Friday, March 30, 2007

The Golden Rule

I'm a big fan of generosity and, honestly, it seems to be just about nowhere lately. By generosity, I mean extending yourself, putting yourself in someone else's shoes, considering other points of view, and acting as if you believe that what goes around comes around, that you get what you give. I don't find any of these notions faulty as operating principles. I believe wholeheartedly in all of them and I think they're responsible for the success and happiness I've enjoyed throughout my life. It's when I've departed from them and gotten self-absorbed, meaner-spirited, short-sighted that things have headed south.

Well, it seems that too many people have gotten self-absorbed, meaner-spirited, and short-sighted. From people who don't acknowledge gifts or favors, to those who blithely and repeatedly ask for contributions, accommodations and other support when they've utterly ignored your similar requests for same, to so-called friends and colleagues who can't be bothered to answer (or, for all I know, even read) email, to intolerance of every point of view but one's own (and corresponding ugly diatribes against the personal characteristics of dissenters), to bait-and-switching employees and customers, to countless instances of unreliability and petty nastiness - it all just seems to be everywhere.

Why is this? Are people now
so self-absorbed that they have no problem asking and taking without any intention of answering and giving? Someone once explained totally churlish behavior to me by saying, "Well, people are very busy." Huh? I don't think being busy is an adequate excuse for being an asshole. Someone else once offered, "She had cancer, you know," as if that were somehow an excuse for discourtesy and unreliability.

I don't get it. Why are we tolerating and looking for ways to excuse bad behavior? What happened to treating others the way you'd like to be treated, being where you promised to be when you promised to be there, doing what you said you'd do, supporting your friends and colleagues, doing your part to make the world a better and more comfortable place for yourself and the people around you? You don't act this way in the expectation of getting more back (although that's exactly what happens). You act this way because it's the right way to act. Who doesn't know this? It's indisputable.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Wasted Resources

Two young women of my acquaintance find themselves in jobs where they are under-utilized. One graduated from college three years ago, the other two years ago. Both went to excellent schools and did very well there. One chose a cozy small company environment, the other a big company. Both were hand-picked for their positions after in one case an internship and in the other a ridiculously rigorous interviewing process. And both have spent the time since they were hired competently doing the meager work they've been given, begging for additional work, looking for opportunities to take initiative, and trying to fill up the hours they're required to spend at the office without going completely crazy. As one of them said, you can only surf the net for so long without getting bored.

I'm sure in both cases there's plenty of work to be done, organizationally speaking. And I'm also sure both young women are highly thought of. Both have gotten good formal reviews, for what that's worth, and both get along well with their coworkers. Both even have impressive written job descriptions. (If they actually
had the jobs described, they'd be swamped.) So why can't the companies that hired them live up to their end of the bargain and keep these employees busy? These women want to work. They want to be challenged and stimulated and busy. They want to learn and grow. They're dream employees - interested, smart, anxious to contribute, and cheap. You could give them just about anything substantive to do and they'd not only benefit from it, but be thrilled to do it, too.

I can guess the reasons they're being under-utilized. Managers who don't know how to manage. Poorly conceived organizational structure. Generalized disorganization. No time to train new people (in that classic "there's no time to plug the hole in the boat because I'm too busy bailing water out of it" silliness). Whatever. What bugs me isn't so much that companies can be lame in this regard (no news there, really), but that two bright, enthusiastic young women who came out of college all excited about the future are now struggling with disillusionment, broken promises, frayed dreams and anxiety about being bored full-time for the next 40 years. And they aren't even 25 yet.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Unrestrictive Coloration

I came home to find my husband engrossed in sorting a four-pound bag of miniature jelly beans by color into rows of lined-up Dixie cups. My husband is not a persnickety eater – had the jelly beans been for eating, he would have been tossing them down his gullet in diverse handfuls, not meticulously segregating them. Sixteen months ago, his behavior would have alarmed me. I would have looked worriedly into his eyes and asked him questions like “Who’s the president of the United States?” and “What day is it?” and “What’s our address?” to assure myself that he hadn’t lost his marbles. But over the last 16 months I’ve learned to consider behavior like this completely normal. There was the episode involving raw liver, raw potatoes, our blender, and lots of small plastic containers. There was the origami fest of paper helicopters with various wingspans dropped from a chair, a stepladder and our second floor loft. There were little bolts or washers or whatever those things are called strung on thin rope amid animated talk of pendulums.

