Trying to find mindfulness at the driving range

Mindfulness is not my strong point. It never has been. Finding mental stillness has too often been next to impossible. Thoughts are mostly undisciplined, caroming around and bouncing off of ideas and off of each other, creating possibilities and dead ends, both of which calling for exploration.

I’m not very meditative by nature. So as part of my investigation into mindfulness, I began reading “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki. The most important thing I have learned thus far that has been immediately helpful is learning to count my breaths as a way to still my mind. This has been helpful in many ways. When something is troubling me, this simple strategy helps me redirect and engage the moment I am in.

I am in the process of learning to give up on having any goals for golf other than enjoyment. I struggle too much with the swing. This is despite the fact that I have simplified and shortened the back swing and am slowly learning to feel the swing and understand what it needs to be. I have a fundamental problem that is not going away.

I have no sense of rhythm.

In fact, I learned some years ago that I am “rhythm-deaf” or “beat-deaf.” (You can test yourself here.) I have a very hard time keeping a beat and even harder following a beat. This affects a number of activities including singing (where being on the beat is every as important as being on key) and physical activities where a consistent rhythm is desired to produce a consistent result. Naturally it made it a real challenge to progress as far as I did playing the banjo – which really wasn’t very far. So, I also have no consistent rhythm in my golf swing. Each swing is pretty different even after hitting about 15 to 18 thousand balls in the last two years. I could probably live with this if I stood over the ball with a clear mind.

Up until a few weeks ago when I practiced or when I played, I tried to focus. I tried really, really hard to focus. It didn’t work. Not only did it not work, it made things worse. It made tight, especially my grip – it became way too tight. I started trying to do everything hard and fast and in doing so lost what little synchronization there was between upper and lower body. I would often spin-out turning my body well ahead of the clubhead, sending balls high and 90 degrees right. Or low and 90 degrees right. It was miserable and I was on the verge of quitting the game again.

The readings, unfinished and unmastered as they are, in mindfulness and Zen meditation, helped me to take a new approach. Rather than trying to focus on hitting the ball, I now try to find the moment and be in it. Clearing my head except for one or two swing thoughts, feeling the air around me, the ground beneath my feet, and the movement of the swing. Feeling the moment. I’m not quite there yet, but it is happening and as it does so, I am feeling the swing itself in a way I haven’t before. I’m also not having to worry about maintaining focus or going in and out of focus. I simply try to be in the moment – a moment that is not about stress, but about play. After all, I am only playing a game or practicing for a game.

An added benefit is that I am playing happier. Seriously happier. Even when things go poorly. I am enjoying the game like I should, like I want. This is the way it should be.

A final thing that I learned: Don’t just do something, sit there! I’m learned a lot about being about to sit and do nothing comfortably, except count my breaths. Sometimes I get up to 20. I hope to get where I lose count on a regular basis.

From Caregiving to Caring (again)

So, this is a hard post to write. I think few people can really understand the divide that can grow between a couple when one becomes the patient and the other the primary caregiver and this becomes the relationship over a period of years. Caregiving is hard enough when you don’t really know the patient, let alone even have a personal relationship and connection to the patient. Don’t get me wrong, it is not that caring or love ends, it just gets put aside in a some ways.

I’ve written before about the lure of becoming a fascist as a caregiver. Exerting control over the environment and the patient for the patient’s good is tempting. It is all the more so when it makes life is easier for the caregiver. Plus, in the same ways that medical professionals develop a certain amount of detachment, the caregiver does as well – blocking empathy to do what’s required. As things go further, if your patient is in chronic pain, you actually start losing empathy altogether because it gets to too much. Complaints of pain that you can’t actually fix become wearing. Pain becomes an evil, demanding god.

What happens when a couple actually makes it through to the other side of this experience? This is what we are finding out.

First, while Melinda has made tremendous improvement and is now living a much more independent life, it is not strictly pain-free. Nor are we (she) done with the surgeries. For now though, she is off the pain meds. She is driving. She is getting out and about. She is awake. This is different. But we are not the same couple as when we meant.

Since 2010 we have lived with my 32-hours brain surgery and multiple-year recovery until I actually felt well and then a series of health issues with Melinda, that now seem to have been the early warning signs of full disability. Dislocated ribs occurred in fall of 2010. Nearly uncountable sick days and worsening arthritis leading to a pain management contract. Then there were the surgeries. The il-advised foot surgery that failed and was repeated. The months of not being able to put weight on her right foot that led to the destruction of her left knee. The breaks in mental well-being that made the pain and misery worse. The knee replacements and other surgeries.  It all got so old.

