For Love or Money

I’m reading Pride and Prejudice for the upteenth time. I found my copy from college, which means there are plenty of comments from my 21-year-old self, and damn are they stupid comments! I keep my books from college because I want to observe how my understanding changes over the years. When I was 21, I didn’t understand much about satire or humor or the stubborn short-sightedness of people. I didn’t understand the brilliance of Jane Austen. I hope this means I have developed a sense of humor.

pride_and_prejudice_ch_19I was inspired to write this post because #feminism. Mr. Collins refuses to understand Elizabeth when she declines his marriage proposal.

“You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these:– It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy of your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of De Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into farther consideration that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall chuse to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

Volume I, Chapter 19.

I identify with Elizabeth’s typically feminine frustration of not being heard by a man when she is expressing herself very clearly!

Collins assumes that Elizabeth will accept him because he is a good match according to external standards: he will inherit her father’s property, already has a good home, and was born into the proper social class. Because the Bennets aren’t wealthy, Elizabeth must marry a man who can support her (or end up like Fanny Price’s mother in Mansfield Park). Elizabeth, having witnessed her parents’ unhappy marriage, is determined to marry a man she can love and respect.

Of course, Darcy made the same mistake as Collins during his first proposal to Elizabeth. He assumes that she will accept him because he is an excellent match according to external standards. Elizabeth refuses him because, at that point, he hadn’t shown her that he honored her as a person. I wonder if this novel is part of a shift in thought about whether marriage should be for property or for love.

Elizabeth replies to Collins, “I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere.” And then, she references Mary Wollestonecraft, “Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart.” Elizabeth wants her future husband to see her as an individual/capable/lovable woman, not a cog in the machine of a gentleman’s life. (Collins easily switches his affections to Charlotte after minimal encouragement– he was merely looking for a puzzle piece to complete the image of his life. Of course, his constant listing of the price of items belonging to Catherine De Bourgh show that he has no concept of true value.)

I was flipping through my copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and most of my notes reference Pride and Prejudice. I must have been older and smarter when I read that book. Vindication was published in 1792, when Austen was 17-years-old. Her first draft of First Impressions, which would become Pride and Prejudice, was written in 1796.

Wollestonecraft argues that educating women and allowing them to take an equal place in society will make families healthier:

Make women rational creatures and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives and mothers – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.

— from the chapter “On Natural Education”

Wollestonecraft’s argument is that free women will make better wives and mothers because they will act from internal motivation instead of external requirements.

When Elizabeth realizes that she loves Darcy, she recognizes that his character complements her own and that their differences would encourage growth in each other. A marriage based on love instead of property, requires two fully-formed individuals.

His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.

Volume III, Chapter 8

And then, my favorite line:

But no such happy marriage could now teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was.

I love that line because it shows that Elizabeth is still prideful and egotistical and it’s just delicious. I’m noticing this time how often the characters misrepresent themselves. It’s obvious with Mrs. Bennet, saying she’s ill when she’s really frustrated. But, for example, after Wickham and Lydia elope, the whole town of Meryton claims they never trusted Wickham, when a few months before they loved him and believed all the lies he told about Darcy. As a younger reader, I looked for the moral of the story, and the moral of this story is to be like Elizabeth, don’t be like Mrs. Bennet. But it’s not that simple. Even in carefully-crafted fiction, it’s not so easy to understand what traits lead to a happy ending.

Letting Go

For some mysterious reason, my apartment complex has decided that they no longer want me living here. They gave me 90 days notice, so I’m methodically going through each section of my apartment to clear out the stuff I don’t need anymore.

I’ve lived here for three years. It’s the first place that has been my own space, my own home– ever. I nested. In the past 15 years, as I moved from one coast to the other and then back to Texas, home has been the place where I keep my books. When I finally got a great job and found a great apartment, I bought three large, expensive bookshelves from West Elm, collected all my books in boxes from my mom’s house, and finally gave them their deserved space in my home.

When that cold little note was left on my door, arrogantly telling me that this was my notice to vacate the apartment by March 20, I thought about carrying all those books down two flights of stairs, to sit in storage for months while I found a new full-time job and a new apartment… So many books! so heavy and dusty and … suffocating.

