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Hip Deep In Pie
and Other Tales of Mindless Self Indulgence
Dan: You know sometimes it's worth it, taking all the pies in the face. Sometimes you come through it feeling good.
Casey: Yes.
Dan: And how was your day?
Casey: Sometimes you just stand there, hip deep in pie.

I am a problem solver, and—without any undue hubris (well, without too terribly much undue hubris would be closer to the truth)—I'm a damned good one in the most complete sense of the phrase. You see, being a problem solver is actually far wider than most people comprehend. For most people, problem solving begins and ends at managing the often insurmountable space between a problem and a solution—I have to get object A from point B to point C within set time and capital budgets D and E, for example. That's not problem solving, though. That's just logistics. It is challenging, satisfying, and rewarding to be sure, but it is not problem solving.

For others, problem solving is more a set of avoidance techniques, as if to say that with sufficient planning, problems will simply fail to arise. When problems do arise, they are undoubtedly warning signs of impending doom, so we are to walk delicately with carefully chosen footsteps through a problematic minefield. (Which supposes that there are non-problematic minefields…but I digress). This isn't problem solving either, although it, too, is an invaluable component.

Problem solving, in reality, requires harnessing several of these skills, and many, many others. You have to be a planner with the ability to accurately gauge the potential pitfalls of your courses of action and the patience required to plan for each of them in accordance with their likelihood. You have to be a problem solver, able to develop those plans in a way that takes full advantage of your resources without depleting them unnecessarily. You have to be a callous spender of those resources, but not so callous as to render them unavailable should they be required again. You have to be strict enough to stick to the course even when things start to fall apart. You have to be relaxed enough to let things that cannot be solved go entirely and without reservation. Most importantly, you have to be judicious enough—you have to be realistic enough—to know when the time is right for each of these tactics.

I am pretty damned good at all of this. I catch a lot of shit for being brusque, and I accept that without question, because being blunt when it's necessary comes with the territory. Being realistic means knowing that your work style and that of others will not always fit, and that when you need it to work you have to deftly maneuver the reporting structure to accommodate the space that is needed between two personalities in an organization. I'm okay with being disliked on a professional level (and, within reason, on a personal level), and I think that it's telling that professionals with whom I've worked in almost any capacity do not hesitate to work with me again whenever possible: be it for me, with me, or above me.

My kryptonite, though, is the result of one of my bigger strengths. As it turns out, one of the many reasons that I can do what I do with the efficacy with which I do it is the dispassionate nature with which I can address problems. People questioning my decisions are not often confused as questioning my intelligence or wit, they have different information than I; it's not personal. My best laid plans going dreadfully awry are not indicators that I'm a failure, they are indicators that the world is just as chaotic as it should be; it's not personal. Problems that cannot be solved are not insurmountable obstacles, they are roadblocks that will steer me to a new solution; they aren't personal. All of these and more with calm, rational evaluation that comes of relative confidence in my abilities and utter realism in the face of…well…reality.

But I cannot do this when a specific result matters to me. When Wil Wheaton couldn't make it to Penguicon 7.0, it was heartbreaking. I was really looking forward to meeting him and it seemed we'd finally broken the curse, but that heartbreak did not translate into inaction. We decided to make the best of it, revamped programming to use Wil's friend (who was amazing, by the way), and moved on with nary a second thought. The Wil attending was not what mattered to the event; a fantastic event full of great programming mattered to the event.

When I'm taking care of my family, this simply doesn't scale. It seems that, when it comes to my family, it is, in fact, personal. When things start going poorly: if the children are being endangered by their mother or if poor information flow is causing financial distress, I have a keen interest in a very specific result…or at least, I have a keen disinterest in a specific series of results. When my desire to make a specific outcome happen runs afoul of my abilities as a problem solver, there is hell to pay.

Hell, as it turns out, typically is paid in the form of more weight on my shoulders—a bigger, personally-inflicted burden to bear. When the smoking around my children has gotten so bad that my son has picked up that wheezing sound in his lungs from time to time, the problem solver in me says “call child protective services” and grieves when I don't. When everyone else failing to plan around finances or time constraints, the problem solver in me says “without consequences, actions don't change…let this fall apart and they'll learn to plan better.” The solutions that Problem Solver Jer (now available in a couples pack with Malibu Barbi!) come up with are unacceptable to me for a wealth of reasons, so I'm stuck feeling helpless.

I do not do helpless well.

When I feel helpless, I feel frustration…and helplessness plus frustration becomes anger to me really quickly. So I spend my time shoving my head down; swallowing huge, punishing gobs of frustration and hopelessness; taking as much of the consequences of everyone's poor planning on myself as I can aim this direction; shoving forward; and trying to just do it all. In my mind's eye, I have the mental image of an 80s era Andre the Giant wrestling a pile of midgets…like Andre, I am slowly finding failure.

The kicker of it is, I minded less when I wasn't failing. When I was doing it all I could just keep telling myself that there was a light at the end of the tunnel and that it wasn't a train and that if I keep pushing forward dragging everything with me all would eventually be well, I didn't mind in the least. All will not be well, though. All might never be well. I simply can't do it. I can't do anything I wish to, pretty much ever, any more…my plate is too full of what I absolutely have to do, what I should do, and what I need to do to make my family happy. These would all be perfectly reasonable sacrifices to me were I succeeding…but I'm not succeeding.

This semester is the worst academic semester I've had since I've gone back to school. I, literally, not figuratively, failed a midterm. I've never done that, least of all with material I theoretically know. I just don't have time to spend on the class. I have coursework and term projects due in the next couple of weeks that I haven't even started yet. I have home life stuff that I cannot even discuss, which is more difficult for me than you can imagine because that sort of discussion is the only way I remain sane. Everything is falling apart, that's the part I'm having trouble dealing with. I don't mind shouldering everyone's load, but I'm failing to do so.

I have a problem to solve, and my formidable set of skills in that area are entirely useless to me. I just sort of want to give up…and it's been a really, really long time since I've felt like this. It's an entirely unwelcome feeling.

Sorry to be so maudlin, so self-indulgent, and so whiny. Truth be told, this is a pretty profoundly first-world-problem to have. We still have food for our stomachs, a roof over our heads, heat in our home, jobs, and all of the trappings of middle-class suburban life. Quite frankly, I have precious little to bitch about—but what good is having a blog if I can't be a bit self indulgent now and again, eh?