Pain became her god. She had so much of it. I juggled my time between caregiving and work, filling any spaces between with hobbies or the Internet to keep from going crazy. (Well, at least so I thought. I guess it depends on the definition of crazy. I certainly got sad.) I learned to simply ask what was wrong when she complained of pain. Trying not to judge, just listening, but also not trying to share it.  I needed to be able to keep doing. I couldn’t shut down.

Throughout all this, we tried to give a home to our former daughter-in-law and two grandsons. A couple of times. Well, actually three. Stability is desirable, but not always obtainable for some people it seems. Or at least certain kinds of stability are less desirable than others.

And so we grew apart.

As I have engaged in self-care I have simplified my life. Learning mindfulness. Learning to improve my focus. Removing distraction. Making more space for life to happen and for me to engage it. And what do you know? This made more time for Melinda.

In recent weeks, we’ve begun to reconnect. We have made time for each other. Really, I have made time for her. Since everything is no longer about having to take care of her, I’ve been able to learn to care about her again, more fully. To remember that we have thirty-one years of history together and that there is a reason for that, beyond stubbornness and our son. It’s also gotten easier to care since I have begun to really learn how to live without anger as a lifestyle.  It really does amaze me at how much that has changed my life for the better, despite the fact that I am not yet very good at it. Seriously though, not being responding to almost everything with some kind of anger, is a huge improvement in well-being.

Putting away the habit of anger and making time do another important thing. They open space for communicating beyond “How’s your pain today? What appointments do/did you have?” My problem is that I pretty much detest small talk. I am not good at it. I am also really only interested in the conveyance of useful information. But of course, I have had blinders on. Small talk does convey useful information if you let it. Perhaps more importantly, it eases the way into big talk and makes difficult talk a little less difficult.

So, throughout all this, it has become a rediscovery of caring without caregiving for the woman I married in 1989. It’s challenging and exciting and comforting, all at the same time.

Here’s the thing. We are in our fifties. She has a connective tissue disorder that will never go away and will only worsen over time. I have a brain tumor and lifetime of MRIs ahead. In all likelihood this is only a respite. But it is a necessary one to recharge the caring battery. It is also a good time for it happen. Our road trip to Philadelphia and Joplin was a rediscovery of who we used to be and so we are in the early stages of planning a new road trip, that’s completely awesome.

Road trips, the Great American Road Trip, are challenging ways to spend time together. They can fail dramatically or be succeed wildly. I’m happy when they fall somewhere between and the travelers arrive home happy, tired, and interconnected. I think though we are already on an adventure, one that began in 1986, and our summer road trip will be just another highlight.






14717120_10154541369667416_8914379146319549256_nThis past weekend we celebrated my father’s 85th birthday. There was a small gathering of some of his students (spanning the mid-1970s through his retirement in 2000) and former colleagues. Dad taught English, journalism, and communications, at MSSC/MSSU from about 1972 to his retirement in 2000. He taught in Oklahoma before that and elsewhere.

Dad related the following story during his remarks:

Recently I was called for jury duty. During the questioning of the potential jurors, I was always the last to be called on. One question in particular was of interest. “Do you have a passion? What are you passionate about?” Almost invariably, the responses were about sports. Football. Baseball. The Cardinals. The Royals. And others, of course. When he got to me:

“Are you passionate about anything?”

“I try to teach passion.”

“I suppose they call you , ‘Mr. Passion!?'”

The judge said, “I wouldn’t go there. That’s Mr Massa. He has a reputation for passion.”

Here’s the thing though. Growing up, I don’t recall a single lecture directed at me about passion. Admittedly, I didn’t move back to live with him until I was 16, so it might have been too late to have much real impact after short visits and summers between seven and 16. Unlike my sister, I didn’t take classes from him or become a communications major. However, I do a recall number of lectures, monologues, and exhortations, all delivered with a great deal of passion. I probably assumed at the time that this was simply a device to gain my wayward attention.

I didn’t realize at the time that I was being given the roadmap for my life.

I’ve written before that my earliest memories are of college campuses. Primarily the institution known then as Oklahoma College for Liberal Arts and now known as University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. Those memories take me to age seven. From 16 to 26 (save for three years in the Army) my campus memories are of Missouri Southern State College (now University). Along with those memories of campuses, are memories of students. Dad’s students were almost always at least a weekly presence at home. Wide-ranging discussions of economics, history, political science, and yes, journalism, were the norm with Dad, Teresa (‘T’,my step-mother), and whatever students dropped by. I don’t think this was ever stated, but it always seemed to me the rules for participation were simple: keep up or shut up (and listen).

