perceptions | reflections



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I'm pacing in a Vegas hotel room, rehearsing my speech, my "story". An incredibly personal moment in my life, on verbal display for thousands to witness. 

I mentally struggle with a truth: I can't give the story, only the telling of it. 

The constraints of the competition spur creative destruction, as I sculpt a life-changing friendship down to a few core moments. 

Start timer, start speech. Mess up a line, reset timer. Repeat. 

Start timer, start speech. Finish speech, timer says 3 minutes and 25 seconds. Over on time. Reset timer. Repeat. 

Start timer, start speech. Pace to the window...my words trail off. 

Open the photos app on my phone, look through the newest photos of my son, uploaded by my wife after their daily adventures. Their smiles remind me of my truths. 

Switch back to the timer. Reset. 

Start timer, start speech. 


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S   I   M   I   L   A   R   I   T   Y

____________________


Abandoned projects haunt the desktop on my screen like the ghost towns of westerns. In a year where I'm literally in hiding, inspiration feels in short supply. 

This isn't some equivalent to writer's block, it's fatigue made manifest. Memory and concentration cracked and shifted, and so crumbled the foundation on which my creativity stood. 

I open a new browser tab, and my bookmarks menu, and navigate toward a silent social interaction: perusing the projects of my peers. What new design techniques are they exploring? What statements are they making? Where have our conversations gone in my absence? 

A piece catches my attention: Kanye loves Kanye, by Judit Bekker. The soft design contrasts the bold persona, and this contrast encourages me to set aside whatever associations I might bring to the topic. Instead, I'm presented with a simple visual highlighting not only the tragedy of mental illness, but also the voyeuristic delight of millions searching google to witness mental illness. 

I carefully investigate Judit's delicate design choices. How do her colors compliment one another? How does she play with shapes and movement? How does she skew the weight across the screen? Where is there heaviness, and where is there lightness?

Questions morph into ideas, and when I feel saturated I return to my own project. A blank canvas meets density of inspiration, of connected ideas and patterns. 


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C   O   N   T   I   N   U   I   T   Y 

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With a bit of anticipatory disappointment, I click on the link to the 2020 Tableau Public Viz Gallery. The Tableau Public team always creates brilliant ways to celebrate the works of the community, but the excitement of the Viz Gallery is seeing our digital art take on a physical form. But this is a virtual conference — how do you translate the excitement of a digital work take physical form back into a virtual experience?

The page loads and I'm greeted with an audio track so gentle it stands in opposition to everything that's happened in 2020. 

I'm staring into what feels like a real gallery, with printed visualizations hanging in an expertly curated exhibit.

I dissociatively pace this gallery with my fingertips, clicking to navigate moments. In my periphery, I'm still trapped in the same office I've barely left for 8 months — but somehow my mind feels immersed in the world inside my screen. 

I find myself engaging each piece far more deeply than I would on Tableau Public or on Twitter, and asking how each piece contributes to the gallery experience. What is Judit Bekker's work saying to Yobanny Samano's? 

What conversation is happening between the three darker palettes in the works of Satoshi Ganeko, Kate Schaub, and Pradeep Kumar G, versus the lighter palettes of the nearby works of Harry Cooney and Bo McCready? 

How do Anjushree B V's repetitive circles speak to Robert Janezic's streams? 

Then, turning around, my eyes fixate on a detail: sunlight, filtered through leaves, splashing unevenly across the art.


Screenshot of the Viz Gallery, focused on the natural sunlight.


The impact is subtly magical. I'm walking in a world, not clicking through a domain. 

The curators of this digital gallery could have enforced a lighting that was balanced and controlled; instead, they gave me environment. 

They hosted me with detail. 

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S   Y   M   M   E   T   R   Y

____________________


I sit at our small office desk. My wife's laptop is in the center: I close it, and shuffle it to the left underneath her books and papers. I slide my laptop from the right, opening it center. I adjust the chair and the lamp.

Our shared office seems to represent something far more meaningful than work. It represents the compartmentalization of unique lives alternating roles. Left, center, left. Right, center, right. 

Denial: for the first few months of the pandemic, our office was the thoughtless storage room. Our desk was a tower of boxes, or our laptops rested in their namesake. We resisted acknowledging the longevity of a pandemic mishandled by leaders and the people they led. 

Acceptance: a bizarre hope went into cleaning and furnishing a space for work. My wife was beginning her own journey and starting her own business, and assembling and organizing furniture became my way of celebrating a foundational moment on her path to better the world. 

Over a year, the same small space has housed many energies, caging creativity but also echoing exciting conversations. The walls proudly display canvas prints of our son's silly faces, ambiguous expressions that function as a Rorschach test: which emotions do I see today?

The green plant life on our walls doesn't grow. It's artificial, because our porch roof blocks the room from getting enough sunlight. 

Our windowsill succulents cling to their green. 


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C   O   M   M   O   N

F   A   T   E

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My meditation refines with each swing. Hips, and feet square, I raise the maul above my head — one hand at the top of the grip, the other at the bottom. I don't force anything. Rather, I simply let gravity play by sliding my top hand to my bottom. The maul hits the log just left of center, and the silver maple squeaks as the log splits into two pieces. 

