Er, where am I?

At the moment I am in a crossroads in my life.  I am wondering what to do next.  I have spent the last fifteen years working full tilt in a fairly stressful technology job and have done some very interesting projects and worked with some incredible people.  Some of them probably minor geniuses.  However, recently I have started to wonder whether I still enjoy what I do.  It is probably some sort of mid-life-crisis.

I already had a similar moment when I was about twenty two and that is how I ended up in France.  When people would hear that I was going to France I would typically have this type of conversation:

  • Do you know how to speak French?
  • me: not really
  • Do you have somewhere to live?
  • me: no
  • Do you have a job?
  • me: no
  • What de fack are you doing?
  • me: well I would like to learn French and live in France for a while, logically I should go there to do that right?
  • depending on the person I would generally be greeted by an understanding grin or pure horror
  • if they pushed I would admit that I didn’t want to regret not coming here

Logical thinking got me to where I am today.  That may be my opinion of what logical thinking is but it made total sense to me at the time.  I threw myself into learning French while working in France and ended up staying here.  The story is complicated and there were a few broken hearts along the way (mine included) but that story is for another time, or maybe never.  Anyway, six months later I was speaking French fairly fluently and fifteen years later I was enjoying a nice career.  I am living in Grenoble centre in the historical quarter in a jolie apartment with my partner and kids which we have on “garde alternee” (shared custody) and life has worked out pretty well.

However workwise nowadays things are less simple and make less sense to me.  I have been “la tete dans le guidon” for the past ten years.  That means going full tilt in the same direction  and not seeing the wood for the trees.  And in my case progressively getting grumpier.

So anyway in the midst of all this mental turmoil and self interrogation, one  morning a few weeks ago I got off the tram where I work at the technology campus here in Grenoble.  A man came up to me and asked me “Is this Alsace-Lorraine?” and held up a wee piece of white paper.  He was looking a bit desperate.

I thought to myself, This dude is very lost! And I had a squint at his paper.

Somebody had written really clearly that he was supposed to go in the direction “Presque-Ile” and stop at “Alsace-Lorraine”, one of the tram stops in the centre of town.  So I took him to the other side of the tram line and explained that he had to go back into town and showed him on the map where he had to go.  I didn’t mind taking the time because he was extremely polite and had that wide-eyed look of complete desperation.

As we bade each other farewell, he said thank you so very very much I’ve never used the tram before. 

Never used a tram before.  Its not completely incredible but trams and buses are so part of everyday life in Grenoble and France it is pretty unusual.  And this guy got lost in the nanotechnology campus.  Michael Crichton could have fun with that one probably.  Cut to scenario where nano robots exploit his lack of understanding of the French public transport system to hack his nervous system and he goes back into the town centre to wreak nano havoc.

I really enjoyed helping the guy.  I felt great for about ten full minutes afterwards.  I was buzzing.  Little did he know I am a bit lost myself.

Up until about two months ago I would never have been at that tram stop at ten in the morning and I am not sure whether I would have been so patient either with a random clueless man.

I was always running around like the proverbial headless chicken and I was a bit overloaded emotionally.  When working full tilt I had to manage loads of things in parallel.  Hundreds of emails every day, international conference calls with as many timezones as you want, tens-to-hundreds of people contacting me to ask/negotiate/demand/beg for things and then most importantly a family life with kids.

Nowadays the work has dropped off.  So I have a bit more time in my day.  I take everything more slowly and am more open to people.  I.e. when people look at me in the street I don’t duck my head down and hide, afeard of having to talk to someone because I just spent twelve hours in conference calls and my jaw is about to fall off.

Why am I slowing down?  This is mostly due to personal choice and partly due to the cyclical nature of our work as engineers.  Projects come and go, organisations change and you get recycled.  Which means occasionally you get a break.  It is a bit dangerous career wise to take a step back voluntarily which is what I’m doing.  I’ll probably never go back to where I was before.  But this time around I don’t think I want to.

Slowing down feels strange physically.  It is nice to have a face that while pale is not grey.  It is nice to be less bone tired.  However I am finding it stressful  if I am honest.  I keep having to remember to breath and to loosen my jaw and shoulders.

I think that before my body believed that I had to manage work and kids by  keeping my shoulders at maximum tensile strength.  I got used to always being tense.  It was almost comforting.  You could bounce rocks off my back.  My bum is another story.  Sitting down all day does not buns of steel create.  So  anyway now I have to tell my shoulders to quit flexing.  They are stubborn feckers, but I am sure we will succeed soon.  I also have a number of knots in my back which don’t seem to want to go away.  I am considering giving them names.  “Molly the Rock” keeps coming back but I would have numerous copyright issues there.

A lot of people go through this kind of thing at different points in their lives.  I have no idea whether I’ll manage to complete the exercise or whether I’ll get sucked back into a technology vortex before I hear my inner child or find myself or whatever.  Whatever comes of it, I am glad I was there that morning for the lost guy.


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