The common element was always passion. Passion for knowledge, understanding, or making a difference.

If you know me, if you have seen me present, or worse, you’ve been present when I start talking about the power of data and information to make a difference, you know I have passion for what I do. I absolutely love what I do. Every single day. Even the days that aren’t so great. I intend to keep doing this work as long as I am able. I never set out to find my passion or even asked, “Can I do this work with passion?” I simply did it with passion. And the passion was there to be found.

I’ve worked a lot of low-wage jobs and blue collar jobs before I stumbled into this career. I never thought about doing those jobs with passion, or at least not much. A couple of the blue collar jobs I gave serious consideration to as a career path, but in the end, they were not satisfactory. I took those jobs to support myself, or my family. I never hesitated about the type of work, just dove in and did it because I needed to do so . And that’s a different type of passion.

I remember some thunderous, emotive monologues delivered from the front seat of the car while I rode in the back. While I knew they were for my benefit, they weren’t strictly because this is simply who he is. He cares about things, about people, and it shows. It shows in the care with which he does things. It shows not in sympathy or or even obvious empathy, but in finding solutions. In addressing needs. There are stories that really should be told, but they are not mine to tell. Just know that he is a class act and the student tributes I have heard and seen are deserved.

As first-generation college students themselves, Dad and T sponsor scholarships at four universities to support first-generation students. They are passionate about higher education and that is only a part of their shared passion of 46 years of marriage. They do what they believe in, always in the fullest measure possible, and always with passion.

So, when you’re thinking to yourself, “Boy, Tod does get wound up and passionate at times about this stuff,” this is why. With Dad and T as role models, there was little likelihood that I would not turn out to do things with passion. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My sister Daphne and Chad Stebbins (former student now faculty member at MSSU) led the way in creating a secret Facebook tribute group for Dad. Former students wrote their tributes and uploaded photographs. Many of these were compiled into a bound book entitled “Passion” that was presented at the event. The excerpt below is one of my favorites. It is from Nancy Prater of Ball State University, a student who was my contemporary when I returned to MSSC after the Army and who married one of my fellow students and friends (Mike Prater, also of Ball State) in the art department:

Mr. Massa was student-centered before colleges used that as a catch phrase. He understood his audience at Missouri Southern. In so many ways I was a typical Southwest Missouri student. I was from a family with limited means and barely an inkling of the big world out there. He helped kids like me set our standards higher and our sights further than we likely would have on our own.

 This is Dad. Professor Emeritus of Communications. The person who founded the Department of Communications, the Center for International Studies, and the international mission of a mid-size regional college in Southwest Missouri. Someone who saw, and sees, beyond the borders of states and nations, and the self-imposed limits of individuals. When Susan Campbell wrote in the Hartford Courant in 2000 upon his retirement that the students he took were “boozers, losers, and the occasional fundamentalist,” that resonated with me. I knew those people. But the point was that he saw value in everyone, particularly if they were willing to engage life and study with passion. While I never had formal lessons with Dad, every single day with him has been a lived lesson of the exemplary for which to strive. My only wish is that I had paid better attention at times.


Continuing Self-Care

I have found that the hardest thing about self-care is time management. Of course, this makes sense. All the things we often do, things that become habit, out of convenience, we tend to do to save time. Leastways, that is true for me.

Depending on what you find when you search, there are about six or seven domains of self-care. And about billion pieces of advice on what to specifically do for self-care. I like these domains as a starting point: physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, relational, safety and security. Honestly, without having done some research, some of these areas would not have occurred to me.

I’ve focused most on physical self-care. I have been trying to reshape and rebuild my body. Because, health; and because men can have body issues, too. Recreating a physical image of self is probably easier than creating a new emotional image of self, but it still takes hard work and a great deal of time. In the last four and a half months, I’ve made significant progress. At an annual specialist consult this week, it was noted (with some surprise) that I had lost 60 lbs since a year ago. My diet has changed dramatically and I exercise daily. I’ve also made the attempt to get seven hours of sleep each night. I’m not quite there yet, about 10 or 15 minutes short on average, so more discipline is required.