Last night, I combed through my bookshelves. As I examined each book, I asked myself, “Will I ever read this again?” (Or, “Will I ever read this?” because let’s be honest, 10% of everyone’s books haven’t been read. Yet.)

It was surprisingly easy to let go of Spinoza and Leibniz. I don’t remember anything from studying those texts in college, although I have notes in the margins to prove that I did read them. Having those books displayed on my shelf makes me look educated. I’m very proud of my Great Books education, but keeping those books when I have no personal connection to them is a lie. And maybe Half Price Books will give $0.50 for them!

As for Plato and Hegel and Tolstoy– if I was living in a cardboard box and needed to make a fire to cook food I fished out of a dumpster, well I’d starve before giving up those books.

Then there’s Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I remember being baffled by that book. Maybe if I read it again, I’ll connect with it. I’d like to be the kind of person who ‘gets’ Virginia Woolf. That’s what my bookshelf is about really. It’s about showing off the parts of myself I’m proud of– the part of me that so naively fell in love with Plato at age 19. The part of me that is still naive enough to believe I will eventually finish Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust– and actually understand it.

So who am I? Turns out I’m not a philosopher. I’m a romantic. I hope some current college student will be delighted to find my old esoteric texts on the cheap, and maybe they’ll mock my margin-notes. I’m going to be carrying boxes of literature around. The fluffy stuff. The stories. At this point in my life, I can’t bear to let those books go.

Kill the Masses

unmarketingIt seems like the 20th century was a bad dream… mass industrialization led to mass markets and mass media to sell us on mass war.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Industrialization provided goods and services to end mass starvation.

We’re in a new era: the digital era, and now we must leave “mass” thinking behind.

To succeed in the market these days, you must offer a genuine experience to each individual customer. In the 20th century, people wanted to be able to drive across Route 66 and stay in a Motel 6 and eat a McDonald’s hamburger because they wanted something familiar, and because there was no information on the random hole-in-the-wall available. Now we have Yelp to let us know if that local place is charmingly quaint or infested with cockroaches.

The new economy is not for people who want to punch a clock and go home at the end of the day. What happens to the people who prefer a structured routine? Can we assume that every person has a passion that can be turned into a skill that can launch a career? Because we all have the world of information at our fingertips, and because we have an abundance of competing material goods, the market advantage belongs to the business that provides the best customer service. The best customer service comes from building relationships. Relationships take time and risk, they’re not immediately quantifiable.

In Chapter 58: UnNetworking: Why Networking Events Are Evil, Stratten and Kramer describe two types of networking interactions that emphasize the necessary shift in thought. In the first example a real estate agent (“Never go full realtor” as Scott Stratten says) arrives at the networking event and forces his business card on people and offers to trade website exposure. In the second example, two people who have had conversations on Twitter recognize each other,

No awkward, “So what do you do?” questions with elevator-speech answers. No card exchange. Just a genuine great feeling of meeting somebody in person who you feel you already know — because you already do.

An economy based on personal relationships cannot be measured in Excel charts and metrics. You have to take the time and make the effort with no guarantee of monetary compensation. But trading business cards and offering to link someone’s website on your blog has no guarantee either.

Not too long ago, there was a lot of angst about social networks creating an illusion of connection. We are craving genuine relationships, in our personal lives and when shopping for goods and services. Take the risk of getting to know someone, and you may have a loyal customer. Or not. But maybe this is how we evolve out of capitalism, maybe this is how we stop measuring our time and worth by the number of dollars we bring in. Welcome to the digital age.

Religion makes you a better person, faith not required

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt explores the institutions and psychology that allow human beings to exist in peaceful society.  He says that humans are 10% bee and 90% ape, meaning that 90% of the time, we are motivated by self interest and 10% of the time, we are motivated to protect the group.  In his chapter “Religion Is a Team Sport” Haidt discusses how religion taps into the bee part of human instincts.

[R]eligions are sets of cultural innovations that spread to the extent that they make groups more cohesive and cooperative.

