Saturday, January 28, 2017

Chance to shine

I've probably spoken enough about the challenges of my current job. The size and scale of the workload, the feeling of a lack of support and communication, a lack of appreciation and other things have dominated my emotions on either side of the summer break. One small plus after all that blueness was a chance to shine, and shine in a way that I had confidence in.

Yesterday we had a conference in which I had to speak for at least 15-20 minutes. I'd been told a week and a half ahead but it was still a headache to prepare on top of my already excessive list of things to do. The day before in particular was heavy with rather crucial operational matters. My manager, who gave me the opportunity, was a technocrat to boot; she lives on numbers and policy and I knew that she'd probably want the 15-20 minutes to be solidly about the number side of the stated topic, preferably with solid numbers comparing years etc. which I thought wouldn't be useful. I counter-proposed by e-mail something a little more qualitative but didn't get a response. The day before the event I finally sat down with her briefly and she unexpectedly green-lighted my content, which was somewhat of a relief. The real preparation began and went till 11pm the night before.

Public speaking and presenting is something that I've learned to be able to handle quite well. My previous job gave plenty of opportunities to handle the limelight, to cover content without notes, to think on my feet and adapt. Also managing schools in China meant saying the same message in different ways to different groups. Teaching for so long, especially ESOL, has had its benefit, too. We naturally think of staged presentations, of audience involvement. And we are trained, too, to think in terms of how to visually present important information. I wouldn't say for a moment that I'm any great talent in speaking but these advantages can transform average speaking to something that you can listen to easily.

To make these meagre advantages more prominent I knew that almost no other presenter on the list really had more than one advantage. Some speakers had presence either by position or standing. There were some naturally interesting speakers. Some used the space well. There were some who had a few gimmicks for keeping attention. Some were witty and off-the-cuff. Others had very clear Powerpoint presentations (the worst speaker had the best PPT - the online marketing manager no less). But very few had the techniques of engagement or had adapted their delivery to an audience. In fact most of the performances were to do a stated task "despite" the audience. I recall a mini-conference last year where all speakers just hammered through their material to a catatonic group of about 100. It was painful. I anticipated that this conference would be roughly the same and I was roughly right.

I came straight after a colleague, who though sincere, was also in this mold: he had the brief of what he was told to cover but couldn't change his delivery for the audience. He had a gimmick to hold attention though and in the end it was better than most. He had been kind enough to ask ahead how we'd segue and it was a smooth hand-off. I then got up and cracked everyone up introducing myself. It was good to be a personality, rather than a speaker. It was my first time really addressing the group about what our school was so I went from humour into a very sentimental story about what the previous incarnation of our school must have been through in Christchurch before it moved to Auckland. I made up for an inadequacy in the company's concept of the conference - Mine was the only session that mixed the different companies from within the groups and ensured that the smaller two companies could speak more. In ESOL talk, I got "group-work" going. I capped off with two ways to look at academic quality, the focus of the talk, but from my experience in my industry and I got the participants to analogise it back to their settings.

I finished and I had lots of people approach me to express appreciation for the presentation, including all but one of the directors of the group. My manager in particular said she many of her fears for the coming education audit were allayed now that she saw how much thought I'd put into the big picture and vision. In retrospect, the tasks I'd been previously given that were of interest to the directors were in areas that I hadn't been trained, hadn't experienced or weren't familiar with so quite possibly they'd developed a lack of confidence in me. In a year, this was the first time I could speak at length and respond to the combined executive and greater company about what our school is and what I'm about. Even though my teachers know what I'm about and what I believe in, it is also rather consolidating for them to hear and see it pronounced not just in the office or a team meeting but to the group, to see that the goals are not small goals. One team member approached me to say that he had never realised I'd done so much in the last year.

