In May 2007 a 47 y.o. man came to my office with a chief complaint of back pain. The following is a transcript of the interview:
Sharon & I moved here about 5 yrs. ago. About a month after we moved here I was doing some work, had my body pretty contorted to do it – where I was working in like a cupboard to do it, like this (twists his body, raises his arms). It was a little uncomfortable but I didn’t think anything of it, until the next day I couldn’t move. I’m seeing a chiropractor. I gained weight, lost flexibility, don’t sleep well. I’ve gone through a bunch of chiropractors…his diagnosis was, yeah, you have lower back pain, but you’re holding a whole lot of negative energy in your middle back. Now I can move much more freely, sleeping much better. Physically I’m a lot better. But on the other side, I’ve been more emotional. I’m below where I should be, with work. I’m frustrated, professionally….money is tight. We’re renting (a house) rather than owning; but more, it’s not having a really interesting job. I’m not a workaholic, but I hate boring work.
The work I’ve been doing with Washington State, it’s slow to take off. It’s not been really interactive. It’s more just me and the computer. I do a lot of brain work but I’m also fairly physical. I bike commute., take a hard bike ride after work. Then I’m fine. (Becoming animated). I’m outside! Enjoying the leaves and the sun and the birds! (Animated gesture, arms out, palms up, big smile) I’m happy, no matter how frustrating the day may have been.
I don’t have that right now. I live too far from work, don’t have the time to ride that far. And, until recently, I haven’t been able to ride that far. That bike ride is really important to me. It’s relaxing; it’s the way I decompress. To me it’s just a joy. Driving, we see a lot of joggers. There are so few who seem to be enjoying it, rather it’s “This is good for me, darn it!” Bikers are always smiling; while most joggers look really unhappy. I biked when I worked for Ford motor company; that made me Mr. Popularity (laughing).
What’s the feeling you get when you’re biking?
(Pause) Just pure, physical, animal joy. I’ve never felt graceful. I’ve always felt awkward. But I feel beautiful on a bicycle. Balanced, rhythm, tempo (arms outstretched). The synergy of being out, out in the physical world.
I ran track and cross-country in high school. I wasn’t that good at it. I’m pretty ungraceful in most things, a clutz…it’s the one time I feel physically, in tune. I like paddling, too. Canoeing, kayaking. But it’s not quite the same. Biking, it’s at a human pace, you can really observe the world around you. There’s no glass, there’s no metal cage around you like in a car. It feels really free. Which is similar to walking; but it’s better than walking in some ways, because you can go further and see more. Although walking is wonderful, too. It’s a wonderful human motion. Sharon likes to walk a lot. I’ve gotten away from it because I like cycling so much. Walking, the sway (BG); it’s great for pregnant women, the baby feels good because of that walking motion (HG). But biking for me is still so freeing. It’s liberation, in the sense that it’s as free as being outside, but you can go more places in less time. You can see more of the world, interact with more of the world. And on the intellectual level, when I take my bike, I’m not in a car, I’m not using fossil fuels, I’m not contributing to other problems. I’m not taking up a lot of space. I get frustrated when I’m in a car in traffic. It’s not that I’m in a hurry. It’s just that it seems so wasteful.
I lived in Detroit for many years. The speed doesn’t go up. It’s actually the speed of pedestrians. Biking doubles your speed!
When you’re in that cage, what is the feeling? It isolates people into boxes. There’s less human interaction. I like being on the bus, in the train. It’s people in the same space. Especially the NYC subway. You’re hearing people speak different languages, seeing people of different colors. There’s different clothing, different cultures represented. It’s not just a bunch of white Americans in a traffic jam on a freeway. That to me feels so isolating. I do everything possible to avoid that situation. (Where I work) we have mountains, we have the river. I go out to watch the birds. I watch the eagles on the way in (to work); watch the ospreys in the summer. We’re both plant geeks…oh, so and so is in flower right now; time to stop and get some seeds. We both have work schedules that allow us to take those little detours.
What is your negative energy? Frustration with my job status. Part-time, being bored, not financially getting ahead. My frustration surprised me; I’ve never been very strongly identified with work. It’s what I do to get a paycheck; it’s not how I identify myself. And I don’t think I do now; but I was tired of being bored. I don’t want to sit there all day long and do the same thing over and over again; and then do the same thing tomorrow. I want a lot of different roles and interactions and responsibilities.
Underneath the feeling of boredom, what was the sensation, the experience of being in that situation? A little bit trapped. I ask myself, ‘Am I doing anything wrong? Is there a possibility of age discrimination?’ Have I somehow crossed over some threshold, because of my age or my background, will it be hard to move into a more professional category? Or to get to what I really want to be doing?