For emotional self-care, apart from getting more sleep, I really have worked on moving away from anger as a lifestyle. While I still have have work to do, it has been quite amazing how much of a difference this has made in my life. I really am less angry.  By changing how I think, I have reduced anger and upsettedness. I am more pleasant to be around and this has been noticed. I have worked also on being more in the moment, on mindfulness. These are hard for me the way my mind races. This will take continuing practice, like most things do.

My efforts in spiritual self-care are simple and private. I will mention that spending more time outside, away from all the glowing rectangles in my life is part of this. Finding peace and solace on the trails is renewing. Stillness is also part of this. In Tinnitus and Morning  Coffee I wrote about my struggles with accepting the noise and discomfort of tinnitus. After these weeks of effort, we are at least at a grudging accord, tinnitus and me. I may not have made friends with tinnitus as I hope to do, but I am finding the quiet much more pleasant and desirable. I am finding comfort in stillness, despite the constant ringing in my head.


One of my favorite trails in Pocohontas SP.

I’ve been broadening my reading for intellectual self-care. I am reading a mix of higher ed, math policy,  and personal memoirs. A couple have been a mixture of both. I’ve also been investigating new challenges in programming for the web, especially after I realized that I had been developing web pages for 22 years. While I probably should be writing less code than I do, I enjoy it, and I enjoy learning new things. I struggle with new languages that use different constructs than those I am used to, but that is part of the challenge. However, I have to work to ensure that I am not falling back into a counter-dependency mode by trying to master everything. Instead I try to do these things with narrow purpose and intent.

Relational self-care is why I am doing a lot of these things. It is about renewing and rebuilding the relationships with family and friends that have degraded because of my inward focus. It is a slow process because it has to start with how I feel about myself, repair that, so I can relate to others more openly and accurately. (Accuracy and validity are surprisingly important to healthy relationships.) It also can’t wait until I have done all the work on myself.

As for safety and security, I am a giant, middle-aged, white male. I don’t get too worried about this. For me it is a question of avoiding activities that accompany the phrase “here, hold my beer.” Putting aside the fact that I have given up all forms of alcohol right for the time being, it is about not being stupid, not showing off.

I said at the beginning that time management is the hardest thing about self-care. It is. If you look at these seven domains of self-care, you see the six of them require action.  They also  require time. When I started using a step counter (initially the one on my phone), I set a goal for 5,000 steps a day and then upped it to 10,000 steps. For the past three weeks I have been trying for 15,000 steps a day. Generally I achieve this or more. However, it takes more than walking for an hour at lunch. It requires brief indoor walking breaks (which rejuvenates my thinking and allows me to read documents and articles while walking in a space of about 18′ by 40′. It’s amazing how many steps you can do in such an area if you put boredom aside and make it productive.

Still, this isn’t enough. I have to either walk or run many evenings. Right now I am trying to run about three days a week. It is still more of run-walk thing, but since it is generally out on trails, that’s appropriate (walk up hills, run the downhills and the flats). These have to be scheduled. I also still try to keep a few hours of stationary bike and video games in the mix each week. The really uneven cardio work that happens when my hindbrain kicks and makes me pedal faster to make my Mii go faster in Super Mario Kart 8 has really helped me return to trailrunning faster than I thought possible. Like I used to do when I was running marathons and ultramarathons years ago, I take advantage of opportunities to walk – as I did last night when I walked 4.5 miles to pick up my car from the dealer after servicing rather than catch a ride.

I haven’t even mentioned golf and range time. These are significant time commitments as well. I work to balance all these things, so that no one thing dominates everything else. This alone is a change.

These things take time that must be scheduled. I have to also allow time to spend with Melinda in the evenings and weekends, which is part of the relational self-care. Making time to read, or to just be (i.e. meditate or sit in stillness), are also time commitments. This is not to say I schedule everything, but rather that I am aware of what I need to do and make time for it. Making time to write or paint (more about that shortly) is also important. I try to recognize the specific needs of each day.

Even my diet changes require a time commitment. I spend an hour or two each Sunday prepping my lunches for the week, trying to anticipate my protein and calorie needs relevant to the physical goals for the week. Other meals require time as well because we have moved so much of the quick and easy foods out of our lives.

So, time management is necessary and critical to my self-care. Along with that is prioritizing what matters. If I can’t do everything, what am I going to give up? I am trying to make the seven hours of sleep the highest priority, but that is such a radical change for my life, it hasn’t happened quite yet. But given the way getting close to it has made me feel, it is about to happen.

