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.