Monthly Archives: August 2013

Art of Listening

A few years ago I interviewed for a job that I thought was in the bag with only the requisite HR validation to seal the deal. And I failed the HR sniff test, with a cultural mismatch that could have leveled a Midwest city. Through the longer lens of time (and perhaps maturity, although I doubt that) I think I had proved that I wasn’t ready or able to listen, to learn their business, to understand the culture I was entering, and therefore I was creating my own impedance mismatch. It’s a mistake I have sworn to learn from.

I started my new job at Merck & Company on Monday. It’s a 35-minute commute each way when I have to go out to Whitehouse Station, which turns out to be a shade over an album side. I decided that I was going to spend that time in the car listening – just listening – to music. Not on conference calls, not thinking about a project, not mentally rehearsing for a staff meeting. Listening. Partly it’s because I have found that I’m using music as a Paul Lanksy-inspired soundtrack for whatever destination is in mind (Godsmack pre-hockey; Phish on the way to the shore; Rush on the way to pick up the Bubba) and partly it’s because I am going to be in full-on, aggressive listening mode for a few months while I learn the basics of the health care business, and then in serious listening mode for another two to three years until I understand it to some level of detail.

The best and only way to develop a skill is to practice it. And I’ve already found my mind wandering during the drive, thinking about a project or a to do item, rather than picking out a bass line or guessing the effects (tremolo or slow phaser) used on the guitar. I’ve discovered some new truths already: I don’t yell at other drivers nearly as much. A half hour in the car flies by with the right accompaniment. I really like driving my car (a hybrid that accelerates nicely and has reasonably good sound for a small passenger cabin).

I’ve been too quick to shuffle through music, rather than listening to albums the way they were conceived and meant to be experienced. Exhibit A: The new Queens of the Stone Age “Like Clockwork” took a few songs to get going, but it’s worth an extended and intense sit down. Take a mental floss break during Yes’ “To Be Over” and you miss some of Steve Howe’s most varied and intense guitar work (pedal steel, ES-135 and maybe one more in there).

And playing air cymbals during the bridge, stopped at a light on Route 508, gave pause to the driver next to me so I could pass him without any other exhortation of my own, besides a fine Alan White impersonation.

The Stargell Bobblehead Obsession

What’s in the confluence of eBay, late-night PowerPoint editing, and a disgust with Alex Rodriguez that borders on something you accidentally stepped in while using a public bathroom in the Port Authority? Bobbleheads. Willie Stargell bobbleheads and figurines, to be specific. After re-arranging my desk (retired the tired old iMac desktop, moved some pictures around, and decided to aggregate anything Stargell-oriented on its own shelf) I made the fatal mistake of seeing what eBay might have to offer to fill up my personal Hall of Resin Fame.

Willie Stargell Bobblehead Collection

Willie Stargell Bobblehead Collection

I use eBay for a work break the way I used to use a box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies as a paper-writing motivation. You start with a small reward, then you’re up to a cookie each time you finish a page, and the whole thing collapses when you’re alternating word completion and cookie bites. In many cases, it starts with a simple search to see what new and exciting items I might have to add to a collection, or what inventories are showing up in the resale market. And this turned into an itemization of the various and sundry Willie Stargell bobbleheads available. Because if one mass-produced resin tribute to your boyhood hero is good, then ten of them reflect a healthy obsession. Or a flush PayPal account. Even if one of the figures is from the Danbury Mint, and owning anything from a pseudo-mint in one of America’s worst traffic states is a sign that there’s an AARP card with your name on it.

My desire to collect is also driven by a need to reconnect with my happier memories of baseball: A time when players had jobs in the off-season, and realized they were lucky to be playing a game for at least part of the year. Teams that had character, like Pittsburgh’s “Lumber Company” of the late 70s (Stennett, Sanguillen, Parker, Oliver, Zisk, Stargell, Hebner – 7 out of 8 position players who could deliver a hit when needed). Ballplayers who were humble, self-effacing, and hustled, all without the benefit of a lab in Florida. This counter-balances the rising tide of disgust I feel for the Yankees. They have the audacity to charge ticket prices that would bankrupt a family of four, hold onto or re-sign aging players in some hope they will jump-start a team without a soul, and find themselves in fourth place due to their inability to have both pitching and hitting on the same night. A-rod’s insistence on turning every stepping stone in his sordid path from post-season disappointment to Pete Rose sentence companion just pours more fuel on the fire. I’m quietly cheering the Red Sox, and of course the Pirates, knowing that somewhere “Pops” is smiling that his Bucs have figured out all of the pieces of the puzzle and might be headed to the playoffs. My Stargell shrine cannot hurt, of course.