I mentioned that I have begun painting. I don’t know that this is a permanent return. What it is now is a self-portrait as self-study. Confronting self-image as I work through these changes in my life. I have only done one previous self-portrait and it was small and quickly done when my skills were pretty sharp. I’ve just jumped into this trying to use skills long-dormant and trying to recall how to think about the act of painting. It’s happening. It’s good (the effort, not necessarily the painting).

All of this is working. I feel better physically and emotionally. I feel more positive than I remember having felt before. So I want more.



yes, data can lie


My office doorway, leading out into policy analytics lab environment. This was a gift from one of my former vice presidents when he left to become a college president.

A couple hours after I published i have questions, my brilliant friend Tressie tweeted:

The Digital Goofball, I mean, Guru, above is wrong. Data do lie on occasion. They can lie for a whole bunch of reasons, from the simple to the complex. The lies can begin at point of collection and continue on through aggregation and analysis.

Another brilliant friend, Laura, published a new blog post on the same day that begins with a story of a failure in medical screening.  The nurse’s failure in this account suggests that her lack of questioning is her normal behavior, or hints at assumptions she makes about patients. Whatever the case, the collected data are suspect.

Data collection is an expensive process to do well. Putting aside Big Data, which generally captures data that are a byproduct of transactions, good data collection requires careful thought and planning. I wrote about counting to one almost two years ago and point to it again because it is the basis of what I do and think about. Understanding what you are counting, and why. What I didn’t discuss, and it is implied in friend Jeff’s (also brilliant) essay that is linked within that post, is choosing what not to count. Or who not to count. Every choice in collection defines the truth and reality of what the data can represent as information.

Once we move beyond collection into shaping we encounter the same choices. We shape (most people call it “transform” but I like to shape the data) into forms that fit our understanding and the understanding we wish to share with others. Data are like Play-Doh and can take all sorts of shapes and dimensions. It can be worked and reworked for endless variety. But, it can only stretch so far before it breaks and becomes separate pieces. This is what happens with data when you stretch the definition and structure too far, original meaning is lost and the provenance is broken. Small pieces can be lost during this shaping, or blended with other “colors” creating something new, but increasingly more abstract than the original data.

There’s a key word: “provenance.” Familiar from my art history/museum studies days. Relevant today as “data provenance” for both the ownership and meaning of the data all along the way. While one may be able to demonstrate a chain of ownership and handling of data, at some point it is possible to have shaped the data into something that violates the provenance, intentionally or not. Developing checkpoints along the way of shaping and transformation is needed to reliably maintain original meaning or at least the path to original meaning.

As data are aggregated, as the counting begins, the lies can take on new dimensions of possibility. This wonderful essay by Dana Boyd covers a number of examples. At the close of our first panel presentation at the Governor’s Data Analytic Summit that I mentioned here ,each of us were asked who the ultimate beneficiary of our work would be. We all gave the same answer, but I was naturally bit blunt about it, “Clearly the citizens of Virginia. If not, we are doing it wrong, and that’s all that really matters.” Later in the day I raised the need I felt – that every session should have some discussion about the ethics of data use and analytics. There was much less response to that than I had hoped for.

Data can be made to lie. They can also just be wrong. Errors do occur, and hopefully they can be corrected before damage is done. The data can also be right, but misused, misunderstood, and misinterpreted. For example, attributing an outcome to say, skin color, instead of attributing to differences in treatment because of skin color, is more than likely in most cases a complete misunderstanding of the data. Or a determined willingness to see an interpretation that fits your desired model, something along the lines of confirmation bias but with clear intentionality.

One has to know the distance between zero and one and what that distance measures and accept that distance in order to have an honest conversation about data. The fact that I am inspired/driven to write this post should be an indicator that I feel strongly about this topic. “Data don’t lie” is right up there with “the check is in the mail” and “don’t you trust me baby? of course I love you.” It is a crock of shit to say in an all encompassing way “data don’t lie.” Some of us work damned hard trying to ensure our data don’t unintentionally mislead. We spend hours wrangling with people about nuance, not just nuance of definition, but the nuances of calculation, why one way is more accurate than another. And why it takes longer to do it right.

Even when the data are pure as the driven snow, the provenance is impeccable, and the interpretation admirably circumspect, there is still room for doubt. What was left out? What assumptions were not valid? What don’t we know about what we don’t know?

