Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Project zen

"really, heather, when you think about it, there's very little you can control in life. almost nothing, in fact."

i don't know whether it was was the particular way rosa put it or whether i was just ready to hear it, but this truth hit me forcefully. four decades and more i've spent trying to manage things in life -- my body, my family, my department, my career, my reputation. on a more minor level, i try hard (i really do) to be punctual, to make time for working out, to think ahead about what we can have for dinner, to get my grading done tonight because i know i have a meeting tomorrow night. yet, when you think about it, it's all for nothing. you really never know what will happen between the plan and the execution of the plan. i have a migraine and can't manage grading, my family does something wonderful, my department does something ... unexpected ... mo has finished the snap peas, or it snows, and suddenly everything i've planned turns to dust. it's true, i thought, nothing is in my control.

for a full week or more i walked around blissful and contented. i felt free and light. i laughed more. i worried less. i slept deeply -- well, okay, i'm actually a great sleeper, so let's say i relaxed more fully. i was generous to others and i was compassionate with myself. life was a thrill to the refrain "it just doesn't matter."

i don't know exactly when the acid glow began to fade, but eventually the colors weren't as bright, ordinary objects were less enchanting, shapes stopped shifting. i felt the edges return. "quick," i thought, "how can i cast the spell anew and make it last?" and thus was born PROJECT ZEN.

the main goal of project zen is to be happier by worrying less. but that's a bit too much to bite off at once, so i've decided to start by being less angry. even that is a daunting plan. see, i spend inordinate amounts of time furious. this week alone i have been outraged at the following:
  • the faculty of arts, university of alberta: for undercutting the CLC. here's the story: making good use of a small space in HUB mall, the fledgling canadian literature centre developed a popular series of public brown bag readings over the first two years of its existence. we also lured a marvelous new director away from UNB. the faculty of arts has not only halved (or, depending how you count, quartered) the new director's budget, but has also taken away the visible, useful, public space the centre occupied. worst of all, when i suggested we talk about it, the associate dean (research), whose name is jerry varsava, conveyed that he is unwilling to meet with anyone from the CLC outside the official governing council. translation: faculty members are the enemy of the faculty of arts.
  • stephen harper, prime minister of canada: for canceling the PromArt program and various other forms of support for art in this wealthy country. as i wrote in my letter to my MP and to the edmonton journal, "bullying the ballet is a low blow even for harper." i went on to accuse the conservative party of being stalinist ideologues with a deep anti-democratic streak. and they still didn't print it?
  • the globe and mail: for not delivering. we got a call a while back asking if we wanted to buy the sunday new york times. "depends," i said. "can you deliver it on sundays?" "oh yes." "for real?" "oh yes." "we've been down this road before," i said, "so answer carefully." "okay, let me double check ... yes, delivery in edmonton is guaranteed on sundays before noon or you don't pay." the guy on the phone actually said that. i didn't have the foresight to tape the conversation or ask for his name or to doublecheck with his supervisor. i just said, wow, that's great, i'm glad to hear it, sign us up. guess what? they in fact do not guarantee delivery on sundays in edmonton after all, so they are not going to give me back the seven bucks i spend to get the sunday paper delivered on monday, or tuesday or, last week, wednesday. they're not sure why i was told they did off such a guarantee. "well," i said, "i have a theory about that. my theory is that you will say anything to sell more newspapers." "i'm sorry you feel you were misled, ma'am." "it's not that i 'feel' i was 'misled'. i was actively and deliberately lied to by a member of your organization. apologize for that!" finally the poor guy on the other end of the phone says, "i'm sorry you were lied to," but in truth the whole thing was a little less satisfying than you'd like.
  • the chair of english, university of alberta: deliberations on promotion take place in november. we are required to indicate by the previous may whether we're going forward. in april i told my chair that, yes, this was the year. he wrote back and said that his june holiday plans would prevent him from preparing a promotion package. maybe next year? he threw in a scolding for free, suggesting that i really should have started this process back in january. (apparently there is some supersecret timeline to these matters.)
  • interlock, the roofing company: for billing us before the job is done, in contrast to their stated policies. as many of you stalwart readers know, the roof saga has been epic. we have put up with rodney and ron and chris and joe and now jamie. the roof is on but the roofers drove screws right through our ceiling. they will come and fix it "any day now," we have been told for weeks. and ron will be back "next week" to install a mechanism for opening and closing the skylights. in the meantime, we are using a cement mixer with a hexagonal head, which as interim solutions go is brilliant, but is a bit less than you might expect on a $60,000 job.
the thing is, even as i write these things down, i still believe they are outrageous. in fact, i'm angry all over again. businesses should not lie to you to sell more newspapers. we should not be using a mortar mixer to open and close our skylights. the chair should do his job. associate deans should solve problems, not create them. governments should foster art, not destroy it.

is it satisfying to name names? sure. for all the the agonies of the 16-month roofing job, i have deliberately kept the company's name out of my blog so far, in order to maintain my end of a good faith relationship. on the work front, i try to hold myself to the same collegial standards i expect others to observe. but after revisiting these events again this week i am struck again by the infantilizing short-sightedness of institutional mismanagement. is it unprofessional to air dirty laundry this way? maybe -- but they started it.

and that's really the problem, isn't it. anger is its own form of bondage. it backs you into a corner, turns you into a six-year-old and consumes every ounce of energy. before you know it, i'm the crazy lady yelling in traffic (worryingly, i do yell at drivers almost daily) -- or the checked-out cynic who hates all her colleagues -- or the self-consuming alcoholic -- or that ludwig von hohenbalken guy who had a letter to the editor in the edmonton journal every week until, presumably, he died of a stroke.

the trick is to recognize these events as outrageous, and yet not to be outraged. to know that what people do is profoundly out of your control, yet not to stop hoping for the best. to manage your energies -- without controlling them -- so that even after writing a poison pen letter or a pointed blog entry you still have energy left to, say, pull together a coursepack.

project zen.

1 comment:

margrit said...

oh, no! not ron again! i thought the divorce was final.