It’s a vague feeling. Have I crossed some kind of magical boundary? On job applications, there’s a space to put year of high school graduation. If I leave it blank, that’s maybe suspect too: maybe I’m hiding my age, which is what I was trying to do. I trimmed my resume back to only the last 10 yrs. Trying to see if that makes a difference. Still, it looks like you’re hiding.
I’ m beginning to feel some despair. But it’s only in this one area of my life. My home life is great. Sharon is a great partner. I love being out here (in the Pacific Northwest USA), but will I ever get work that’s interesting? We’d love to do better financially, but we both choose interest over dollars. I’m tired and frustrated with being bored, not being stimulated, not getting enough personal interaction.
I do kind of geeky work. You can get trapped into ‘You’re the geek guy, you’re the computer guy, you’re the go-to guy, but otherwise we don’t talk to you’. You don’t go to the meetings, you don’t have a lot of one-on-one conversations other than the ‘Can you come fix this?’ I was seeing myself pushed into more and more of that kind of role. For a lot of tech support guys, that’s what they want. They’re often introverted; interact better with machinery, processes, than with people. I can do machines, but I’m more into people.
I do computer mapping. My job is to support non-profits and governmental units in _________ County with computer mapping. It should involve a lot of talking to people, ‘What do you need?’, etc. But that’s just not happening. Instead, it’s urgent phone calls. “Hey, I need a map of this, can you drop it off in half an hour?” That’s starting to change, where there’s a long conversation, we sit down and work on this together, it’s ‘let’s make this really pretty’. Part of my job is to be teaching. Not necessarily a classroom situation, but sitting down and talking to people, showing them how to use this tool. There hasn’t been any of that till recently. It’s good to be teaching again.
What was the exact feeling in the trapped situation? This is what I’d be doing for the next 20 or 30 years. This boring, repetitive labor…the antithesis of what I want. Little interaction. I couldn’t get something different, better.
I’m not a big proponent of Meyers-Briggs. I feel like people are trying to pigeon-hole me when they want me to take that test. But when I do take it, I always come up in the middle of introvert-extrovert. I am perfectly happy to have a brain-intensive task that requires me to sit down and think through and DO this thing, for whatever length of time it requires. I’m also equally happy to get up in front of a room full of people, and talk, interact. It’s not one or the other. It can change day to day, circumstance to circumstance. Some tasks are more engaging than others, will get into isolationist mode, and still enjoy it. Some groups are more interesting than others, so it’s easier to get involved with and interact with that particular group. So job tasks that require me to be isolated are not necessarily a problem for me. It’s more the feeling that there would NEVER be these interesting things once in a while, there would be so little, there wouldn’t be a balance between those two sides of my personality.
Will I have to go through another job search? It’s tedious, boring. I don’t like to do what I have to do, am forced to do, without a lot of interaction. That’s changing. (The job) is taking off. Funding is good for another year. There’s more client contact, and I’ll be working with a much larger pool of people, with a wider variety of tasks.
If that experience of boring, repetitive were to be carried to an extreme, what would that be like?
If it’s a physical thing, you just suck it up and do it. But if it’s a mental thing, my brain wanders. I have a hard time staying focused. Which makes it worse. It’s this boring thing I have to do, and I can’t get to it. But if it’s a physical thing, my hands do it, and my brain wanders.
If it went on for 100 days?
I’d feel really dispirited. Mentally beating myself up. I can be very critical of myself. Especially when I couldn’t get out, do the things that recharge…
I’m pretty estranged from my family. My Dad is a bully, a verbal bully. As a kid he would say “You’re clumsy, you’re stupid”. So self-doubt comes up. Weird, because I’m arrogant most of the time. Maybe that’s a mask for it (laughs).
How are you arrogant? For most things I have a lot of confidence. I can do whatever it is really well. Probably in the past I’ve had some job problems because of that, personal problems. I’m hard on myself. You got to do it right, get it right. And I think people assume that, if you take that attitude towards your own self, you take that attitude towards them. That’s not the case. But how do you tell people you’re not judging them by the same yardstick? I take the approach of I can’t judge, I have no idea where you’re at in your life, what may have happened to you. So how can I say, with any fairness, you’re doing this or that in not the right way? My parents are always so critical of everybody else. I didn’t want to be like that….but colleagues end up feeling, “Oh, you’re the guy that makes the rest of us look bad”. Or, “You’re the guy that’s setting the standard that we don’t quite want to rise to”. Or “You’re the guy that gets excited about the tedious, boring stuff that the rest of us would rather not do”.
In my last job, before coming to Oregon, there was a lot of workplace change, and my supervisor was not reacting well to it. She used the tasks that needed to be done as a form of punishment. She quit on short notice, and they asked me to step in and fill her shoes for a short while.