In other words, we should be cautious with even truthful data. It is never, in my experience, “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” as there are always unknowns.




i have questions

I spent the beginning of the week at the Governor’s Data Analytics Summit. Talk about some serious geekdom. And generally overly serious people. Governor McAuliffe was an exception, his speech was jovial and positive as usual, celebrating things in the Commonwealth and his accomplishments. But it was all seriously geeky.

And it happened again. The conversation that I find amusing. I go to events like this or hackathons and datathons and talk about what we do. I talk about our data, our longitudinal data systems (yes, plural – the agency’s and the collaborative system), and our data products. When I mention the wage & debt reports or the cohort lifecycle modeling, I often get this: “Wow, you must have one hell of a data scientist!”

“Thanks. I am pretty good at what I do, I’ve been doing it a long time.”

They look at my name tag again for a title again, or just say, “Oh.” Then we talk languages and tools and they learn that I am just not with it. My tools are old school. “Data Scientists” have proliferated at these events. Some are young and possibly credentialed as such, others are old, like older than me, and I find they haven’t picked up any new credentials. Nope, they have just retitled, re-branded, what they are. As far as I can tell, they just change tools occasionally to use the new, “cool” languages, or just new modules for old school software.

So, no, I don’t think of myself as a “data scientist.”

I’m not sure what I am. My title at work is “policy analytics director.” This gets at some of what I do. It’s also new, an improvement over “policy research and data warehousing director” for both brevity and accuracy, but I doubt it will be included most one-on-one introductions, unless I use it.

Recently I ran into a local college president. He introduced me to his son as “a numbers guy.” This is marginally better than “data guy”, a term I despise, (and yes, I know points to this site as sometimes you have to give in to the nightmare). “Data guy” is just so very one-dimensional. My life is not data. My identity is not data. But to a lot of people, that is probably all they see. Certainly, Virginia’s college presidents almost only see me talking about data – or rather what they think is data. I see it as something at a higher level than that, but I guess the difference between data and information and knowledge depends on where you stand. Or whether or not your thinking incorporates an understanding of the levels of abstraction that exist between a number and the people it represents. Where does data stop and information begin?

Data, for me, is the lowest level of observation, categorization, and measurement of phenomena. To address me as a data guy suggests that I am not worthy of the higher thought-levels in which you engage.

“Guru” is another nickname that just drives me crazy. It implies that there is some level of mysticism to what I do, at least in the way I suspect they mean it. There is no mysticism in this work, just hard work, a willingness to fail regularly, and an ability to learn from all that failure. Basically the same as in any profession. I’m not really a “data analyst” but it is a part of what I do. I can spend hours on occasion listening to the data and occasionally saying, “So what do you think about that?” Yeah, kind of the Carl Rogers of data science. (Would that work on a business card?) Or data psycho-analyst? Or psycho-data analyst others might suggest?

So what am I?

I am more than my job, that’s for sure.  If I am only a data guy, let me point out that I am generally the first person to make an argument for the liberal arts and humanities and their necessity for inclusion. I think about data and information in terms of policy objectives and people, it is more than just numbers. I also think about data in terms of the level of abstraction it represents, the distance from the measurement to the people, policies, transactions, or things measured.

I also see data everywhere. Everything is data. Every observation can be reduced to something identifiable as data or a collection of data. It’s frustrating, and sometimes damaging, because I notice things like timestamps on messages and will try to reconcile those with comments within a conversation, ie. reconciling data with storytelling. This can be unsettling to others but it is not intentional, it is just a byproduct of seeing and incorporating data. Because everything is data and it is all collectable. Especially stories. Stories are both data and a form of data collection and data sharing. They are also more than that as they are also informational and can convey knowledge and wisdom. That, I think is really cool.

Reviewing this last bit, I can almost believe that I am a data guy. But storyteller works too. I think storyteller is better, and more accurate. It won’t work on a business card for a state agency, but I could introduce myself that way. It makes sense to me, but it does it make sense to others?

Some years ago, in a context I don’t remember, I was part of an exercise about “Who are you?” The crux of this event was that most will identify themselves in terms of their job when any individual is generally so much more than that. The problem is that for some group of people that each of us knows, that is really all we are. That is my complaint. How do I, how do we, change that so we are seen as more than our jobs?

There was another aspect to the conversation above. The college president chuckled and said, “Tod always says what’s on his mind.”

I groaned, “Okay, what did I say this time?”

“Nothing, nothing it all. It’s just that you’ll have us all in a room, we’ll all be thinking the same thing, but you are the only one who will say it.”

