I’m baaaack!

February 15, 2010 at 3:28 AM 5 comments

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This may surprise the five thousand or so people who may have crossed my path since the latter part of the twentieth century.

When I was ten, I thought I was perfect. I arrived at this conclusion by going down a mental checklist. Did I ever kill a human being? No. Ever steal? Nope. Covet my neighbor’s wife? Not applicable, as far as I understood. I couldn’t imagine how a person could go from my state of grace to committing the adult sins I observed in Splendor in the Grass, the first grown-up movie I ever saw. In the film, the Natalie Wood character tries to lure the Warren Beatty character into the backseat of a car, and when he refuses to go with her there, she has to be institutionalized. As a perfect ten-year-old girl, I couldn’t picture getting into the back seat of a car with a guy if it meant losing my mind.

Fast forward a few decades through adolescence, college, left-wing politics, childbirth and divorce. Across these various eras, I came to understand pretty well John Milton‘s assertion that “good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned.” I learned that the opportunities to lead an imperfect life are manifold and unavoidable.

Yet that ten-year-old girl who thought herself perfect still occupies a sunny room inside the dark mansion of my self. And whenever I meet a person who just out and out doesn’t like me, I’m taken aback. It’s not that I think I’m perfect now. I just assume, wrongly, myopically, madly, that I am innocuous.

As lost as a moth in a mitten

I came to recognize certain imperfections in my character, but as a kid what bothered me more were my intellectual deficits. Anything to do with numbers, problem-solving or spatial visualization disoriented me. I was the last kid in my grade to learn how to tell time and count change. I never did figure out what time a train would arrive in Philadelphia if it left Chicago at ten in the morning and stopped off in Cleveland first. And in seventh grade I walked around the entire first floor of my junior high school three times before I found my classroom, and I had already been there earlier in the day.

Strange then that such an intellectually imperfect person would have ended up working at a large IT company where you simply cannot avoid numbers, problem-solving and three-dimensional thinking. It’s a testament to the strength of the literary brain that if you read enough novels, memoirs and histories, you can use your narrative powers to assimilate technical documents. Indeed, the stories and projects I produced for the corporate intranet were so lucid that one of the communications managers told a mutual friend, ““Barbara really understands the business.”

As for really understanding software vendors and strategic alliances the way I had really understood The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders — ha. I was as lost as a moth in a mitten.

A bee in his bonnet

When I moved to the company’s computer science division, all of my intellectual deficits resurfaced. I barely understood what the researchers were working on. More basic, I didn’t know my way around the building. I took the elevator down to the cafeteria. I looked around and didn’t see it. I asked a thirtysomething guy walking ahead of me where it was. He gave me a dead fisheye look and nodded to the right. The entrance to the cafeteria was right where any creature with an eyespot could see it.

Of course I’m also the driver who once asked another driver where LaGuardia Airport was and, with utter stupefaction, he pointed at the giant “Welcome to LaGuardia Airport” sign across the street.

I told you. I have spatial difficulties.

Turns out that the guy who nodded at the cafeteria had an office several doors down from mine. He was an Israeli named Igal Mansur* and, as far as I was concerned, we should have been friends. But whenever I passed him in the corridor, he made a great show of looking away.

I thought Igal had Asperger Syndrome, which would have explained his social maladroitness. I tried smiling at him. It didn’t help. I tried frowning at him. Same. One time he was walking with a female colleague and I thought I saw him mock me to her. That’s crazy, I thought.

But soon after, I was in the cafeteria (I knew where it was by now) with a so-called Fellow — the topmost echelon of computer scientist — and Igal pointed me out to his friend, a Russian computer scientist. The Russian turned around to look at me with a blank expression. He would never have noticed me if not for Igal.

All I knew was that Igal had made me a kind of negative muse. Since Day One, I was his platonic ideal of ludicrousness. All those years I had worked to compensate for my intellectual deficits — undone — like that! — by this snooty Israeli guy!

I was thrilled.

The war between Igal Mansur and me was now out in the open.

The mocker is a man of feeling

Know thy enemy and know thyself and you will win a hundred battles, Sun Tzu said. I Googled Igal Mansur. Imagine: This guy who sneered at me was a sensitive soul. He wrote poems and prose poetry in Hebrew. One impressionistic piece was about seeing a girl on a bus and being afraid to meet her eye. Another, whose metaphor I didn’t quite get, compares Igal’s shortcomings to a jug. My favorite was a succinct poem called “God?”

Sometimes I ask,

Perhaps God also cries?

Perhaps God also suffers?

Perhaps He even prays …

I pursued my investigation on Igal’s Facebook page. This guy who was my own dedicated misanthrope had 300-plus friends, including his wife, a therapist (maybe that was his problem?). He belonged to seventy groups, among them: Six Degrees of Separation; Towel Day; Guinness Stout; Israeli Navy and Kayak Buddies. He was a fan of the Official Petition to Establish “Hella-” as the SI Prefix for 10^27. You’d have to ask Igal what the petition is all about, but if you’re a friend of mine, he might not tell you.

There was more to him. He had a long photostream on Flickr with his pictures of flowers, buildings and animals. No people. His professional website listed his many published papers, conference presentations and a helpful guide to English grammar. A miscellaneous tab revealed links to sites about Taoism, aviation, castles and digital photography. One link went to a page called “Declaration of independence from Israel.” Igal had declared himself a citizen of the world.

On my side, numerous intellectual deficits and no hobbies. On his side, an embarrassment of capabilities. Igal had unlimited intellectual RAM, and he used it to make me feel I had no place in a research organization.

En garde, chaver!

News flash:

The IT company that laid me off last year wants to hire me as a contractor for a couple of days a week. I like the idea of going back to a place where I have learned to mask my mathematical and scientific insufficiencies. I know the publishing technologies. I’m familiar with the lingo. I’m acquainted with many of the researchers and their projects.

What’s best, though, is that I get to strut my ludicrous, spatially challenged, imperfect self across Igal Mansur’s field of vision. I am Igal’s America. He is my Bin Laden. My nature prefers diplomacy, but I am prepared to wage war if necessary. What a world that makes enemies of us when friendship would be so much better!

* All names in this post are fictitious, except for the names of public figures.


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Entry filed under: Bookpod, Working. Tags: , , , , .

Imagine there’s no heaven, Barbara Give it to the kids, Erhard!

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Harriet Jackson  |  February 15, 2010 at 6:54 PM

    Enjoyable. Painfully honest. Why do we feel like we have a sunny room in a dark mansion? Can’t it be the other way around? Bravo, Barbara!

  • 2. Urban Renaissance  |  February 15, 2010 at 7:18 PM

    Wonderful post.

    But just to remind you: one can be quite mathematical and still have no sense of direction. I am an example of this.

    Perhaps, however, the people at your IT company believed, erroneously, that those who had no sense of direction, who still, after many years, got confused about where the cafeteria was, and where the supply room was, and where the library was, were not sufficiently, um, technical for them. That would explain a lot, I suppose.

    • 3. modestine  |  February 15, 2010 at 7:36 PM

      Getting lost is an integral part of scientific experiment, isn’t it? You stumble onto a path you hadn’t intended to be on and voila! You’ve discovered penicillin, yellow sticky notes, velcro!

      The nice thing about chronic disorientation: You get to experience everyday life as a new adventure.

  • 4. sonia pilcer  |  February 15, 2010 at 7:38 PM

    This is scrumptious reading! I love Igal! Happy post valentine’s day.

    • 5. modestine  |  February 15, 2010 at 7:47 PM

      I know! He’s a pill!


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