In a previous chapter, Haidt discussed collective movements (like marching together or ecstatic dancing around a fire) activate a biotechnology that binds individuals to the group and helps them transcend self-interest to lose oneself in the group.  The traditional standing/sitting/kneeling and hymn-singing and chanting in church reminds me of this biotechnology.  The ritual of attending church weekly taps into our social instincts.  In conclusion:

Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon . . . none of these things correlated with generosity.  The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists.

In other words, the thing about religion that someone a better person is the ritual of attending– not faith in God.


The Writer’s Process


I think Moist von Lipwig might be my favorite character in Discworld. At least for right now. He’s an entrepreneur, and that’s the world I’m in at this point of my life.

So I was thrilled to find Moist von Lipwig was a prominent character in Raising Steam. But reading this book makes me very sad because it’s not up to the standard of Pratchett’s usual writing style. It was published in 2013, so I’m assuming Pratchett wrote it while he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and maybe he didn’t have the time to do one more editorial pass-through. It reads like a draft. The story structure is not as tight as his earlier books- especially Going Postal. In his earlier books, there’s foreshadowing and a fleshing out of the villains, and that’s lacking in this book.

On the other hand, I think this story reveals more about the relationship between Moist and Adora Belle because of the incomplete structure. I get the sense that we are able to peek into their private conversations and if Pratchett had done another editing round, he would have determined those moments too intimate for us voyeurs. The flirtation between Moist and Adora Belle is what made Going Postal seem like a very new story in a very established world. I can’t think of another moment where Pratchett actually allows the reader into the head of a character at that point in the relationship. The couplings of Magrat and Verence and Vimes and Sybil are presented from a distance, a mechanical series of events. Pratchett doesn’t give us a lot of their emotional progress.

In Raising Steam, we get a very intimate view of the dynamic between Adora Bell and Moist:

“Adora Belle still had her faint smile. “Well now, my dear, didn’t you once say that a life without danger is a life not worth living?”

Moist patted her hand and said, “Well, Spike, I married you, didn’t I?”

“You couldn’t resist it, could you? It’s like a drug. You’re not happy unless someone is trying to kill you, or you’re in the center of some other kind of drama, out of which, of course, the famous Moist von Lipwig will jump to safety at the very last moment. Is it a disease? Some kind of syndrome?”

Moist put on his meek face as only husbands and puppies can do and said, “Would you like me to stop? I will if you say so.”

There was silence until Adora Belle said, “You bastard, you know I can’t do that. If you stopped all of that you wouldn’t be Moist von Lipwig!”

The Moist that Adora Belle describes is the one that is hidden in this book. In Going Postal and Making Money, we were able to tag along with Moist’s adrenaline rushes, and we don’t get that experience here. Still, I am enjoying the peek into Pratchett’s writing process. I love observing a master at work.

It’s always about blood



“Look,” said Whiskey Jack. “This is not a good country for gods. My people figured that out early on.”

Neil Gaiman’s stories are always unreal, but it’s the sort of unreal that is hidden just beneath the surface of what is real.

The pagan gods require blood and sacrifice. Something about faith requires giving up the best of yourself, or the best of your community. Are you supposed to grieve for the young tributes? Or does gratitude for the god’s protection overcome the grief? Ritual is important. Oaths are important.

Why would America be a bad country for gods? They represent seasons and uncertainty. We have seasons and uncertainty in North America. Whiskey Jack continues:

“So, yeah, my people figured out that maybe there’s something at the back of it all, a creator, a great spirit, and so we say thank you to it, because it’s always good to say thank you. But we never built churches. We didn’t need too. The land was the church. The land was the religion. The land was older and wiser than the people who walked on it.”

So why is the land America different from the land in Europe and Africa?

The story of American Gods is that old-world gods are going to war with new-world gods. People created the old gods to protect them from winter and starvation. The new gods, gods of roads and cities and electronics, protect people from seasons and uncertainty. It’s about the power to protect oneself from death, whether the death comes from climate or economic hardship or the failure to have children. That’s why all the gods are so physical. Gaiman describes their bodily functions in great detail.

But in America, the land cannot be tamed or controlled by gods. Maybe it’s because this country- as in government- was formed in an enlightened age. By the 18th century, men believed they could measure and manipulate and contain they physical world. They were developing science and medicine, so darkness didn’t scare them.

