how hard it is going to be to bring meaningful (and necessary) change to the organization. And I see the same thing in my day-to-day work.

    I put this Seth Godin quote up on my blog recently because it captures so clearly what I see at MPOW:

    “Optimism is the most important human trait, because it allows us to evolve our ideas, to improve our situation, and to hope for a better tomorrow. And all artists have this optimism, because artists can honestly say that they are working to make things better. This is why organizations under pressure often crack. All parties can see that their current system isn’t working, but they’re unable to embrace a new one because they’re certain that it won’t turn out perfectly, that it can’t be as good as what they have now. Organizations under pressure are stuck because their pain makes it hard for them to believe in the future.”

    It’s a struggle to maintain optimism in that setting, but I think it’s even more crucial because the idea that things can be better is the only motivation that will move us forward.

    Thanks for a great post.

  3. When I write things like this, I always have three things going through my mind.

    1. OMG I HAVE TO GET THIS OFF MY CHEST. (Writing is great therapy.)
    2. Maybe someone will read this and realize they’re not alone and they’ll step up to help.
    3. Maybe I’m not as alone as I feel and someone will reach out.

    The brilliant thing about the library community is that someone always reaches out. Always.

    We are not alone. We can do this. Be the change you want to see in the world.

  4. Nice work Jen.
    Crab Rangoon kick ass.

    I’m in the middle of rearranging all the adult dept schedules for part time employees so they can be covered more easily, and to shed some hidden costs.

    I had lots of people mad at me, and my boss was nervous enough for both of us, Staff all agree the change theory was good. But no one wants to apply it. Plain old fear of change I think.
    Which is too bad…because I’m going through with it. But it will take a long time through negotiations, etc. No hours lost, but a better accounting of duties, goals, etc.

    Change the things you can. Keep the ideas new and fresh though because as time goes on most of the people that resist will either die off, take new jobs, or retire. You just have to outlast them. :)

  5. Yes.

    (Also, having a treecat to take into difficult meetings would be excellent.)

  6. This was truly inspiring…one of the best things I’ve read on library leadership in a very long time. Your library is lucky to have you.

  7. There’s a saying I first heard said by George Carlin. “Scratch the surface of a cynic and you’ll find a disillusioned idealist.” I used to say that a lot through my late teens and twenties, but somewhere in the last couple of years, I’ve turned the corner. I don’t want to be a cynic. I don’t want to be sarcastic (although I’m really really good at it). I want to be an idealist. I want to be someone who sees the good, who sees how the world *should* function, and works towards that good.

    It’s hard to be all sunshine and kittens. You do have to work at it. I love being a librarian and I love what I do, but sometimes it takes a little more than that to keep me on the bright side. Sometimes, the bastards *do* wear me down. There are times when I want to announce my last blog entry with a flourish, stark giant letters proclaiming my succinct feelings (“FUCK YOU. YOU ARE NOW ON YOUR OWN. I’M OUT.”) and then just move on to other projects. But, as those are surface feelings, deep down I know I’m in it to win it. Just regroup, re-focus, and rally, I tell myself. And then I put on my big boy pants and do it.

    To this last point, I imagine it this way: someone has placed an obstacle in my way. If they are right and I am wrong, then they have done me a favor in stopping me short and correcting me. If upon reflection the issue doesn’t matter, then they have done me a favor in stopping me from wasting my time.

    HOWEVER, if they have placed the obstacle for other reasons, well, they had better watch their ass. Because if I don’t overcome it now, I will in the future. You won’t see me now because I’m getting enough running space to jump over or run *through* the obstacle. Hell, I’ll dig under it. I’m that focused and determined. I will win.

    Personally, I feel there is a persistent defeatist attitude within the profession. It really needs a morale boost, kick in the pants, pep talk, self respect lesson, something to get out of its own funk. Maybe it needs more leaders. Maybe it needs more people pushing forward. Or maybe it needs to dump the dead weight and flush the bottom feeders, unproductive naysayers, and people who are just coasting or on auto-pilot out of the system.

    Keep fighting the good fight. That’s why they call it the good fight; because it is the one worth struggling for.

  8. Jenica,

    This post really hit me like a ton of bricks – thanks so much for writing it! I say this because it’s further helped me realize I’ve been slowly turning into that librarian-version of your dad (except not as charming or witty) over the last year or so. Most importantly, I’ve let recent major setbacks at work sour my love for my job, for this profession. That is not like me. So thanks for helping me turn my perspective around, and keep the great blog stuff flowing!

  9. Oh my God, thank you for writing this! I’ve probably felt more professional frustration in the last year than I have felt in my previous 17 years as a librarian put together. Frustration around getting things done in our Association, frustration around what’s happening to libraries in NJ, frustration around seeing too many brilliant, wonderful young librarians finding difficulty getting a good jobs.

    But I’m also an optimist, and chafe against the idea that reality equals suck. Parts of reality do suck, and parts of reality — I’d argue the overwhelmingly vast majority of it — rocks! (As Woody Allen once wrote, “[He] hated reality, but realized it was the only place you could get a good steak.”) Seriously, at any given moment, most of us are living our lives and playing nicely with each other thank you very much.

    So here’s my 2 step process for not going insane in a crazy world:

    1) Appreciate what there is to appreciate– and if you have to look very hard or long you need to practice up on your appreciating skills. (Do you have shoes on your feet? Appreciate that. Food to eat? Appreciate that.)

    2) Don’t hang out in victimhood. Victimhood takes you nowhere and it feels like crap spending time there. Use the energy of frustration to propel you out of blame and “poor me” to get into action — some action. Any action. Even if it’s speaking/writing your truth. Start small, but do something.

    Again, thanks for writing this wonderful piece, I found it very energizing a great way to start the day!

  10. I agree with earlier comments: Your library is lucky to have you.

    I am heartened, but saddened to hear that a colleague faces challenges similar to mine. Power, patience and strength to you.

    In the meantime, I am looking for a means to translate my education and experience into a new career.

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