It was great to finish Friday before a long weekend on a high. It's rough when the thoughts of work follow me home and pester me and my rest. Now I can have my own weekend.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Tear away

Running since December has been rather extraordinary. My body has really adapted to distance running. Recalling back to the time when I was starting up again after tendonitis, mid-last year, there had always been discomforts that I'd refer to as each part of my body "reporting in for duty". First there'd be discomfort in one heel, then an oddness in a knee, then both would fade before a twang in my arch and a tightness in my buttock, which would, too, fade. And then by the end of my runs I'd be a little ginger. But things have changed. I remember, with some surprise, that when I finished my first 30km run I didn't have any real muscular or joint problems - my only ailment had been an impressive blister.

My previous blog detailed a surreal run. I'd chosen to run both One Tree Hill and Mt Eden and managed to smoothly run it, finishing 18km's at a scratch over 5 mins/km. I would have been happy to run 18km at 5's even without having running up central Auckland's two most significant speed bumps. It was scarcely believeable to myself because after coming down the mountains my general pace wasn't slowed at all. I ran throughout the following week, making a new 10km personal best (4:36m/km pace).

Perhaps it bred overconfidence. Last Saturday I tried running One Tree Hill and Mt Eden again but as a 21km loop to mimic a hilly half-marathon like I'd be running in March. Again surreally I was running far too smoothly, at about 4:52 mins/km for the first 18km, and not feeling bad for it.  I plowed down from Mt Eden and felt a sensation in my knee, but ran further and it disappeared; I went into cruise-control on Mt Eden road before charging down the Valley Road slope. I knew that after that I'd just have the gentle undulation of Dominion Road to take me home and clock me into what would have been my best half-marathon distance by some way (around 1 hour 42-43 minutes, my previous best 21km was a flat 1:47). But it was just as I was starting to think about stardom and the home straight that I was brought back to Earth.

I now know that runners with too much mileage should be careful going around corners. Shortly after going around the 90 degree corner of Valley and Dominion I felt a "pressing" sensation on my calf. It wasn't pain, per se. As with other ailments I ran a bit further to see if it changed, but it didn't. I stopped and stretched it thinking it could be cramp and tried running again, but it was perhaps even more evident. It felt a little bit like pain. And so I walked back the final three kilometres home and RICEd my calf.

So now four days down I've been resting and recovering. There is no longer a sensation of injury so I've started doing strengthening exercises and might try a jog on the weekend with stretches. I've got the settled mind though that as long as I heal properly, I have enough fitness to do a great half-marathon in seven weeks. It is a slightly similar situation to last year when I'd achieved the breakthroughs to finish a half-marathon months before the event, and even with the curve ball of incorrect shoes and IT band sydrome, I still recovered to exceed my expectations.

But it's a good week to rest: Our company conference is coming up in two days and last week I was informed I should do a 15-20 minute presentation with a focus on Academic Quality. I have about 36 hours to really move my interesting ideas into something beyond burbling bluster. It does however give me a chance to do something I enjoy about my job, public speaking. It gives me the chance to show a different side of myself than people see in the office. It gives me a chance to present vision, as well.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Building on up


As mentioned after my half-marathon at the end of October last year, I had to decide whether to take the next natural step, or rather the next rather less natural feeling 18,000 steps, to complete a full marathon. It only took a week or two to consolidate my resolve and rashly register myself into two events, the Coatesville Half Marathon in March and the Rotorua Marathon in May. (Rashly because I overlooked another big engagement in May that made the latter event inopportune.) Two months since then and preparation is in full swing. For better or worse, I'm following my own haphazard training plan, relying on tidbits online as well as advice from others. And two months from the Coatesville event, my own vision for training has clarified itself.

Originally when registering, I thought I'd do another half-marathon in preparation for the full marathon. This thought might have diminished the first event itself as just a prelude, but after some thought, both are just distances and events. Being able to master the first as a half marathon is a worthy goal. My self-made strategy thus was to use the summer vacation period to really up my distance, hopefully breaking the 30km ceiling (which I finally did last weekend) and then switch into 90% half-marathon oriented training and 10% marathon training until Coatesville. After a rest of a week, I'd switch back to marathon preparation, taper and then do Rotorua. In retrospect the two events are a little close together. But as long as I train well now, I believe it should be fine.