When I try to comprehend a fundamental difference between the United States and other countries, I think of the highway stretching west and that feeling of open space. When our current cities become too cramped for our ambitions, we move West, chasing the freedom to try (and fail). That kind of arrogance has no need of reverence for an old, bloodthirsty god.

We fool ourselves, though. The drive to innovate, to leave the old behind cannot eliminate death or the messy body functions necessary for life. We just try to ignore them or sanitize them. But our love for sanitation takes its toll, like the car-gods :

a powerful, serious-faced contingent, with blood on their black gloves and on their chrome teeth: recipients of human sacrifice on a scale undreamed-of since the Aztecs.

American Gods was published in 2001. I wonder what the newest gods of social media and the internet of things and mindfulness and kale are like. How do they claim their blood sacrifices? Maybe we’ll find out in the TV show.

Bad Judgment


There is a famous story of a rich old man being interviewed by a young striver, who asks him for the secret of his success.  “Good judgment,” says the magnate.

His eager young follower dutifully scribbles this down, then looks at him expectantly. “And how do you get good judgment?”

“Experience!” says our terse tycoon.

“And how do you get experience?”

“Bad judgment!”

-Megan McArdle, The Up Side of Down

I tend to avoid experience– because I don’t want to make mistakes. McArdle writes about good students who grow up feeling that success meant doing things that come easily. I was that student. I was naturally good at reading and avoided music and sports. Only now am I learning the value in trying to master something that doesn’t come easily– entrepreneurship. The secret seems to be, “Just Do It” and figure out if it was the right thing to do later. I’m hoping this approach will get better results than my current strategy of sit and do nothing until I figure out the right thing to do (spoiler alert: there is no “right thing” to do).

This book is so rich, I could pull a quote from every page. Really, she touches on everything that matters: love, unemployment, video games, 9/11 Truthers, buying a home, etc.

McArdle concludes her book with a chapter on Forgiveness. She makes the argument that when we have a culture that gives people the freedom to make mistakes, they will thrive. Even when they don’t thrive, that culture of forgiveness costs less than insisting that people pay for their mistakes. She uses the specific example of programs that help the homeless by renting apartments for them, without requiring clean drug tests or a job. Even when the beneficiary doesn’t quit drugs, that program costs less than the hospital and prison stays that otherwise would happen.

The key is to practice bad judgment early in life, when mistakes don’t cost so much. Or to anticipate the worst outcome and be ready for it (ideally, with an 8-month emergency fund). And when you do make a mistake, it’s better to stop your course of action ASAP.

Most of us can look back at some moment of crisis and realize that this is when life, after years of send us more-or-less polite cease-and-desist notices, finally punched us square in the face as if to say, ‘I’m not kidding around! Cut it out, you stupid moron!’

McArdle is very adamant that you will never learn to like failure. It sucks and it will always suck. But we still need to learn how to fail better. It doesn’t mean that there’s some clear lesson in every failure, or that you should try again. Maybe it means that failure does not define you as a person (neither does success). Once we let go of defining ourselves by success or failure, we can get on with doing useful things.




If you have not read Wide Sargasso Sea or Jane Eyre, go read them both right now (maybe read Jane Eyre first) and then come back.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a strange book. I’m having a hard time understanding the bare bones of the story line. And then this:

‘If my father, my real father, was alive you wouldn’t come back here in a hurry after he’d finished with you. If he was alive. Do you know what you’ve done to me? It’s not the girl, not the girl. But I loved this place and you have made it into a place I hate. I used to think that if everything else went out of my life I would still have this, and now you have spoilt it. It’s just somewhere else where I have been unhappy, and all the other things are nothing to what has happened here. I hate it now like I hate you and before I die I will show you how much I hate you.’

Something about this speech from Antoinette was very, very familiar. I know this feeling, that you have let someone into your precious, sacred space and then he breaks it and breaks you, and what used to comfort you just reminds you of pain and your own stupidity and you feel like you can never trust that sense of security again.

I didn’t want to read this book because I didn’t want my opinion of Mr. Rochester to change. When I read Jane Eyre in high school, and many times after that, I saw a hero. That’s what the man is in the story, right? He’s a hero, which means he can’t be cruel or thoughtless or selfish. Of course, in the story, Rochester calls himself cruel and selfish, but I was too young to understand that Charlotte Bronte was writing an antihero. I didn’t know enough stories for the true definition of hero, so I assumed Rochester was one.