So instead of panicking when I saw my highly educated 52-year-old husband carefully sorting a huge pile of tiny jelly beans into ranks of Dixie cups, I calmly joked that the lab must be about miscegenation or perhaps racial profiling. He grinned, then excitedly explained that it was about protective coloration and biological diversity. The plain jelly beans are standing in for food (sensibly enough) and the speckled jelly beans represent poison in a complicated three-round experiment with ever-scarcer and more camouflaged food supplies as the rounds progress.
From what I could glean from the explanation, the planning and matériel for this experiment rival those of the Red Army for the Battle of Berlin. There were apparently a few ultra-tense moments at the plant nursery this morning as the commandant considered both red cedar bark and pine cat litter for the base, but, he informed me without a shred of irony, he resolved the controversy in favor of red cedar bark because it smelled better.

Sixteen months ago, my husband started teaching biology at a nearby state college. It’s been a little like living with Mr. Science ever since, but he couldn’t be happier and I have to say I’ve learned more than I ever did in high school (the last time I had anything to do with biology from an instructional standpoint). There seems to be a non-scientific lesson
inherent in all this, too, which is that you can't make assumptions about people based on externals. It doesn’t stand to reason that a man with an undergraduate degree from Yale, an M.D. from the University of Chicago, and 25 years of practicing medicine under his belt could so exuberantly sort jelly beans. Similarly, it seems unlikely that someone so taken with the jelly bean enterprise could have such blue-chip credentials. But both are absolutely true.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Blackjack Gods are Snickering

Two days ago, I played blackjack for the first time in nearly a month. That's an overly long break for me, but I was traveling. I love walking into casinos - all that crazy Super Mario Brothers type music from the slot machines, the aggressive ventilation system battling the smoky overhang (a battle the ventilation system wins in new casinos and loses badly in old ones), and the knowledge that fresh cards and colorful (if filthy) chips will soon be in my hands. (I play double-deck pitch blackjack partly because you get to hold the cards.) I sat down at a table with two other players I'd never seen before and a dealer I like a lot. The other players turned out to be perfect: they both knew how to play and they were both friendly without being so chatty that they slowed up the game. (It's a delicate balance.)

Unfortunately, and I use that word sincerely, 19 minutes later I had doubled my money. I have a rule about leaving once I've doubled my money. I'm still angry at myself for the one occasion almost two years ago when I kept playing after doubling my money and ended up, hours later, coming home in the red. That's way too stupid a thing to do when you live in Las Vegas and can play whenever you want. So only 19 minutes after I started playing for the first time in a month, I had to stop. Doubling one's money is great, obviously, but I was oddly bummed as I walked to my car and drove home.

Tonight, I went to play again. (I'm rather impressed with myself for not racing back yesterday.) And tonight the news is slightly better. I doubled my money again and it took me an hour and 25 minutes to do it. That's still too short, but I'm ignoring the itchy feeling in my fingers. There's always tomorrow.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Reward Enough

(This is the train 2 promised in my previous post.)

I'm very taken with 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō's aphorism: "Seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old; seek what they sought." It's such a pithy way to distinguish between actions and motivations, between acting without thinking and having a plan, between following slavishly and understanding. It's also a pithy way to clarify that there's a distinction between goals and outcomes, and that goals rather than outcomes are the right guides to use to frame actions - a favorite life operating principle (and essay topic) of mine.

I’ve mentioned before that I joined late last year. The site was suggested to me by a writer friend of mine. She characterized it as “harmless” and so it is, if also not a particularly good use of time. The site tends to load ultra-slowly and the posted articles pile up at an alarming, many-per-second rate. Second-rate is generally the right descriptive word, too. What’s posted is a mish-mash of the kind of stuff you get forwarded on email from people who think you’ll enjoy it, blurbs and essays excerpted from somewhere else, recipes, pictures of flora and fauna, poems with meters so bumpy that falling into a pothole while reading is a real danger, short stories with no point whatsoever, and the occasional gem. Typographical errors (or maybe truly poor grammar and spelling) abound. And a common theme among self-identified writers is desperation. There are lots and lots and lots of writers on the site who plead, cajole, bully and otherwise try to induce readers to read, rate and comment on their stuff. There is yearning evident throughout, both express and all-but-nakedly implicit, for praise and for that presumed holiest of writer grails, discovery a là Lana Turner.

I could go all sorts of directions with this as my starting point. A tempting direction is the breathtaking lack of reciprocity I’ve learned to expect on Gather. Despite another well-known aphorism, there's a lot of "you scratch my back; I won't even acknowledge that you have a back" attitude.

But I want to go a different direction. In the Wikipedia bio of Mr. Bashō, which is pretty interesting, I learned that he was
something of an artistic iconoclast, as well as someone who periodically set off on long, aimless wanders (a risky undertaking in medieval Japan). Although he was renowned for his poetry during his lifetime and is acknowledged today as a master of the brief and clear haiku, Bashō was "conflicted over whether to become a full-time poet; by his own account, 'the alternatives battled in my mind and made my life restless.'"

