Zen Arms

Copyright (c) 2006 J.D. Chapman All Rights Reserved

On the morning drive my day begins with an awakening that everything is in balance: a Tao of Tao. The little bears get along with the big bears — they are in harmony with the trees and the deer and the moisture in the rainforest — and nature is precisely at that appropriate spot for this time of year, teetering between spring and summer. The sun rises into a lightly clouded pink-touched sky. I drive fairly loosely down Foothill Boulevard on my way to work — although the traffic is burbling folks are generally being courteous. No tailgaters, nobody weaving in and out, and everybody in a zone of their own content thoughts. Me in my rainforest, the gentleman driving next to me replaying his behind-the-back passes and slam-dunks from the pickup basketball game where he ruled last night, and the lady pulling past me deep into the satisfying thoughts of her most recent lover.

It’s almost as if we share a tacit understanding that today will be “all right”; the world isn’t so bad and things will work themselves out for the better (or at least toward their manifest destiny). We are moving in the right direction; we are making the world a better place. I may sit in front of a computer all day moving representations of people into a placeholder schema of names and addresses; the guy driving next to me will spend the afternoon on the phone with investors to share his fourth-hand impressions of how an entertainment company is run. And yet we’re each fulfilling our own little expected roles: fitting in, pleasing our boss and our customers, paying our taxes, and nurturing our kids. Each and every one of us is doing our small part to keep the economy flowing; sure the world still has problems — people are sick and hungry, but we are working on it.

I’m still new on my job (it’s only been a couple of months that I’ve been working in Pasadena) and so it’s pleasant for a change to avoid the pins and needles of the morning commute. The monkey is off of my back; I’ve proven enough of my skills that my boss will probably keep me around for at least another couple of months. Starting a new job is like embarking upon a hunt in an unfamiliar jungle… a person needs to become familiar with the location of the watering holes, stumble upon which sandtraps to avoid, and get wise to what is edible. Now that I’m starting to get the lay of the land I can let my focus ease a bit and enjoy some of the other observations of life; I’m rediscovering the time to appreciate the hidden beauty of my daily routines.

Once I settle in at work, have my morning tea and read my daily Internet rags, I ponder ways to defuse the background BellSouth brouhaha from yesterday. Vicki (the manager of the account) is quite a pistol, but she’s being torn apart by four or five workers each with their own agenda and two management teams that would rather see each other dead. We said we could build a system that did a, b, and c for a million dollars, and now BellSouth says we didn’t do part c, and we’re saying we can’t because they didn’t complete what they were supposed to do first. Of course, it’s about the money. The fallout from yesterday’s blast was rather peculiar; it vaporized our former expectations for what each of us could achieve and left everyone coughing in apathy and loss while turning the whole purpose of work on its head. BellSouth’s now taking the position that we were incompetent from the start; we are complaining that they won’t give us access to the systems and data that we need. BellSouth is threatening to sue us.

Vicki comes to my office to chat: I can be a sounding board to allow her to collect her thoughts and move the project forward again (I am volunteering to absorb the shrapnel). I spend some effort with Vicki on how to be more of a “technical” project manager. Although she has a good heart and terrific charm, they only take her so far on a long-running project. Finally we both agree that, yeah, it would be good to have a technical project manager; now relieved she self-excuses for the mess that we’re in — she successfully rationalizes that it’s partly a reflection of the culture of our employment. We are in the jungle together without a native guide, learning as we go, and we should take it easy on ourselves as we depend as much on our getting along and cooperation as on our skills at fishing or swinging from vines.

After she leaves my office I need a small break so I go to my car in the parking garage, turn the ignition, and head out the driveway. I’m just driving to get some motion and a change of scenery without a specific destination in mind; maybe I’ll find a place nearby where I can park in the shade for a half hour and take a cat nap or perhaps sit with the windows rolled down to just watch the people go by. I head down Orange Grove Blvd. and then turn onto Marengo; as it drifts into a residential neighborhood I make a turn into a small side street. The same time that I’m rolling the steering wheel my eyes scan a sign that says “No Right Turn 8 to 11 a.m.,” my brain wonders “is it past eleven o’clock yet,” and my eyes make contact with a policeman standing next to his squad car motioning me to pull over. Shit. Well, what can I do.

I pull over, lower the window, give him an absolutely flat expression, and ask, “I suppose you want my license and registration.” He nods, “and your proof of insurance.” I rummage around in my glove compartment and relinquish my documents; as he heads back to his squad car to take care of whatever cops do in their squad cars, I shake my head to myself. So what does /this/ accomplish in the world? Yeah I know, it raises revenue for the police department. I just don’t fathom why they set up little money traps that primarily tee people off. He comes back to my car, admonishes me with the citation to sign, hands me back my papers, and says, “be careful pulling out.” I nod with the flattest possible expression I can imagine. Now that my chance of relaxation has been broken I just take the next right turn and head back to work.