Wide Sargasso Sea does not paint him as a villain– not completely. When Rochester was the narrator, it seemed he was just as crazy as his wife. How could a person stay sane when forced to marry a stranger to preserve the dignity of one’s distant relatives?

The right to be wrong

hogfather-3 So Austin has had some unseasonably gorgeous weather. It actually feels like autumn! So I’ve been adding cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves to my coffee and reading Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.

The book is about belief.

Terry Pratchett always talks about the common people and how they are an immovable sludge that keep doing what they do despite the best efforts of the educated and the heroic. He always does it with a sort of awe and love for those people, because even as he points out their intractableness, he criticizes the main characters for thinking they can make a difference.

Here’s a footnote on Ponder Stibbons, the character who represents comp-sci nerdom:

Credulous: having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.

Ponder Stibbons is smart enough to hold himself above the “credulous” masses, but not quite smart enough to recognize the mystery in the physics that he studies.

Here’s another statement reflecting the perspective of the credulous:

The universe clearly operates for the benefit of humanity. This can be readily seen from the convenient way the sun comes up in the morning, when people are ready to start the day.

This attitude has definitely shaped the way I approach my work as a political activist. I’ve been reading Discworld novels since middle school, so, of course, Pratchett has shaped my understanding of the world. So while there are amazing characters who cannot be constrained by mediocrity (like Granny Weatherwax and Susan Death) those characters must protect the people who reject them (and whom they reject). Because you have to allow people to be stubborn or wrong-headed or just plain stupid. Because if you don’t, you become the villain. You become the person who controls others to get what you want. And that’s evil.

Deliberate Practice and Grocery Shopping

A funny thing keeps happening to me lately. I’ll go grocery shopping, help bag my own groceries, and the cashier will make a point of thanking me. I always try to speed things along by bagging my own groceries, so I don’t know why- suddenly- the cashiers are so grateful.

I usually make my way through the store and load my cart so that it will be easy to bag the groceries later. I know I will unload the cart so that the heavy things go first (like bottles of Topo Chico), then packaged items (like trail mix), then fragile items (fresh mint in a plastic bag). I’ve done this for as long as I can remember, and I think it has to do with Therbligs. I wrote about Therbligs and the effect that the book Cheaper by the Dozen has had on me in a previous post.

Cheaper by the Dozen is about an efficiency expert who has a dozen kids and the systems their family had in place to keep things running smoothly.

A Therblig is a unit of motion or thought. Suppose a man goes into the bathroom to shave. We’ll assume that his face is all lathered and he is ready to pick up his razor. He knows where the razor is, but first he must locate it with his eye. That is “search,” the first Therblig. His eye finds it and comes to rest — that’s “find,” the second Therblig…

When Dad made a motion study, he broke down each operation into a Therblig, and then tried to reduce the time taken to perform each Therblig. Perhaps certain parts to be assembled could be painted red and others green, so as to reduce the time required for “search” and “find.” Perhaps the parts could be moved closer to the object being assembled, so as to reduce the time required for “transport loaded.”

Cheaper by the Dozen, Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Cary

After two and half years of living in Boston, where I would have to carry my groceries all the way home, I have gotten very particular about how my grocery bags are loaded. I have a distinct memory of walking several blocks with a pasta box digging into my side. Now my goal is to carry all my groceries up two flights of stairs in one trip, so that means using as few bags as possible and distributing heavy items evenly into different bags.

I apply this kind of analysis to almost everything I do– I’ve done it for so long I’m not always aware of it! When I worked at Starbucks, my manager once said I was, “Always thinking…” because I made some comment about moving items closer to where they were needed. The best thing about working at Starbucks was that they had lots of these kind of systems in place and it was a good environment for someone like me to try to improve them.

Part of the analysis is the constant motivation to get better and more efficient at each task. I now know this mentality is called deliberate practice. I still find it strange that a book I loved as a child could have programmed me so thoroughly. Because I loved Cheaper by the Dozen, my behavior for everything I do has been shaped to find efficiency, even grocery shopping.