Virtue & Mischief: Under the microscope


Yesterday a visitor came to my office. She is a counterpart at a law school on the east coast, one vastly different from the one where I work. She was “invited” (for a hefty consulting fee) by my boss to inspect what I and my colleagues do, how we do it, and why we do it.

No doubt a detailed report is forthcoming that will set out a number of suggestions on how we can improve our operations. We shall see where all this heads, but I am a little apprehensive and under considerable stress. I’m not used to that sensation and I don’t like it. The amigos and Mrs. Amigo know something’s afoot. I suppose my quick trigger, chronically slumped shoulders, and constant temple-rubbing have been something of a “tell,” as a poker player might put it.

My disposition was a bit foul before she even set foot on campus, because (1) I don’t like being micromanaged or being placed under a microscope, and (2) a couple of days prior to her arrival she sent me 13 extremely probing, intensive questions. I needed several hours to respond to them fully and cohesively, and it’s not as if I have lots of time to spare these days. It was a colossal pain in the neck. I resented the whole affair.

On the other hand, my preparation did produce a couple of profound and unexpected benefits. First, preparing answers to her queries forced me to thoughtfully consider, in some instances for the first time in years, a host of practices and philosophies we employ. It’s pretty easy to set things on autopilot or yield to inertia when you find yourself using whatever spare moment you have simply to put out fires in order to ensure the lights stay on and the doors remain open. I rarely stop and think about fundamental matters these days, to my considerable discredit. What are my biggest challenges? she asked. What do I wish students, administrators, faculty, and alumni better understood about our operations and limitations? What are my greatest frustrations? What would I do if the Dean plopped an extra $500,000 in my lap to spend any way I desired? This final question revealed the severe disconnect between my inspector’s professional world and my own, for such an added figure is not out of the realm of possibility for her. For me? Please.

It is as likely that flying unicorns who poop gold bullion will be discovered on one of Saturn’s moons as it is that my boss is going to write me a check for $500 k and announce, “Here you go, Tim. Knock yourself out.” Still, the more general, underlying question is a fascinating one: What would I do if I had more resources to expend? How would I allocate the money and why? I blocked out a few hours and earnestly considered each question. I thought, wrote, thought some more, and revised. After a few hours I was done. I attached the document to an email, hit send, and mused—what do you know about that? It was a helpful (if unpleasant) exercise.

The second benefit was at once more prosaic and more penetrating. I cleaned my bookshelves and desk a little in anticipation of our consultant’s visit. I came across documents that were several years old and quite obsolete and tossed them in the circular file where they belonged. I put other documents in files and organized them appropriately. As I dusted each table and shelf, I temporarily removed the various family pictures festooning my office and studied them. Here is a shot of each child, including our deceased son Samuel, as a newborn, with corresponding footprint included.

Here is Krista in front of our home in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, holding dearly departed Dexter, our first family dog, gently around the neck. Here’s my better half and I during a peaceful and happy moment at a law school Christmas party. Here are the amigos eight or nine years ago, giggling together as the studio photographer miraculously managed to capture the single nanosecond when all three were looking in the proper direction. I paused and looked intently at these and several other pictures, one after the other, and remembered as best I could the joys we experienced and the trials we faced in the days surrounding the moments captured on film. Memories of places visited, wins and losses, successes and failures, came flooding back to my consciousness. Sorrow and laughter, birth and death, confusion and clarity, euphoria and dejection, ennui and enthusiasm—all of it, every last bit of life’s rich, emotional pageant was represented in those photos. Somehow, with all the changes and challenges—and there have been a lot of them—we managed to make it through, praise and thanks be to God’s grace.

Once again I find myself perplexed and uncertain. My stomach hurts and my head is foggy. It’s unpleasant (in recent conversations with friends and loved ones I’ve used the more technical term “icky”). But surely this too shall pass, we’ll make it through, and the day will come when I’ll see a photo depicting this moment and I’ll remember, wistfully and with thanksgiving, how God and the ambassadors of his choosing ushered us through it.

By Timothy Swensen

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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