Once inside I meet again with Vicki who is gunning for blame: she wants to know who is responsible for gridlocking the project — more than just looking for scapegoats, she says “if it is the customer’s fault, then we’ll be able to bill them for our troubles.” Apparently something has changed since we chatted earlier… she’s had a while to think about it or now perhaps is trapped between the rock of our culture and the hard place of being fired. It’s almost as if she swallowed some magic jungle plant that took away her rationality and startled her into an emotional survival mode. Something smells duplicitous; she has hidden intentions — she wants to pin blame so that she can save her job or abridge somebody else’s career. A camouflaged chieftain is pulling her strings perhaps. She really wants to cover her ass so that she won’t be the one stuck in the middle of a lawsuit (guilty of misrepresentation). I feign ignorance while letting her know that things are out of our hands and beyond our control: it is a matter of hardware and too many hands in the pot.

After lunch I talk to the CTO (Paul) who informs me that our BellSouth contract is fixed-price — Vicki’s idea of a charge-back is delusional as the contract lacks provisions for anything but a flat payment for getting the job done. Even if it’s extra work for us to fix something that BellSouth screwed up we’ll get our stipulated fee; we’re not paid by the piece. When I walk back into her office and directly call her bluff she rolls her eyes and tries to talk her way out of it, while realizing that I unveiled her spindly web of deceit. She is angry at my confrontation; as she forcibly removes her love from me I apprehend a strong pang of sorrow. It’s a curious mix of feelings… why would she love me in the first place, and if it was just for monetary gain then why did I allow it? How can I have been duped? But I understand her motivations… she is hysterical herself.

Now that I’m run over by a Mack truck I’ll counter it with an espresso. I go downstairs for a coffee and chat with John, who runs the coffee shop. He is always overly friendly, with a slice of the personality of someone who could be fronting for an intelligence gathering operation — an FBI plant. When his questions pry a bit too personally into our business I’ll catch myself… I draw a line that I prohibit him from crossing; he’ll sense my cooling and back off. But he also has just enough inquisitiveness to know what he can ask. We start talking about our heritage, which leads to my explaining that my great grandparents were from the Ukraine, which leads to a discussion of Turkey, Chinese occupied territories, and then finally a long history of China. I get a strong sense that I should be heading back up to the office.

Once I’m back upstairs Paul comes by and inquires as to how we are doing. I seem insecure due to Vicki or the state of our project (it seems to be rapidly crumbling). I ask Paul if the company is confident enough in the business relationship with BellSouth that he can arrange to bind the software developers long-term. He seems taken aback by my asking and I am immediately remorseful that I may have done something terribly wrong. He catches the intent of my asking however — this is the sole customer that I’ve been supporting so if BellSouth decamps my job might evaporate as well. But when he finishes his reassurances and pep talk I am still left with a hollow feeling — here are two people who control a project, Vicki and Paul, both spending so much time “spinning” impressions on all sides that they have lost their credibility. I am wandering through a dark jungle stepping on broken hyena bones and the fruit of strange bromeliads; by the end of the workday I am left totally adrift.

So I slip away for the evening very lonely and dying inside — my formerly agreeable work impressions shattered by the lies and positionings of the management; my faith is dissolved (these people supposedly providing for my livelihood) and I have nothing to do and nowhere to go. I’m a stone-skip away from splashing into the deep lake of unemployment again — of shoving a shopping cart down the street with my life’s possessions. I walk down to the Barnes & Noble on the corner and sit outside in their café with a coffee and my computer, jotting down random thoughts. During a pause where my brain vegetates I notice out of the corner of my eye a man with a close-trimmed beard and a vest standing four or five tables over, smoking a cigarette. Under his vest he wears a short-sleeve shirt, but his sleeves hang limp, abandoned. He has no arms. To smoke his cigarette he reaches up to his mouth with his foot, taps the cigarette on the ashtray on the table, and then places it back in his mouth again. I watch him briefly and then self-conscious about looking at him, I stare back down at my computer screen. But my mind’s eye is still on the man with no arms.

What has his life been like? How does he handle his daily struggles to fit in? How does he get around, go shopping, wipe himself? What does he do when he is lonely? Do women love him out of pity? How does he feel about that? How does he deal with being the center of attention wherever he goes? Is his life better or worse because he has no arms? Was it an awful accident, was he born that way, was he blown up in a war zone? If I chop off my arms then am I excused from working — is this a way out of the drudgery and political backstabbing I constantly face? If people treat one another strictly on the basis of judging each other’s sorrows then do we all gradually suffer one another equally? My mind goes empty, my worries about my work disappear, my emotions about my emotions are forsaken, renounced, and I finish my coffee and go out for a walk while thinking that I should go visit a friend tomorrow who has just returned from surgery.

The only thing that matters in life is our caring.

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