I grab the larger piece and stack it upright. Hips and feet square, I raise the maul overhead. Swing, but only a dent this time. 

My role in this activity is passive and noninvasive. I didn't plant the tree, I didn't grow the tree, and I didn't fell the tree. It's not my energy that splits the log. 

Rather, I simply stack the log, lift the maul, and guide where it lands. 

When I become impatient, the maul misses. My strength is clumsy. The wood dents, but fails to split — sending an uncomfortable vibration through the handle of the maul, into my hands, up my arms, and simmering in my shoulders. 

The less I involve myself, the better the results. Gravity is graceful where I am not, and the angle of the maul glides along the grain of the wood. 

My meditations are reflected in a stack of firewood. The height of the stack fluctuates, as buyers load armfuls into their family SUVs. The varying height of the firewood stack represents further meditative inputs and outputs: my daily practices create economic energy, and the sales turn that energy into charitable donations. 

Nature, like our economy, is destructively creative. 

After a few more logs are split, it's time to return. I walk back across my yard to the back of our garage. On my way I pass another silver maple, likely only about 20 years of age. It's grown through and warped my chainlink fence.


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P   A   S   T

E   X   P   E   R   I   E   N   C   E

____________________


I'm sitting motionless in January rush hour traffic, just barely not shouting at one of my mentors so I'm heard over the other idling engines. 

"It's called a Tableau Zen Master, it's a recognition program. I've been nominated."

"Oh," he genuinely exclaimed. "Well that sounds like a honor. What are they recognizing you for?"

I replied as if I were reading the nomination prompt. "It's a recognition for mastery of the software, teaching, and collaboration with the community."

"Sounds like an honor indeed."

With any good mentor, he knew how to interpret my silence. 

"You aren't sure if you should accept it?"

"I don't know", I confirm. "I'm not nearly as qualified as the others, and I don't do nearly as much for the community the award represents."

"Well, then why did you get nominated?"

I genuinely didn't quite know the answer to that, so the only sounds were the other engines idling. 

He continued past the silence. "I suggest you stop thinking about why they got recognized, and start reflecting on what you did that made someone nominate you."

Sometimes the best advice is so obvious it can't help but feel patronizing. "I suppose you're right."

"I've got double your years behind me, I hope that would give me something special besides Medicare." Humor, an often unacknowledged-but-critical element of good mentoring. 

His voice propels excitement through my car speakers. "2019 was such a good year for you, I can't wait to see what happens in 2020."


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B   A   L   A   N   C   E

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I walk with my two-year-old son through our yard. He pulls a tomato straight from a vine that has collapsed onto the ground, reaching through 18-inch tall weeds. 

We walk past my neglected red maple sapling, in desperate need of a trimming and a good conversation. 

My neighbor takes his trash out. He waves, and I ask him about his new fence. He walks closer as he talks, and I anxiously balance physical distance and legacy social norms. 

A two-year-old-paced walk around the block and we step back inside. Mom has finished her work, so we tag team preparing dinner. Ingredients are prepared and assembled, and placed in the oven: I check my phone for anything urgent I missed with my son. 

My inbox is empty save for three flagged emails — all opportunities to speak at conferences or organizations. I lose focus as I confront my procrastinated replies. What used to bring excitement is now muddied with the anxiety of limited time and energy. Ambivalence, positive and negative collide as seemingly equal strong forces. Accepting even one exacerbates the burden of burn out. Denying even one feels like another form of hiding from the world. 

My musings are interrupted by the sound of food spilling in the kitchen, followed by two-year-old cries. The dog barks. Even from another room, I sense the tension of a year of quarantine again focusing into a single moment, where a spill becomes far more than a spill for the two-year-old and the parents alike.

I open the first email. "While I appreciate you thinking of me, at this time I will have to decline." I copy the text, hit send. The copied text is pasted into two more emails, and sent. 

I delete the opportunities from my inbox, set my phone on the mantle, and return. 


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C   L   O   S   U   R   E

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It's Friday afternoon. I'm reading a visual poster, data visualization style, that my team made me, a parting gift. There's photographs of times that now seem nearly mythological: in-person. Hugs. Smiles, visible. 

Quotes offer praises and gratitude for my time as their manager, and with each quote comes the reality of each individual's story during our short time together: family members lost, and new family members born; health victories, and health losses; hobbies impeded and new hobbies found. 

Despite the praise, I can't help but critically reflect on my choices, better made. On healthier dispositions and outlooks, on a manager less vulnerable to the trials of 2020. 

The problem with an unprecedented time is a lack of data. Whatever model I might build to evaluate myself lacks a control. What might the outcome look like had 2020 progressed as any other year? Is 2020 a just regressor variable? Do I treat it as a prior, relying instead on qualifications? 

Did I do well? 

Not all questions get answered, and probably the greatest gift of my Lutheran upbringing was learning to appreciate mystery. 

I close my laptop. I click the desk lamp off. Seemingly on command, my two-year-old bursts into the office with squealing laughter, a torn bag of crackers in hand, the dog barking in chase. 

As quickly as they run into the room, they circle me and run out. I'm left mildly bewildered in the partial darkness.

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