Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Style and Substance, Substance and Style

"When the age of the Vikings came to a close, they must have sensed it. Probably, they gathered together one evening, slapped each other on the back and said, 'Hey, good job.'" - Jack Handey

Tomorrow marks an important transition. There is a lot I think I could write about, but rather than try to capture it in one shot, I think it will trickle out in other writing down the road.

In the immediate term, it means finally updating my social media accounts (but I draw the line at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and after that I just don't want to hear about it), getting back to e-mails sent to my yahoo account (I barely see that account during the week), finishing up my required prereq Microeconomics class, making sure all my financial aid forms are in order, reviewing my Accounting books, playing with Excel, catching up with friends, going to drill, sleeping in once or twice, tweaking my business plan, well...you get the idea.

It's time to do all the stuff people daydream about doing when they step off a long run on the treadmill and take time to catch their breath. A couple Mondays from now, a whole new run begins on a whole new treadmill.

The primary theme that's been front-and-center in my cerebral cortex for the past couple weeks has been the important distinctions between style and substance. I've been tremendously blessed over this five-month dash to have gotten the chance to get to a know a lot of people. As a social scientist might say, my 'degrees of separation' to any random person in the phone book have shrunk considerably.

The people that impress me the most are the ones in whom I've seen real substance and follow-through. Someone, for instance, like the Deputy Superintendent of Police, who hears about an idea we're brewing up in the office and comes by to offer suggestions, asks how he can contribute, and really means it. Someone who helps teenagers start a catering business that runs on its own steam, rather than a grant or subsidy. Someone like the LHS teacher who has gotten involved in the Sister Cities program, and personally reached out to two consulates to initiate needed discussions. Someone like the Ramen-stockpiling alternative media editor who understands the concept of an 'imperfect launch,' and will roll out a web feature that will enable volunteering, interning, and service learning opportunities all across the city's many neighborhoods and institutions, even if the prototype isn't perfect and will need tweaking on the fly.

Alternatively, I'm put off by people who join Advisory Boards just to be on said Boards, whether for ego, resume, connections, or whatever...and have no interest in participation beyond the required presence. Ditto for people who grumble at meetings about the way things are or aren't working, without a willingness to 'be the change they wish to see,' and for those who reflexively throw leaders under the bus without taking the time to see more than one side of an issue.

I'm also just *seasoned* enough to know when I'm hearing a discussion about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Anemic retail conditions aren't going to be fixed by a couple dozen people who all already know each other gathering and saying things like, "The real key here has to be communication." Instead, they'll change when the city attracts more firms like Nobis and Watermark, along with the types of jobs they bring. Companies based in Lowell, hiring in Lowell, and marketing their goods or services well beyond Lowell, are game-changers. UML expansion closer into the Downtown-Acre 'seam', by the way, is also a game-changer.

To go back to the style and substance split for a second, I'm proud to say that I worked for a boss who falls squarely into the substance camp (though he still came out okay in the Lowell Style Week sweeps, and his new Aide has a coffee mug to prove it!)

Seriously, though, I learned a lot by watching someone who doesn't kowtow to power. You hear about that type of stuff a lot, but the reality doesn't usually match the hype. If you're a constituent coming to meet Patrick, though, it honestly doesn't matter whether you're a 45 year-old investment banker in an expensive Italian suit, if you're an 87 year-old lady who has hardly ever ventured beyond the Connector, or if you arrived here as an immigrant from Cambodia -- yesterday. All will receive a standard honesty and respect. None will ever get a perfunctory wave of the hand or a disingenuous "we'll look into it." If the words are said, the words are meant. Boiled down very simply, that's pretty much what substance is all about.

A lot of pols disappoint you when you learn they don't actually care much about policy, or its details -- they're more focused on vanity and the direction of the current political weathervane. This is where Patrick veers off not just from most traditional politicians, but even from his colleagues locally. The idea itself interests him first, and then the way it would impact ordinary people and the city overall immediately follows. Only long after those considerations does political feasibility even factor in -- and this is where I've seen the Sun, WCAP, and even some of the bloggers go wide of the uprights with assessments about political naivete or clumsiness. It's not that the politics wasn't considered -- it was -- just before the Mayor quaffed a tall, steaming cup of I-don't-care (two sugars, one cream, lightly stirred). Last I checked, that's what everyone always says they want in their leaders.

With tomorrow's transition, I feel like a full circle has been reached with regard to the decision the Mayor made several months ago: the very same conspiracy theorists who ranted, raved, and opined wildly on Facebook about what score was being settled for a favor owed (the truth is, I didn't know the position even existed until it was offered) are congratulating and well-wishing my successor with the same level of energy and excitement today. I don't think they see the irony or the contradiction, and I don't want them to. The reaction from the city's chattering classes shows me all I need to know about what purpose was served.

As a close friend told me back at Ray Robinson's in March, just prior to the breach, "Brace yourself, because when change comes, the first guy through the door will take some concentrated fire."

Der Sturm vorbei ist. Der Wind der Freiheit Schlag. And may they continue to do so...

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