Fair enough. I have little to lose by being straightforward, clear, honest, or just stating what sounds to be opinion but is more often my interpretation of what I see in the data. I also disagree that all are thinking the same thing as I know at least some are still struggling to catch up.

So, who am I? Is it what I do for work? Is that really a problem when it seems from my perspective that I do for work flows naturally from how I see the world and interact with it? Why do I object to certain phrases so viscerally when I can see their rightness, especially in the full definitions or synonymous meanings of words like guru?

I’m probably antagonistic by nature (full stop, maybe?) to the idea of being defined or described by two simple words. Might was well just call me a number. 219 works. I answered to that in both basic training and Air Assault school. Maybe this is my ongoing reaction to current sensibilities of reducing everything to a handful of numbers, a handful of words (bullets on a slide), key performance indicators. We’re carrying this too far, losing any sense of nuance or complexity, losing any sense that the data represent real people and their movement through life.

It reminds me of the racist, dehumanizing language used in the military to describe the opposing forces. Sure, it is shorthand, but my dehumanizing, by making them other, it reduced the psychological impact of killing and maiming. It makes it easier. The more we reduce measurement and description, the easier it becomes to forget the people that are the basis and the whole point of measurement. That’s my problem.


Lost stories of a lost world

I know only only a few songs by the Moody Blues.  I had one album on cassette way back when, but I don’t even remember which it was. On  the way home tonight, I heard “Lost in a Lost World” and it struck a chord. I’m always impressed at the timelessness of some song lyrics.

I woke today, I was crying
Lost in a lost world
So many people are dying
Lost in a lost world
Some of them are living an illusion
Bounded by the darkness of their minds
In their eyes, it’s nation against nation against nation
With racial pride
Thinking only of themselves
They shun the light

Of course, I’m a sucker for a good story, whether the ending is happy or sad, that mirrors how I feel.  So story songs are my favorite. I’m an unabashed fan of Harry Chapin’s music. Certainly Taxi is in my top 10, but A Better Place to Be is probably my favorite and the one I am likely to sing to someone at bedtime – that is if John Prine’s Sam Stone was not enough to put a child to sleep. Zach is probably fortunate that he grew up before I discovered Tom Waits and did not sing Tom Traubert’s Blues, A Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis (I actually knew a call girl in my time at SIUE – she was my girlfriend’s roommate and had spent the summer working in a brothel in Nevada – but that’s another story), and I Hope I don’t Fall in Love with You. Then again, these songs might have softened his temper a bit and are perhaps a bit cheerier than Puff the Magic Dragon and some of the folk songs I sang to him.

Back when I was involved in the scout troop, storytelling was a key ritual. It built and reinforced community.  Friday and Saturday nights of our monthly campouts found the adults sitting around a fire telling and retelling the troop’s stories. For newcomers it often seemed off-putting at first since most of the stories were about boys that aged out already. But these stories were the core history of the troop. It was a small, but truly boy-led troop. The adults were there primarily for oversight and instruction. And to keep things from getting too out of hand. With this model, there was lots of room for stories to develop since there was very little, “No, don’t do that.” Zach created quite a few stories for the troop.

Saturday night campfires involved mandatory skits. It was more than entertainment, it was about encouraging creativity and performance for peers. A lot of the skits were rehashed versions of skits from Scouting or Boy’s Life magazines . Occasionally they were new. For a couple of years, Zach and one or two others would steal ideas from “Whose Line is it Anyway” and do improv like “Scenes from a Hat” where they would draw random slips of papers with scenes to act out. It ranged from groans to laughter. Adults had to had participate as well. But, other than Scout Vespers there was almost never any singing around the fire. Occasionally one of the assistant scoutmasters would sing ballad of the “Uneasy Rider” to which I would respond with the “Talking Ben Tre” blues and thus kill any further song. Apparently, anti-war songs weren’t the right tone.

It was all about the stories though.

Storytelling with data is much of what I do. However, it tends towards the implicit more than the explicit. When I was in the MFA program, one of my colleagues at the museum was fond of criticizing my paintings as he felt the stories were too obvious.  “Tod, my problem with your work is it that it is story-based and the stories are too obvious. Good art is always implicit, never explicit, as David says,” (our boss). “I think if you want to paint butts, then just paint butts, no stories.” First, he may have thought the stories were obvious, but he never quite got the stories right , he just saw a story. And two, he was the one that did nothing but paint butts. That was his thing.

