When I look out the window in my office at work, I can see through the window to some of the older homes in our historic Old North Durham neighborhood.  It is an older neighborhood with homes from the 20’s and 30’s.  Most of the view is obstructed by the asphalt shingle roof of the transmission shop next door.  It is not a bad view.  there is plenty of natural light and I always know the weather.  But most days, it is as close as I get to the “street.”

Thursday was no different.  It was overcast.  My ceiling lamp was struggling to overpower the darkness.  And, my task felt more like tilting at windmills to a greater extent than normal.

We have done some tilting, for sure.  This spring, we suggested to the newspaper that subprime mortgages would lead to a Great Depression-like event.  We challenged Fifth Third, Bank of America, Countrywide, Wachovia, and First Charter. We fought against refund anticipation loans.

The world kept rolling.

Looking out at the transmission shop, I wondered, “had it really been four hours that I had spent penning our winter newsletter/funding appeal?”  Subsequent questions followed: Did I have the NFG buttons too large?  Should I link to Dilsey’s Mexico City conference? Is it better to send out a mass email at 5 pm, or just after lunch?

I strolled into my co-worker’s office.  His hands were clenched to his forehead, as if the monitor had sapped his will.

What good is it to know much and taste nothing?” I asked him, lifting a line from John.

I like it that at our organization, a person can ask an oddball question like this, and get a thoughtful response.

He took his hands off of his forehead.  “I know what you mean,” he said.

He understood in his own way.  He turned and said to me something that might be his own answer to any predicament:

“Let’s get some coffee!”

“Well,” I said, “but that wouldn’t really resolve my dilemma.  I mean, I’m lamenting this policy life.  Not touching, just thought leading and messaging and framing all of the time.”

I think he understood.  He’s been doing this for longer than me, and he has been on the other side, weighed down in client servicing as a housing counselor.  It is honorable work.  But you can help people all day, and the next day, the same systemic problems will be bringing more people back with the same problems.

“You mean,” he offered, “like in the Illustrated Man, where the man in the spaceship seeks proof that the Earth still exists.”

“Yes, I guess that’s  it.”

It is a genuine dilemma: If you work in policy, you are cast adrift in a sea of spreadsheets, working to help a group of people who remain abstract and distant.

Sometimes, I want to touch what I am doing.

Granted, its pretty unimporant on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  But we are driven by mission. We’re not able to look at a statement of cash flows and assess the realization of our aims.


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