Tasks as punishment? She’d make people do the tasks they hated to do. There was no reason to make, say, Roberta do this when Roberta clearly hated doing that, when I liked doing it. Or Stacey liked doing it. Why give it to Roberta when Roberta clearly hated doing it? There was not necessarily a rhyme or reason why a particular task was assigned to a particular person. Sometimes it made sense because it dovetailed with your responsibilities. But it was something anyone of us could have done.
The first thing I did when they asked me to run things was to call a staff meeting and say, “Hey, we all have tasks that we hate; what do you want to give up?” Raise hands, trade tasks. It was an eye-opener for me, how to interact in a workplace. And I’m not sure that Bev was consciously trying to punish people, but it felt like that to me. Morale was pretty low.
I want challenges, interaction. Some people want the same thing day after day. Say, the bookkeeper. It would be difficult for me to do it. It would be soul-deadening. It’s just about moving these numbers around. There’s no intellectual challenge to that. Once you’ve learned accounting, you just do it. There’s nothing that changes.
I like working with wood. I’m not particularly good at it. But even if you’re a master carpenter, things change; there’s always challenges with, say, the quality of wood, how you shape wood into what you want it to be. With bookkeeping, there’s no challenge to it. It’s also that physical/mental thing, I want to be working with both. With bookkeeping, it’s all “upstairs”. There’s no physicality to it.
What makes some groups more attractive to interact with? First of all, the group has to be engaged. I’m sure you’ve been to meetings where no one really wants to be there. If the group is interested in whatever they’re doing, that’s the key thing.
The second thing is, I like being with a diverse group. People coming from different angles, different backgrounds, education. There’s a lot of learning from that. Different experiences that they’re bringing to the table. Having a bunch of similar people in a room who don’t really want to be there; that’s no interest to me at all (HG hands up, creating a barrier).
I used to teach English as a second language in New York City. So I’d have a room full of people from around the world. And yeah, I’m teaching them English, they’re learning that from me, but what I’m learning from them is about their cultures, their belief structures, and I’m getting interaction between two really different cultures. I remember eating lunch one day, and this really nice guy from Yemen. Yemen – one half was communist, the other half was fundamentalist Muslim – he had struck up a friendship with this Japanese guy. He came up to me really upset. “Did you know the Japanese don’t believe in God?” he asked. Oh, this guy you befriended doesn’t believe in God, and your whole culture is screaming at you that you’ve been seduced by the devil!” (hands up, palms forward, big smile and laughter). That was an INTERESTING conversation. We talked about a lot of the issues, different perceptions…I don’t know a lot about Islam; yes, I know about the core structure of beliefs, but the day to day stuff (shrugs shoulders). We talked; I suggested some people who knew more, some counselors. That was a tough one. That same Japanese student, by the way, had a wacky sense of humor. He was wearing a rugby shirt one day that said “Club Jap” on it. It was basically Jewish American Princess jokes. And I said, “Do you know what that’s about?” He said “Jap, like Japanese, right?” I said, “No, it’s a joke in bad taste.”. And he said, “Oh, I guess the joke is on me!” (Laughter). He never wore the shirt again.
And when you’re in that kind of environment, in an engaged group, with lots of diversity, sharing, what’s the experience? It’s like the bike thing: Freedom. Experiencing the world. Limitless possibilities. Just … intellectual engagement is great. But from the emotional level, it’s total liberation, freedom. Human movement, interaction.
Sharon and I…we’re both engaged in things like slow foods, we don’t do television. We want dinner parties, getting folks together for acoustic music. Not into technology as this mediator thing, between the people. So we work to stay away from that. Work is not the right word. We just DON’T. What’s important to us is being together with people and doing people things. Telling jokes, sharing stories. Listening to good music, or playing good music. Or bad music…it doesn’t matter (laughs). Still, it’s that human thing. We’re dismayed at the numbers of people who don’t seem to have that as a part of their life. And saddened by that.
My kid brother, who’s a lot younger than me, is the antithesis of me. He works for Wal-mart, lives in this hideous suburb of Los Angeles. When it’s too hot to go outside, their kids play violent video-games on this giant screen t.v. I can’t get my head around, why would you want to do that? Why do you think that’s a better life-style? On a philosophical level, why is that we measure ourselves by the quality of our possessions rather than the quality of our lives? I see people who have the big house, the big car, the big boat, the big cabin in the woods…and they’re really not very happy. They say they feel trapped; they’d like to get away from it; but they’re so in hock that they can’t. I think they feel something’s missing, but they don’t seem to know what it is, and they’re afraid to take that step.