To me, this raises interesting questions about the devotion of one's career to writing. I’ve always been intrigued by the pervasive sense that writing is somehow not a worthwhile pursuit if, like Bishop Berkeley’s tree, it falls unheard in the forest. No one asks painters if they have buyers for their paintings or composers if they have symphony orchestras handy, but tell anyone you’re writing a book and they'll ask you about publishing. As I told an interviewer last month, both publishing a book and, that done, marketing it are huge distractions from writing, not to mention entirely different pursuits that require entirely different skill sets. You have to be very committed to the non-writing part of being a writer to publish successfully, and I'm not.
The day-to-day joy of writing is what motivates me.

Judging from my experiences since I became a full-time writer and from the miasma of publishing desire and determination that chokes like the thickest of smog, I gather (couldn’t resist) that my view of writing is seriously out of the mainstream. But why should any further justification be necessary for spending time expressing oneself simply to express oneself? Is writing not art in the same way painting and music are art - i.e., the expression is the goal and the recognition is an outcome? Perhaps the better question is why so many writers appear to feel that writing in the absence of external recognition isn’t its own reward. Reminds me of John Candy saying to his bobsledder in Cool Runnings, "Here's the thing about a gold medal. If you aren't enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Equality, Change & A 17th Century Poet

Seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old; seek what they sought.
--Matsuo Bashō, 17th century Japanese poet

(I read this quote and it got me started on a whole train of thought about career women. When I looked up Matsuo Bashō, whom I'd never heard of, I got started on a whole second train of thought, this time about writing. Here's train 1; train 2 is in the works.)

Equality is a sucker bet when what you’re striving to be equal with is flawed. What we want is not so much the specifics of what men have, but the idealized notion of their freedom of opportunity and choice. Of course, institutions set up in accordance with discriminatory or limiting white male rules need to change, but the way to assure that they do change is not to fit women into men-shaped slots. The change we’re looking for is gender-neutral opportunity – not women in any particular role. With meritocracy and gender-blind definitions of success and merit, we would end up with the right people in the right positions, working in a highest and best use way.

So why doesn’t this happen? Vested interests? Preservation of the status quo by the people (male and female) who think the status quo works for them? Subtle, unconscious, inadvertent gender bias – like 16-hour days, indifference to the vicissitudes of child care, and other institutional realities that weren’t necessarily designed for the purpose of keeping women out, but are the perfect solutions for doing just that? And how does it change? Tempered radicalism – and the resulting glacial improvements? The change-from-within approach – get in, buy into and then beat them at their own game, thereby exemplifying and prompting change, which is probably a less incremental approach than tempered radicalism, but requires buying into a lot, possibly suffering a lot, and, inevitably, supporting a lot that is bad? Sexist organizations do gain something that is progressive from women working to change things from within, but they also become more profitable, more able to survive and sometimes only very marginally less sexist. I know of too many instances where an organization closed smoothly over the pebble of a strong, effective woman’s departure as if she'd never been there at all. So where’s the change exactly? Is it really change if the effect was transient and temporal? Is it really change if there are three steps back for every three steps forward after the prime mover moves on?

Is the change-from-within notion another sucker bet if change is what you’re really wedded to as a top priority? Seems to me you sprinkle seeds (which is good) and make incremental changes in organizations and other people via this approach, but it’s hard to separate (1) being a change agent from within the system from (2) supporting the system. Is this maybe a situation where individual movements, however tiny, will add up over time to institutional movement, real progress? Is the pace of meaningful change necessarily glacial – like evolution? Maybe you have to have a really long view to assess change. This was what Martin Luther King, Jr. so inspiringly believed. Because change is in the end bigger and more important than any individual, you just have to be sure you do everything you can to prompt it and move it forward – irrespective of the outcomes that you can assess and measure with your own little perspective in your own little life. Maybe our goal as change agents is really more along the lines of being able to look back at the end and think, "I certainly wish I’d prompted more progress, but I’m confident that I did everything I could and made my optimum contribution to
achieving the ultimate goals."

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The More Things Change

I've had a nice morning. The sun is shining, it's 75 degrees on the way to 90 (relax, Midwesterners, 90 here feels like your 80 when there's no humidity), the cloud of smoggy, gray debris hanging over the Strip from the implosion early this morning of the Stardust is dissipating and my glorious view is reappearing, our taxes are off my desk and winging their way to the accountant, I got a glowing and thoughtful review of A Merger of Equals from a young investment banker who just finished reading it, and the only things on my calendar for the rest of today are swimming and a call with the best of friends.

