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The Penstocks of Life

Good Friday 2023

A penstock at a hydroelectric dam, such as Pine Flat on the Kings River in Fresno County, California, is a massive enclosed pipe that controls and conveys the outflow of water from the lake (reservoir) to the hydroelectric turbines.


I’ve quite literally stood atop one of the three penstocks at Pine Flat. That photo op was not officially part of my inspection duties at this multi-purpose dam. Indeed, I had a much easier time getting onto the penstock than getting off of it.


I’d climbed down a steel ladder onto the platform surrounding the enormous pipe; but sliding my body back down to the platform, in order to climb back up that ladder:

Nope. No way, no how, not that day, not any day.


I wasn’t going to risk losing my balance and falling. Those crucial three points of contact weren’t available to me. And so, I climbed down the ladder on the other side of the penstock, all the way to earth, Mother Earth, where the beloved abutment meets the dam.


My immediate supervisor had a cow, yelling at me to get off — every step of the way — of the abutment, a sacred zone that no human ought to breach. This man would, within just a few months, become involved in a hideous lawsuit over a contractor who not only breached that sacred zone; he plowed his equipment through it, albeit at a different dam.


I scaled down the slope, swiftly moving with my three points of contact. Mr. Section Chief was still fuming, but he said nothing. I didn’t deface the abutment, or injure myself. No Harm Done, except to his ego.


I’d been hired as a technical writer/editor for this section by a highly competent supervisor, a man who subsequently was promoted, and replaced by this laggard. The sharp, smart, precise professional had put this top-notch Section A into order, a superlative order that the higher-ups deemed impossible to bungle. What could go wrong?


Within a year, that methodically organized, productive, finely-tuned, well-oiled mechanism of engineering expertise — a supremely-functional office — was coming apart, at the hands of a gutless incompetent. I stayed the course, for another year, but that year was one of turbulence among fifteen employees. Unbeknownst to me, I’d become the true section leader.

When word got around the building that Debra was leaving, one administrator came to my desk and, with a degree of shock, asked:


“What will They do?”


“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” was my sincere reply.


When the time came for my Going-Away Lunch, I calmed the waters for everyone and didn’t allow this supervisor, Our Chief, to attend.


My purpose in that office world became one of sparking a few flames now and then, or, in actuality, on a regular, weekly basis. This manager was that lethargic when it came to doing his managerial work. The combustion didn’t create an entire bonfire, like it had with some other individuals whom I’ve encountered in the work world. He and I, however, were much like water and oil. He was lukewarm water, and I was hot oil.


We never mixed, and we weren’t meant to blend, mingle, merge, or otherwise combine in any type of meeting of the minds. We didn’t verbally spar, which was part of the problem. Silence does not always mean consent. For some lily-livered creatures, silence ensures the back-stabbing is underway.


I didn’t even get the delightful satisfaction of outright confrontation, an experience that I tend to relish, if not provoke. I was instead sneakily undermined and silently sabotaged. I declared a triumph only by walking away from a fight that I couldn’t win because the fight wasn’t on my terms, but on those of a person who had all the advantages.


It’s only been within the past week that I came to understand just how wounding had been my attitude toward this inferior superior. I watched an episode of a vintage TV western; and I saw a version of myself in the main character. He openly, unabashedly, and somewhat pleasurably, showed his antagonist to be a coward, a man beneath him and undeserving of his respect.


This stance perfectly describes the atmosphere that existed between myself and this government supervisor who had taken the job for the pay, but opted out of performing, at least capably, his duties as assigned. Unknowingly, I’d consistently revealed to others around us that this man was beneath me, in terms of leadership, ethics, decency, commitment to duty, desire for duty.

I was a very young woman back then, in very many ways. Perhaps someone ought to have pointed out to me that I was putting a man in his place when no one else would; but then no one else would have taken on that pesky task; no one else would have so superbly done that dirty deed.


I have learned to let the penstocks of life flow to wherever they need to go, without my commandeering them.


The outflow might take longer than I wish, and the path might, assuredly will, take longer than I’d like. But the resulting energy is better than an unconnected live wire!

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