I'm a numbers man so every run I do is logged for comparison with other runs, with splits (how fast you ran each 1km, 2km or 5km's) and the elevation gain (i.e. how many metres of incline you ran up, not factoring in the descents). I'm still in that nice building up period where I can make personal bests on a regular basis. When I get closer to my peak, hopefully around the time of the marathon, I might have to switch focus by joining a running club and getting something more social out of my running. Right now I'm still hunting for interesting challenges locally as well as bringing my running gear on holidays just in case conditions or the situation allows me a run. As my ability progresses my goals change too: originally I wanted to run Coatesville under 5min/km (which would be touch-and-go scraping into the 1 hour 40 - 1 hour 45 range). After yesterday's run, I felt that I could almost certainly aim for this range.  

Yesterday was my first weekend run of my half-marathon training phase. I chose to do an 18km loop with One Tree Hill summit and Mt Eden summit. It was the first time I'd run up Mt Eden and the first time I'd done two Auckland named hills on the same run, which had an elevation gain of 320m according to MapMyRun and I managed it a 5:02min/km pace. With two more months to go, I imagine I should be able to do 21km on a flatter course at a faster pace that 5min/km. 

On the social front, I joined a "running clinic" which is a group with guided exercise routines to strengthen muscles, joints and tendons for runners. My first one was last Monday and I look forward to another tomorrow. Some of the particular exercises are quite tough and had me wanting to do preparation before the clinic so that there was no risk of embarrassing fails. The group consisted of people who'd done the clinic before and already knew each other. I felt a little bit like an outsider but I'll see how things change as we get a bit more familiar.

Staying injury-free is the most important thing over the next four months so this group will be as important as an evening run to me. That being said, training for a run like this is a good education on your muscles and joints. The half-marathon last year taught me about IT bands. My only real concern right now is a peculiar left ankle. I've felt tenderness around it for several weeks now, it being most noticeable when I'm not running. In fact, I felt it most during the periods where I haven't been running. Last weekend after running 30km on it, it wasn't any more sore than any other part of my body. At some stage I really should have it checked. 

Running was something that was important to me in my late mid-teens, only to be thwarted by flat feet, sprained ankles and a lack of strong goals. I'm glad in my mid-thirties I've been able to work my way towards the goals I could have always had.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Problematically Correct

A spiritualist vegan friend of mine did an unusual thing the other day; he went into bat for Donald Trump with the line: "If there is any reason to believe that Hillary or Obama are any less racist or sexist than Trump, I have never come across it." He did it on Facebook and there began the expected long threads of discussion, outrage, confusion, anger and stubbornness. I chose not to participate in that melee mainly because I've fallen into that muck before and it's not easy to get out. Last time I even dropped in a neutral comment into one of his "discussions" it was read as contrary. But this discussion itself bred a few interesting bones to chew on.

The vegan contended that Trump was merely being honest and that the slurs against him and those that voted for him were a "politically correct" response. He bemoaned the effect of this as stifling of debate, that immigration isn't a racial issue. There is an ounce of truth to this but I wanted to elaborate a non-partisan way of understanding political correctness in the pluralistic world.

Political correctness developed its current meaning in the 1990s and is used often in a pejorative way to indicate an excessive consideration to minority groups and to make everything safe, physically and psychologically, for all people. For conservative New Zealanders, it manifests itself in the entrenchment of the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori council seats, reactions to racial and racist comments, OSH, gay marriage, anti-smacking, and a host of other trends that make them groan. As they groaned though, so did others around the world at the acceptance of refugees, racial and gender quotas, white guilt, evolution and climate change. It all fell under that same label, "political correctness", even when much of it wasn't political; in fact, it was hard to really narrow down the definition of what was PC and what wasn't - it seemed an amorphous catch-all. Then with the rise of PC, whatever it was, the response against the encroachment of this phantom rose too. Just as people were shouted down for their non-PC opinions, so was heat directed to "the PC brigade".

