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.

Bad Judgment

the-upside-of-down

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.

Madness

wide-sargasso-sea

Warning: SPOILERS

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.

Vulnerability as Strength

Schumer bookLast night, after a day of making bad decisions, I decided to go on a bender. But because I’m a huge dork, my bender took the form of blowing $100 at Book People. Included in my short stack of books (when did they get so expensive??), was Amy Schumer’s new book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

I was really surprised when I first saw Amy Schumer’s comedy and liked it. I don’t usually like comedians who talk so much (and so graphically) about sex and other bodily functions– but maybe that’s because the comedians who usually talk about that stuff are men and they were talking about bodily functions that don’t happen in my body. Also, I’m a very cerebral person, so talking about body stuff usually makes me uncomfortable.

But, of course, comedy is about confronting discomfort. And I love Amy Schumer for her form of comedy. There’s one chapter about her experience at a camp for people with disabilities and she learns how to accept that bodies are different and you have to own yours. I had a friend in college who insisted on making us all go to the women’s tub at the spa so that we could see female bodies that weren’t air-brushed. I’m so grateful for that! Of course, Santa Fe had a culture of loving natural bodies and aging gracefully and feminine power. It was a great place for me to spend my early 20s.

Amy Schumer is my age and grew up on Long Island. When I first learned this, I concocted a whole alternate childhood for myself where my parents raised me on Long Island (it’s where my mom grew up and we have family there), and Amy and I went to the same school and were best friends. Reading her book and learning about her childhood, I realized there’s no universe in an oodleplex of universes in which she and I would have been friends.

While she was off scheming about boys and trying cigarettes and beer, I was in my isolated world, reading books. I would have been the awkward, weird girl that she ignored. The weird thing is, she writes as if she was the awkward, weird girl making people laugh because she loved the attention. Twenty years later and I’m at home on a Friday night reading about her adventures instead of going out and having my own. That’s me I guess, and Schumer’s book is all about being yourself with no apologies. And I don’t regret my nights reading books, I started this blog to make myself spend more time reading books!

Schumer’s book is a very rich, human autobiography (even though she writes in the “Note to my Readers” that it is not an autobiography, I beg to differ). I was expecting a rehash of her stand-up material, instead I got a real story about her life. That’s the key to her comedy, too, she tells real stories that are genuinely painful and makes you laugh at them.

Beautiful, ugly, funny, boring, smart or not, my vulnerability is my ultimate strength.

-Amy Schumer, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, p. 314

There are a lot of things I connected with– but I’m not going to write about them here. I only recently have been able to admit certain things to myself, I’m definitely not ready to publish them on the internet– maybe I’ll never publish them on the internet. Again, that’s me. And I’ve been learning a lot about the strength within vulnerability. It has something to do with going out into the world, letting it destroy you, picking up the pieces and doing it again. And again and again… until what? I don’t know but I’ll have to keep going until I find out what’s next. That’s another part of being strong and vulnerable, having faith that this is worth it, even when there’s no plan.