The difference between implicit and explicit art or storytelling, is interesting. The explicit leaves little for the audience’s imagination to do.  Perhaps. I think it depends on how much they are engaged in the story. A two-dimensional painting or drawing can only do so much of the work. A video or movie can do much more, but still can’t do everything. And a story read or recited leaves as much to the imagination as the storyteller chooses. Implicit art simply leaves out detail allowing the audience to make more choices and assumptions, even as far as what the basic point of the piece is. To my mind, it can be somewhat lazy, if it is not somehow clear that the work is only about the aesthetic.

Transcending the discussion between implicit and explicit is Picasso’s “Guernica” painted in reaction to the use of town (of the same name) for bombing practice by the Nazis. The nearly monochromatic approach to color, Cubist style, and general abstraction take this painting far from the explicit save for a clear depiction of death and woe.  At the other end of the spectrum is John Singer Sargent’s “Dr. Pozzi Comes Home.” On the surface, this is simply a beautiful full-length portrait of an apparently beautiful man. It is pretty explicit on that level. On the other hand, there is seriously implied humor in the painting on multiple levels – especially with knowledge of about eight or ten words of the backstory. Both paintings tell stories and are deserving of hours of study and appreciation.

I used to try to write enrollment reports and a couple of special region reports that were storytelling about the data leading to an inevitable conclusion based on the presented data. It didn’t work. Every report or whitepaper had to have an executive summary that told the answer, and that’s where ninety percent of readers stopped. Also, agency heads in the past really wanted to impose an authoritative voice that was generally dry and matter-of-fact. My response was to reduce my writing to the bare minimum, and provide more and more data on the website making it a Pandora’s Box of higher ed stories. The stories are there, you just have to pick one to follow and know that the ending may not always be happy.

In participating on a forum for people with acoustic neuromas and associated brain tumors (like mine) I have experienced first-hand the power of individual stories when shared in such a forum. The sharing of a common struggle with a new member who is equal measures of terrified and curious lead to a reduction in fear from the comfort of knowing that others have been down a similar path and have had successful outcomes. Knowing further of the challenges and the less successful outcomes creates likely boundaries that reduce the fear of the unknown. My own story tends to scare the hell out of newbies, so I always warn, “I am not typical. I am an extreme case, and look at me now.” (Some might say this applicable beyond my my brain tumor.)

Forums, blogs, social media, Listserv archives, and all the other digital methods of sharing, capture the informal storytelling on the Net. These stories range from the mundane, the silly, pointless, to the powerful, the life-changing.

I stumbled across this while catching up on Twitter:

This is why, as Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated in his book Remembering (1932), no two people will repeat a story they have heard the same way and why, over time, their recitations of the story will diverge more and more. No ‘copy’ of the story is ever made; rather, each individual, upon hearing the story, changes to some extent – enough so that when asked about the story later (in some cases, days, months or even years after Bartlett first read them the story) – they can re-experience hearing the story to some extent, although not very well (see the first drawing of the dollar bill, above).

“The empty brain”. Aeon, Robert Epstein.

Is this another way of saying that the observer interacts with the observed and that only at the end of the story do we know if the cat is alive or dead? Taking it further, doesn’t this tell us that the status of the cat changes for both observers as the chronologic distance from the original story increases? (Yes, I tend think about time in terms of distance instead of interval.) Our stories change the listeners and the stories change through retelling by others, and even ourselves. Recording our stories, by writing, painting, song, whatever medium is appropriate, gives them a bit more permanence and the ability to reach a greater audience. Not necessarily a much bigger audience, but one outside our relatively small circle of social existence, to others that might need to hear our stories.

There is an audience for every story, especially those that are most difficult to tell. It may seem otherwise, but there is comfort in knowing that someone else has been down the same path. Perhaps they merely survived, maybe they thrived, or died. But knowing the story and similar stories provides path ,and a path is generally more comfortable to walk than to break trail. But there will always be those who wish to break trail to write new stories.

While I think we will never not need stories, especially good stories, I think more than ever we need true stories right now. I think we need to dig past many of the contemporary retellings that have transcended myth and become fact in today’s news cycles. We need the stories of individuals as actors in history, as everyday hero and protagonist, who struggle to make their own path or follow the paths of others. I’ve learned recently just how important some of these stories are because they rarely are told. When someone stumbles upon a story, and reaches out to the teller, a connection is made, strengthening both, and letting each know they are not alone.

There is an audience for every story. And a need for it to be told.