The "PC brigade" must be up there with Luminati as a shadowy group of people that no-one knows but have power beyond all of our democratic institutions. Even if you ask those who decry the invasiveness of PC, if they name the people who are part of this movement in NZ, they're invariably people on the fringe, who by definition cannot hold much sway.

If you indulge me with a chance to hypothesise for a moment (and others may have said the same or disproven it while I've been occupied with life), I'd say political correctness is the response of the former mainstream to the general social changes since the "good old days". The good old days weren't particularly good: child abuse was hidden; sexual and domestic assaults weren't reported; workers died from a lack of safety; bars were full of second-hand smoke; black characters always perished first in the movies; gays were persecuted; sexist beliefs prevented female career progression; historical wrongs continued to ferment social and racial ill and disparities; and so on. And importantly, the mainstream socio-racial group was the power, the standard and the bedrock of values. She'll be right.

Society changed though and the power moved from a cultural monolith to a pluralistic society. The people with purchasing power, with the vote, with the memes to spread were increasingly not those who identified with the post-Christian white middle-aged male conservative views. Values and systems became more democratised. It's not hard to imagine how if feels to see the erosion of your own position from the group at the top of the natural order, to see values other than your own rise, and even those values in complete contradiction to your own values. This is where the phantom of political correctness came. It wasn't a single trend; it was all change away from that old standard.

Society has a spectrum of views; the median has moved along away from what it used to be. Some though are "ahead of the curve", impatient with the inertia of change. They are the powerless radicals that are often seen as the PC brigade - but actually the increasing majority of society is the PC brigade. If you ask most people they would agree that people should be hired based on their qualifications and experience not their sex nor ethnicity; that workers should have rules to mean they have the same chance of returning home alive and well as others; that not all stereotypes are true; that crimes should be punished; that historical wrongs should have some redress.

I agree with my friend that decisions to reduce immigration or the number of refugees needn't be an issue of racism, that if can and should be a pragmatic decision relating to the needs of the country, the ability of the country to accept people and its obligations. But whether Trump is any more racist (let alone sexist) than Obama and Clinton is a completely different question and Trump's documented words and actions speak volumes.

Interesting another case came up at the same time. A brochure from the Running Clinic advised: "Unfortunately, it's the reality that, even in Wellington, women need to take extra care when running.
"Find a running club or regular running buddies ... wear loose fitting clothing, run in the day in well-populated areas and interpret whistles as compliments (all the running is obviously paying off)."
There was an outraged Twitter response and an apology from Shoe Clinic to say that this had a shadow of victim blaming and positively framed a form of sexual harassment.

Obviously, women shouldn't be assaulted nor harassed on runs. Women have every right to run in the attire of their choosing. But there are had people out there and bad things do happen. Suggesting prudence in clothing is not a bad thing in my mind. Advocating prudence of any sort is not supporting misfortune, in the same way that I'd recommend my Chinese students not to carry cash (a common tendency) and not to work through parks at night while using a cellphone. Gay men have the same rights to express their affection for each other in the same ways that heterosexual couples do, but it isn't the best thing to do in certain communities. Some behaviour is ahead of the trend, regardless of the fact that it is in the right direction. Of course, the point about wolf-whistling seems behind the times and in the wrong direction.

Happy New Year! It's been a refreshing end to a horrendously busy year. And it is promising to be even more of the same for me in the first working weeks. I've been glad to travel, have quality family time and a good time for my health. Regrettably work thoughts invade my sparrowlight dreams, even while away on holiday. I hope the coming days give me a proper rest.