Still, I'm feeling twinges of dissatisfaction and frustration - the same ones I used to feel when I was working and I ran up against some business world "truth" that made no sense. The young investment banker who enjoyed my book included the following paragraph in her email:

It continually amazes me how much of an "old boys’ club" Wall Street is. After 2 years as an investment banking analyst at a large bank, I now work for a private equity firm, and was shocked when I began my interview process that there were certain firms that actually told my (male) friends during interviews that they would never hire a woman. I could not believe that people are still that strongly opposed to women in the workplace – it was more veiled, albeit thinly, at a large bank. I went to a management presentation recently for a company we were considering acquiring, and at the dinner afterward the CEO actually said, and I quote him directly, "You know…. Take no offense to this, but the one thing that can really bring a company down is women." Nobody from my firm knew what to say!

How on earth can this kind of crap still be going on? It was like this 25 years ago when I started my career! You'd think political correctness alone would stop comments like the interviewers' and the CEO's in their tracks, but, in any event, how can the huge influx of women over the last 25 years - many of us extremely smart, capable and successful - have somehow managed to change the overall feel of the whole gig so minimally?

Friday, March 9, 2007


Minor annoyances of the day (so far) --

I found a website with content that looks like a good match for my books and background and also like something that would be of interest to visitors to my website, so I decided to write and offer content, links, etc. It's a website, right? But the contact page contains a mailing address. Not an email address or, for that matter, even a fax number. A snail mail street address. This gives me pause, but I figure what the hell? I have decent paper and stamps, and I just bought some new No. 10 envelopes. Despite the slight crisis of confidence in the website prompted by the lack of email contact capability, it's still probably worth 39 cents to let them know I exist. I write the letter, print it on some delectable cotton/linen paper (I forgot how nice this stuff is; maybe I'll start snail mailing more often), and open my pristine new box of Mead No. 10 envelopes. "Self-Adhesive," the box proclaims. "Instant Sealing. No Licking Required." This turns out to be true enough, but one side of the envelope I pull out has not been glued. At all. Nice self-adhesive along the top and one properly glued side, but the other side is wide open. It's got to be just one defective envelope, I assure myself. Mead wouldn't let me down like this. Sadly, it's every envelope in a box of 50. Is it worth my time to return the box and hope the store will take it back even though the receipt is history? Can I bear to send business correspondence in an envelope with a tacky piece of Scotch tape securing one side? Maybe I'll forget the whole thing and go back to bed.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

View from a Florida Balcony

Appearance Isn't Everything (I Hope)

I've been in Florida this week. Lots and lots of old people in Florida, moving slowly, but undeniably still moving. In fact, the whole vibe was not that different from a 30 or 40 or 50 year old vibe, except in slow motion. It was fun to be in a place where I'm quite obviously considered if not a kid, then certainly just past being a kid. I probably get to feel this way more than most people my age since I look younger than I am, but in Florida, I really was 2-3 decades younger than most of the people I saw.

I was surprised to notice a distinct difference in how elderly men and elderly women reacted to me. (I don't think this was about me or my type. My friend got the same reactions and she's tall and blonde whereas I am...well, not tall or blonde.) The men were, without exception, friendly, animated and plainly glad to be spoken to. They seem to have sloughed off any competitive, macho chest-puffing that may have characterized them when they were younger, and their various (and obvious) aging-related ailments and disabilities didn't appear to be adversely affecting their mood. Even the disgusted-looking gentleman who answered "Not all bad" to my friend's "How are you doing?" did so with twinkling eyes. The women, on the other hand, all - all! - wore apparently permanent expressions of disgruntlement. Several looked as if they were recalling particularly unpleasant experiences and made no response whatsoever to our cheery "Good mornings." (Being without the hearing in one ear myself, I did wonder if perhaps they just couldn't hear us, but that wouldn't explain the sucking lemons expressions or the lack of even a responsive smile or nod.)

So what is this about? A lifetime of slights, imagined and real? Too many disappointments? A lot on their minds? The natural result of having felt obliged to achieve coiffed hair and just-so jewelry for a trip to the pool in their own building? Disapproval of my friend's and my brazen failure to have felt the same obligation? General non-niceness to other women, apropos of my last post? Competitive mating behavior? As in so many other things, the men's reactions were simpler and more linear. They seemed, frankly, happy to be alive, happy to be in a warm climate listening to the sounds of the surf, happy to see a friendly new face. The women were more complex; if they were happy, it wasn't plain to see. They intrigued me, but despite managing a couple desultory conversations, I got no clues about their states of mind.