Meddling with Middling, Not Muddling

I had an “aha moment” when I was about 24. OK, 24 was a banner year for revelations. First, I figured out that no one in my office could focus before a second cup of coffee, so if my hair was still wet when I got into the office at 8 a.m., I had a good two hours to let it air dry in my cubical before my first command performance in the presence of the caffeinated. (That was actually part of a dual-discovery, the latter being rather depressing: my hair looks a smidge better and more “me” when air-dried vs. blow-dried. Cue the dirge for all of those misspent morning hours when the snooze button would have been a viable option.)

Second, I re-met the man who would later be my husband. We had crossed paths several times before, and shared many friends and fads, but, as my 24-year-old self acknowledged, there is a time and a place for everything. And we were spared the 1980s in each other’s company. (Shouldn’t we all get a pass for 80s hair, wardrobe, and dance moves? See, I don’t have to “unsee” that in my spouse. Brilliant.)

Third, being a young woman with a brain, the gift of gab, and an opinion in the 1990s was… interesting. The NASDAQ was on the rise and the tech world was dominated by really brilliant, but communicationally challenged, men. As a PR person for pre- and post-IPO companies with mercurial potential, it was my job to translate my clients’ tech-speak news into digestible pieces for the less-tech-savvy, mostly-gruff-and-grumpy business editors. I also had to convince the paranoid CFOs behind the curtain that no news was not, indeed, good news. And I had to turn nerd-minutiae experts into investment-worthy, broad-stroke rock stars. My job, for each, was difficult and nuanced. I had to be very careful not to overtly tell these older men what to say or write or think, even though, technically, that was my job. The key was to distill the promotion-worthy facts and narrate a storyline they could follow and relate to others. Talking points had to be undetectable, but quotable. My words had to be believably and repeatably theirs — invisibly spoon-fed.

Fourth (and best), I rediscovered the books from the summer reading lists of my school days. With my workdays filled with a dizzying array of technical buzzwords and financial reporting, I began to crave humanity and, as it turns out, the humanities. At 24, I lived in a group house in Cambridge, Massachusetts — one step up from college living, given the larger portion of my closet allocated to grown-up clothes, but still a bit dodgy in the furnishings department. My bookshelf held mostly college textbooks, and, in a nod to my mother’s insistence that I not leave so much of my “crap” at home, a selection of paperback classics from high school.

Why I kept them, I don’t know. When they were originally assigned, I viewed them with great contempt. As a teen, I hated being told I had to read anything. And, from a teenage-snark perspective, what was I going to learn from a fisherman (The Old Man and The Sea), a prude (The Scarlet Letter), and a dark and depressing legal drama (The Crucible)? I remember regarding my teachers with great skepticism as they explained the patterns of symbolism and embedded social commentary in the texts. At the time, I thought (or wanted to think), maybe Hemingway just wanted to write about a grumpy old salt. And maybe Hawthorne was ahead of his time with his Puritan shun-loving intrigue. (Did The Scarlet Letter inspire the multi-million-dollar Amish-romance genre? OK, probably a stretch.)

At 24, my teen front fell away and I reread the classics voraciously. My adolescent fear of forming, venturing, and defending my own opinions faded. My juvenile reticence to see nuance and parallels ended. My pubescent hormonal impulse to oppose whatever an “adult” said dulled. In short, I grew out of my instinct to react and act defensively. In its place, I felt a need to be confident in my own opinions. And, therefore, my need to feel proactive and prepared with verifiable facts grew.

The more I looked for the real and the defendable in my own life, the more I relished my work of artfully presenting (and spinning) data and concepts at work. Oh, the irony of it all.

Though I continued to do “tech” work, I returned to the DC area and the fold of political issues. The better I got at my job as a spin doctor, the better I got at spotting the spin…in everything. It’s something you can’t “unsee.”

Because of what I knew (and did all day), I refused to be spun. Looking back, there may have been some cocktail parties where I aptly earned the comic caption of conspiracy theorist. The fact that the spin was coming from all sides — and I could see it coming and going — was exhausting. It took me back to that teenage react-and-oppose mode. Not a happy place, then or now.

In order to dig myself out, I turned inward. And it worked. Now, when I read or see a piece of “news” that is clearly spun (they all are), I go through this mental exercise. It’s like a little debate club in my head. (No, I don’t need a straight jacket. No, I don’t know what color ties the debate club members are wearing. OK, maybe they’re red, with blue oxford shirts, and sharp blue sport jackets like my dad used to wear. Paging Dr. Freud.)

Anyway, stick with me. I imagine myself with the assignment of writing and spinning the news from the other perspective — not to be contrarian, but to get closer to the truth. Basically, I debate in my head until the extremes cancel each other out, sometimes winning one point or another on merit. The truth is somewhere there in the middle. It always is. Not because the moderates are always right — progress or reasoned reversals are sometimes the best way of things, but maybe not at the pace or scale the far poles demand with immediacy. The truth is rarely at the extremes, because it’s pointy and lonely and loud out there. There are a whole lot of people with opinions and perspectives in this world. And decisions are rarely, if ever, reached until the pointy ends are blunted and a conversational tone is achieved.

So, I’m hoping some other folks will try it. Step away from the spin cycle and hot air blowhards and…air-dry for a bit. Pick a headline and have an honest-to-goodness, pick-it-apart debate with yourself — considering all sides, just to see where you end up. Revisit issues you were told how to think about. (We’ve all been spoon-fed the spin at some point. We were all assigned summer reading and told what the author was “really” saying.) It’s time to digest the parts and form your own whole opinion — know your own mind, see your own symbolism, hear your own informed commentary and be…calm about it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be passionate, but crossing the threshold to fully understanding an issue from more than your own perspective can make the difference between pointy talking points and a working narrative. It’s the difference between an angry sermon and a productive, fulfilling, ongoing conversation.

#meddlingwithmiddling #notmuddling

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